Journalism will again become what it was more than a century ago – a form of art. –Chris Hedges
Thirty-something Brooklynite, self-professed news-junkie and author Sarah Glidden laments that Iraq has become “yesterday's news,” which editors now treat like yesterday's bread – a stale subject. While the troops' boots remain on the ground, foreign media bureaus – what's left of them – are in exodus and, thus, the continuing occupation of Iraq has steadily retreated from the headlines and into the backwaters of the paper, lost to microscopic print somewhere near a full page Macy's spread, the final destination before disappearing entirely. Glidden couldn't stand to be an idle bystander, watching from the safe distance of Internet Explorer as the story of the Iraqi occupation slowly died, the stories of refugees fleeing the war-torn nation consigned to footnotes in a future history text to be ignored by future college students.
So, Glidden decided to take the news into her own hands. With no promise of funding and “no training in journalism at all,” Glidden, author of the graphic travel memoir “How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less,” was determined to shed light on the all but ignored stories of the nearly two million Iraqis who fled to Syria in the eight years since the war began. She dipped into her savings and went on a fundraising campaign at Kickstarter to subsidize the trip – over 80 individuals supported her, some donating as little as $10 for her journey.
Glidden didn't want to write, nor photograph, nor film her experience: rather, she ignored traditional media, filing her report in watercolor, illustrating the Iraqi refugees struggling in Damascus as a comic titled “The Waiting Room.”
For the uninitiated, Glidden's quest to report from Syria without journalistic experience or funding and to do so in comics, may seem laughable. Yet Glidden, whom I talked with after she returned from traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria with a group of veteran reporters from the Seattle-based Common Language Project, might be the first to laugh. She told me she is in awe of great reporting and is fully aware that she isn't a reporter and that comics are not a medium that the average reader takes seriously.
And while many readers may not take her chosen medium seriously, Glidden, also observed, the average American reader – her 30-something urbanite friends in particular – don't take serious news seriously anymore. Her friends “hate journalists, distrust the media and want to tune out,” a sentiment that journalism professors Robert McChesney and John Nichols believe was caused by the corporate takeover of the Fourth Estate, which turned newspapers into bland, colorless shells of themselves, alienating a generation of readers. In “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” McChesney and Nichols point out that youth readership fell well before the Internet: papers that in the 1960s and 1970s “often actually exposed readers to new ideas and different perspectives and real possibilities,” with a diversity of voices, are now reduced to thin, monochromatic stories which often parrot the establishment talking points. Newspapers today, they claim, “appear lifeless by comparison.”(1)
By contrast to the typical, sterile establishment reports from Iraq, Glidden's comic report is full of life: she thrust herself into an underreported story half-way round the world, spending her own money and devoting countless hours translating interviews into images and shaping an accurate and compelling narrative that brings her subjects to life and, hopefully, “tricks” her world-weary friends past their cynicism. And comics journalists like Glidden, reporting in a marginalized medium on marginalized stories of marginalized people, hope to bring the color back to the mainstream media, to make not just comics – but journalism itself – a respected, popular muckraking art once again.
“Yellow Kid” Journalism
“Most discerning persons throw [comics] aside without inspection, experience having taught them that there is no hope for improvement in these gaudy sheets,” a Boston Herald reader complained – in 1908. For media critics of the day, comics – short stories told in a sequence of pictures with words – represented everything wrong with the newspaper. The paper was no longer a salon of provocative ideas and factual information, these discerning persons cried, but a tawdry parlor of titillation – lamentations which sound as if they could well have come from a chapter of a Chris Hedges' tome. This sort of debased, sensationalist reporting became known as “Yellow Journalism,” a term inspired by the most popular comic strip character at the time “The Yellow Kid,” a free-spirited, trouble-making street urchin of Richard Outcault's legendary “Hogan's Alley” that was printed in bright yellow in the Sunday Supplements.(2) Despite (and perhaps because of) their immense popularity, comics have always carried with them the “Yellow Kid's” anti-authoritarian DNA, upsetting “discerning persons” through their 100-year reign in popular culture, in which they've been banned, burned and silenced by censorship boards.(3)
“I don't remember when exactly I read my first comic book,” Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said wrote in the introduction to Joe Sacco's seminal work of comics journalism “Palestine” “but I do remember how liberated and subversive I felt as a result.” Said, most famous for his book “Orientalism,” first fell into comics as a 12-year-old in Palestine in 1948 and found that just as soon as he'd picked them up, they “were instantly banned by parents and schools authorities.” For Said – as for many children at the time across America – comics became a sort of contraband and he had to “smuggle” copies of the books into his briefcase on the way to school and read “furtively on the bus or under the covers in the back of the class.”(4)
“Comics … seemed to say what couldn't otherwise by said, perhaps what wasn't permitted to be said or imagined,” Said reflected on why comics seemed so dangerous to his elders and so popular with his peers. “I knew nothing of this then, but I felt that comics freed me to think and imagine and see differently.”
Fifty years later, comics spoke to Said again.
In Sacco's “Palestine,” based on two months he spent reporting in the Occupied Territories in 1991-92, Said felt that he held the same sort of powerful contraband, a dangerous book that told readers a story that differed dramatically from the establishment narrative, which had been “controlled and diffused by a handful of men sitting in places like London and New York.” By contrast, Sacco's 300-page account of Palestinian life gave a voice to those living in the Occupied Territories, in their own words. “[A]t times grotesquely emphatic and distended to match the extreme situations they depict,” Sacco's report provided a “remarkable antidote” to the official narrative most of the American public consumes on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
“Palestine” shares certain basic features with the comic books and comic strips Said read as a child: there are panels, word balloons and the characters are cartooned, with emotions exaggerated in pulsing eyes; the pages are constructed with same fierce, free energy and dynamic composition, which define the invigorating tales of “Superman” Said smuggled in his history text. And much like “Superman,” “Palestine” is easily accessible to readers, composed in pictures and words, “a universal language that everyone understands,” observed comics journalist Dan Archer (who – like Glidden and everyone I interviewed – was inspired by Palestine).
“Palestine,” however, is not a comic in the traditional sense of the word – it is not funny, but a profoundly sad, engaging and earnest work by a serious investigative journalist. It does not include men in tights, talking animals or punchlines, but rather, real people in real situations which Sacco observed himself. “Palestine” has far more in common with a documentary, in terms of the seriousness of purpose and the attention to accuracy: Sacco takes exquisite care in rendering exactly what the Palestinians he interviewed said and, as importantly, how they said it, illustrating with confident, precise lines expressions of anger, of sorrow and fear. Further, he places the story in lushly detailed settings, which looks nearly photorealistic: when traveling through Ramallah, the reader sees an open-air bazaar bustling with everyday life, an elderly man bickering over the price of bread with frothing enthusiasm, a middle-aged mother in a hijab purchasing vegetables in front of dirty, brick store fronts.
Sacco, who has published a number of works of graphic journalism from war zones, sees himself as a sort of one-man documentary crew, “a set designer and director,” responsible for visualizing, to the best of his ability, the events set before him, as he describes in the preface to his second book on Palestine, “Footnotes in Gaza.” The book – which was inspired by a trip to the Rafah, a town in the Gaza Strip with Hedges in 2001 – focuses on a massacre that took place in 1956, and contains nearly 400 pages of illustrated reporting, taking him until 2009 to complete. Reviewing hours upon hours of interviews, journal notes and photographic material from the era, Sacco reconstructed as faithfully as possible what those who survived remembered. And through this labor – which he has described as a “slog” – Sacco is able to portray the Rafah massacre and the Palestinian experience in a format that is both insightful, honest about its limitations and accessible and engaging to the public at large.
“With the exception of one or two novelists, no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better than Joe Sacco,” Said concludes about “Palestine.” More broadly, however, Said did not just commend Sacco, but comics themselves, as an artistic medium capable of eloquently representing the human condition and reporting with the passion, accuracy and troublemaking spirit all but missing from the traditional media.
Yellow Kid Journalism had arrived.
The Comics Insurgency
On 9/11, Ted Rall, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his bombastic editorial cartoons, which have been syndicated nationally for 20 years, penned no cartoon from his New York home, totally absorbed in the chaos unfolding around him. As the dust settled, however, it became clear to Rall that even as reports flooded his television, the news had really stopped: the corporate media no longer asked real questions, nor did they hold government officials “accountable in any way,” but instead, had become cheerleaders for the Bush military agenda, helping shape and deliver propaganda to promote the impending invasion of Afghanistan. So Rall picked up his radiograph pen again and decided to step into the gaping “breech” of real coverage left by the corporate media and travel to Afghanistan himself to provide the public the coverage we couldn't see on the mainstream networks.
“The insurgent sensibility is what drew us into the field,” Rall, who has written graphic novels and most recently, a polemic “The Anti-American Manifesto,” told me from his home in New York. “We're going to take names; we're going to slash and burn and it was very punk rock.”
Insurgent pen in hand, this is precisely what Rall did, traveling to Afghanistan months after 9/11 to “serve as a counterbalance to the mindless jingoism … being pumped out by major American newspapers and television networks.” And when there, Rall worked outside the corporate media establishment – much like Glidden and Sacco -and found that what we've learned of the war is more cartoonish than anything he's drawn: corporate reporters rarely traveled to the real war zones and when they did, they were often so heavily escorted they were unable to see anything other that what the American military or local warlords wanted them to see; most damningly, Rall saw Northern Alliance soldiers paid to shoot rounds into empty desert for exciting TV footage and women paid $200 to take their burqas off on camera, only to put them on again immediately thereafter, fearful of Taliban reprisals.
For Rall, comics were the perfect medium to illustrate these Fourth Estate follies and to carry on the muckraking torch in the tradition as Hunter S. Thompson, snuffed out by the post 9/11 mainstream media.
Rall's graphic travelogue “To Afghanistan and Back,” illustrated in his distinctive, pugilistic cartoon style, has the same openly confrontational, exceptionally personal tone which defined Thompson's work and sparked a generation of reporters who threw aside “objectivity,” which they saw really as a smokescreen for promoting the establishment perspective. Much like Thomson, Rall is the main character in the 50-page comic on his experience, his fears, his outrage and, ultimately, his feelings central to the story. And for Rall, cartoons are “infinitely more effective” in evoking the emotions he felt than words alone – the reader not only sees his words, but in his choice of images and in the fevered stroke of his pen, his angst resonates.(5)
By working in comics, Rall could not only expand his emotional range, but could also get away with far more brutal honesty than he could in any of the serious mediums: “[Comics were] taken so unseriously by people at word magazines, we had the artistic and political freedom to say what we wanted.”(6)
The Marginal Art
“The sort of people attracted to this are underdogs,” says Dan Archer, Stanford University's prestigious John S. Knight fellow for journalists, whose work frequently challenges official US foreign policy, much like Rall and Sacco. Most recently, the comics journalist, whose “Graphic History of the Honduran Coup” appeared in The Huffington Post and AlterNet, published an innovative interactive comic on the 2007 Nisoor Square shootings, which shows a minute-by-minute account of a massacre in which 17 Iraqis were killed by Blackwater (now rebranded as Xe) soldiers. The work of multimedia journalism – which includes a real satellite photomap, animations and comic strips – provides eyewitness testimony to the civilians caught in the crossfire that day, voices that have been all but unheard in the American media, much like Glidden's “Waiting Room.”
But the mainstream media, as Glidden pointed out, isn't buying these kinds of stories from Iraq anymore – especially those that ask uncomfortable questions about US foreign policy and do so in comic strips, no less. And so, to go against the heavy tide of the mainstream media, Archer and his fellow comics journalists have had to create a do-it-yourself culture, which means they not only write and draw, but self-publish, fund, market and sell their work to a skeptical, even cynical public.
Matt Bors, a Portland, Oregon-based comics journalist who traveled with Rall to Afghanistan in 2010, has been on the forefront of the effort to bring the comics to a mainstream audience, without compromising the insurgent message. Bors, along with Dutch editorial cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards, edit Cartoon Movement, which has published Archer and Glidden's work online, alongside a number of other up and coming cartoonists. Bors, who illustrated foreign correspondent David Axe's memoir “War Is Boring,” took his latest work – a beautifully rendered six-part report “Afghan Life” – from inception, to illustration, to publication and distribution, a sort of independent media pipeline.
But Bors faces the same problem as all media professionals now – funding. “Graphics journalism doesn't have much of a market.” Rall, who raised $25,000 on Kickstarter to fund his 2010 trip to Afghanistan with Bors. “There is no way to make a living at it,” unless the artist can get a book deal, like Sacco. This funding problem extends to all investigative journalism, which is in grave danger, not only because it is expensive to produce, but also because when done well, it can – and should – upset powerful interests.(7) At present, there is no incentive in the corporate system to fund the sort of muckraking work Bors, Archer, Glidden, Rall or Sacco are doing – in any medium.
The real marginal art is not comics, but journalism itself.
“Journalism will survive, but it will reach a limited audience, as the sparsely attended productions of Aristophanes or Racine in small New York theaters are all that is left of great classical theater,” Hedges predicts. “Those who carry the flame of journalism forward will live lives as difficult, financially precarious and outside the mainstream as most classical actors and musicians.”
Hedges might be right, that journalism has fled to the margins of our culture, now and forever an intellectual stimulant for the urbane elite, to be snorted in exclusive company at expensive, obscure venues.
Yet, in their passion, tenacity, democratic idealism and scrappy spirit, comics journalists are trying to illustrate a more optimistic path for the Fourth Estate; an independent journalism that speaks truth not just to the elite, but to the public in general – as comics always have.