A Quick Guide to Comic Journalism
This last weekend, I went out to Fantagraphics Bookstore in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle to see Joe Sacco discuss journalism in the comic form (and for him to sign my copy of Palestine). Undoubtedly, Sacco is a pioneer of the comics journalism form, something that has existed since the early ’90s with Sacco’s works Palestine and Safe Area Gorzade (about common people suffering from the Bosnian War), but has really begun to take off in the past few years. It’s also something that I’ve been increasingly interested in.
Essentially, comic journalism is a synthesis of the sequential medium of comics and journalism. It’s actually not surprising to see journalism leap into the sequential form. It can be argued that comic journalism is a descendant of photojournalism. Photojournalism is a visual form of journalism that became credible and the same is happening today with comic journalism. Both forms use a primary visual image to detail their works and have some sort of reliance on narration to accompany the image (comic journalism relies much more on this). In this regard, comic journalism is somewhere between pure written journalism and the almost-purely visual photojournalism. Comic journalism has also become respectable among many reporters, as Sacco claimed, in that many co-journalists don’t find it unusual or less worthy to pursue journalism in a comics form.
The medium has its advantages and disadvantages according to Sacco and other panels from comic journalists I’ve seen. There are two clear disadvantages in comic journalism, as mentioned more by Sacco than other creators I’ve met. First, there is a greater spatial constraint in comics journalism than there is with written journalism. It’s essentially impossible to cover the same amount of material in the same amount of pages in comics as it is in written form. Because of this comic journalists are more stressed to convey what they need to in a set number of pages. The second great disadvantage is that sense of respectability from outside sources. While other journalists have respect, most likely stemming from centuries of political and social cartoons, those being interviewed or used as subjects may not have that same respect. Many people look at sequential mediums as an inferior medium (something every comic fan has heard from somebody at least once in their life).
But the form has its advantages as well. While respectability may be seen as a disadvantage, it can also be manipulated into an advantage. In the creation of Oil and Water the illustrators mentioned that had far easier access to drawing subjects close-up than they would if they had a camera. The presence of a pencil and sketch pad comes off far less threatening than a camera does. Drawing a subject for a journalistic piece isn’t taken as seriously, but can also yield a greater sense of access than more traditional forms of journalism would normally yield. The second great advantage of comic journalism is the strong presence of visuals in the work. Readers of journalistic works are drawn to visuals as they intake the information. It’s an essential catalyst for digesting information. This is a reason why photojournalism is so popular. But comics have an even greater advantage to photography-the exaggeration of image. A journalist-cartoonist can use bodily proportions, color changes, and other visual changes that differ from reality to coincide with the narrative progress of the piece. Reading Sacco’s Palestine one encounters this on many occasions. Comic journalism is a flexible medium, something becoming more real too as the spread of digital comic journalism is beginning to spread.
Comic journalism is definitely a medium that has a limited appeal in the comics community. For readers who stick to mainstream superhero or independent pulp comics, they are bound to be not interested or completely miss the medium. But as access and growth of independent comics continues, exposure to the medium grows. As the growth of the medium in the past few years attests to, it’s something people are interested in and will most likely expand and continue.
If you’re interested in the subject or the medium here’s a couple of recommendations:
Joe Sacco’s work is a must in this field. Anything from him is a good place to start.
The whole Cartoon Movement is an excellent place to find a wide variety of political cartoons and comics on diverse subjects. Many of these individuals putting work on that site are also good sources (such as Sarah Glidden).
A 2001 interview with Joe Sacco on Footnotes in Gaza and comic journalism.