The Cartoon Picayune
15Jan/160

New books about nonfiction comics

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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.