The ninth art meets the fourth estate

Leigh Phillips traces the emergence of comic-book journalism

January 5, 2011 · 11 min read

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.

Autobiographical elements

‘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.’

Larger canvas

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.’

New sincerity

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.’

Financial issues

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.’

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