Like many a Facebook user before the 2016 election, comic book artist Sarah Glidden used to consume a lot of articles without thinking much about where they came from. "I just thought about journalism like it was water," she says. "You turn on the faucet and it comes out." Then some reporter friends mentioned they were going on a trip to two of the most troubled countries in the world: Iraq and Syria. Glidden tagged along on a tourist visa, curious about the reporting process. The journalists, who worked for a daily outlet now called The Seattle Globalist, agreed to have the mirror turned on them. Glidden took her own recorder and filled 8 GB SD card after 8 GB SD card with...well, pretty much everything they said and did, whether it seemed important or not. Her main exception: "I'd probably turn it off if we got really drunk."
This was at the end of 2010. Glidden spent the next six years painstakingly transcribing all the tapes, picking the most telling scenes, and illustrating them by hand in beautiful, old-school watercolors.
The result is a hefty graphic novel called Rolling Blackouts, the name a reference to Iraqi cities' continued need to stagger their electricity usage at night. But don't be fooled by the title or the topic: this isn't a travel guide. It is perhaps 2016's most honest description of journalism and how it works, or doesn't.
Here's all the sort of stuff news consumers doesn't normally see: suspicious interviewees who clam up, long taxi rides with a Kurdish driver in which attempts at humor get lost in translation, fights about what a story should be and the agonizing self-doubt stirred by interviews gone awry.
Given that fake news sites (which don't face any of those problems) may have just helped elect a U.S. president, the book couldn't be more timely. This is what true reportage looks like, warts and all.
"If people do know more about how their sausage is made, they can be better consumers of journalism," Glidden believes. "[That's] especially important right now, when I feel like once a day I see something on my Facebook wall where I'm like 'If you just did one second of fact-checking you’d see this is not true.'
"I know it helps whatever agenda you’re interested in, but we need to be careful about what we’re looking at." (Mashable spoke with Glidden before Facebook's post-election attempt to crack down on fake news.)
Of course, there are other newsworthy reasons to pick up Rolling Blackouts. At a time when we cringe and cry out at pictures of the destruction of Aleppo, here is the heartbreaking "before" picture: Syria before the drought really kicked in and before civil war tore the country apart, with buildings intact but dictatorial president Assad's face plastered all over them.
And at a time when we're arguing about how many Syrian refugees to let into the country, here are reminders of the refugees that came before them: Iraqis and Kurds, displaced in countries such as Turkey and Iran that don't want them.
One refugee talks about how he made it out to America in the late 1990s only to find himself chatting to a random guy in a mall who later turns out to be one of the 9/11 hijackers. He is investigated by the FBI and deported by ICE.
They've got nothing on him, but apparently talking to someone you didn't know was about to become a terrorist is reason enough for authorities to tear you away from your home, wife and kids. And yet he can't help but tell his story poorly, frustrating the reporters who would like to be on his side.
Rolling Blackouts chronicles the journalistic sublime and ridiculous. During a meeting with the sinister Syrian ambassador to discuss their coverage, journalists are pitched a story in an attempt to distract them from covering politics: Why not report on all the lingerie and sex toys being made in Syria?
One of the most compelling aspects of the book is the fact that someone else had tagged along with the group. Dan, a childhood friend of one featured journalist, is a U.S. Marine who did a tour of duty in Iraq in 2007 and saw some of his buddies die.
Dan frustrates all attempts to drag out his feelings on the topic. He can't bring himself to say the invasion was a bad idea. His friend loses all objectivity in persistently asking him about it, partly because the two of them still can't talk about another childhood friend's death.
It's messy, it's raw, there are layers upon layers, and they go around in circles. Just like journalism; just like real life.
Journalism and comic books have a fine shared history. Tintin was a reporter, as was Clark Kent. But never have the comics delved so deeply into what journalism means and — especially — how people react to the act of it.
"It is a complicated job and people don’t always like what you’ve written about them," Glidden says. (Since the trip she's tried her hand at reporting a few pieces herself, most notably a comic book profile of Jill Stein.)
"I think it’s good for people to know that it’s usually coming from a good place. Most journalists that I’ve met, they care very deeply about what they’re reporting on. They think the stories they’re getting are important and should be shared."
Perhaps readers will start sharing the good stuff, the well-reported stuff, whether or not they agree with it. At the very least, they should share Rolling Blackouts.