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How Graphic Journalism is Changing the Face of News

How Graphic Journalism is Changing the Face of News

A new crop of comics artists are merging their craft with the journalistic process to create stunning works of reportage that depict everything from war-torn countries to wineries. They work in ink, watercolors and Wacom, telling stories that might not make the front page, but offer a level of nuance and meditative depth often reserved for the best investigative reporting. They are “graphic journalists,” and their work is a little-known facet of the infographic revolution that is sweeping the journalism world.

On April 9, I gave a short presentation on the role that comics play in the future of journalism as part of a panel I co-organized with Sarah Jaffe. Here’s a quick overview of what we discussed. Special thanks to Sarah, Susie Cagle, Ron Wimberly and Matt Bors for working with me to develop our working criteria for graphic journalism. The above image was created during our panel by Susie, Matt and Ron. It touches on some of the concepts we discussed.

What is it?

Graphic journalism is an emerging form with a colorful mishmash of influences that include comix, infographics, film and autobiography. There are multiple ways to categorize and analyze this work. From AlterNet to the AwlThe Rumpus to the Oregonian, graphic journalism offers a powerful opportunity for news organizations to reach out to new readers and experiment with new ways of storytelling without compromising journalistic integrity.

Here’s a short overview of the different forms that comics journalism can take. As this is an emerging field that we’re working to define and develop, I’d love to hear your recommendations and thoughts in the comments.

Travelogues

Since the underground comix revolution of the 1970s, comics have been used as an autobiographical medium. The late Harvey Pekar used comics to tell the stories of everyday people and everyday life in an accessible manner. Today’s travelogues are direct descendants of early diary comics. These works are often meditative explorations of a foreign landscape in which the reader unpacks their cultural baggage with the author, exploring a strange land with them. The key here is in viewer identification: the comics creator has a strong voice leading the narrative, and we trust them to impart facts and dissect stereotypes for us.

Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is a near flawless example of the travelogue. Glidden isn’t going for an objective non-fiction work here, which can seem counterintuitive to journalists. Rather, she’s looking to use her experiences as a lens for dissecting her own cultural (mis)perceptions and takes the reader along for the ride.

See the artist’s work here.

At Cartoon Movement, Matt Bors is publishing pages from his experiences in Afghanistan last summer. While the narrative has yet to fully unfold, so far Matt is taking a more ethnographic/documentary approach, focusing less on how the travel impacted him and more on documenting the landscape around him. You can also check out Sarah Glidden’s latest work, The Waiting Room, which is a 20 page comic about Iraqi refugees in Syria.

Portraits

The portrait style of graphic journalism is even more immersive than travelogues, though the two forms often overlap. In a portrait comic, the creator steps back and lets the facts or individuals speak for themselves. Joe Sacco, a pioneering graphic journalist, often lets his subjects tell their stories, letting their words tumble out around portraits of his subjects speaking. By focusing in on facial expressions, the reader is effectively looking over Sacco’s shoulder and engaging in a dialog with the subject. The same principles apply to an “over the shoulder” style of interviewing common in documentary films and video journalism. By removing the interviewer from the panel, Sacco is able to increase the reader’s identification with the subject at hand.

See the artist’s work here.

There are many ways to increase identification via portraiture. While Sacco tends to focus on faces, Wendy MacNaughton takes a much more experimental approach in her works for The Rumpus. Through her innovative use of white/negative space, MacNaughton presents comics that are free of an overbearing narrative presence. She often pairs words with snapshots of objects and landscapes to create an experiential identification with her subjects. In MacNaughton’s work, the reader is encouraged to focus on and identify with the forms on the page, absorbing the places and things that pepper her subjects’ lives as a meditation. This approach encourages internal identification from the reader. Instead of presenting her subjects as an interview, she wants us to experience life through their eyes.

See the artist’s work here.

And here.

Choosing Your Own Adventures

While Susie Cagle creates great non-fiction narrative work, she also experiments with how to make infographics more interactive by introducing comics techniques. Here’s a short “choose your own adventure“ comicgraphic that Susie did for the SF Public Press. When I interviewed Susie a few months ago for a separate article, she said that infographics and comics have “got a lot of the same things going for them. … [But] my problem with comics journalism is that most comics journalists come to it from an art school background and the writing and research isn’t there.” Infographics and expository illustrations like the image below are helping fill that gap.

You should also check out Susie’s illustrated recap of NCMR for Truthout.

Merging Multimedia

Dan Archer has been experimenting with integrating comics and journalism for years. As a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, Dan is creating annotated comics that source back to videos, audio and other data that supports his reporting. Readers experience journalistic stories as digital, interactive landscapes. Each click of the mouse–or swipe of the finger–allows the reader to dive further into Archer’s reported world. Archer and developer Chris DeLeon recently released an iPhone app comic on the Honduras Coup.

What’s next?

This is just a short overview of a few archetypes I’ve been able to identify in the last few months of studying graphic journalism. These definitions are sure to evolve as additional organizations and journalists begin to experiment with illustrated narratives as a means for telling stories and creating experimental works of journalism. I’m looking forward to identifying new artists and connecting the dots as the field moves forward.

For more information about Graphic Journalism, you can also visit www.graphicjournos.com. We’ll also have video from our panel available soon, so stay tuned!

An earlier iteration of this post was originally published at the Hooded Utilitarian.

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Photo credit: Susie Cagle, Ron Wimberly and Matt Bors

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14 comments

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12:46PM PDT on Apr 22, 2011

I love cartoons that are getting their point through, but didn't find much of interest on the links I followed. Maybe the few that I missed were the most interesting. Hm.

5:12AM PDT on Apr 21, 2011

Thank you for posting.

8:20PM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

ideal format for those seeking a deeply shallow view on the world. looks like a combo of cartoons and editorials - editoons perhaps? or cartorials?

4:26PM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

This blog is simply inaccurate. It shows a lack of knowledge of the history of cartoons in news stories.

I suppose that's what happens when you get your news from the funny papers!

11:10AM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

It is highly unlikely that anyone who remembers the work of the late great Walt Kelly will find the idea either new or hopeless.
On the other hand, the late (equally great) George S. Kaufman did remind us that "Satire is something that closes Saturday night."

11:06AM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

Doonesbury is arguably an early form of dedicated cartoon journalism -- when it wasn't going overboard on editorializing...

I hope the journalism remains factual! -- an ethical standard we can't afford to lose. I also hope the artists realize the work load they're up against if they've got tight deadlines. I also hope none of this replaces textual presentation for online reading. An increasing number of links go to videos instead, and you're stuck with their run time instead of being able to scan text quickly and read in depth when you find something good. Far more pleasing and economical than sitting through a bush-beating presenter...

Graphics complement text, but I hope they never replace it.

10:43AM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

People may become interested in what is going on around them if the news came in comic form. I would read it.

10:39AM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

great article

10:01AM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

What a great idea! So reading that story about climate change would be more like reading Mary Worth. Maybe they could do just line drawings so after we finisn reading the news we could color too!

9:28AM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

I'm with Manuela & Meredith, graphic journalism isn't new, but it is *fun!* The term "yellow journalism" comes from a battle that two New York papers waged over a comic strip, the main character wore yellow pjs, over 100 years ago!

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