In 2010, Sarah Glidden, a young American cartoonist, went on a two-month, Kickstarter-funded trip to Turkey, Iraq and Syria with two friends from a nonprofit journalism collective called the Seattle Globalist. The idea was that she would watch and listen as they reported on the ground: her next book, she hoped, would look at how such journalism works in a world in which many big media organisations, under threat both from free content elsewhere and the rapid disappearance of advertising revenue, find themselves increasingly reluctant to pay for expensive-to-produce foreign news.
It wasn’t an easy trip, but nor was it as difficult as people had told her it would be (one Israeli friend insisted that, as a Jewish woman, there was simply no way she should venture into the “axis of evil”). The civil war in Syria had not yet begun and Damascus was then still safe and welcoming; in Sulaymaniyah, the city in northern Kurdish Iraq where she spent several weeks, her gleaming new hotel was full of tourists, even if they were mostly seeking respite from the fighting further south. Even so, every day brought a new challenge. Contacts had to be made overnight, rather than gathered slowly over a period of months, and government minders, at least in Syria, had to be fought off. Even as her friends hunted down compelling stories – here was a group of refugees living in one of Saddam’s former prisons; there was a supposedly innocent man who’d been deported from America after his name appeared in the 9/11 commission report – they always had to keep one eye pragmatically, even ruthlessly, on what might go down well at home.
Were they to end up not selling any stories at all, their trip would be little more than an expensive waste of time. Meanwhile, there was the issue of Dan O’Brien, the Iraq veteran (and now university student) they’d invited to come with them. The Globalist journalists, Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill, hoped to make his return the subject of a feature. But would he ever open up about what it felt like to meet some of those on whose behalf he had supposedly fought and whose lives had since been so painfully disrupted? As the days ticked by, they feared he would not.
Six years later, these things, not to mention her own thoughts and feelings about them, form the intricate narrative of Glidden’s provocative new comic book. Part memoir, part ethical inquiry and part travelogue, Rolling Blackouts resembles the work of her great hero, Joe Sacco, the author of Palestine and Safe Area Goražde, at least in the sense that it is about as serious and careful as a comic can possibly be. But it also has a gentleness that is all its own, perhaps because Glidden works mostly in soft watercolour, a medium that seems somehow to reflect her refusal to deal in certainties. Stories, as she writes in her introduction to Rolling Blackouts, are “how we make sense of a chaotic world” and she wants those she tells to be gripping; clearly, her material has to be edited, refined. But that doesn’t mean that she isn’t aware of her responsibilities or that they don’t weigh heavily with her. Just as a person’s life is much more to them than a mere story, so true objectivity is all but impossible in narrative journalism.
Comics are hugely labour intensive compared with many other forms of reporting and, yes, a tiny part of her worries that while she was busy drawing Rolling Blackouts, things changed almost beyond recognition in two of the three countries it depicts. But in the end, she also feels her book was built to last.
“I think it stands up in its own right,” she says, down the line from her home in Seattle. “It is very focused on refugees: on how difficult it is to get resettled, on how only 1% of them make it to a third country. So I hope people will be able to extrapolate, to think: well, if it was this way for Iraqis in Damascus who were registered with the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and going through all the right official channels, think how much more difficult it must be for the Syrians now, when the centres are overflowing and the numbers are so vast. But in any case, it’s still important to understand what the impact of the Iraq war has been. It’s too easy to move past Iraq and Afghanistan and focus only on Syria. Those people [the Iraqis] are still displaced and still in danger. The fact that the news cycle has moved on doesn’t make their stories any less important.”
Can comics take the reader to places other forms of journalism can’t? She believes they can. “There are drawbacks, one of them being issues of timeliness. But work like mine tries to make a connection between the reader and the person being interviewed by showing things like their body language, where they live and what they wear. It’s about these slower moments, in which you reveal who they are as people. Text can provide more information, but perhaps it puts more distance in there, too, and we’re bombarded by horrific photographs to the point where we’re desensitised. Drawings have a more human touch.” She tends to keep violent images out of her strips; sometimes, listening to a person looking back and telling their story in their own words is more powerful even than blood and rubble.
Glidden, the daughter of two doctors, studied painting at Boston University. “But then 9/11 happened. I was only 21 and I started to be interested in journalism. My reaction to it, besides feeling a sense of horror, was that if a war was going to happen immediately, there must be more to the story than I knew. So I started reading everything. I was drawn to photojournalism. I think I wanted to be Tyler Hicks [the Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times staff photographer], but I was also very shy. I didn’t have what it took to talk to people and take those kinds of pictures and nor did I have any training.”
After college, she “blundered around”, wondering what she might do with her art, until she discovered graphic novels, at which point something clicked. “I read Maus [by Art Spiegelman] and Persepolis [by Marjane Satrapi] and they were formative. All my life, I’d known comics from Mad magazine or the newspapers; I hadn’t realised they could be used to tell true, serious stories. I didn’t have a father who survived the Holocaust [like Spiegelman] and I hadn’t spent my childhood in Iran [like Satrapi], but I started experimenting with autobiographical comics and from there I began trying to think of a bigger project I could do. That’s why I went on a Birthright Israel trip.”
Being of a liberal persuasion, she knew she would find this experience challenging (Birthright Israel sponsors free trips to the country for young people of Jewish heritage) and that this sense of conflict would perhaps enable her to turn her travels into a long-form comic. And that’s exactly what happened. She drew a couple of chapters – she was then paying her bills by working at a set production company – and when an editor from the comics imprint Vertigo saw them, she was offered an advance to complete it. The result was the award-winning How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less.
Was this brilliantly precise and sometimes withering book controversial in the US? “Oh, I got a few hate mails,” she says with a laugh. “One told me I should mind my own business and go back to my loser life. There are some people for whom any criticism of Israel is an offence; do that and you’re a self-hating Jew. But actually, I was surprised. I thought there would be more and some of my biggest support came from the Jewish Reform community. I was more amazed by the push back I got from the left, who were indignant I hadn’t gone to the West Bank.” This was a little unfair, given that she makes no secret in the book of her frustration that she failed to visit the occupied territories. “It was a major regret, which is why I included it. I listened to the things people were telling me about how I would be in danger and I gave into fear. But you know, part of what I like about the book is that it is about confusion. It’s a document of me at that time.”
Writing How to Understand Israel taught her many things, not least to check her recording equipment before leaving home. “And I should have asked questions of people who weren’t part of our scheduled trip – the Palestinians who worked in the cafes where we stayed, for instance. I could have just talked to them.”
What about her drawing and writing? “I learned to give space to things, to reduce the amount of text. You need to give the reader a break from information; you need to pace things in the right way.” But if her comics have a domestic, even quotidian quality, this is deliberate: “Once you’re in a place, you see how similar it is to the world you know and I want to show that. The same lawn chairs that we have in America are all over the Middle East; the Chinese restaurant we ate in [in Sulaymaniyah] had exactly the same dumplings as at home.”
Her next project, she thinks, will be closer to home. “There’s stuff going on here I’d like to cover. I’m so upset by the misconceptions people have about refugees, especially those coming to the US. We have Trump and equally dangerous politicians saying: we don’t know who these people are, they’re not vetted, they’re terrorists. In fact, the opposite is true: they go through two years of interviews with different agencies.”
Does it make her happy that comics such as hers are now taken seriously, the subject of glowing reviews in Newsweek and the New York Times? “Yes and we’ve come so far even in the last five years. There are so many comics for young people now – people like Raina Telgemeier [author of the bestselling Sisters] have just exploded – which means they’re going to grow up knowing about comics in a way that my generation didn’t. But there’s still a long way to go. It’s easy to be in a bubble, to forget that most people haven’t read any serious comics, that they see the word ‘comic’ and think: oh, funny. We need a new word.” She thinks for a moment. She doesn’t write graphic novels, but even if she did, the term wouldn’t quite fit: “My mum says that sounds like something very violent. She thinks they should be called narratoons – and you know, maybe one day, they will be.”