The Economist interviews Sarah Glidden

“The power of comics journalism” / The Economist / October 21, 2016

In 2010, Sarah Glidden travelled to the Middle East to report on the refugee crisis with the Seattle Globalist. Armed with a notepad, camera and audio recorder, she documented everything from interviews with refugees to revealing conversations between fellow journalists. Although she, like her colleagues, was reporting on what she saw, Ms Glidden’s approach was a bit different. Earlier this month, she released her findings in a new book, “ROLLING BLACKOUTS”. The six-year interim period was not spent editing pages of text or organising photographs; it was spent filling the book with hundreds of squares of watercolour comics.

Ms Glidden is a comics journalist—think “Spider-Man”, but with news stories not fictional tales of life-saving heroism. She takes a narrative approach to her work by positioning each section around one particular character. In one segment of her book, for example, she focuses on a man named “Sam” who was forced to run away with his new wife to Iran after deserting his military duties in Iraq. She tells his story through Sam’s own words—made obvious by speech bubbles—as well as the questions posed by a young female journalist. That technique, combined with dozens of hand-painted snapshots of each of her subjects, feels more personal than simply text or images alone. By making these experiences feel so personal, Ms Glidden has helped to emphasise the seriousness of their struggle.

Comics journalism is nothing new. It has been around for decades, kept alive by such talented artists as Joe Sacco, who has used the medium to depict everything from a war-torn town in the Gaza Strip to the Eastern Bosnian war. But it has only been in the last few years that it has really started to find its place in the mainstream media. The Nib, founded in September 2013, consists entirely of comics, many of which contain journalism and non-fiction. It has published more than 2,000 works on its website and released a popular 300-page book of its best offerings. The Cartoon Picayune has been around even longer—since April 2011—and showcases a variety of comics journalism online as well as in its yearly publication, which it offers to readers for $4. Even some of the more established publications, such as the New York Times, are making use of the format. In May, it published Patrick Chappatte’s moving five-part piece that takes an in-depth look at the lives of four death row inmates. 

It is surprising, in the age of tight newspaper budgets and the 24-hour news cycle, that comics journalism is thriving. Ms Glidden says it’s because “it can make people stop and take notice.” Everyone is constantly bombarded by so many images and text that they can simply grow numb to all of the information being thrown their way. It helps that comics journalism is still novel to many people; its format encourages people to take an extra minute to fully consider the information being presented. In 2013, Darryl Holliday and E.N. Rodriguez of the Illustrated Press produced “How to survive a shooting”; a piece about Nortasha Stingley’s life after her 19-year-old daughter was shot and killed. Stories like hers have been told dozens of times, and yet this particular piece had a marked effect on readers. Perhaps it simply made a change from the piles of faceless statistics that many gun-related articles reel off. More likely, however, is the explanation offered by the Columbia Journalism Review: “Stingley’s words, rendered alongside Rodriguez’s illustrations, are heartbreaking in a way few written articles or even videos achieve.” Mr Holliday and Mr Rodriguez went on to win first place in the Innovation/Format Buster category of the prestigious Association of Alternative Newsmedia awards.

Remarkably, the format can be adapted for use in investigative journalism. In “Audrie & Daisy", a recent documentary about the wide-reaching consequences of sexual assault, the film-makers used animated images of two of the abusers. It was meant both to keep the attackers’ identity hidden and to “keep them as human as possible”, co-director Bonni Cohen told NPR. It allowed viewers to “see” the two young men and understand that the crimes had been committed by real people, not a black screen or a blurred-out individual. And, by portraying them as cartoon images, the perpetrators didn’t draw any compassion away from the victims. 

There are some very obvious constraints when it comes to reporting a news story via comics. There’s the issue of having enough time to draw—and space in a publication—to do the story justice (although the internet has made the latter much less of a problem). But even when publishing on a digital platform, it is necessary to keep things brief, says Ms Glidden. “You really have to think about what the essential pieces of information are,” she says. Too much information crammed into the small grids can get boring and overwhelming. Yet the biggest problem is arguably its name. It’s easy to expect something to be funny when it has the word “comics” in it; that can make sources unfamiliar with the medium resistant to being interviewed about serious issues. It will take a little more public attention before comics journalism is able to lose what Ms Glidden calls its “naming problem”. Hopefully her work will help to speed that along.

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