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Comics Journalism Takes on Education Reform

Read how Adam Bessie and Dan Archer, two

We hear it on the television news, radio talk shows, and the internet: America’s public education system is failing. At least that’s what the media wants you to believe.

In fact, American school children are doing better than ever. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that American school children between fourth and eighth grade score above the international average on The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Bill Knapp, a senior media strategist for five U.S. presidential campaigns and a Washington Post writer, reminds Americans, “As a nation we have never been better educated. In 1940, only a quarter of Americans 25 and older had achieved a high school degree or higher. In 2009, that number was close to 90 percent. The increase in the percentage of Americans who have had some college experience rose from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent in 2009.” American Journalism Review, a publication that covers the “news behind the news,” gives fear-mongering journalists an F when it comes to reporting on this serious issue. “The American education system has never been better, several important measures show. But you’d never know that from reading overheated media reports about ‘failing’ schools and enthusiastic pieces on unproven ‘reform’ efforts,” reports Paul Fahri in his article on the news media “Flunking the Test.” So why does everyone think our schools are on the brink of disaster and how does the media capitalize on reports of education reform and failing schools?

That’s a question explored in a three-part comics journalism series on education over at (the first two articles in the series are linked at the bottom of this page). Adam Bessie, assistant professor at Diablo Valley College, teamed up with Dan Archer, John S. Knight Fellowship for Professional Journalists at Stanford University in 2010–11—the first ever comic journalist to be admitted to their journalism program—and now a freelance comics journalist for hire. The two examine how the reforms intended to save our “failing schools” have, in some cases, failed our schools and, more broadly, perhaps, how society has failed our schools. Archer and Bessie want readers to think critically about hyped-up GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) reforms and provide ideas about improving schools that most readers haven’t been exposed to. In other words, here’s a starting point for a discussion about our nation’s public schools.

The first episode of Bessie and Archer’s series on public schools, “The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum: The High Price of Education Reform,” captures the Bizarro world behind school reform. Episode two goes beyond the hype of post-Katrina New Orleans to explore the debate over the city’s teaching experiment in “Murky Waters: The Education Debate in New Orleans,” while episode three will explore what many consider the world’s best schools—schools that focus on alternative ways to improve education, that don’t require standardization, competition, and the corporate model.

But wait—this visual journalism gets even better. Both comics are interactive! Click on a target link (circular point) and you can read about “Open Court,” which “tells teachers exactly which page to be on every day as well as every word and line they are allowed to say while teaching reading, all in preparation for the high stakes testing,” or peruse Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s voucher scheme. All embedded comic targets link to original sources, creating a highly informative and a visually fascinating way to read the news. The final installment is expected out in August, just before the fall 2012 school year begins.

GraphicNovelReporter recently caught up with Adam Bessie and Dan Archer, the two artist/journalist “arthors” and asked them about their collaboration on this important subject.

What made you write this comic?

BESSIE: In the last few years, there has been a barrage of media on “education reform,” with vitriolic attacks on our public schools, and teachers–and this has all happened while our public schools are being slashed by “austerity measures.” By and large, the mainstream corporate media has aired only this side: that our schools are failing, and our teachers are to blame. I wanted to show another side to the issue, to reach out to a more general audience and show them a perspective they probably haven’t heard, so that they are more skeptical or questioning of this misleading narrative.

ARCHER: There was something gratifying about using comics to represent the other side of the argument, versus the slick mainstream cinemas/TV talk shows that Adam alludes to. The use of rollovers and hyperlinks to subsidiary articles within panels also meant comics made the perfect match for distilling such a complex topic into only a dozen or so pages.

How have you experienced the public education system?

BESSIE: I have been a student in California public education from K-grad school, and have taught in public middle schools, high schools, at Diablo Valley College, and San Francisco State University. I’ve been working in public education for a decade. Basically, my entire life I’ve been involved with public education on one side or the other. Further, my wife is a high school social studies teacher.

ARCHER: I went to private school in the UK, where private investment in charter schools is not nearly as prevalent as it is here. I’ve lectured at a few public schools, but mainly defer to Adam for his direct experience of the U.S. system. Of course, that didn’t disqualify me from the wealth of material available in print and online, as well as talking to the educators from both sides of the debate that we feature in the comic.

Why did you choose the comic format for this important educational debate?

BESSIE: First, I’m a huge comics fan (since I was a kid), and teach a course on graphic novels. I’ve always wanted to make a comic, but haven’t developed the cartooning skills to make it so. It’s been an idle sort of fantasy for a while. I came upon the idea of making a comic on “education reform” after a few years of writing essays on the subject, and realizing that pretty much the same crowd was reading them–people in the know. And unless you’re a person “in the know,” education policies can be dry reading.

This presents a real problem: public education is a critical issue with implications for all of us, whether we have kids in public school or not, and real debate has been very limited. Thus, I wanted to find a way to engage a new audience, to educate and engage those that aren’t aware of this very complex and important subject, and inspire a discussion. And comics journalism–which is still a relatively new genre of journalism and comics–is especially good at distilling complex issues, and provoking debate. Dan in particular is talented at this, which is why he was the first artist I contacted: His work on human trafficking (“Slavery Lives on in San Francisco: Making a Better Life”) took a complex issue, one that doesn’t get enough attention in the media, and distills it into a power-packed visual punch that demands attention, discussion, and outrage. I hoped we could do the same with education reform.

What is your background with comics?

ARCHER: I read comics on and off while growing up, but never fully got into them until I came across a Spanish version of Joe Sacco’s Palestine while living in Madrid. Once I saw what could be done with the form, I campaigned to start various graphic novel imprints at Penguin (the publishing house), where I briefly worked, before leaving to take an MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies: to this day, no J-schools offer comics journalism modules of courses as part of their curriculum.

BESSIE: I am a lifelong reader of comics, teaching graphic novels as literature; I’ve given numerous presentations (and published academic articles) on using comics in the classroom.

How did an artist and an educator meet?

BESSIE:I met Dan Archer originally at APE (Alternative Press Expo, San Francisco) a few years back, where he was tabling his independently published zine on human trafficking called Borderland–which I loved. It reminded me of Joe Sacco’s work, but his work was different, carrying his own unique voice.

Last year, when I was writing Warning: This Article Contains Graphic Journalism, an article on comics journalism for Truthout, I interviewed Archer at length, and was struck by his passion for comics journalism as a tool for social justice, for reporting typically overlooked stories. I talked to a number of graphic journalists in the report, but what struck me as unique about Dan is that he talked about it also as a teacher, able to explain his craft with passion, precision, and clarity. I really enjoyed his What is Comics Journalism: A Brief History that explores how comic journalism got started.

How did the collaboration work on your state-of-education comic?

BESSIE: It has been a fascinating experience. From the start, I knew Archer was the expert on comics–and an expert storyteller and journalist. I knew that my role was more of the content expert, in collecting the information, in making sure it was accurate, and to some degree, shaping the narrative. While I know a lot about comics from a scholarly perspective, I have learned to see comics from the creators’ perspective; in terms of composition, in terms of paneling, and in terms of what should go in text, and what works better in images.

I found that my mind works in words, and his, more in words and in imagery. At the start, I was thinking like an essayist, and not as a comic’s creator. Though I had ideas for images and structure, I didn’t–still don’t–have Dan’s remarkable ability for speaking the language of comics fluently, naturally weaving words and pictures together.

I would present Dan content, full of links and documentation, and in the next few days, he would magically (at least to me) translate that dry text into a full page, which accurately captured the spirit of that content, but did so in a way I hadn’t pictured.For example, in our first episode, I provided Dan the label for the Global Education Reform Movement–GERM–and text explaining this arcane academic movement, and he transformed it into an image of a hypodermic needle puncturing a school, with businessmen pushing it in, with teachers being left behind. In a single, powerful image, he captured the essence and emotional impact of an extremely complex concept.

What was it like working from interview material, and research, across the internet?

BESSIE: Dan Archer and I never physically met through the process of developing or drafting the comic; everything was done over google docs, skype, and the phone. We developed a general outline together, discussing what we want to cover in general; then, I performed many of the interviews (though not all), and developed much of the content, finding all the appropriate documentation to ensure accuracy. I then would redraft the raw outline, based on this verified information. Dan and I then would have a phone meeting, and look at the outline together to discuss if it addressed what we were trying to do, and if the content could actually fit on the page. Usually, at this point, there was a lot of cutting, editing, and shifting to represent the information accurately, without also overwhelming the reader. And there was a huge amount of information: in our first episode (4 pages of comic), there was something like 70 outline points, each with citations and information.

At this point, we were also discussing imagery–how we pictured pages looking, and what images/themes we wanted throughout. From there, Dan would start to work on scripting/pencil dressing, on converting the raw outline into an actual page layout. He would upload script/images on google docs, where I could look at them. Then, we’d have another meeting, to discuss whether the information was accurate, and whether the imagery too, was accurate; did the visual portray the spirit of the information?

Once we went through the full script with pencil dress, then Dan would go to town on getting the final draft done with inking, and color–at which point, we’d look at it again, over Skype and google doc, making last minute changes in typography, lettering, and even phrasing.

This has been one of the best collaborations of my writing career; at every point, both of us checked with each other to make sure that what we were putting out met both of our shared visions, that the work represented faithfully our extensive research, and how we interpreted that information. We really coauthored this work; I didn’t just write, and Dan didn’t just draw (though he did do all the illustrating)—we worked back and forth together on all elements of the composition.

How did you decide what to draw and what to articulate through text?

ARCHER: I didn’t want to overwhelm readers with too much information, which I knew was going to be the main challenge of visually condensing such an intricate, polemical topic into so few pages. I also wanted to steer clear of simply drawing a “talking heads” comic, essentially pairing illustrations of those involved with their quotes in speech balloons. So I took full advantage of the rich potential for visual metaphors, such as the hypodermic needle. I also enjoyed the challenge of visually representing both sides of a story: In episode two, by showing the front and back doors of New Orleans’ Sci Academy, as well as Terry Moe (“Charter schools help poor escape bad public schools”) and Lance Hill (“Katrina’s destruction of public schools was a blessing in disguise”) paddling against each other in the same dinghy. Often I would come up with a number of visual suggestions during phone meetings with Adam, and then the tough decision would be knowing which visuals to go with and which ones to leave behind.

BESSIE: I found, in particular, that the imagery was good for representing abstract ideas; in our second episode on New Orleans, for example, we wanted to represent corporate financing of charters schools. The text page is absolutely overflowing with information, citations, and documentation, ensuring that the connections we make are accurate and defendable. And while it may be accurate, to represent all of that info in text would be overwhelming, and would turn readers off; so we talked at length about the best visuals that would capture the funding connections accurately, while at the same time, connecting thematically/visually with the rest of the comic. We knew that we wanted water to be a dominant theme; and so we had the one “miracle” school rising out of the floodwaters of Katrina, with the corporate donors beneath it. Dan embedded all the links/documentation, so that the readers could find that the image was indeed an accurate, though artistic, representation.

What is the difference between “mainstream” or print media journalism and the comic format for nonfiction journalism?

ARCHER: Comics represent the synthesis of a broad range of visual communication devices: diagrams, infographics, narrative, explanatory sketches—all of which are used countless times by people in their every day lives to explain concepts to others. Yet few would think of themselves as cartoonists.

Neatly sidestepping the thorny (and tired) issue of “comics aren’t just for kids anymore”, I believe that we can take these tools a step further. By embedding rollover links to source materials and multimedia content within panels, we give readers the chance to parse a vast amount of information far more efficiently than a purely textual presentation.

Comics are not bound by a linear structure or chronological order. They can jump great distances in time and space from panel to panel. They can simultaneously juxtapose conflicting testimonies. And what’s more, they can do so under the guise of a good-looking visual that lures the reader into reading a story that they might not otherwise read. Add in the inherent virality of images over text online, and how much more suited they are to dissemination via social media, and it seems clear that this sort of media will only continue to gain traction and prominence. Now we just need to get more editors to get onboard!

BESSIE: I think the “mainstream” coverage of education reform has typically been more like a stereotypical comic book than our comic book. See, for example, the film “documentary” Waiting for Superman, which tells a story that has been repeated across serious mainstream sources without serious investigation for the last two years: our schools are failing, teachers and their unions are the villains, and charter schools/the free market is Superman, ready to save the poor, innocent children. This is a simple, appealing script, but unfortunately, it is very poor journalism; while it is emotionally appealing for many, it is not factually true, and the issue is far more complex than this. Yet, this narrative has taken hold because of films like Waiting for Superman, and an extensive propaganda campaign: Bill Gates, for example, has placed nearly $80 million dollars into “advocacy,” or advertising, making sure that this story gets on the front lines, such as The New York Times story”Behind Grass Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates” that ran last year.

Our comic, on the other hand, attempts to confront this overly simplistic narrative, and reveal what the corporate coverage has missed. And why we can do this, I believe, is that we are working outside of the corporate establishment. We don’t have to follow the script, and thus, are free to compose our own. I believe that comics—because they haven’t yet been taken seriously as a journalistic medium by the corporate media—can still get away with telling these sorts of censored stories in a way much of the mainstream medium can’t.

What do you like/dislike about comic journalism?

BESSIE: Much of the same that I like or dislike about regular news stories–is it accurate? Does it present the story well?

But specific to comics, I love the inventive ways that comics journalists like Dan are finding to tell nonfiction stories–how Dan, for example, is using time-tested journalistic strategies (like ledes), with literary devices (like metaphor), along with visual strategies unique to comics (like page layout). It feels like a whole new way to experience the news, and like it’s being invented right now; it feels to me, in short, like it must have felt for the first TV reporters, or the first radio announcers, as you explore the medium, and try the best way to faithfully inform your audience.And Dan is taking it a step further, working on interactive stories.

Why did you choose TruthOut to publish your exposé on education?

BESSIE: We chose TruthOut (TO) because they do not receive corporate funding, and thus, they have made a commitment to airing stories you are not likely to see in the mainstream media. Further, they have committed to comics journalism–one of the few “text” magazines–that does so, devoting a whole section to the medium. TO is on the frontlines of making comics journalism a more widely read and accepted form of journalism, bringing it not just to comics readers, but to a more general audience.

What do you want to tell viewers/readers through comic journalism about the state of America’s education system?

BESSIE: I hope that we generate a discussion about education reform–not just one in which readers are repeating what we’ve reported on, but a discussion they’re generally debating with one another about the best way to improve our educational system. In particular, I hope that the series gets readers to critically consider the mainstream coverage of education reform, which paints this complex and critical issue in the most simple of shades.

I also hope that we continue to generate a discussion about comics journalism, as an excellent medium for exploring complex and important issues of public interest.

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