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Truth as we draw it

Logo http://pageflow.jour.at/comicsjournalism

An Introduction











by Max Miller
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Welcome!
Four comics journalists will guide you through this work.
Click on them to get to know them and their art.
Or scroll down to explore Comics Journalism.
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Comics are mainly associated with the worlds of superheroes.
But the medium offers much more.
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Comics journalism is journalism in the comics medium.

It uses the sequential art of comics to convey information with the artists trying their best to abide by journalistic standards.
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First examples of combining comics and "modern" journalism date back to early comic magazine Glasgow Looking Glass in 1825.

But it took until the mid-1990s and Joe Sacco for journalistic comics to be popularized.

The maltese-born journalist traveled to Palestine in 1991, publishing his reportages in 1995's Palestine.
Not only was Sacco's choice of giving palestinians a voice unusual, he did so on close to 300 comics pages, each hand-drawn with his trademark realistic and revealing style.
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Sacco inspired a generation of artists and journalists with his work.
Even today, his name is almost synonym with comics journalism itself as Sarah Mirk explains:

"The team of my office at the Center of Investigative Reporting wanted to put  together some non-fiction
comics to publish on their site and asked me:
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Thank you for exploring Truth as we draw it.
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Sarah Mirk

"I work as a comics journalist and I have worked in journalism since 2006.  I started out as a print news reporter, working for alternative weekly newspapers here in the United States.
Three years ago, I started working for the Nib and I work there as a editor and write comics. 
A big project I just finished up is a book about Guantanamo Bay, that’s oral history about the prison told through comics called Guantanamo Voices and it comes out in September 2020."
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"When I was a teenager, I would make comics about my own life and basically thought that I invented that medium.
Until I went to a comics convention and met other people who were also making those kinds of comics and it blew my mind.

In – jeez – 2010, I started making a history comics series about little known and marginalized stories in Oregon's history called Oregon history comics.
For that series I researched and wrote ten comics and then hired ten artists to illustrate them and published them as little zines.
I did it just thinking it would be a fun project. It blew up and sold thousands of copies. People love it, schools us it and people make their own."
- Sarah Mirk



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Kazimir Lee

"My pronouns are they/them, I live in New York City and I am an immigrant from Malaysia.

I used to be an animator but now I am a cartoonist.
I am known for my non-fiction projects which makes sense as most of my jobs are in non-fiction. But ideally, I would like to be known for my fiction."

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"I think one of the things I do is journalism, I've gotten paid for journalism but am I a professional journalist?
No, I have not been trained. I think that if you go to school for journalism, you learn a lot of things that I have not been taught. So, I am not comfortable calling myself a journalist.
I like the term cartoonist."
- Kazimir Lee Iskander
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Andy Warner

"I am an author, a comics journalist, an editor and a teacher.

At grad school, I realized that I was pretty good at non-fiction.
I had done a little bit of non-fiction, like some little comics here and there but I realized that I have this background in the history and literature of the middle east, especially Lebanon and Syria.
It was 2011 and that region was on everybody's mind again – not that it ever isn't. So I got out of grad school and started pretty much immediately doing occasional comics for Slate about the unfolding Syrian refugee crisis.
And then work led to work."

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"When I say I am good at non-fiction, it is literally the only thing I do. I practice it in many forms and comics journalism is one of these forms.
I used to do fiction but I'm not as good at it, it doesn't interest me as much. It's just how I know to tell stories better. 

I always loved storytelling, I did comics when I was a kid, I played Dungeons and Dragons and I was always the Dungeon Master.
But figuring out the way that you can piece together pieces of history into narratives was really interesting to me from a very young age."
- Andy Warner
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Eric Thurman

"I am originally born in the US but I lived abroad for the past 10 years, in the Philippines, South Korea and in Chile. I predominately do comics journalism about social movements, about education, migration. Aside of that I also work as English teacher in poor countries."
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"When I was working in military intelligence, I became a lot more aware about the US role in the world, essentially its empire and imperialism.
After leaving the military in 2005, I was pursuing art and trying to learn how to use art as a form of communication across language barriers and how to tell stories that relate to people, their rights and their issues.

Studying more about the art of Marjane Satrapi and her work in Persepolis, Joe Sacco and his work on Palestine and other authors, I became more and more aware:
Maybe I should pursue comics. Then I could be much more direct while still being visual and describe scenes and places, making it easier to understand to a greater audience. Not necessarily simplifying the work, but making it more accessible to others."
- Erik Thurman
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The Medium

What are Comics?

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Comics are – just as videos, texts, audio recordings or pictures – a medium we as people use to convey information. However, comics are not as much part of our everyday life as most other media.

Instead, they still are mainly associated to target children and young adults, fulfilling little more than entertainment and characters such as Batman or Donald Duck are connected to many people’s understanding of the medium. Both the Dark Knight and the furious duck went through the hands of countless artists, each with their unique style, telling different stories in distinct ways.

It is this freedom that makes comics special: It is a medium that can create from scratch but also holds the power of the visual by drawing concrete pictures. Whole universes were created on comic-pages and every minute countless new are drawn into existence.

But what are comics exactly? Words and Pictures? Drawings in Squares? Or just the products of Disney, Marvel and DC?

Scott McCloud explored these questions in detail in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. He argues that comics are “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce aesthetic response in the viewer”. Or – in short – sequential art.
This means that any images lined up to convey additional meaning are comics.

Suddenly, possibilities expand far out of Duckburg and Gotham, reaching into the worlds of infographics, photo-reportages and comics journalism.
To put it simple, the definition of sequential art allows comics to be understood as broadly as the medium is itself, thereby making clear that there are no formal criteria needed to make something a comic.

Comics do not need speech bubbles, panels or fantasy worlds.
All comics need is an artist lining up pictures.
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"Comics are gripping.
People find they create this sense of empathy and interest through the visual aspect in a way that photography and film do. But those are more passive media.
Comics are really engaging because you are actually reading the page."
- Andy Warner












The Kīlauea Eruption is Still Being Felt
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Comics are a completely construced medium.
Not a single line existed before the artist put it to paper. 

This makes the artist very powerful. Not only can they choose what exists in their story and how it looks like, they also choose what to leave out, forcing the readers to close the gaps between the panels with their imagination.
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"Comics have a great ability to time travel.
You can fit a lot of information into a page without overwhelming somebody.
You can have one panel that is in the present, a panel that is in the past and a panel that is in the future right next to each other with like one sentence of text on top and have your reader being able to follow."
- Sarah Mirk
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Readers also get to see what happens in the backgrounds of panels. Artists can use this to offer additional information:

"I fear that Macabebe - my hometown in the Phillipines - will be gone in 10 years. For the past 20 years, rising sea levels have made the entire city for 10 out of 12 months of the year under water. " 

- Erik Thurman
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"I can write about this in prose and I can describe this once or twice.
But it is one thing to mention this kind of abstract idea: Everybody is having to live in their second floor of their homes because their entire city is flooded because of climate change. And it is another to show this in every panel and that repetition over and over and over and over again."
- Erik Thurman












The American Immigrant: Phillipines
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The steps

This visual thinking demands a lot more intermediate steps between gathering the material and the final publication.
Even more so, if artist and writer are two different people as was the case with Guantanamo Voices:

"Typically, I do the research and write the script, which looks like a movie script. It will have citations and photo-references wherever possible."
- Sarah Mirk


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"Then the artist takes it and they go through the version of first doing thumbnails, so super blobby, just putting the thing on the page.
Then, we do pencils - the artists all draw digitally but it's like... pencils - which is a slightly more sketched-in version. 
I want to make changes in the thumbnail and the pencil version."
- Sarah Mirk

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"Once they get to inks, I really don't want to have to make any changes after that because it takes a lot more time."
- Sarah Mirk

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"And once colors are done, don't change anything."
- Sarah Mirk
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"For example, the artist can layout the page how they want. Like:"
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"I'll almost always say: 'Those are great, but...
...in this panel here, you drew this guy at the desk. We need to make sure that on the desk you can see that he has a paper that is an order from the president on it.
...in this panel, this guy's face does not look stressed out enough. In this situation, he'd be really stressed out. 
...this panel is in this deli in New York right after September 11th, so on the deli counter, there would have been "Never Forget" bumper stickers or a 9/11 memorial statue-thing. Because at that time, every deli you run into had that kind of thing."
- Sarah Mirk
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The Journalism

"You take care, you research, you perform your due dilligence and you check your things. Which is what every journalist does.
And then, because you are a cartoonist, you draw it in a beautiful and interesting way." 
- Andy Warner
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"I did a story about moonshiners in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s. In the midst of the desert, there were these recreations of Kansas suburbs where people raised their kids and made this moonshine called Sidiqqi
So, I have a bunch of photo-evidence of that, I have found these forums of the kids that grew up there, they maintain archives, I talk to them, I have first hand accounts, I use photo-reference and disuguise people's identities and then I draw it.
But I do it having researched the era, backgrounds, people, using photo-evidence, et cetera."
- Andy Warner







The Secret Moonshiners of Saudi Arabia
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But even once all the information is gathered, it still takes time to produce comics, as Sarah Mirk explains:

"You have to approach a comic differently than other written media: You have to think about how to tell the story visually. Where are the cleanest scenes you could paint? Who's going to be the heart of the story?
Not just: Let's take these words and then just draw some pictures to them!"

Sorry, Sarah.



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"I prefer actually visiting the areas, I like to interview people in person so I can accurately portray the situation.
When I illustrate stories about places I have not been to, I always ask myself: Am I portraying this right?
If I visited, I might be more acute and aware.
For example, a place might have a lot of power lines and power polls. That might be a feature I start showing in my panels that maybe a writer would not necessarily be thinking about."
- Erik Thurman








The American Immigrant: South Korea

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"So when I am at location,  I take tons of photos. I'm not interested in getting really nice shots or anything because I am going to draw everything anyways, I just want to get as much visual evidence as possible. 
Like: What kind of trees are based here?
What does this uniform of that particular police officer look like? Then I can go back later and research.

As for drawing on location, I rarely, rarely do so."
- Erik Thurman











The American Immigrant: South Korea
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There is a lot to consider when doing comics journalism, as Lukas Plank explored for his Master's thesis:

Comics journalists need to think about how a topic would work as a comic. Then, going on into the research process, they must secure enough visual evidence and think visuall.
During the production of the comic itself, they must guarantee transparency and limit their own creativity.
Finally, the audience should be provided with opportunities to participate in some way. 
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Difficulties

"I want to see comics journalism recognized just like any other type of prose story, in the same kind we recognize documentary as a form of journalism."
- Erik Thurman
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"One core weakness is just the hurdle of getting people to read comics. I still often talk to people who have never read a comic in their life. 

They say:
‘Oh, I heard that graphic novels are a big deal, I just think it’s not from me!’
To me that is like somebody saying:
‘Oh, I heard television is a thing, but I am not gonna try it.’

Some people are not be as exposed to comics as to other media and therefore misunderstand what comics are and therefore misunderstand what comics can do."
- Sarah Mirk

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"It takes a long time to make, haha.
It takes a long time for me to research my things, to draw them, to structure them."
- Kazimir Lee Iskander
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"Comics are a medium that takes a long time to do. Just timewise.
You can do quick turnaround stuff but you will never turn stuff around as quickly as in almost any other medium. Only animation is slower.
So you are sort of limited on how quickly you can deal with any sort of news."
- Andy Warner
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this is going to be a long one...

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A big point of criticism towards comics journalism is its perceived subjectivity. Comics are usually drawn and by doing so, artists bring their biases to the paper. To many scholars, this means that comics can never achieve the highest journalistic standards as their drawn nature conflicts with the journalist's objective truth telling.

Comics journalists struggle with this classification: “There is this idea that just because it is drawn, it is somehow not legitimate”, Erik Thurman laments.
There is truth to the argument of comics journalism not being objective: Comics journalists have to decide independently what they show, how they draw it and what they leave out. It is their choice if the document on the table is visible or not. It is their choice whether their interviewee looks tired or excited. Each of these choices is both subjective and necessary.

In order to be truthful, comics journalists have to go much further than other journalists would. A writer does not need to think about how the house the interviewee lived in looked like. A photo or video journalist might take a shot of it. But a comics journalist will have to recreate as many details as possible in order to make it accurate.

While recreating, the comics journalist will change little details, willingly or unwillingly. Therefore, Joe Sacco states in his comics journalism manifesto that “drawings are interpretive even when they are slavish renditions of photographs”. Mirroring reality in drawings thereby becomes simply impossible. Not only will every artist choose to portray reality differently, their experiences will also vastly differ. To the consumers, this matters as Kazimir Lee Iskander explains: “You are teaching someone the order and priority in which to absorb certain information and by doing that you are adding your biases to something.”

However, this is true for every kind of communication. Be it comics, journalism, texting or nursery rhymes. The person telling the story will bring their own biases and by telling the story, they will convey them. In comics, this process just becomes more transparent as Sarah Mirk explains: “I really love that you can see the hand of the artist in the story and therefore readers understand that this piece of journalism was made by a person”.

Some artists such as Joe Sacco choose to hammer this idea in by depicting themselves in their stories. When doing so, they actively choose to tell the story in an even more subjective manner than necessary.
However, this neither means that all comics journalism is more subjective than journalism in other media nor that subjective perspectives cannot produce journalism.

Or, as Kazimir Lee Iskander said:
“I guess the argument here is, is any journalism really that neutral, right?”
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Strenghts

"To me, the strength of comics journalism is in a way the same as its weakness: The artifice of it is important in reading a comic."
- Kazimir Lee Iskander
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"In the past 10 years I have mostly lived in countries where English is not even a second language. Where it is difficult to tell these stories.

Yet even people, who lack the language ability are at least able to follow along with the pictures, so they do act as an aid.
Sometimes I'll interview people in Spanish and I can show them visually: This is what to expect out of this.
It is not like: This is a list of strange words that you cannot understand, you have to trust me, haha!

Comics journalism, because it is a form that is accessible, visibly, can be read by everyone. It is a very democratizing medium. "
- Erik Thurman
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"A strength of comics journalism in general is doing explainers. 

You can get a lot of mileage out of that visual aspect, especially if you use the likes of infographics, schematics or timelines. All these things can be used as building blocks in comics in a way that flows a little more weirdly in prose pieces.

I do a lot of explainers and I do believe that they are really well suited to comics journalism. They are also just really well suited for my brain, so…"
- Andy Warner
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In Austria, the invesitgative reporting platform Dossier and the newspaper der Falter used comics' explanatory ability to retell a complex corruption case.

Supernaked is a short film and was positively received by the nation's critics as a different form of journalistic storytelling. 

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If it is not used to do an 11-minutes-long short movie, comics journalism can be done relatively cheap while still providing strong visuals and high journalistic quality:

"Comics journalism can be within a tea of two people - the actual creator and an editor. That's bare bones but possible.
A good piece of comics journalism might cost between 600 and 1.000 US Dollars. But to actually do a 20-minutes documentary, it might honestly cost 10-15.000 Dollars to do.
The economy makes it - especially for indipendant media outlets - very accessible."
- Erik Thurman

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"There are going to be situations where reporters or photojournalists would not necessarily be able to take photographs. Maybe they are having a conversation with people they can not bring a camera to. There is a workaround by just being an illustrator and being able to draw these scenes."
- Erik Thurman















The American Immigrant: South Korea
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The Future

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
Nonetheless, the artists agreed to share their thoughts on comics journalisms' prospects. 
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"There are a lot more people publishing comics journalism, it is starting to grow in a really good way. 

Six or seven years ago, I went to the Wikipedia page for comics journalism and it was like:
'Here are the comics journalists!'
And it listed like five people.

Today, I often think about that if I was going to make a list about all the comics journalists I know now, there would at least be 100 people on there."
- Sarah Mirk

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"I think comics journalism is too short right now.
What can you get out of an eight-minute read?
Not very much, you know.

To me, comics journalism is collaboration.
I want to do one big, 24 page piece about prisons but if you click on this panel, I want my friend to do a 10 page piece about bail reform, I want my other friend to do a 10 page piece about racial injustice and if you click on this, you go to that.
Because I believe that people love clicking on things and going to the next thing."
- Kazimir Lee Iskander
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"I really worry about losing an entire generation of artists that say: 'I can't work like this, I need to find a different field in order to pay the bills.' 

This is by far the greatest challenge for any comics journalist, any journalist these days. And what then happens is: It will reflect on the stories that are told within the next five or ten years."
- Erik Thurman

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"This world of comics journalism did not exist when I was a kid. It was built by these big figures like Sacco and then these magazines like Symbolia, the Cartoon Picayune and the Nib emerged.
This whole media ecosystem is developing and people's stories are getting bought. 

And then this greatest economic crisis of our lifetime is unfolding.

I think it will be interesting to see, where this leaves comics journalism, which is very dependent on new media and connections.

But who knows?
We are cockroaches, we always have been."
- Andy Warner

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About

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Hi!
My name is Max Miller and this work is part of my bachelor thesis on comics journalism.

For the theory part of my work, I researched the potential of the comics medium in journalism. However, I wanted this practical part to be, well as practical as possible. Therefore, I interviewed five comics journalists via different videocall applications in order for them to give their personal experience, thereby breathing life into what I have found in literature.

I decided to use only four as Fabian Lang, art director at Dossier and I talked in German and focused a lot on Austria. This did not fit well to the rest of the interviews.

Originally, I planned to do a short explanatory comic inspired by Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. 
However, this work was done during the months of April and May 2020 in the midst of the Corona (Covid-19) outbreak in Austria. Therefore, drawing a comic by myself became impossible as I could not get enough visual evidence without leaving my flat.

It might have worked to this work's favor though as I am obviously no trained comics artist.
Pageflow allowed me to minimize my own drawings, instead showcasing the artists' approaches wherever possible.
The tool was simply chosen because it was the system provided by the University of Applied Sciences for Management & Communication

I hope that you did enjoy your experience with this work and for you to have caught an interest in comics journalism. 

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