Kristian Williams

The Case for Comics

It has been nearly 20 years since comics could safely be dismissed as kids’ stuff. In 1986 three books changed the way Americans saw the medium. Two of them — Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns — brought a sense of gloomy realism to the superhero genre. The third, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, used cartoon conventions to tell of his father’s experience in the Holocaust, depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. Magazines were suddenly full of stories about comics “growing up,” and the term “graphic novel” entered the literary lexicon.

Somehow “graphic journalism” didn’t make the headlines. But since the renaissance of the mid-'80s, more and more writers and artists have been producing serious nonfiction comics about current events, from war crimes to hip hop. In the mid-1990s, Joe Sacco’s two books on Palestine were hailed as groundbreaking works and made Sacco the best known of the new graphic journalists. Now comics, or graphic, journalism is turning up in daily newspapers, where its inherent subjectivity contrasts sharply with the newsroom’s dispassionate prose — another round in the debate over what journalism should be in the 21st century.

In the Shadow of No Towers: Art Spiegelman, courtesy Pantheon Books

In the Oct. 10, 2004, issue of The Edmonton Journal, for example, David Staples and Jill Stanton used the comics format to tell the story of Dave Eamer, a Canadian truck driver who lost the use of his legs in a highway accident and went on to become North America’s first paraplegic long-distance trucker. The Oregonian has adopted a regular comics column, called “CulturePulp,” in which M.E. Russell depicts, among other things, his experiences running a marathon, hunting wild mushrooms, and watching a risqué lounge act. Perhaps not to be outdone by the competition, Willamette Week, a weekly paper in Portland, adopted the comics format for record reviews and interviews with bands. Those newspapers are following the lead of magazines like The New Yorker, which had Spiegelman cover the 2004 GOP national convention, and Details, which featured Sacco’s coverage of the Bosnian war crimes trial in 1998, Peter Kuper’s depiction of the 1997 Burning Man festival, and Kim Dietch’s account of the execution of Ronald Fitzgerald.

Culturepulp, M.E. Russell, courtesy of the artist.

The move toward respectability began in earnest in the 1970s, when The Comics Journal — the genre’s leading trade magazine — began agitating for serious study of the art form. The underground comics of the previous decade had helped demolish some of the barriers to more adult work, and the emergence of “direct market” comics shops opened a niche for small presses, many of which were doing this kind of work. The creators increasingly experimented with new artistic styles and narrative strategies, and comics journalists have adapted these, searching for innovative ways to present the news.

Comics journalism entails a startling variety of approaches and styles. Something of that aesthetic range is represented by the two main pieces in the 1989 book Brought to Light. In one half of the volume, Joyce Brabner and Thomas Yeates tell of the 1984 bombing at a press conference in La Penca, Nicaragua, which killed eight people and injured 28 others. The presentation is straightforward, using plain language and realistic illustrations, and drawing on the accounts of witnesses and the evidence presented in the Christic Institute’s lawsuit alleging CIA involvement in the bombing.

Flip the book over, and you find a story with similar themes told in a very different manner. The celebrated comics innovators Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz present a fable-like retelling of CIA history, narrated by a lonely, alcoholic eagle wearing an ugly checkered sports coat. Sometimes painterly, sometimes cartoonish, in places using techniques of collage, the piece outlines a record of atrocities culminating in the Iran-contra affair. The tone wavers between the confessional and the bombastic, and the imagery employs heavy symbolism, with human chess pieces, sprinting swastikas, and swimming pools full of blood.

But the facts are there, and the nightmarish surrealism seems to fit the subject matter. Indeed, the reader is forced to question the propriety of the standard journalistic conceits — the calm recitation of facts, the carefully hedged allegations, the measured tone. A drunken eagle swimming in blood may actually come closer to the point.

Brabner explained the strategy for Brought to Light: “There were two ways that people were relating to the story” of the CIA’s role in Nicaragua. “One was that people get wrapped up — too wrapped up — in the conspiracy stuff. The other was moral outrage, based on a historical analysis. And I thought, ‘We don’t have to sacrifice; we can do a topsy-turvy book.’”

Such code-switching, the ability to alternate between the realistic and the symbolic, is a major strength of comics journalism. It is also one reason why editors are likely to shy away from it — or, as with the recent newspaper strips, to relegate comics journalism to cultural coverage and human-interest stories. When it comes to the front page, newspapers favor plain language, in part to protect the readers from the seductions of rhetoric, of art. And comics are irreducibly artistic.

But such reasoning also cuts the other way. The hard-nosed, facts-are-facts tone of “journalistic language” is also seductive. Plain-speaking is itself a kind of rhetoric, which wins trust precisely by seeming to leave rhetoric aside.

Art Spiegelman argues, “The phony objectivity that comes with a camera is a convention and a lie in the same way as writing in the third person rather than the first person. To write a comics journalism report you’re already making an acknowledgment of biases and an urgency that communicates another level of information.”

Spiegelman’s latest book, In the Shadow of No Towers, plays with the dissonance between subjectivity and objectivity and uses it to draw the reader into the events described. The book, which includes strips Spiegelman created for publications like Die Ziet, The Forward, Internazionale, and the London Review of Books, tells of Spiegelman’s experience seeing the World Trade Center towers fall on Sept. 11, 2001, and graphically depicts the atmosphere of paranoia and despair that followed the attacks. Appearing in cartoon form on the page, Spiegelman says: “I insist the sky is falling; they roll their eyes and tell me it’s only my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. ... That’s when time stands still at the moment of trauma.” As he speaks, the panel turns. It gives the impression of frozen time. And, turned fully sideways (twice), the frame itself forms the image of the twin towers. This image literally closes in on Spiegelman; it eclipses his speech.

At the end of the strip, the reader is left fully outside the frame, but inside the narrative. We see what the narrator sees. Not bad for a motionless series of two-dimensional drawings.

Of course, the effect relies on a disruption of the ordinary mechanics of the medium. Comics do freeze time with the still image; but by placing these images in sequence, they also provide a sense of motion, of change. Comics are not merely a collection of images, but a collection of images placed in deliberate — though not necessarily chronological — order. Unlike much of photojournalism, the images are not intended to stand alone, each seeming to capture the whole story in a single moment. And unlike video and film, with comics the entire series is available to view simultaneously.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t similarities with these other media: When photographs appear in a deliberate sequence, they share many of the narrative characteristics of drawn comics, as do video and film when they slow their presentation down and perceptibly reveal their underlying structure — a series of still images.

On the other hand, comics can also incorporate a complex sequence of events, an entire history, into a single composition. The cover of Seth Tobocman’s 1999 War in the Neighborhood, for example, shows a standoff between the police and protesters outside a squat on New York’s Lower East Side. The image wraps around to the back cover, which features a cut-away of the building. Each room shows a different scene from the squat’s history — repair work, a party, a meeting, a fight, a couple holding their newborn baby. Past and present are spliced together on the page. You can see at a glance what the protesters are seeking to defend.

While working in a very different style, Ted Rall also uses visuals to convey the experiential aspects of his stories. His 2002 book, To Afghanistan and Back, features a dozen war-zone dispatches and a forty-nine-page “graphic travelogue” of his trip. While the essays tell us more about Afghan culture and politics, as well as the progress of the war, the cartoon gives a much clearer sense of what it felt like to be there, what Rall himself actually experienced — the fear, the frustration, the sense of the absurd. He writes at one point, “I was in the most dangerous country on the planet, during a war, at the front. And I was bored.” His cartoon doppelganger stares blankly into space.

Of course, comic-book journalists face many of the same difficulties as those working in more conventional media — questions of bias, unreliable sources, language barriers, and ethical dilemmas. But their strategies for resolving them are quite different from those of standard newspaper reporting or broadcast journalism.

In Palestine: In the Gaza Strip, Joe Sacco remembers a conversation with two Israeli women. One asks, “Shouldn’t you be seeing our side of the story, too?”

Palestine, Joe Sacco, courtesy Fantagraphics

He reflects: “And what can I say? ... standing there with two girls from Tel Aviv, it occurs to me that I have seen the Israelis, but through Palestinian eyes — that Israelis were mainly soldiers and settlers to me now, too.”

He invites one of his new friends to the Arab market, to show her the Palestine he has seen. Instead, he discovers that walking beside an Israeli, surrounded by Palestinians, her fear is contagious. The Palestinians, who have been so kind to him, whom he has lived among for weeks, suddenly appear strange and hostile. Sacco feels himself near to panic. It is an enlightening moment. However briefly, he does see the conflict from the other side, and he realizes that the Israeli experience is not just about seizing land and conducting raids, but also about the quiet tension — the trepidation of a young woman walking through the market. Such ambivalence fits well with the complexities of the Palestinian territories.

Sacco recognizes that his perspective has been limited, perhaps even compromised, by his immersion into Palestinian life. More traditional correspondents covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might have the same insight, but are largely unable to deal with it in their stories. Sacco, meanwhile, does not deny the reality of what he has seen, or try to balance it by staying with settlers or embedding with the Israeli Defense Forces. Nor does he apologize for his views, even with their blind spots and contradictions. Instead, he shows us what he has learned — including those elements that frustrate any easy conclusions. “What I’ve seen before my eyes,” Sacco tells me, “isn’t often balanced.”

In comics journalism, more so perhaps than in any other medium, the reporter’s role is consistently emphasized. He is often present, not merely as a voice or a talking head, but as a moral viewpoint and as a participant in the events described. “You become part of a story if you’re a journalist,” Sacco says. “I mean, you can try to write yourself out of it, but you become involved. I think it’s more honest to show that your involvement affects people.”

As the reporter comes into focus, we see that he is not a neutral conduit for news and information, but a person like ourselves — a fallible human being, vulnerable to bias and ignorance and error. By acknowledging his own humanity, the writer can encourage the reader to think critically about what he or she reads.

Comics are well suited to that role because of the inherent narrative properties of the medium. They are not merely illustrated stories, or pictures matched with commentary. Instead, the narrative relies on both the words and the pictures; meaning is produced by the interaction of image and text. Yet each element remains to some degree independent of the other. For this reason, and because several sets of text-image blocks can appear side by side on the same page, comics are well suited to represent the fragmentation of experience during crisis, or the incommensurable views of opposing sides in the midst of conflict, or the kaleidoscopic chaos of a desert carnival like Burning Man.

Moreover, by mixing written words and images, comics have the inherent ability to juxtapose a literal retelling and artistic symbolism, or conversely, symbolic language and representational imagery. includes a short bit titled “Weapons of Mass Displacement,” in which Spiegelman (again appearing in cartoon form) sums up our national neurosis: “Remember how we demolished Iraq instead of Al-Qaeda.” As he speaks, his head changes places with a lampshade, and then his hand, and then his foot. He and his cat switch positions, and roles. All the while, the visual displacement heightens the sense of absurdity.

The independence of the words and the pictures allows for an overlay of subjective and objective storytelling. Tensions between the written word and the image can be used to highlight uncertainties, ambiguities, and ironies that other media might inadvertently play down or deliberately ignore.

All of this suggests, simply, that comics open possibilities for journalists that are less available in other media. And perhaps more importantly, they add to the options available to readers, who have lately demonstrated a hunger for voice and meaning in news coverage. Witness the proliferation of blogs and the continued popularity of zines. Like zines and blogs, comics drop the pretense of detachment and emphasize perspective. Furthermore, comics are visually engaging and famously easy to understand. They are, as Sacco says, “inviting. It looks like an easy read.” After all, as everyone knows, even kids read comic books.


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