Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Traditional print journalism may be in crisis, with once‑mighty, agenda-setting oak trees of national and regional newspapers in fear of felling. But elsewhere, the bright green buds of a new form of journalism are sprouting. Comic-book journalism, or, as it is called in France, ‘BD reportage’ (from les bandes dessinées, the francophone term for the ‘ninth art’ – comics), is flourishing.
Take just a few recent developments among the many that herald the arrival of the form.
In 2009 Joe Sacco, the cartoonist author of the groundbreaking Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, won a Pulitzer for his latest work, the 430-page Footnotes from Gaza, an Exposé, a genuine scoop, about two under-reported massacres that took place during the Suez crisis.
Every four months, a new edition of XXI/Vingt et Un, a beautiful, 198-page-thick, advert-free French journal of literary journalism, photo essays and BD reportage, sells out. This is despite it going for a wallet-emasculating €15 a pop. Launched in 2008 and printed on sturdy paper stock that is single-malt for fingers, the latest issue has a documentary report from Iran by Olivier Kugler, an illustrator whose motto is ‘Been there, done the drawing’ and who has crafted similar reports for the Suddeutsche Zeitung magazine, Harpers and the Guardian on Cuba, Iceland and hot dog eating contests.
In September, the venerable left-wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique published a special edition entirely rendered in comic-book form. Every story told graphically, the paper carried a profile of Osiris, a French NGO that offers psychological support to the victims of political oppression; a parsing of the homophobic statements of the governing UMP party’s national assembly deputy Christian Vanneste – who declares homosexuality to be a threat to the survival of the human race; a discussion of the politics of South Korea; an inquiry into post-apartheid South Africa; a consideration of the security measures and consumerism of the modern airport; and a look at the Free Gaza movement.
We might also point to the publication in 2009 of L’Affaire des Affaires, the three-volume comic-book series written by Denis Robert, a former investigative finance correspondent for Libération (the daily founded in the wake of 1968 by Jean-Paul Sartre), and illustrated by Laurent Astier. This tells the saga of the Luxembourgish financial institution Clearstream Banking, which served as an international platform for money laundering and tax evasion.
Then there is the phenomenal success of Persepolis, Majane Satrapi’s 2000-2003 heart-wrenching series of autobiographical comics about her leftist family’s experiences before, during and after the Iranian revolution. There is the 2007 graphic polemic of Rash and Tamada, Chronicles of the Near Far-away in Chechnya, an incandescent broadside against the unforgivable silence of the likes of the EU and the UN in the face of Putin’s assault on the Muslims of the Caucasus. And there is Josh Neufeld’s tale of Katrina, AD: New Orleans After the Deluge.
Why has this new genre emerged now, and where did BD reportage come from? Comic strips have been around since the 18th-century ‘picture-stories’ of Swiss francophone artist Rodolphe Topffer. Why did it take two centuries for this new form of journalism to blossom?
An American genre embraced and developed by the French, comic-book journalism is the child of two parents: the alternative comics movement of the 1990s and the ‘new journalism’ of the 1960s.
Kim Thompson, the vice-president and co-publisher of Fantagraphics, was the original publisher of comic-book pioneer Joe Sacco’s work and provided one of the main outlets for similar work over the past two decades. He locates the birth of BD reportage very precisely in the dying days of the last century.
‘The first real “journalism” comic was Joe Sacco’s Palestine in 1993,’ he says. ‘He really was the first major instance of the form. You could maybe find a few from before the 1990s if you cast around, but he defined the genre.’
Palestine was the first full example of a long-form journalistic work. Sacco had preceded that with a number of shorter pieces. A trained journalist, he had become frustrated with the sort of journalism he was being asked to produce. Turning his hand to comics, he detailed his travels around Europe in 1988 in his subsequently published autobiographical comic Yahoo, wherein he also wrote and drew about the ongoing Gulf war.
This, in turn, led him to the Middle East and the genre-defining Palestine, which first came out as serialised single-issue comics that were later gathered together into ‘graphic novel’ form. This was the term that was beginning to be used by ‘serious bookshops’ (but repudiated by the artists themselves as pretentious) to distinguish such work from the teenage geekiness of DC and Marvel superhero comic books.
‘He was originally willing to do it for no money. And we thought we would lose money or break even when we published Palestine. When it took off, we were extremely shocked,’ says Kim Thompson.
The Palestine series contained elements of autobiography as well. Like the unconventional ‘new journalism’ of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson, Joan Didion, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer in the 1960s and 1970s, or, casting even further back for the form’s antecedents, the Spanish civil war reportage of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or the ‘lost generation’ Paris writing of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, the author placed himself firmly within the story, in the middle of the action, performing interviews as he travelled about the occupied territories.
As a result, Sacco’s work initially appeared to be just one strand of the wider independent comics movement of the period, whose then mostly-youthful ‘stars’ – Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, Roberta Gregory, Debbie Dreschler and Adrian Tomine – produced a graphic corollary to the grunge music of the time. These small-press or self-published works were often black and white, more artistically experimental than mainstream comics and focused on the travails and defeats of the authors themselves, self-identified losers and outsiders. Indeed, Sacco’s early Yahoo work was later collected and republished as Notes from a Defeatist.
‘In writing a piece that illuminates or explains historical facts, for the most part, these authors are also talking about their own lives. There are a lot like this – Carol Tyler, Alisa Bechdel,’ says Kim Thompson. ‘Tyler’s Late Bloomer explores the darker side of families and child-rearing, while Bechdel is the author of Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home, the award-winning tale of her relationship with her funeral-director father whom she slowly realises is, like her, gay. On the historical side, a stand-out is Jacques Tardi, in particular his 120-page fictionalised history of the war in the trenches during the first world war.’
Thompson is careful to note that this autobiographical element remains a strong constituent of comic-book journalism today. This perhaps explains why, like the new journalism of Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson and co, comic-book journalists eschew the questionable traditions of neutrality and objectivity of print and broadcast journalism for commitment, polemicism and the search for truth – what the French call le journalisme engagé.
‘There is an overlap with autobiographical work, with historical or current events serving as the backdrop for a personal narrative,’ Thompson says. ‘What do we count as journalism, what do we count as autobiography? There is a shadowy area between the two. Events, historical or journalistic work can be the background for autobiographical exploration, and as a backdrop the journalistic element isn’t always the author’s main motivation.’
There have also been technical changes that have facilitated the form’s development.
‘In the 1980s with alternative comics, we first began to see the publication of long-form graphic narratives like Jaime Hernandez’ Love and Rockets and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which offered a much larger canvas to work on. And authors began to fill this canvas with everything regular “literary” narrative writers did.’
‘Even Maus had large chunks of journalistic narrative,’ Thompson says. The two-tome book, a fable about the Holocaust with Jews played by mice and Nazis played by cats, was the first such graphic endeavour to win a Pulitzer.
After September 2001, Spiegelman also produced In the Shadow of No Towers, a large-format, psychedelic meditation on the attacks and his reaction to them in the turn-of-the-century, full-broadsheet-page style of Windsor Mackay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland or Rudolph Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids. In the hyper-patriotic atmosphere of the US at the time, Spiegelman was unable to secure publication there. The series was first published by newspapers: Die Zeit in Germany and the Independent in the UK.
Thompson looks further back to find the germs of the idea: ‘The form did exist before – the underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s, with EC Comics, Harvey Kurtzman, Robert Crumb. These were for the most part fictional short stories, but there were some that were actually just journalism or histories.’
But for all the antecedents, now appears to be the moment for the genre to blossom, a committed, engaged ‘new sincerity’ piercing the cynicism and propaganda of the Fox-Newsification of the media landscape. There are also things that comic-book journalism can do that other formats cannot.
‘The BD is a fantastic medium for doing journalism. With television news or documentary filmmaking, you are restricted by what you can film or the fact that you have to be there at the right time. Also, with written journalism, you can recreate unseen events in words, but you can’t recreate what it looked like,’ Thompson argues. ‘But with comics journalism, you can redraw these images, you can re-imagine what these events looked like.’
The form is also notable for its consistent focus on progressive, feminist, and human-rights topics. Indeed, Joe Sacco’s latest work was criticised by the Toronto Star for not including an Israeli viewpoint. ‘Noticeably absent is any balanced perspective from the Israeli side,’ a reviewer wrote.
‘The huge majority of cartoonists are on the liberal-left,’ Thompson laughs. ‘If you did a survey of the community, you’d find probably 97 out of a hundred on the left side of the political spectrum, so that’s going to show in the work.’
But he is also realistic about the form’s potential. ‘There has been a bit of a flurry of works here and there recently. There are definitely buds coming up, but I don’t think it’s quite a fully-fledged movement yet. It’s not like there’s going to be a “cartoonist on the beat” or anything any time soon.’
‘People don’t realise what an enormous amount of labour it takes,’ Thompson continues. ‘When a journalist sits down to write prose, he just sits down and writes a description, say a city in Bosnia. A pretty sharp mind can in 10-15 minutes in a couple of paragraphs come up with a fairly accurate description in words. The same process for a comics journalist could take weeks to draw. The latest book by Joe took him over five years. It’s a difficult thing to do.
‘At the same time, Joe did a piece on the training of the Iraqi army for Harpers. He’s become the sort-of go-to guy for this sort of thing for a number of magazines and newspapers. Details mag ran a piece by Kim Deitch about a man on death row.’
Yet because of the labour costs involved and despite its growing popularity, the genre faces many of the same financial issues that threaten traditional journalism.
‘I don’t know if it’s ever going to completely just explode, where we see shelves and shelves of this sort of work,’ says Thompson. ‘In order for this to happen, there needs to be sympathetic editors that understand the amount of labour and time involved, and artists that are committed to it.’
Nonetheless, Thompson feels the genre is at an exciting stage in its development. To be alive and involved at a time when a new art form is taking shape is exhilarating and he is guardedly optimistic: ‘I think the market is there now, but everything has to be just right for this to really take off.’
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself