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.”