Creator: Seth Tobocman
Dimensions: 8.5″ x 11, softcover
Page Count: 328
List Price: $30 USD
Out of Print since: 2004
As we’ve mentioned before, a number of the folks involved with
‘Extraction! Comix Reportage’ have gone on to do other important work. One of the most interesting and accomplished of the Extraction contributors (not that they aren’t all just fascinating) is journalist and activist Dawn Paley. We caught up with Dawn via phone call, since she’s currently living and working long term in Puebla, to find out what she’s been up to since the comic came out. Here’s how that went:
Ad Astra: Could you tell us a little bit about your history as an activist?
Dawn :I grew up in the lower mainland of British Columbia, on Coast Salish territory. I grew up in a pretty isolated area, this is pre-internet, so my first entry into activism was through environmentalism, eventually I started working as a journalist, doing media activism and grassroots journalism. Over the years, I’ve written about environmental and land issues ranging from the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement to the impacts of US foreign policy and the expansion of capitalism on communities in Mexico, Central and South America.
I’ve been working as a journalist now for a little over 12 years, largely focused on Mexico, Central and South America, but especially Mexico. The piece I did for ‘EXTRACTION!’ [Gold: Taking the Heart of the Land] was the result of one of my first trips to Central America, and over the last decades I’ve continued to cover the ongoing dispossession, violence and colonialism taking place in Mexico, Central and South America. In my work I strive to explore the nature of the violences of capital and states, part of the work is to expose the connections between the global north and the violence that so deeply impacts so many folks in the global south.
Ad Astra: How did you first get involved in ‘EXTRACTION!’? How did you settle on the Goldcorp mine in Guatemala as the subject of the comic?
Dawn: I became involved with Extraction! because I had previously collaborated with [editor] Frederic Dubois, and later became friends with [editor] David Widgington of Cumulus Press as well. They asked me to do a chapter. They initially asked me to write about Barrick’s Pascua Lama mine in the high Andes in Chile and Argentina. I countered with a proposal to write about Guatemala/Goldcorp, suggesting that it would be a stronger piece because I’d already done interviews and research in the area. Plus, comics being a more visual thing it made sense to be working on a project about a place I’d seen first hand.
I knew the comic was going to be good as soon as I found out Joe Ollmann was working on the project. I immediately liked Joe’s style and his approach. We didn’t get to see a whole lot with each other – it was a long distance working relationship, but it was a nice experience. Joe has a fabulous sense of humor, and the final experience of seeing my words through Joe’s illustrations was incredible. It’s just totally different than print reporting.
Ad Astra: What was your collaborative process with Joe Ollmann like?
Dawn: It might be a bit passé for someone my age, but I confess, I’m a dyed in the wool print journalist. Obviously all journalism is teamwork, and sometimes I’ll work with a collaborator, like a photographer. Sometimes with print, you’ll write the piece and the photographer will send a cutline or two to go with their images, or your editor will suggest some changes to a piece. But with comics, the artist does so much work. Drawing, inking, and lettering takes so much time and skill. I don’t want to diminish what editors or photographers do…there’s a lot to it. But with this comic, it felt really different. It was an even longer process. It was interesting to have the surprise of seeing how he drew the things I saw and talked about, how he represented them. Workflow wise, we went back and forth long-distance, I compiled a script that included all kinds of visual clues I would leave out of a regular, reported piece, and went from there.
Extraction!’ artist Joe Ollmann meeting with Dawn, along with publisher and co-editor David Widgington and co-editor Frédéric Dubois. Photo by co-editor Marc Tessier.”
Ad Astra: Have you stayed in touch with Héctor and other people you met on the trip? What’s going on around the mine more recently?
Hmm. They’re pseudonyms in the story, so I needed to think about which person “Héctor” was. Yes, I’m still in touch with him. We G-chat sometimes. I saw him a couple of years ago when a serious earthquake hit the department of San Marcos; he took me around and brought me up to speed about what was happening in the region at that time. Goldcorp’s Marlin mine is in the process of closing, and they are doing a lot of public relations to make it look like they did a great job. I was in Guatemala in April and I saw a full page ad in the national newspaper, showing employees planting a bunch of trees in the area, you know, showing us that everything’s hunky-dory! But there’s a lot of ongoing health and environmental issues with contamination from the mine, and people are still facing charges for their role in resistance from years ago. I remember maybe five years ago, folks who survived the internal conflict pointed out to me how there were no basically no political prisoners in Guatemala until after the peace accords were signed in 1996. That was because the state didn’t take prisoners, rather it killed dissidents, activists, organizers, and entire Indigenous communities.
But today in Guatemala there is a HUGE amount of criminalization of community organizers. This criminalization specifically targets Indigenous communities and land defenders. People are thrown in jail, accused of huge list of charges, serving months and sometimes years for resisting dams, mines, highways, cement plants, palm oil, and so on. There are a lot of incredibly brave lawyers and activists fighting against the criminalization of land defenders and political prisoners in Guatemala, fighting for their release. I think this is really crucial context today that we need to keep in mind in looking at this comic from almost 10 years ago.
Ad Astra: Would you work on another comics journalism project, given the appropriate resources and journalistic freedom?
Dawn: I’d love to do another comics journalism project, connected to the research I’m doing with families of people who have been disappeared in Mexico. I’m doing a multi-year investigation into this issue as part of a dissertation, and what I hope will be my next book. When I can, I have been walking with family members on weekends, when they convene to look for bodies. It is a very intense experience–people using little more than sticks and shovels to search for missing daughters, sons, brothers, sisters… This is an entrenched reality in Mexico today and yet I think for many it is something that is still difficult to imagine. I think comics could be an important avenue to communicate this experience.
Ad Astra: How have things changed for mining activists since ‘EXTRACTION!’ was first released?
Dawn: Well, Indigenous land defenders across so called Canada have come out strong using a whole range of strategies to fight against destructive extractive industry projects throughout the entire last century and into this one. I think it is important to start by acknowledging the importance and the continuity of those struggles.
Specifically, EXTRACTION! first came out almost 10 years ago, and I think it’s still really relevant. As for differences between 2006 and 2016? There’s a lot more solidarity and visibility for these struggles, actually, including some really amazing organizing in Toronto and Vancouver. And urban activists are not just connecting the actions of Canadian companies in Guatemala or elsewhere with their headquarters in Toronto or Vancouver, but also looking at the activities of mining companies, sometimes even the same mining companies, on stolen Indigenous land in Canada. In my opinion, activism against destructive mining has gotten smarter, more intersectional.
We’ve seen huge amounts of community organization against mining happening, from the community level to the international level. In 2006-2007, I was reporting on a fairly nascent struggle in Guatemala… Now Goldcorp and gold mining has become a landmark issue in Guatemala. Folks all over the country know about it, they are prepared to fight against it and are pre-emptively declaring their communities free of mining… In general more and more folks and communities in Mexico, Central and South America are weary of Canadian or other mega-mining projects. People are mobilized against the damage that these companies are doing/can do to their water supply, their communities, and increasingly that organization is taking the form of international coalitions, groups that can represent hundreds of struggles. Over the past 10 years, many people resisting mining have been threatened, murdered, and displaced, but there have been huge strides around these issues in terms of awareness and preventative action, and it’s important we take note of the gains.
Ad Astra: What have you been up to since ‘EXTRACTION!’? What are you working on now?
Dawn: Well, I’ve continued to work as a journalist, in 2009 I helped found the Vancouer Media Co-op and was involved in various media projects in Canada for a few years. 2010 was a big year, we helped cover resistance to the Olympics in Vancouver and later to the G8-G20 in Toronto. At the year’s end I left Vancouver and started researching for my first book, Drug War Capitalism, which came out with AK Press in late 2014. Since the book came out I’ve been doing lots of speaking events in the US mostly, and we’re working to try and get a Spanish version of the book out soon. I also started a doctorate at the Autonomous University of Puebla in Central Mexico, where I am based.
At this very moment, I’m working on an investigative piece about families of the disappeared in Mexico, about the folks I mentioned who have started searching every every weekend for clandestine graves that may contain their family members. I’m writing about what it is like to walk alongside them as they search for their loved ones. I think that the movement of searchers is one of the most significant social movements in Mexico today, and one that urgently merits our attention.
Sure, ‘Extraction’ came out in 2008. It was a different time: Bush had just left the White House, the economy had collapsed and Taylor Swift’s merciless conquest of the pop charts had not yet begun. How relevant could a comic from way back then be to our lives today?
Super fucking relevant, as it turns out. From Nunavut to Tierra del Fuego, extraction industries continue to devastate the planet, displace indigenous peoples and contribute little in the way of public good. Mining companies fly under the radar of most people in the developed world, and that invisibility is a super-power they employ to villainous ends. Luckily, people are fighting back, especially indigenous communities. These seven stories show us how the reporting in “Extraction” has a lot to tell us about struggles past and present.
1. The toxic legacy of mining is still destroying our environment.
Take the Mount Polley spill in British Columbia, Canada. On August 4th, 2014, an estimated 24 million cubic metres of industrial waste poured into the previously pristine Lake Quesnel. With 600 km of shoreline and an estimated maximum depth of 610 metres, the lake is and is a tributary of the Fraser River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean in the Vancouver area.
Researchers believe the spill may have an impact on the spawning cycle of some 800,000 sockeye salmon who move through the Quesnel system – especially worrying because the salmon were almost wiped out by human activity in the early 20th century. Imperial Metals, the company responsible for this devastating ecological disaster, won’t have to pay fines or face charges for its negligence. Luckily, the Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw leadership council has finalized a mining policy to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
2. Extreme weather events are happening more often.
And we know climate change is to blame! Record heat and unusually dry conditions turned northern Alberta into a tinderbox this year, setting the stage for one of the worst wildfires in the history of the province. January, February and March reached record temperature highs expected to occur only once every 50 years. The blaze, which is still burning, gutted part of the tar-sands town of Fort MacMurray and threatened extraction sites in the tar sands themselves. Climate deniers are quick to insist there is no link, but as the New Yorker said, the evidence is compelling.
3. Indigenous people in Guatemala are still fighting for justice.
Journalist Dawn Paley and artist Joe Ollman teamed up for “Extraction: Comix Reportage” to produce a work of investigative journalism on the impact of Goldcorp’s mining operations in San Marcos, Guatemala. A protester at Goldcorp’s Marlin mine was beaten, drenched in gasoline and burned alive in 2009. Conditions are dire. The Guardian described the situation:
“…intimidation, threats, social division, violence, bribery and corruption of local authorities, destruction and contamination of water sources, livestock dying, houses shaking, cracked walls, the criminalization of protest, forest cleared, and appalling health impacts such as malnutrition and skin diseases.”
Crisanta Perez, a Maya Mam woman from the area, recently toured Canada to share her story and collaborate with indigenous and mining justice activists in Canada. Here in Canada, groups like the MiningWatch and the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network are fighting to raise awareness and hold corporations like Goldcorp accountable.
4. Alcan wants to pump sulphur dioxide into the air in Kitimat, British Columbia.
Alcan, the aluminum mining concern responsible for the deaths of indigenous people in the Kashipur region of the Indian state of Orissa (as outlined in “Extraction”), has since been acquired by mining giant Rio Tinto. But in this new form they’re ‘upgrading’ an aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C. without paying for necessary scrubber technology. This will allow it to increase sulphur dioxide emissions by 56%, a potential health risk to inhabitants of the area. Worse, sulphur dioxide is a major contributor to acid rain,
Environmental advocates like Kitimat residents Lis Stannus and Emily Toews are doing what they can to force Alcan to install the scrubbers and protect air and water quality. Meanwhile, the local Haisla Nation is prevented from speaking out by a clause in their Legacy Agreement with Rio Tinto Alcan.
5. Governments continue to ignore the risks of nuclear power.
Meltdowns? Never heard of ’em. Nuclear waste? Just bury it! Proliferation of nuclear weapons? It’ll make us all safer. And never mind the horrific ecological and human health consequences of extracting uranium – governments around the world continue to invest in nuclear power. Who stands to benefit from the reckless expansion of nuclear power? Corporations like Cameco, the world’s largest publicly traded uranium company and subject of a great work of comics journalism in “Extraction”.
According to the Pembina Institute, “…tailings or wastes left by the milling process consist of ground rock particles, water, and mill chemicals, and radioactive and otherwise hazardous contaminants, such as heavy metals. In fact, up to 85 percent of the radiological elements contained in the original uranium ore end up in the tailings. Canadian uranium mines produce more than half a million tonnes of tailings each year. As of 2003, there were 213 million tonnes of uranium mill tailings in storage at 24 tailings sites across Canada — enough material to fill the Toronto Rogers Centre (formerly the SkyDome) approximately 100 times.
6. Mining is a feminist issue.
Few social movements in the 21st century have more energy and vitality than the feminist movement. But while there is an incredible amount of important work being done in North America to protect and expand the rights of women living there, the struggles and suffering of women in the developing world is too often forgotten.
Canadian mining companies often stand accused of liability for sexual violence around their extraction operations. Women in the developed world are in a strong position to hold these mining companies accountable, and while organizations like MiningWatch do incredible work, there’s plenty left to do. The Toronto Stock Exchange is host to more publicly traded extractive corporations than any other stock exchange in the world. Almost $8.9 billion in equity capital was raised in 2014 on the Exchanges, through 1,482 financings, which represents 62% of all equity capital raised by the world’s public mining companies last year. Canadian feminists interested in confronting the gender violence caused by first world corporations have their work cut out for them.
7. Mining justice activists are still being murdered
South African mining activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe was gunned down at his home last March, and locals suspect the involvement of Australian mining concern Mineral Commodities Limited. Indigenous activist and environmental justice advocate Berta Carceres was also murdered in her home this March after a lifetime of struggle against the unchecked greed mining and other industrial interests. Western mining interests are linked to dozens of murders around the world and the violence shows little signs of slowing.
From 2001-2011, more than 700 environmental activists were murdered around the world. Another 100 were murdered in 2014 alone! Activists around the world are doing what they can to fight back, but they need the support of people who live in wealthy countries like Canada, the US, or the European Union.
I’d keep this list going but I need to go lay down and cry. Please do pre-order a copy of “Extraction” and get involved in the struggle for mining justice wherever you live.
Ad Astra Comix is pleased to announce that our crowdfunder for a classic work of Canadian comics journalism is now live. “EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage” is an anthology of journalistic comics about the damage caused by different sectors the Canadian mining industry around the world and within the nation state’s own borders. Using research, on-the-ground journalism and original comic art, the work features stories about the extraction of uranium, oil, aluminum and gold and their devastating impact on communities and the environment.
The human and ecological cost of this industry is too often buried in the fine print of annual reports. ‘EXTRACTION!’ can help stories from India, Guatemala, Alberta and the Northwest Territories reach Canadians – the people best positioned to challenge these companies.
‘EXTRACTION!’ touches on a number of issues of interest to our readers including colonialism, indigenous rights, ecological devastation and corporate malfeasance. It also features work by a number of contributors who have gone on to do exciting things, including journalist Dawn Paley and artist Jeff Lemire.
Ad Astra Comix is an independent Ottawa-based comics publisher. We believe in the power of comics to share the stories of regular people and speak truth to power. We have no investors, stockholders or friends in high places – just an enthusiasm for comics and social justice.
Organizations, individuals and local book retailers are encouraged to participate in the crowdfunder. Funding rewards range from a copy of the book before it’s available in stores, to custom-made comics about the mining issue of your choice, to a lump of coal delivered to the Canadian Government, on your behalf.
‘EXTRACTION!’ has already been published once and has sold the entirety of its print run. By republishing it, we hope to share these stories and help Canadians understand the high cost of cheap commodities. By contributing to the project or simply sharing it with people you think may be interested, you can help us reach that goal.
If you’re interested in contributing to the publication of ‘EXTRACTION!’, or want to know more about the project, you can check out our crowdfunding campaign. For information about Ad Astra Comix, including other titles we carry, workshops we offer and critical coverage of political comics, check out the rest of this website. To get in touch, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow us on Twitter @AdAstraComics or like our page on Facebook.
Brad Mackay is a writer and cultural commentator who has covered a wide range of of subjects, including comics and cartoonists. He wrote and co-edited (with Seth) The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist. This article first appeared in THIS Magazine in January 2008. We are re-printing it here on Ad Astra Comix with permission of the author, coinciding with the re-release of the anthology “EXTRACTION!”, to provide our readers with an overview of comics journalism. Full text is © Brad Mackay.
In January 2007 when David Widgington started thinking about a new project for his small-but-scrappy imprint Cumulus Press, he quickly settled on a subject: the alleged wrongdoings of Canadian mining companies at home and abroad. The choice was a natural one for the Montreal-based publisher, which frequently tackles social justice issues.
Founded in 1998, Cumulus earned a reputation for eclecticism, printing everything from short fiction, memoirs and travel books to multimedia DVDs, music criticism and poetry—including that of Governor General’s Award-winning poet George Elliott Clarke. So when it came time to decide on the format for Cumulus’ latest project, Widgington—not unexpectedly—choose to forge new ground for himself: comics journalism.
An idea that would have been dismissed by most publishers just a few years ago: a comics-based exposé of the mining industry is the kind of project that seems perfectly tailored for the young, politically-engaged readers that Cumulus called its own. Inundated by media and hungry for new approaches to storytelling, this younger demographic has been instrumental in rise of the graphic novel (and the comic medium in general) from supporting act to headliner over the past decade. It’s a trend that Widgington was clearly aware of when he began to assemble the project in 2006.
Inspired by The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s 1937 non-fiction book about the brutal living and working conditions in three mining towns in Northern England, Widgington was eager to bring a similar investigative approach to bare on the mining practices of Canadian companies such as Goldcorp and Alcan. This was exacerbated by his frustration over what he says is the largely credulous coverage that the mining industry gets in the mainstream media, most of which is dedicated to business mergers and new mineral discoveries.
“Bre-X got a lot of press, but that was because of financial issues,” Widgington explains from his home. “They didn’t talk about the potential impact on the communities where the supposed gold deposits were located.”
Already familiar with a number of non-mainstream journalists devoted to covering the social and environmental effects of mining, the choice to use comics was an equally easy choice.
“How do we make people, who maybe don’t read the financial section of the newspapers, aware of Canada’s role in the mining industry around the world?” Widgington says of his decision. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity; to get some comics and some journalism together, and see what happened.”
The result, originally released in December 2007, is EXTRACTION! Comic Reportage: an investigative graphic novel that reveals the dark side of the Canadian mining industry both internationally, in India, Guatemala, and at home in northern Quebec and Alberta’s controversial oil sands.
Divided into four chapters, each one dedicated to a precious (and profitable) resource, the book offers a gritty, ground-level look at the force that is brought to bear in the hunt for new sources of oil, gold, uranium and bauxite (or aluminium ore).
The first chapter, which pairs Vancouver writer Dawn Paley with award-winning Montreal cartoonist Joe Ollmann, explores the questionable practices of B.C-based Goldcorp Inc. who are in the process on establishing a controversial gold mine in Sipakapa, Guatemala. Ollmann deploys his trademark world-weary characters (every blemish, mole or baggy eye has a home here) to full effect as he brings Paley’s first-person script about an organized movement by locals to quash the mining project to life in lush black, white and gray tones.
Unlike most graphic novels, the book itself is the result of a team of writers, artists and editors who pushed the project into existence. Edited by Widgington, writer/activist Frédéric Dubois and veteran cartoonist Marc Tessier, each chapter is written by journalists and writers handpicked for their intimate knowledge of the mining sector, such as Paley, Victoria-based Tamara Herman (who is active in groups opposing Alcan’s mining efforts in India), Montreal broadcaster Sophie Toupin and environmental consultant and academic Petr Cizek. In addition to Joe Ollmann (This Will All End in Tears), the artists tapped for the project included Phil Angers (Mac Tin Tac), animator Ruth Tait and aspiring cartoonist Stanley Wany.
Accustomed to working with tight timelines (not to mention tight budgets), Widgington says the unique process of EXTRACTION! was a challenge over the 10 months it took to see it to press. Both exciting and frustrating “often at the same time” he quips, the transition from the original scripts into the comics form was daunting.
“We scripted all of the articles before we handed them to the comic artists and we had all sorts of questions, like ‘Can we use mise a scene here? Or set up a scenario that actually didn’t happen, to get the information across?’ It was like, where does the journalism end and the comics begin?”
It’s these kinds of questions that make the genre of comics journalism so exciting to read, and often such a challenge to create. No one knows this more than Joe Sacco, the American cartoonist who is credited with coining the term “comics journalism”. Born in Malta and raised in Australia and the U. S., Sacco has hewed out a unique position for himself as the pre-eminent cartoonist/reporter of his age thanks to the success of books like Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde and The Fixer (published by Montreal’s Drawn and Quarterly Books).
According to Sacco, his books can take up to seven years to complete thanks to a time-consuming approach that includes months of research, dozens of interviews and countless reference photographs—and that’s not including the months needed to actually write and draw. It’s a method he originally formed in the early 1990s when he began working on Palestine, his genre-defining debut that was recently re-released in a Special Edition featuring fascinating background notes and sketches that provide a peek into his unique process.
“It would be a lot easier for me to be a print journalist,” says Sacco from his home in Portland. “When you’re writing, you can say ‘We were escorted by an armoured car’.
[But] if you draw it, well then what kind of armoured car was it? Do I make something up? And if I don’t find an exact reference, you think ‘Is this how accurate it’s going to get?’”
For example, when he begins drawing a person he often changes their name to protect their identity, a tactic common to traditional journalism, but then he has the additional challenge of drawing them in such a way that it not only true to the story, but also protects them from possible harm.
“There are no damn rules to it,” Sacco says, of his chosen medium. “And I think there cannot be. You have to think ‘How important is that detail? Is it really going to change the essence of the story?’ At some point you’re more like a film director that’s looking back at [Queen] Elizabeth I.”
“There are many troubling notions about what I do, to myself,” he adds. “So I try to be as rigorous as I can be with all the details.”
It’s this seemingly obsessive attention to detail that helps make the 288 pages of Palestine hold up some 15 years after it was first published (then, as a poor-selling comic book series.) The book, which chronicles a two-month visit Sacco took to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in late 1991, is packed with stories about the people he met along the way who’ve been uprooted and displaced by the Israeli government. But it’s also packed with thrilling visual experiments, both successful and unsuccessful, that serve as testament to his efforts to forge a new journalistic path.
A graduate of the journalism program at the University of Portland, Sacco’s disillusionment with traditional journalism—along with his unease about his undertaking—are as much a part of Palestine’s narrative charm as are the stories he recounts. (In one scene, Sacco shows himself thinking “I will alert the world to your suffering! Watch your local comic-book store!”)
This unease, which all but disappears in his later work, was on his mind so much during the making of the book that Sacco felt a need to give his unique new vocation a proper name. In 2001, during interviews for the collected Palestine he began calling it “comics journalism” in an effort to help explain what exactly it was that he did for a living. Seven years after the fact, Sacco no longer has the need to explain himself, and has come to appreciate the inherent benefits of the form.
“The great thing about comics is that it’s so loose and so little had been done with it, that I didn’t feel like there were any footsteps that I had to follow,” he says. “Comics then, and maybe even now, were like un-trampled grass and you could walk across it in any direction you wanted. It’s one of those mediums that’s so open to interpretation.”
And Sacco is by no means the only cartoonist to take advantage of this creative freedom. Though he’s credited with giving comics journalism its name, many other cartoonists have worked in a similar vein including Eric Drooker and Peter Kuper (founders of the socialist comics magazine World War 3 Illustrated), British cartoonist and anti-capitalist Sue Coe (an alumni of the ground-breaking “commix” anthology RAW), Canadian Guy Delisle (with Pyongyang, Shenzhen and his forthcoming book about Burma), and even the likes of Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith and Leonard Rifas, the rabble-rousing leftist cartoonist who created Corporate Crime Comics during the 1970s.
But to many comics historians, including Jeet Heer and cartoonist Art Spiegelman, the roots of today’s comics journalists can be traced back much further — nearly 150 years further — to the American Civil War. When the war began in 1861 newspaper and magazine editors were hungry for images to run alongside their coverage of the divisive confrontation. Unfortunately, nascent photographic technology wasn’t advanced enough to allow photographers to capture battles, says Heer.
“During all of the 19th century wars, like the Crimean War and the Civil War, the main defining images weren’t photographs of the battlefield, but from illustrators who were sent out there,” he says from Regina. “There are photographs of The Civil War, but they’re always after the battles because the cameras [at the time] required exposures of five to 10 minutes.”
This reality paved the way for the success of popular printmakers like Currier and Ives, who made a fortune by selling prints of headline-grabbing Civil War battles. This practice continued in later years, as newspapers made a practice of sending their best illustrators (including George Luks, who penned the seminal comic strip The Yellow Strip for a stretch) to the front line to serve as what came best be called war artists. Though these illustrations bore none of the sequential narrative that we have come to identify as ‘comics’, their success helped pave the way for what came be called the first wave of comics journalism.
The first incidence of the power of cartooning being harnessed for journalistic purposes actually came about a few years after the Civil War, in the politically corrupt world of New York City. While working for Harper’s Weekly, German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast began penning a series of cartoons that lampooned William “Boss” Tweed—a notorious New York politician who was the head of the city’s Democratic Party organization, then known then as Tammany Hall.
Among the first political cartoonists, Nast’s comedic and incisive cartoons (which blended art with text) brought the damning investigative reports the magazine had been running on Tweed to life in a format that was accessible to a wider audience. The forefather to the comic strip which would emerge at the turn of the century, Nast’s serious-minded cartooning was as influential to other artists as Michael Moore would be to aspiring filmmakers more than a century later.
Nast’s media melee eventually had reverberations north of the border as well. In 1873, John W. Bengough, one of Canada’s first professional cartoonists, founded Grip a satirical weekly magazine that targeted politicians and the societal norms of the day. Bengough’s cartoons ridiculed Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and tackled topics like the Pacific Railway scandal.
A few decades later, The New Masses, the seminal American communist magazine, pushed the concept of comics reportage further by sending its artists to cover labour strikes and protests. Though still restricted to one panel, these artists (which included the likes of Art Young and Crocket Johnson, who would go on to draw the comic strip Barnaby and illustrate the popular children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon) furthered the burgeoning tradition of cartoon reporting.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the first true examples of comics journalism began to appear, thanks to none other than Harvey Kurtzman, the founding editor of Mad magazine. Kurtzman’s role in comics reporting came about after he left Mad in 1955, following a dispute over money with his publisher William Gaines. In the years after, Kurtzman became something of a celebrity cartoonist, reluctantly rubbing shoulders with the liked of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. As a result, in the late 1950s and early 60s Kurtzman was commissioned to write and draw a number of high-profile assignments for Esquire, Pageant and TV Guide, that saw him hanging out with Jimmy Cagney on a film shoot in Ireland, lurking around the set of The Perry Como Show or translating the action in a Times Square penny arcade.
These strips, some of which are slated to be reprinted by Seattle’s Fantagraphics Books next summer, are fuelled by Kurtzman’s sly observations: on the set of The Fugitive Kind, Kurtzman depicts Marlon Brando as a down-to-earth celebrity with quirks—like a tendency to rub other people’s arm and his proclivity for public nose-picking. Largely forgotten except by the most-devoted Kurtzman fans, his work from this time shows a visual experimentalism that can be seen in present-day cartoonists. His sprawling, wordless two-page spread on the life inside a bustling penny arcade manages to capture far more than mere words could do in the allotted space – a feat echoed by Sacco in a stunning two-page spread in Palestine.
Though not as serious as his editorial precursors, Kurtzman’s work during this period marked a turning point in both form and content, not unlike the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer that would emerge a few years later. This nascent trend of comics reportage would be further championed by Kurtzman in 1960, when he started up Help! magazine. Over the next five years, he hired an impressive cast of young talent to help fill its pages (including Woody Allen, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and Gloria Steinem) and made a practice of sending cartoonists like Jack Davis and Arnold Roth on comics assignments to interview Casey Stengel or report on daily life in Moscow. He also managed to recruit a young cartoonist named Robert Crumb for assignments that included sketchbooks of Bulgaria and Harlem.
These seminal works would eventually serve as inspiration for the next major development in comics journalism. In the mid-1990s cartoonist Art Spiegelman (as devoted a Kurtzman fan as they come) used these works, along with examples of French comics journalism from an early 20th century magazine called L’Assiette Au Buerre, as part of his pitch to create a “comics editor” position for himself at the popular men’s magazine Details.
Riding high on the success of his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, Spiegelman landed the job and promptly began assigning stories to his cartoonist friends. Though overshadowed by his many of other achievements, his time at Details bore compelling fruit including comics by Kim Deitch (who visited an inmate on death row), Jamie Hernandez and Joe Sacco, whose 1998 strip about the Bosnian war crimes tribunal earned Details acclaim within the magazine industry.
In years since, the increasing popularity of graphic novels and comics in general has only widened the audience for potential works of comics journalism. At the same time, newspapers, now faced with competition from the internet, have turned to new styles of storytelling in the hopes of attracting a younger readership.
Taking a page from their predecessors nearly 150 years before, many papers, including The New York Times and The Guardian, now regularly turn to cartoonists like Sacco to interpret world events through featured comic strips. In Canada, the National Post has been particularly open to this, publishing comic reports on everything from the Liberal leadership convention to the Toronto International Film Festival.
Over the past couple of years, Post cartoonist Steve Murray has been sent on so many off-beat assignments that he has become something of a Gonzo comics journalist. Murray (who also works under the pen name Chip Zdarsky) is grateful for the unique opportunity, but is quick to fess up to its challenges.
“It takes one really long day to write, draw and colour a piece, and of course whatever time I’ve spent researching,” he says via email. “I enjoy doing it, but it is hard work and, unlike a standard reporter, I have a whole other set of issues to deal with regarding the visuals so it sometimes feels like twice the work.”
“The main problem is that I’m presenting things pretty factually, but because it’s cartooning most people assume that big chunks are made up.”
This is complicated by the fact his dispatches typically employ a guerrilla style of comedy that put Murray the cartoonist squarely in the centre of the action, not unlike Hunter S. Thompson (but, hopefully, more sober).
Though that’s likely no longer a problem facing Joe Sacco, both artists agree that comics journalism is finally coming of age as a genre of its own. Sacco, now 215-pages into what will eventually be a 350-page book about the Gaza Strip, is stunned at the turn his luck has taken since the first issue of Palestine was published.
“[Back then] doing a book about the Palestinians was almost a fantasy project for me, in that I felt I had to do it—but I didn’t think really think anyone was going to read it,” he says. “And hardly anyone did read it when it came out as a series; the sales just got lower and lower and lower. It was only when it came out as a book and the non-comics world saw it, that it started to do well. Now people are giving my work the time of day because it’s in comics form.”
“In other words, they’re probably not going to read another book about the Palestinians. But if I do another book about the Palestinians, I know there are going to be people who are going to read it because of the fact that it is a comic. Go figure that.”