For a long time I've wanted to bring greater visibility to all the amazing comics journalism and nonfiction being posted online. Now, with the help of the excellent Em DeMarco in Pittsburgh, I've started a newsletter. Please sign up to recieve our periodic updates, and send us your link suggestions at thecojolist[at]gmail[dot]com.
More nonfiction comics are being created than ever before. Along with that are new prose books about nonfiction comics. Two such books have recently been published by academic publishers. I recently received free copies of each and I thought I would write my thoughts about them here.
“Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-telling in a Skeptical Age,” by Nina Mickwitz, was published by Palgrave in 2015. It is adapted from Mickwitz’s 2014 Doctoral thesis at the University of East Anglia in the UK.
Last year, cartoonist and journalist Susie Cagle tweeted, “There are more grad students writing thesis papers on comics journalism than there are people doing comics journalism.” And while not literally true, it definitely feels that way sometimes. Ironically, many of these grad students are studying in European countries that support them while they study, while at the same time many of the comics journalists they study are poorly rewarded (I hope this fact is understood about writing and illustration in general).
Mickwitz’s goal in “Documentary Comics” is applying existing academic theory about documentary film to nonfiction comics. In the conclusion, Mickwitz writes, “Quite possibly many of the creators would themselves describe their work in these terms and identify themselves as cartoonists and/or comics journalists. My argument is that, when transferred into scholarly contexts, such categorisations may overlook the significant common ground between these types of comics and documentary.”
Unfortunately, the jury is still out on what to call this stuff. Spending a book trying to establish nonfiction comics as “documentary comics” is bizarre. I think it’s a small, pedantic difference.
Ultimately I was struck by this question throughout: What does this book offer to someone unfamiliar with comics journalism that they couldn’t get just by reading it for themselves?
Disappointingly, Mickwitz does not interview creators or conduct any original research. In one passage, Mickwitz analyzes a page by Joe Sacco from “Footnotes in Gaza”. She describes everything that Sacco has drawn on the page and concludes that the panel arrangement is “suggestive of a causal chain of events.” But understanding Sacco’s process is a lot more interesting and relevant to understanding his work than Mickwitz’s analysis, which will be self-evident to most comics readers.
Alternatively, “Creating Comics as Journalism, Memoir & Nonfiction” is a textbook published by Routledge. Probably the first of its kind, “Creating Comics” attempts to be both an introductory student guide for both comics and journalism.
Authors Randy Duncan and Michael Ray Taylor are both communications professors at Henderson State University and David Stoddard is a professor of graphic and media design. Josh Neufeld, friend of The CP and my first comics journalism mentor, wrote the Foreword. Neufeld praises the authors for developing the book as a research and for exploring what a nonfiction comics “best practices” might look like. Lofty goals.
So how does “Creating Comics” do? Should academics, not comics journalists, be making these rules anyway? Admirably, the authors attempt a lengthy study of the history of nonfiction comics, and they highlight a few creators that rarely get very much attention, including Sam Glanzman, Larry Gonick, and Jack Jackson (or Jaxon).
When they dig into the business of how to make this stuff, the chapter “creative approaches to finding stories" falls kind of flat. A better approach to this can be found in another recent book, Jessica Abel's “Out on the Wire.” (I would have included it but this is long enough and the book is more generally about storytelling.)
Some of the text leans a little hard on academic jargon. I went to journalism school, comics school, and I teach both, and I have no idea what “Non-sensory Diegetic Images” or “Hermeneutics Images” are. The book’s intentions are great, and I applaud the effort. But you can read all you want about how to compose the perfect panel, and if you’ve never practiced drawing one, you won’t be able to do it. Learning the differences between a “regimented layout,” “conservative layout,” and “creative layout” is weirdly besides the point and a little misleading.
It’s weird to see Mort Walker’s “emanata” taught without any mention of the fact that it was originally a joke. It is useful that he provided a taxonomy to understand and categorize our visual language, but he only did it because he thought it was hilarious that anyone might take it seriously.
Some of the directives are too narrow and specific. Some of this ironclad reporting advice just will not work for some people or the kind of journalism they want to do. The Q+A style mini interviews with creators throughout the book are great. They help illustrate what this book doesn’t emphasize enough: there are a multitude of methods and formats and few wrong approaches.
“Creating Comics” is an interesting first attempt at a comics journalism textbook. But if you’re thinking about starting to make comics journalism, may I different course of study that involves neither of these texts? Read a lot of amazing comics. Read a lot of powerful journalism. Listen to the Longform podcast. Try stuff. Screw up. Publish your work online. Ask questions. Find your peers and challenge each other. Submit to The Cartoon Picayune.
tl;dr: “Documentary Comics” is totally inaccessible to non-academics and seemingly exists only to be cited be future theses. “Creating Comics” tries to be the textbook for budding comics journalists, and while it falls a little flat sometimes, it’s mostly charming and useful.
Jackie Roche is an extremely talented cartoonist who happens to do a lot of nonfiction, often historical, comics. I was lucky enough to have a short piece of hers in the last issue of the CP, the Small Worlds Issue. She recently completed work on a project with VICE News, and I was so taken with the work that I wanted to talk to her about her part in creating it. I recommend watching the whole thing.
I think the biggest sign of how far drawn journalism has come may be the fact that there's only one comment skeptical of it on this YouTube video. For a group so quick to rip anything and everything apart, I'd say that's a win. This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Josh Kramer for The Cartoon Picayune: Did VICE approach you or did you reach out to them about working together?
Jackie Roche: I was approached by Carrie Ching, producer of the "Correspondent Confidential" series for Vice. Carrie was referred to me by Erin Polgreen, cofounder of Symbolia Magazine, and the Symbolia door opened because my former SCAD classmate Emi Gennis included my thesis comic in the Unknown Origins & Untimely Ends anthology she edited for Hic & Hoc. [Emi also appears in the Hard Work issue of the CP.]
I think the complete origin story family tree above is worth mentioning because each project over the past year or so has come from a similar series of kind people, and for that I am so, so, extremely thankful.
Did you work from the audio? What was the process?
I worked directly with Carrie. She sent me the completed audio track and an illustration list with written descriptions of the requested shots and links to reference images. I also referenced the Al Jazeera America documentary, "Fault Lines: Haiti in a Time of Cholera," which is excellent.
The whole 11+ minutes are made up of your drawings. How many did you end up doing? And how long did each one take you? Run through the drawing process.
For the sake of animating parts of the video, there are two types of illustrations: full illustrations and layers. The layers are variations on a full illustration, like the coloring on a map representing the spread of disease. The video is made up of 44 illustrations and 13 layers.
The time per illustration varied, depending on how many figures are in the composition, etc. I submitted thumbnails and pencils for review before inking the illustrations with a nib and adding flat color digitally.
There was some back-and forth about the style, and we worked to find a balance between grit and clarity, and figure treatments that were not too realistic or too cartoon-y. I tried to approach illustrating in service to Walker's story and the suffering he witnessed delicately. Though the Haitians drawn in the story aren't direct likenesses of specific individuals, they represent individuals. Stiff, over-rendered art would not be compelling, and going bananas with splatters, craggy-looking figures and ominous heavy shadows everywhere would, in my opinion, undermine the tone and purpose of the narration.
How did you approach getting the visual details right? Did you have a lot of reference photos to work with?
I started with the descriptions in the illustration list to create the thumbnail sketches, and used reference materials after I had a basic composition. I used reference materials to inform the specifics in the drawings, like what the gate in front of the UN base looked like, for example, or the airport in Port-au-Prince.
I prefer to start with the thumbnails because I want to make constructive drawings rather than superficial contour drawings that rely too heavily on reference images. So for each illustration, I thought about where the camera should be for storytelling purposes. Then I drew a horizon line and quick, free-hand perspective grid. Once I had a grid, I started to add the elements requested in the illustration list. The perspective grid lets me visualize the elements in a reference photo and rotate in space to fit my composition.
Ideally, I would capture reference images myself, but that is not always possible. With a project like this where I was not able to sketch on location or take my own reference photos, constructive drawing serves two really important purposes. First, it makes storytelling the priority in each illustration. I am not at the mercy of a reference photo taken at an angle that doesn't serve the story. Second, it's less ethically murky because the drawings can be informed by, but not derivative of, the work of others.
Thanks Jackie! Don't forget to check out more of her work at her portfolio site.
The Subscriber Drive has been a big success: thanks for your help! To round things off, I thought I'd look at other people outside The Cartoon Picayune doing excellent nonfiction comics work.
On the macro level, Symbolia has put out a whole year's worth of issues, and brought some excellent work to the tablet while doing it. My favorite issue was probably the one with the theme of Heroines, which had some really beautifully drawn stories that were quite moving. This issue especially was diverse in content and every story was indeed a keeper.
Cartoon Movement is doing a little less this year but still publishing, although former editor Matt Bors has moved over to Medium and started The Nib. He's doing all sorts of stuff over there, including publishing great work like this piece by Josh Neufeld.
Mainstream media also continued to publish freelance pieces of nonfiction comics in various forms. Art Hondros had this piece with the Washington Post magazine. Susie Cagle did many combinations of text and art when she was at Grist. Emi Gennis appeared in Bitch magazine. Andy Warner had more excellent explainers at Slate and elsewhere. There are many other examples.
This year there were plenty of great examples of people doing comics about their own lives but with some distance and perspective. Not necessarily journalism but not necessarily autobio either. Two favorites are this piece by Gabby Schulz and this comic by Mike Freiheit.
Predictions for next year: Higher-profile freelance pieces in national publications, new and exciting books, and new ways to post comics online that are intuitive and offer a natural reading experience.
(above art copyright Josh Neufeld)
There are number of books that are new or newish that deserve your attention so I thought I'd take a sec to direct your attention to each. The first is a slim paperback from Darryl Holliday and E. N. Rodriguez called The Illustrated Press: Chicago. It's their first print publication, and a great record of their first year or so producing comics journalism. If you're mostly familiar with them from their appearances in the last two issues of The Cartoon Picayune, this is a great chance to see their work larger and in color. There is a nice crop of stories, along with text to provide context and extras. Years from now you'll be glad you bought this now and watched them both evolve as journalists and comics creators.
Next is a book that's not even done yet, but you can help it be birthed! Matt Bors is a editorial cartoonist and a comics journalist. His book will be a compendium of his hilarious cartoons as well as more serious reported work and essays. Matt is a great guy and an important figure in this tiny but rapidly emerging field. Support him by pre-ordering his book on Kickstarter and you'll be rewarded with what looks like it'll be a great book anyway.
Finally, there's a book I want to tell you about that's not actually comics journalism related, but I happen to be in it. Three years ago I did this comic, and then it ended up on Significant Objects, and now it's in a books they've released through Fantagraphics. It's an honor to be included, and it has connected me to Rob Walker among other awesome people. The book itself is a pretty great design object and a really fun collection. You can learn what the whole project is about on the site and buy the book here.
Today marks a transformation in The Cartoon Picayune. We're just a little over one year in and over two hundred copies have been sold. The printed zine pays for itself, but slowly, and there's not much left over. The goal has always been to pay contributors, but how?
As of today, the printed Cartoon Picayune will feature advertising in its pages. This advertising will be used directly to sponsor the creation of original comics journalism. Yes, artists and writers will be compensated respectably by a digest-sized comics anthology zine. The new stories will be short at first, but there will probably be more pages to fit in advertising. I affirm now, that advertising will exert no influence over editorial content and that The Cartoon Picayune will only pursue advertisers that it can sincerely recommend to its readers.
I look forward to being able to bring you even better researched and reported non-fiction. If you think you might like to advertise with The Cartoon Picayune and get in on the ground floor, please email me. And if you think you might want to contribute, and work with me to make something really exciting, check out our submission page. The next deadline is fast approaching.
Here are some other quick things worth mentioning. The Cartoon Picayune can now be purchased at Big Planet comics in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. And we're now on Facebook, check it out. The contributors page has also been revised, and will continue to be updated.
Editor, The Cartoon Picayune
Earlier this week we looked at a non-fiction comic in GQ, which is impressive, because it has a monthly circulation of 900,000. That's more than a mainstream comics readership by several orders of magnitude. But to keep things in perspective, this post is about a non-fiction comic that appeared in National Geographic Magazine, which has a monthly circulation of around 8.5 million.
Like the GQ Osama Bin Laden comic, Editors at GQ were interested in recreating a murder scene, and employed help from an established illustrator (in this case, Alex Maleev, who I particularly enjoyed on "Daredevil" a few years ago.) However, the details of "Ötzi's" death aren't state secrets like Bin Laden's, they just aren't readily available since he died over 5,000 years ago.
Ötzi is the name of "The Iceman," a mummified man discovered near the border of Austria and Italy. Scientists have been examining the body since it was recovered in 1991. From the article in the November issue:
The most astonishing revelation came in 2001, when a local radiologist named Paul Gostner noticed a detail that had been overlooked in the images: an arrowhead buried in the Iceman's left shoulder, indicating that he had been shot from behind. ... The oldest accidentally preserved human ever found was the victim of a brutally efficient murder.
Nat Geo paired illustrator Alex Maleev with Mariel Furlong, a graphics specialist, to create a two-page comics spread portraying the circumstances of Ötzi's death. In the magazine, it appeared amidst the article quoted above.
I really like this! It's brief, yes, but I think it adds to the science, and literally illustrates the brutal encounter, making it more real for a modern audience. Maleev's art works well here and the textures and grit are awesome, but I think it's a good spread of comics as well. I mean, take a closer look at this:
That's a great sequence, and it perfectly conveys a silent death — silently. I can only hope that more magazines experiment in a similar way.
One more thing: Subscriptions to The Cartoon Picayune are still available! Consider giving someone the gift of comics journalism this holiday season.
Non-fiction comics have been appearing in exciting places lately: major print magazines. In two posts this week I want to focus on two stories in particular, both illustrating scenes from the past that are not available to audiences, but for two very different reasons.
The first is retelling of very recent history that everyone knows — the death of Osama Bin Laden. Here's Rob Walker, talking about this for Design Observer:
The image of the year, hands down, is the image of Osama Bin Laden, dead. I haven’t seen it of course, and unless you have fairly rarified security access, you haven’t either. That’s why it’s the most compelling image of 2011: At this point, there’s nothing more surprising, and fascinating, than an image people might want to see, but can’t.
And if you want that image and don't have time/money to create a major motion picture? Try comics! That's what the editors of GQ decided to do and they got Matt Fraction and Nathan Fox — who respectively write and draw comics for major publishers — to create "For God and Country: An Illustrated Account of the Raid on Osama bin Laden." Go ahead and take a look.
After reading this piece, I'm left wondering, was the point of it merely to reenact a violent death of a wanted terrorist, or was the intent to actually present something new and to engage the readership on a deeper level? Writer Matt Fraction's remarks on the site's interactive commentary are an interesting insight into his intent, and it seems like he tried to do his homework:
I looked at maps and blueprints, read as many differently sourced recaps as I could find, and made some judicious editorial decisions. The verisimilitude of the piece was key to me, to reduce the fiction as much as possible. Certain things logically suggest themselves while others had to be presumed.
I can relate. But the last comment, over the panel where Bin Laden is getting shot in the head, leads me to believe it was probably the former rather than the latter: "In the end I wanted to see OBL face the ultimate sanction. Fifteen minutes trapped in the room where he knew was going to die... Maybe one day I'll be more evolved."
There's nothing wrong with seeking catharsis, but it's not the journalistic approach I was hoping for. However, it's certainly not poorly put together as a work of comics. It reads easily, and if you look at the way the pages were drawn, you can see that Fox is deliberately laying out the Navy Seal panels and the Bin Laden panels in different styles, which is kind of interesting.
Fraction is the author of Casanova, one of my favorite comic book series ever, and I think he's probably better suited to fiction. Ultimately, I'm pleased that a men's magazine gave five pages in its December issue to experiment with a comic.
Later this week: a non-fiction comic, with a similar subject, that uses a completely different approach in an even more widely-read venue than GQ.
And one quick reminder... I am currently working on Cartoon Picayune #3: Spring 2012. If you are interested having me publish some of your comics, now's the time to get in touch. Also, I want some letters for my new letters column! Print this guide out, or use the inside back cover of Issue 2, and send me some thoughts, please.
Since the District is my home again, I wanted to make sure that people here had opportunities to buy my comics. Here goes...
Politics & Prose
Politics & Prose is in fact NOT a comics store but a very good independent book store. The graphic novel section is actually great and they feature a small amount of well-made mini comics. They even do a graphic novel book club and their shelves feature Berlin, the books by my teacher Jason Lutes. I've seen Art Spiegelman and Scott McCloud both speak there and sign books. I'm so pleased to have The Cartoon Picayune there.
Fantom used to be in the Tenleytown neighborhood, which is where I went to college. It was great to have a comics shop close by, and I even wrote a bad article about the store for the college paper. It's now a store in our Amtrak station, Union Station, and it's mostly super hero oriented. It remains a store I'm loyal to, so you can ask for my comics there.
I'm not legit enough to tell you about the history of this store but actual sell zines here, and they have for a long time. They still have issues of zines like Cometbus from the Factsheet Five heyday. I also love how close this place is to where I live right now, so I can check in on my comics if I'm ever around once they open at noon. Kidding aside, it's a great store.
There are probably more to come. The hope is that smaller, handmade comics could belong in any number of different kinds of stores, and as long as they accept them, I'm willing to try. I want to consign with a bunch of stores, see where they actually sell, and then just stick with those. See the comics page for a full list of all the stores I consign with and remember you can always buy an issue right through this site.
thanks to flickr user shindoverse for the creative commons licensed picture
Indie comics is “Do It Yourself.” That should be obvious, right? A lot of independently produced comics are handmade, and one person, the author, does everything. And of course alternative/art/indie comics all owe something to zine culture.
But there’s something more here, and I have struggled to understand what the comics I create have in common with the punks who popularized DIY as we know it.
However, I just listened to Mike Watt on Sound Opinions, a fantastic music radio show and podcast out of Chicago’s WBEZ. His band, Minutemen, made one of my favorite punk records of the 80s, Double Nickels on the Dime. It is not typical of 80s punk, but they inspired and continue to inspire many post-punk and indie bands.
In the interview, there were a few things that Watts said that I thought were particularly relevant to contemporary indie comics. First, I was struck by the idea of gigs and fliers:
“[Watt's bandmate] D. Boon says we’re gonna divide the world into two categories: gigs and fliers. And everything that ain’t the gig is a flier…Because the punk gig was such a mind blow to us. It seemed like there was nobody between you and the listener. No filters. So a record, an interview, a picture, all these things were to get people to the gig where you had the most control.”
While comics isn’t a performance medium, I think this attitude reflects the reality of cartoonists today. We make our own art — that comes first — and it’s helpful to think of everything else being in support of that. Whatever you can do to get your comics into the reader’s hands.
Watt also talked about the idea of jamming “econo.” It was the band’s slang for being frugal:
“Whatever you have, you don’t worry if you’ve got the right things. Which, coming from working people is very pragmatic…You don’t need anything, except the will.”
In comics, any tool that makes a mark that can be read by a scanner or photocopier “works.” But there are definitely “the right tools” for everyone to decide if they want to spend money on. For example, at CCS they encourage us not to use sharpies, because they aren’t lightfast. But there are definitely artists I respect and admire who use sharpies in their art.
Obviously, this is art we’re talking about here, so do whatcha wanna. But be aware of these ideas. There’s a way of doing DIY with integrity, and if we have to learn it from punk rock, so be it.
Creative Commons licensed photo courtesy of hern42