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.
I was sad to have 2014 come and go without a new issue, but I've very happy with the new issue, which has a theme of Chance. It will be available for purchase online on Tuesday, April 21st. If you're super hungry to get it before that, this is your last chance to sign up for the email-list before the pre-sale email goes out tonight. (In the column to the right.) Subscribers also get their issues first, so consider a two or four issue subscription. Also, subscribers: let me know if you have moved!
And if you haven't already, please take a second to "like" The Cartoon Picayune on Facebook, which actually can be a big help in getting the word out.
If you're in the D.C. area, please join me for one of these upcoming events:
England Run Library
1201 Caroline Street
Fredericksburg, VA 22401
10:00 am - 5:00 pm
Also, just a note that issues 6 and 7 are now available in all digital formats in the ComiXology app for $1.99 each.
It's been a long time since there was a new issue, but that changes next week, with the release of issue no. 7: Chance! More info soon. But if you sign up for the email list today (look to the column on the right), you'll be able to pre-order the issue this week and recieve it before anyone else. For now, here's a bonus, web-only story by Savannah Schroll Guz. You can also find her on twitter and on facebook.
Update: Take until the end of this week, Oct. 17th. You still have time to send in a pitch!
Talented cartoonists and writers! This is an open call for the upcoming Chance issue of The Cartoon Picayune. Stories involving risks, near-misses or the seemingly impossible fortune are all great for our lucky number 7. I would love pitches by October 10th, so take a look at our submission guidelines and the newish submission form. Please feel free to email me with questions.
Journalism, history, literature... all sorts of great nonfiction comics are possible with this theme, so dig around, you never know what you might find.
The last comic in the new issue is the featured story and is by Adrian Pijoan. He was in the first class at Tom Hart's SAW and has recently taken his passion for science and comics to the University of New Mexico. "Reef" explores the science behind the phenomenon of coral reef bleaching and the latest theories on why it might be happening. Take a look at this extended preview and I'll meet you at the bottom:
This lengthy, in-depth look into the real science of an issue that effects everyone is only possible because of the generous advertisers, donors, and subscribers to The Cartoon Picayune. To read the rest of Adrian's piece, as well as all the others featured in this Subscriber Drive, and to get the limited edition screen print, subscribe today!
Remember Bill Volk from Issue #2? He's back, with more tales of weird Pittsburgh. This is a great story about an fascinating community. Here's footage of the record-breaking parade. You can buy the new issue here, or start your subscription with it here, and recieve our new screen printed postcard.
Here's a page from a story in the new Small Worlds issue. It's by local DC artist JTW, and about legendary outsider artist Henry Darger and his secret magnum opus. You can buy the new issue here, or start your subscription with it here, and recieve our new screen printed postcard.
The new summer issue, themed Hard Work, is almost done! Here's a sneak peak at Andy Warner's story "Sex Workers of the World, Unite!" Needless to say, this issue is only for mature readers.
Here are four awesome free events in June and July that I'm extremely excited about:
6/4 Hothouse Happy Hour: DC’s Independent Print Scene (SW Washington, DC)
Presented by Washington Project for the Arts. A chance to meet and learn about some of DC's zines, including The Cartoon Picayune!
6/15-16 Chicago Alternative Comics Expo or CAKE (Chicago, IL)
Last year was a blast, and this year is chockablock with comics journalists. The Hard Work issue debuts at this show, and will be available starting this weekend. More details to come soon.
6/21 The Hard Work Issue Release Party (Downtown Washington, DC)
Our first ever release party! Please join me and the rest of the Studio on F (923 F St NW) in celebrating the new issue, the summer solstice, and my birthday! 6-9 pm, free drinks and snacks. Original art on display and comics available for purchase.
7/20 DC Zinefest (Columbia Heights, Washington, DC)
This was a blast last year and I'm thrilled to be invited back for their 3rd show. The organizers do a great job and it's a fun little show at St. Stephen's church.
Colin Tedford has been making comics in New England and helping run the Trees & Hills comics collective for years, but he has only recently started creating more comics journalism. His comics come from a different place, and "The Story of Jake Tuesday" from the most recent issue is a great example. He retains the rights to these images.
Josh Kramer for The Cartoon Picayune: Your story is one of most unusual and naturally dramatic I've published so far. How did you hear about it and what made you think that it would be a good subject as a comic?
Colin Tedford: On my way to visit a friend in Brattleboro one night I saw people morris dancing in Pliny Park (a little paved area with some shrubs on the corner of Main and High Streets) and wondered why on earth that was happening there at 10 PM. After parking I walked back to have a look; apparently I wasn't the only one wondering, because I overheard one of the dancers on the sidelines (almost certainly Geoff Rogers) telling the story of Jake Tuesday. I thought it would make a good comic mainly because, as you say, it's unusual and naturally dramatic. It also has good visual components, not to mention it involves a DIY holiday and people forming and maintaining community ties, which are things that particularly interest me.
What does Morris dancing mean to these men? To the community? Do you have different ideas about it now versus before you started the story?
I'm sure the meaning varies for each person and it only came up directly with a few people, but it's a fun physical and social activity and a way to connect with tradition and the seasons. There's also a rowdy aspect that didn't come up as much in the final story, of drinking and singing and flirting afterwards (this side of things was not so much Jake's thing, though). For some it has a spiritual dimension as well. For the wider community of non-morris folk I can only speculate; I imagine it's a fun thing to watch and a bit of a curiosity. Their public dancing usually happens as part of fairs and festivals. I didn't have many ideas about morris prior to this story -- I'd seen it before and knew it as an old English folk tradition -- so the main change is just knowing more about it in general.
This is one of your first efforts making comics that are journalistic. What is attractive to you about comics journalism, and how does the process compare to making other kinds of comics?
I'm fairly new to journalism but I've been making comics about real-world topics for about five years. This partly reflects my reading interests -- since college most of my non-comics reading has been nonfiction -- and partly reflects my desire to use comics as a tool to improve the world. What drew me to journalism specifically was stumbling upon Graphic Journos and Susie Cagle's website. Their rah-rah attitude made me think that pursuing journalistic outlets might get my work in front of more eyes and maybe even generate some income while allowing me to pursue my interests. The income has yet to show up (surprise), but already new people are seeing my comics. Nonfiction comics are definitely more work than fiction, though, because of the added research, which is why it's taken me so long to follow through on my interest in doing more of them -- and journalistic restrictions just add to the workload.
How did you find doing the reporting? Were there unexpected challenges?
Doing the reporting was basically enjoyable despite the expected challenge of having to push past my shyness. Probably the biggest unexpected challenge was the way the story expanded. I interviewed Geoff first and thought I basically had the story. I interviewed Jake pretty close to the event, expecting to just fill in some details, but his telling of the story and his thoughts about it were so much richer than I expected that I scrapped the outline I had. That made my deadline even tighter. I'd hoped to handle the color myself but finished so late that I had to accept the newspaper's original offer to have a staffer color it. Other unexpected challenges were mostly technical. My phone's speakerphone feature went on the fritz when I interviewed Geoff, so I had to awkwardly hold both phone and recorder to my ear. The person I was going to borrow a camera from took a spontaneous vacation, so I had to use my not-so-great-for-motion-or-low-light phone camera at the event instead.
Several journalists and documentarians I've admired have said something to the effect of needing to like the subject that they write about. You bring a lot more to your depiction of Jake besides simply sympathy. How long did you spend with these guys? What other kinds of things would you have said about them in a longer story?
I interviewed Geoff for about a half hour on the phone and Jake for about an hour in person, then attended the entirety of Jake Tuesday (about three hours). In a longer story it might have been nice to bring in more people's views. That would have required more interviews, though; I managed to talk with some people at the event but with all the activity and socializing and background noise it wasn't a great environment for interviewing.