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)
Saturday night I attended the opening reception for the Joe Bonham Project at the Pepco Gallery here in D.C. The group visits with wounded veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and they draw while the servicemen tell their stories. The show features works of illustration in different media from professional artists including The Cartoon Picayune's own Jess Ruliffson (seated, center).
Her story, Bethesda, in the current issue, is the direct result of her visits to Walter Reed and the only work in the exhibit in the form of comics. It was great to see the whole breadth of the exhibit, and the take in the diversity of styles and experiences.
Here, for example, is a drawing by Ray Alma, who visited with Michael at the same time Jess did. It was so interesting to see the same people portrayed by different artists, and the little bits of information scrawled on the page often added a lot of emotion and narrative to the portraits.
If you'll be in D.C. through the 30th, the gallery is open to the public from 12-4 Tuesday through Friday, at 702 Eighth Street NW, between G and H. Seriously, it's quick and not too overwhelming. Instead, it's powerful and engaging. I'm really proud of Jess' contribution, and pleased with the work the Project is doing and the broader conversation it is encouraging. You can support them here as well.
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
At this point, The Cartoon Picayune is still largely a project of one. I'm excited to be bringing in other contributors for Cartoon Picayune #2, but this thing is mostly still by me, Josh Kramer.
I live in Vermont because I'm a student at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and today I turned in my thesis project, which I have been working hard on all year. A good portion of my thesis was the comics I do for this site and zine. As part of the physical package I turned in, I created an addendum of information about the journalism part. Yes, I might have had more finished comics pages if I had been drawing every day, but then I wouldn't have been able to do this work. Journalism takes time. You know this, dear readers. Some of this will look familiar, but here are those pages. Remember, the audience here is the thesis committee, so the tone may be a little ... loftier than I am usually.
By the way, I've changed the color again now that it's warming up, so come visit the site if you're using a reader.
Last week, the visiting artist at the Center for Cartoon Studies was none other than Joe Sacco, the most prominent comics journalist working today. His visit was very significant for me personally, but I’ll leave my thoughts on that for a post on my personal blog later this week. I’ll refrain from talking too much about the art here, but I may talk about that in the other post. I couldn’t resist snapping into a more journalistic mode here.
While Joe Sacco may not be the first cartoonist to use comics for non-fiction storytelling, his unique blend of first-person reportage from war-torn regions has convinced many that journalism and comics are a natural combination.
Sacco spoke at length about his belief in the difference between seeking out the literal truth versus what he calls “the essential truth.” “Journalism is never an ideal situation,” says Sacco. He describes there being a tension in his work between the accuracy of the quotes and the interpretation of the drawings. “Drawing is interpretative and I am a filter, ” he says. He values being able to talk to people on the street as a humble cartoonist, but is no longer afraid to interview a former general or a high-ranking politician.
He also thinks that comics can reinforce a sense of place better than other mediums. By showing the mud in every panel, Sacco is visually reminding the reader that the place is muddy, which is something that would be gratuitous to say again and again in prose.
Sacco spends months living in places like Palestine and Bosnia, reporting as a journalist. When he returns home to Portland, Oregon, he transcribes his interviews, of which 75-80% are taped. He carefully organizes all his journal entries, photos, and interview notes. Sacco indexes every fact by date and by subject. He then writes a full script with no visual directions or page breakdowns, just narration and quotes.
When the full script is completed, Sacco will begin drawing pages as they come in the script, spontaneously laying out and designing them as he gets to them. This process keeps the work fresh for him years after he has reported it.
Also essential to the process are his journals, which he writes in for up to an hour and a half each night while traveling, and which later provide him the context necessary for writing the story. Sacco was in Bosnia for four months in the mid-90s and wrote nearly 400 pages of journal entries. He says he can only rely on his visual memory of a place for a year or two and that the journals help him remember.
Sacco does not thumbnail, nor does he really work in a sketchbook. He received laughs after saying he only draws if he’s going to get paid. “Everything I commit to the page is something I want to be printed,” he said. This is, in part, because his last book, Footnotes in Gaza, took him seven years to complete. Also, he says he wasn’t financially stable until 2000 when his book Safe Area Goražde was released.
“The way you wanna live in your late twenties isn’t the way you wanna live in your late thirties,” Sacco says. “I can remember a time when I was just eating potatoes and onions.”
Sacco demonstrated techniques at a tool demo on Wednesday, talked one on one in a Q+A with James Sturm Thursday morning, and gave a slideshow presentation Thursday evening that was hosted by Dartmouth College.
Sacco is currently reporting for a new project, which will incorporate journalism and fiction in comics, as well as for a book with prose journalist Chris Hedges. “I don’t wanna do another book about massacres,” says Sacco.
My most recent comic, Bittersweets and Bittersharps doesn't actually begin with the title page. Before I started drawing anything, I found a poem by Robert Frost called "In a Glass of Cider." You can easily find its text by googling it, but the book it was published in, In The Clearing, is very out of print.
I wanted very much to use the text of the poem, and because I didn't want to find myself in trouble later, I went through the appropriate channels to ask permission. After finally getting someone on the phone I learned that it would cost $85-90 for that length of poem, even for as few as 100 copies. Even if I did pay, my piece would have to to be cleared by the executor of the estate, who would need to "see graphics" before granting permission.
Now, you may be asking, why even ask for permission? If The CP is journalism wouldn't there be a fair use exemption? Unfortunately, I'm not so sure. Here's what the 1976 Copyright Act established:
17 U.S.C. § 107 Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole;
(4) and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.
So? I didn't pass the Bar but I know I little bit*: count (1) against me because I want to sell copies of my comic. Not sure what to do with (2) because I'm talking about portraying the poem alongside my comic. Count (3) against me too because I'm using the whole poem, not a portion. However, there's no way I'm competing with the market for this poem, as in (4). The book is out of print and it's free everywhere on the Internet! And I say that The CP is journalism, but who knows what it looks like in the eyes of the law.
Still with me? I like fair use, and I'm fine with creators holding on to the rights they deserve from their creations, but to me this experience serves as a case study in what doesn't work about copyright law as it stands. Why should the estate of a man who's been dead nearly 50 years be asking so much for an eight-line poem that they let fall out of print? Sure, they probably wouldn't have noticed if I had just gone ahead and used it in my comics. But who knows? Here's my solution, as it will appear in the The Cartoon Picayune #1:
I'm a big fan of Creative Commons licenses, and try to use them as much as possible. I think we live in a golden age of sampling and remix culture and I want that stuff to be encouraged as much as possible, but then again I've never had a copyright or trademark stolen. I want to make sure that the contributions to the The CP are protected. For more on this important issue, read this really intelligent interview with cartoonist Dylan Horrocks.
*apologies to Mr. Z
Here as I put together the first issues of The Cartoon Picayune, I am struggling to establish standards of quality, style, and ethics. One of those things I can't really make up my mind about is the appropriateness of first person. I don't want my anthology to just be a venue for autobiographical comics, but I realize that gonzo-inspired first person journalism like that of Joe Sacco is foremost on a lot of people's mind when comics and journalism are together.
So I was pleased to hear one of my favorite non-fiction authors, Lawrence Weschler, talking about this subject on NPR's On The Media (though not specifically about comics). The whole interview is nice, but I was particularly interested in this portion:
...It seems to me that there is a warrant between the writer and the reader that the writer is doing his best to deliver the reader the world as the writer experienced it, and parenthetically, the more distinctive the voice, the clearer it is to the reader that it is one person’s take on things.
In my class, I insist on an “I” voice. And it doesn’t even have to use the word “I,” but it has to be so distinctive that it is clear to me that it is just one person’s modest take on the world: their best take.
Let’s be clear on my standards. At the top of my standards are fairness, accuracy, creating something that’s true to life — all of that are very high on my standards. I’m just claiming that it’s impossible to go out there as if you’re going to laminate the world, as if you’re going to take a Xerox machine and put it up to the face of reality and deliver it to your readers. That’s ridiculous. Everything, everything is selection, is shading, is trying to figure out what order things should go in and so forth, is imputing significance to a whole series of granular facts and so forth. That happens all the time. And the people who I cherish are people who can tell me stories that illuminate the world for me in an accurate way. And nothing that I have described detracts from that.
Weschler is a fantastic writer and journalist, and he makes me reconsider the rules I set out in the submissions page about the first person. The whole thing about journalists avoiding "I" seems valuable to me because I see it as representing modesty and showing that an attempt has been made towards objectivity. However, I now see the humility in admitting that you, the author, are the responsible party. Still, in comics, the author's subjectivity is inherent in every mark on the page and perhaps more visible than in any other medium. More to think about. Here's another interesting Weschler interview if you're interested.