Graphic novels and ‘comics’ storytelling represent a growing genre in publishing these days. It includes not only the familiar sci-fi and criminal strip cartoons with their extreme foreshortening of hands and feet and their Baaaam!!! Flash*!# Aargh!* constantly exploding balloons, but serious literature too, such as for example, Proust and Kafka by the Frenchmen Stéphane Heuet and Réal Godbout, respectively. Re-creating a novel not only requires you to draw well, but to thoroughly research the time and place and thus be a set-designer, costume designer, historian and director all in one.
Non-fiction, journalistic material has joined this line-up, ever since Art Spiegelman created his ‘Maus’ about the Holocaust. Joe Sacco, the Maltese-American illustrator from Portland, Oregon, is perhaps the best known of the visual journalists at the moment. In a long tradition of newspapers sending artists to the war fronts (in pre-photography days, the drawings would be made into ‘engravings,’ another specialized profession, in preparation for printing before ‘halftone’ dots were invented), Sacco has illustrated hairy situations in Chechnya, Bosnia, Gaza and Iraq, and reported on communities-in-stress in India and among African migrants. His latest report, ‘Paying the Land,’ is about the Dene of the Mackenzie River Valley in Canada: indigenous people painfully situated between traditional life, the legacy of colonial policies of residential schools, poverty and addiction, and resource-extraction companies encroaching on their lands. Rarely would you receive such a nuanced look, from every possible angle, at the complicated factors that define Dene life in the North. As always in his books, Sacco positions himself inside the story as the interviewer and information collector, a participating character who doesn’t take sides: he just shows you what he hears and sees, in drawing. And he ‘illustrates’ his visuals with pertinent text quoted directly from the people he talks to.
In his book called ‘Journalism,’ a compendium of shorter reportorial pieces done for various magazines, Sacco discusses the idea of ‘objectivism in journalism’ and the role of drawing in this context. For him, the issue was settled a long time ago: it doesn’t exist. ‘Journalists are not flies on the wall that are neither seen nor heard . . . it’s not a cold science carried out by a robot,’ he says. The deliberately assembled elements of a story are always placed on a page with intent, whether in writing, photography or drawing, as long as the obligations of journalism are adhered to – to report accurately, to get quotes right, to check claims. As another artist who draws from real life, and as one with an interest in anthropology, I agree with Sacco’s statement that anything that can be drawn accurately, should be drawn accurately, and in the case of a historical reconstruction, should be drawn with informed imagination. The ‘Art’ or style of drawing should never upstage the accessibility of the story if you want it to be understood by a more general public in mainstream media. And yet, Sacco has had to wage plenty of battles to get his reportages accepted as proper journalism. There’s another accomplished visual journalist, the Quebecois Guy DeLisle, who tells us about his one-year stay in Jerusalem and Israel. Even in this highly politicized environment, he manages not to take sides, he simply shows you with an outsider’s fresh and honest eyes, what it’s like to live a daily life in this troubled place. From that, you’re well prepared to draw your own conclusions and that’s exactly the aim, of course, of any good newspaper worthy of the name.
Sacco also takes on the peculiar North American practice of ‘balance’ in newspapers, having to present two sides of the story, i.e. ‘equal time’ on a page, and how it suggests that ‘the truth’ resides somewhere in between. Good journalism lacks all manner of resources these days, and instead of first-hand accounts on location by professional reporters, papers more often resort to utilizing official press releases and various propaganda statements largely made by powerful stakeholders: politicians and corporations. Those who suffer most, especially during wars conducted over their heads by the superpowers, seldom get a hearing and yes, Sacco prefers to listen to their stories to get at a more truthful picture of life in crisis. But he doesn’t hesitate to bring out the inevitable biases of the locals, as well as recognize his own.
I continue to have trouble accepting the nametag ‘Comics Journalism,’ especially when a story concerns the very disturbing events happening in places like Gaza, Bosnia or Chechnya. ‘Comics’ seems to be the only term we have in the English language for a story-in-drawing, a juvenile hold-over from our Donald Duck days.
I prefer ‘Visual Journalism.’ The New York School of Visual Art used to offer a Masters’ degree in this field in the ‘eighties, under the direction of the famous American illustrator Marshall Arisman (they still do, but now it’s called ‘Illustration as Visual Essay’). I longed to do this program, so I talked to him at the time. I was encouraged to apply but ultimately, the annual U$10,000 tuition (then; three times more now) plus the cost of living in NYC for two years thwarted that idea. I’ll freely admit to being jealous of the kind of work Sacco does. Imagine – ‘The Vancouver Sun sends their editorial illustrator, Mariken, to Northern Mali and Niger to produce a reportage on the predicament of the Touareg people’ (all expenses paid; camels and personal body guards – all looking like Omar Sharif – provided). One must keep dreaming.