In December of 1991, the comics artist Art Spiegelman, author of the two-volume graphic novel “Maus,” wrote a letter to the editors of The New York Times. After thanking them for acknowledging the unexpected success of his book, which had recently made the Times’ bestseller list, he expressed a concern about “Maus” appearing on the fiction side of the list.
“To the extent that ‘fiction’ indicates that a work isn’t factual,” Spiegelman wrote, “I feel a bit queasy.”
If it seems, in hindsight, bizarre or offensive to put a meticulously researched and historically accurate account of the Holocaust on the fiction bestseller list, let’s remember that this was 1991. Readers at the Times and elsewhere weren’t sure just how seriously we were supposed to take comics. To its credit, the Times graciously deferred to the classifications proposed by both the publisher and the Library of Congress: history, memoir, biography. The editors followed suit, moving the book to the nonfiction category.
Whether you consider “Maus” memoir or journalism or something else, the anecdote still frames the lingering question: If an author has a serious story to tell, why use comics to tell it?
For an answer, all you need to do is give a cursory reading to the work of Joe Sacco. Since earning his BA in journalism from the University of Oregon, Sacco has become one of the most important figures in comics journalism. He veritably shaped contemporary understandings of the form with his reporting on Israel-Palestine and the First Intifada, collected in his books “Palestine: A Nation Occupied” and “Palestine: In the Gaza Strip.” Subsequent works include “The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo” and “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” a collaboration with journalist Chris Hedges.
Although Sacco often describes himself as a cartoonist, he doesn’t view that identity as incompatible with his role as a journalist. He is a meticulous interviewer, a diligent note keeper and an incisive researcher; his opus “Footnotes in Gaza,” which exceeds 400 pages and took seven years to complete, presents previously classified (or otherwise forgotten) research from Israeli archives to try to document atrocities that Israeli soldiers committed against Palestinian civilians in 1956.
Sacco tracked down eyewitnesses. He interviewed Israeli soldiers and leaders, Palestinian mercenaries and the families of victims. His team of researchers combed archives, translating countless documents from Hebrew into English, many of which had never been translated. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, Patrick Cockburn described “Footnotes in Gaza” as “one of the few contemporary works on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle likely to outlive the era in which they were written.”
Yet for all the pure knowledge in Sacco’s work, for all its historical density, what is most memorable are his images. Data, facts, statistics, documents, ledgers, interviews — these can supplement a work of comics, but they don’t drive it: images do.
In one drawing from his earlier book focused on the war in Eastern Bosnia, “Safe Area Goražde,” Serb forces have retreated, and a group of Bosnians return cautiously to a neighborhood they had previously fled. While trying to salvage what they can — old doors, firewood, pets they’d presumed dead — they come across a deceased neighbor. Half of his corpse is propped against a shelled wall, most of his identifying features gone. They recognize him by what is left of his clothes.
The scorched corpse is framed by four pairs of legs belonging to the onlookers who have found the body. Their upper halves are obscured by the panel border. The subsequent panel scans upward, as if out of order, to their horrified faces. The implication seems to be that any of these men might have found their bodies similarly scorched.
The comics scholar Hillary Chute has described Sacco’s images as “informative and affective, situated and ethical,” and we see all of those impulses here.
The best comics journalism retains the reflective, mediated quality of photojournalism. The final scene of Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza” is a speculative re-creation of the violence that occurred in 1956, placing readers in a first-person perspective to witness the events. It’s hard to distinguish much besides hands tense with uncertainty, until we catch sight of an Israeli soldier in the background, club raised. The club descends, and the final panel dissolves into a well of black ink.
This scene attests to the imaginative power of comics journalism, and the ability to visualize things that no camera could have captured. As Sacco himself describes it, “There are very few photographs — and we know them very well — that capture an exact moment, and that image is always with us. … Now, when you draw, you can always capture that moment. You can always have that exact, precise moment when someone’s got the club raised, when someone’s going down. I realize now there’s a lot of power in that. It’s a bit scary, in a way.”
These speculative images are often emotionally moving, but do they count as journalism, in a strict sense? Are works that regularly deploy scenes that the artist couldn’t possibly have witnessed first-hand slipping back into that “fiction” category where the Times originally located “Maus?”
It’s something comics journalists think about. Josh Neufeld, whose book “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” is a masterwork of comics reporting, confessed that comics artists need to be imaginative: “What cartoonists do is re-create scenes they couldn’t possibly have witnessed, adding all sorts of their own subjective interpretations, aesthetic decisions and editorial judgments to those scenes.”
Neufeld adds, though, that all reporting is filtered through some perspective. Someone somewhere decided to photograph or film this moment and not that one, and an editor somewhere else decided how the image would be presented to viewers. In comics, all of these subjective editorial decisions are made conspicuous. Neufeld is all for it: “I feel very strongly that you should use all of the powers of comics that you have. Otherwise, you’re handicapping your ability to tell the story most effectively. I used to just say, ‘this is not literally the truth, it’s the emotional truth of the story.’ On the other hand, if I am using real quotes, and I’m not making stuff up or changing the timeline of events or combining characters or any nonsense like that, then I should just say, ‘Yeah, this is journalism!’”
The opening sequence of “A.D.” offers a compelling justification for creatively employing the imaginative ability to depict that which cannot be photographed. For more than 20 pages, Neufeld carefully documents the setting: the unsuspecting city streets, the canals hemmed in by the levee, the surging storm, the havoc and destruction left in its aftermath. Houses are inundated nearly to their roofs, nameless survivors wade through waist-deep water, a corpse floats down a flooded byway and a shoreline is erased. These opening pages are so haunting not because they explain what happened, but because we already know.
But “A.D.” is so much more than a series of illustrations. The real power of the book comes from Neufeld’s ability to connect with real, unique individuals, and in turn his ability to connect us with those same people.
About halfway through the book, for example, Neufeld depicts a harrowing night for one of his main contacts, Abbas, and his friend Darnell. They’ve been guarding their shop against looters; the storm is over, and they clink beer cans to celebrate their survival. But then an ominous report sounds over the radio: the levee has breached and the streets are flooding. They climb up to the roof of the shed, hoping the water doesn’t climb any higher. Dripping wet, covered in sewage, separated from their families, weary, hungry and sore, two friends fantasize about spending a day on the couch watching football. Without naming the danger they’re in, they quietly pray the flooding will cease and the shed will remain just tall enough to keep them safe for the night.
Not all comics journalism documents disaster. Wendy MacNaughton’s “Meanwhile in San Francisco: A City in Its Own Words” offers a meditative portrait of the city in a series of “illustrated documentaries.”
The book began almost incidentally, as MacNaughton started drawing her surroundings partly as a way of paying attention to the world around her. The result is a series of vignettes — comments overheard, casual observations, profound conversations, critiques of gentrifi cation — mediated through MacNaughton’s pen. She abandons the rigid panel structure we fi nd in work by Sacco or Neufeld in favor of one less insistent on forward narrative progress. Rather than going looking for a story, she lets the story come to her; rather than tracking down leads, she lets her pen attract conversation. “People are often put off by a stranger with a camera in their neighborhood,” she observes in her introduction. “But when they see someone standing on a street corner drawing with pen on a pad of paper, they stop. They ask what I’m doing, and a conversation starts.”
Some pages preserve moments that some may think aren’t worth preserving, such as a page that records snippets of conversation at the corner of 5th and Mission, near San Francisco’s Theater District: “I think I need that, but whatever”; “One day out of the house is enough for me”; “You already know what it is you need.” The image accompanying these anonymous comments is a woman in a checkered skirt, carrying bags home from a shopping trip. She faces away, her face obscured. These comments, this moment, this image: it’s here, and then it’s gone.
In documenting the city “in its own words” and allowing her stories to find her, MacNaughton’s careful visual/verbal studies challenge how we think of journalism. Like so many cartoonists, she views drawing as intrinsically connected to careful observation: “Drawing, for me, is this vehicle to look. It forces me to slow down and pay attention to things that I might not otherwise notice.”
This might be the single most important aspect of comics journalism, and that which finally distinguishes it from most other forms: it is slow journalism, a term that Sacco coined to describe what he was doing.
Slow journalism refers, first, to the process: it simply takes a long time to produce. Sacco sometimes spends a month working on a single page. The more suggestive definition, though, refers to a mentality. What counts as “news” starts to look different when your deadline is not 5 p.m. tomorrow but five months from now or five years. Knowing that a story could take several years to complete, comics journalists must choose their stories with care.
This is in part why so many comics journalists are compelled to cover stories that are intricate, sometimes convoluted. Comics journalism offers a counter to the Twitterverse: where Twitter is reactive, immediate and unfiltered, comics journalism is the result of a careful, meditative, methodological process; where Twitter reduces complex experiences to 280 characters, comics journalism often projects the simplicity of the cartoon image onto labyrinthine stories.
And some look at journalism itself. Sarah Glidden’s 2016 book “Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Syria, Turkey, and Iraq,” documents her time traveling the Middle East with a corps of journalists. She makes no effort to explain the Middle East. Instead, she told Rolling Stone, “I was going to report on the reporters.”
Coming a long way from erroneously putting “Maus” on its fiction list, The New York Times has begun to experiment with graphic journalism, publishing two highly regarded series in the form of comics.
In 2016, Patrick Chappatte and Anne- Frédérique Widmann published “Inside Death Row,” a harrowing account of life in America’s most horrendous prisons. The project began when Chappatte and Widmann invited death row inmates to draw some of their experiences; those drawings became the basis of the series, which was supplemented with extensive interviews.
The next year, the Times ran “Welcome to the New World,” a series documenting the experiences of a Syrian refugee family who arrived in the United States on Election Day 2016. The story, by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan, was published bi-weekly from January to Sept. 20 in the Sunday Review — the first time the Times had ever run a regularly published comic strip in its pages. It was awarded a Pulitzer for editorial cartooning in 2018, and published in expanded book-length form in 2020.
So why tell a serious story in the form of comics? Because comics journalism is, sometimes, the most compelling mode of capturing and preserving the past, of commenting on the present, and of giving shape to the future.
In a review, The Observer praised “Footnotes in Gaza,” calling it “One of the great works of journalism, let alone in a comic format.”
We might amend the comment just slightly: “Footnotes in Gaza” is one of the great works of journalism, because it is written in comics format.
Jonathan Najarian is a lecturer at Boston University, where he teaches classes on comics, rhetoric and writing. He is the editor of “Comics and Modernism: History, Form, Culture,” a forthcoming essay collection exploring the relationship between avantgarde art and comics, and has published widely on comics, literature, and visual art.
Featured Image: “Footnotes in Gaza” by Joe Sacco is a journalistic graphic narrative, published in 2009, about bloody incidents between Israelis and Palestinians during the Suez Crisis. (Image courtesy of Fantagraphics Books)
Tagged under: graphic novel