Ploughshares interviews Pressgang publisher Robert Stapleton about his press and FLASHed, which it calls ” a fantastic collection of stories both written and illustrated,” and “so unique in its approach to the interplay between author and artist.”
There’s a new book out, by three college professors, called CREATING COMICS as Journalism, Memoir & Nonfiction (Routledge), and I wrote the foreword. I’ve known authors Randy Duncan, Michael Ray Taylor, and David Stoddard for some years now; I’ve even made guest appearances at their annual workshops for the College Media Association; but I was still extremely surprised and flattered when they asked me to write the foreword to their forthcoming book.
The book is chock-full of useful info: the history of the genre, approaches to finding stories, tips on tools & techniques, getting published, and a discussion of legal and ethical considerations. As far as I know, this is the first “instructional manual” on comics journalism, so I am very excited for it to come out, for my own use as well as others. After all, I’m no expert on the field—I’m just a practitioner.
When it came to the intro, I wasn’t sure what I had to offer to the discussion. In the end, I decided maybe the best thing would be to recap how I got here: the signposts along the way that led me to this very moment—not only in my own career, but to this extremely vibrant period of comics journalism. So, without further ado, here’s what I wrote. (And look for the book in all the usual outlets…)
The folks at the venerable Franco-Belgian comics magazine Le Journal de Spirou approached me about contributing to their new publication, GROOM. Like Spirou, Groom is an all-ages publication, but in this case focusing specifically on current events. The inaugural issue of Groom contains stories about terrorism (including Charlie Hebdo), European politics, sports, and various dispatches from far-flung countries like China, Australia, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East, and the good ol’ U.S.A. (I remain continually amazed and impressed at the topics French-language comics touch on, especially in so-called all-ages publications.)
Groom editor Damien Perez asked me to focus on four or five news stories coming out of the U.S. last year that would be particularly shocking for a Francophone audience. So many to choose from! The stories that made the cut were the decision by the State of Utah to bring back executions by firing squad; Deflategate; the Rachel Dolezal/NAACP debacle; the Ahmed Mohammed clock incident; and last but definitely not least, the Donald Trump presidency campaign!
It was funny: when I was pitching the stories to editor Perez, the one he had the most trouble believing was the details of Trump’s vitriol-fueled campaign. As he said, “In the media we often see him as a ‘larger than life man,’ but not dangerous.” To which I responded that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen seems unobjectionable on the surface—it’s her ideas which are dangerous. Touché!
Anyway, this is silly, fun stuff. I hope you enjoy the illos. (For more information on Groom—in English—check out this website, which has also gone to the trouble of translating the Groom editorial page.)
Just out this week in Foreign Policy magazine is “The Road to Germany: $2400,” which depicts the odyssey of 11 Syrians from the doorstep of their unrecognizable homeland to a life in exile. The bulk of the piece is 11 pages of comics by yours truly, adapted from the reporting/writing of journalist Alia Malek. And as in The Photographer (by Emmanuel Guibert, paired with Didier Lefèvre’s photographs), “The Road to Germany” incorporates photos by Peter van Agtmael, who accompanied Alia on her immersive reporting journey. (Back in September, Alia and Peter shadowed the subjects of the story all the way from the Greek island of Kos to Frankfurt, Germany, meeting up with them at many points along the way.) In other words, this is a very unusual piece to be running in a mainstream news magazine!
In crafting the comics component, my job was to take Alia’s amazing, heartfelt reporting and create a narrative to fill in the visual gaps between Peter’s incredible photographs. I was handicapped, though. Unlike Alia and Peter, I hadn’t actually accompanied our protagonists—Muhanid & Ihsan; Mohammed & Sawsan, and their children Sedra, Ali, & Brahim; and Naela, Maysam, Suhair, & Yusef—on this odyssey, so I immersed myself as best I could. Sadly, in recent months, this type of journey has become all too common, so there were a lot of visual resources out there. And with the help of Alia’s notes and Peter’s archival shots, I dove into the minutiae of life vests, the UNHCR outpost in Gevgelija, and German border police uniforms.
I was also struck by the chart that Syrians and other refugees use as the main guide through their route. Even though everyone has smart phones and the resources of the Internet at hand, they still hold on to this crude schematic, which is more like a game board than a map:
I wanted to integrate elements from the chart into the story, not only to remind readers of its importance to the refugees, but also as a bridging device for changing scenes and pushing the narrative forward.
For the comic’s opening scene on the overloaded raft, I was struck by Alia’s description:
Women and children . . . lined up, nearly supine, in the raft’s base. . . . Where any space remained on the bottom, another layer of women and children wedged in. Everyone’s bags were thrown in a heap on top of them while the men were pressed in along the edges.
FP Executive Editor Mindy Bricker and I quickly decided this image would be the “splash” panel of the comic, and I intuitively felt that the best way to capture it would be from directly overhead. This is from the pencils:
The comic starts with five pages of my hand-drawn art; the last six pages incorporate Peter’s photos into selected panels. Combined with actual quotes from Alia’s reporting, it’s pretty cool to see this marriage of documentary forms. And after a solid month of work back in December, it’s very gratifying to see this story in print.
I would say I’m speaking for Alia & Peter as well when I say I hope this piece succeeds in humanizing a refugee crisis which is all too often thought of in impersonal numbers—or sensationalized hysteria—and gives readers a feeling of “being there” on this harrowing journey. As the opener states, “Showing what happens when strangers are thrown together by adversity—how desperate alliances formed and dissolved—[‘The Road to Germany: $2400’] is a diary of an exodus from a war zone to a hopeful, if uncertain future in the West.”
For now, the piece is only available in print, in the Jan./Feb. issue of Foreign Policy. If it becomes viewable online I’ll be sure to post a link. (UPDATE: Here’s the link)
A couple of years back, Robert Stapleton of the literary journal Booth (published out of Butler University‘s MFA writing program) approached me about editing an anthology of comics. I had never edited a significant project before—and although I was flattered to be asked, I didn’t want to just put another anthology out there. I wanted my first editing project to be “special.”
That’s when we hit on the idea of Sari Wilson and I editing a book together—an anthology of linked stories in comics and prose, the two forms working together, hand-in-hand. Maybe even somehow embodying the nuances of our own creative relationship, the way we have edited, collaborated, and influenced each other’s work over the years.
Why flash fiction? As a cartoonist, I work almost exclusively in nonfiction; Sari’s fiction is in longer forms, with lengthy short stories under her belt, and her novel Girl Through Glass set to debut next year. But we are both fans of flash fiction—stories with the heft of a trinket but the narrative punch of a sledgehammer. And the flash fiction form is perfect for a project that’s all about pushing boundaries and cross-fertilizing creative communities.
So FLASHed is a collection of flash fiction stories in comics and prose, pressed up against one another. In dialogue. In concert. In conversation. As a result, FLASHed is more than an anthology; it’s a conversation—among some of today’s most exciting prose writers and cartoonists—and between the forms of prose and comics. As contributor Myla Goldberg put it: “This is like a Telephone/Exquisite Corpse mash-up, which would make it an Exquisite Telephone Corpse.” Exactly!
Our 45 contributors are an amazing, accomplished lot: they include Junot Díaz, Lynda Barry, Aimee Bender, John Porcellino, Steve Almond, and Gabrielle Bell, to name a few. Flashed features original comics from the likes of Nick Bertozzi, Box Brown, Brian Biggs, Andrea Tsurumi, Jason Little, and Matt Madden; and amazing new flash pieces from writers like Ben Greenman, Kellie Wells, Jedediah Berry, Tara L. Masih, Gina Frangello, and Pamela Painter. And some pieces that defy categorization, like Rachel Cantor‘s comics script, complete with panels arranged on the page, or Carol Lay‘s illustrated text story, or dw’s intricate narrative sketchbook.
The experience of co-shepherding FLASHed through its generative, production, and distribution process has been equal parts exciting and exhausting. I’ll never begrudge the suggestion of an editor again! Working closely with Sari (and our publisher Robert Stapleton) was a profound experience, but for me the most rewarding part was getting to work closely with so many cartoonists I admire.
FLASHed is coming out February from Pressgang (Butler U.’s press). In the coming days and weeks we’ll be releasing much more information, sample pieces, and plans for the release, including bookstore events, readings, and panels. Stay tuned!
And here’s a complete list of our amazing contributors:
- Jessica Abel
- Lynda Barry
- Gabrielle Bell
- Nick Bertozzi
- Brian Biggs
- Eli Bishop
- Box Brown
- Jennifer Camper
- Dean Haspiel
- Tom Kaczynski
- David Lasky
- Carol Lay
- Brendan Leach
- Jon Lewis
- Jason Little
- Matt Madden
- Ken Nash
- John Porcellino
- Joan Reilly
- Andrea Tsurumi
- Steve Almond
- Matthew Baker
- Aimee Bender
- Jedediah Berry
- Rachel Cantor
- Junot Díaz
- Julia Fierro
- Sherrie Flick
- Gina Frangello
- V.V. Ganeshananthan
- Alan Gilbert
- Myla Goldberg
- Ben Greenman
- Sheila Heti
- Michael Hinken
- Travis Holland
- Joy Katz
- Tara L. Masih
- Anna North
- Pamela Painter
- Anthony Tognazzini
- Rob Walker
- Kellie Wells
- Zoe Zolbrod
Ten years ago, Facebook was pretty much only for college students and Twitter was still in the planning stages. So in late August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the main way people communicated publicly on the Internet was via blogs. And those of you who remember my post-hurricane training with the Red Cross, and my eventual deployment to Biloxi, Mississippi, will recall that I wrote about the experience on my blog (at that point hosted on LiveJournal). (I even self-published all my blog entries—and the various online comments—in a slim volume called Katrina Came Calling.)
I was only a volunteer—for those directly affected by the storm, blogs, online forums, and email were the lifeblood that kept these communities connected while they were physically dispersed.
In late 2006, about a year after the storm, when I began working on A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge for SMITH Magazine, I used the blogs of two of my subjects, Leo McGovern and Denise Moore, as primary sources. They spoke with eloquence and urgency about their experiences during the storm and its agonizing aftermath.
It was around that time that I met journalist Cynthia Joyce, who had started a blog of her own, Culture Gulf, which documented the rebuilding of New Orleans. As Cynthia now writes,
. . . it’s already impossible to recall with any precision the depths of uncertainty that was life post-Hurricane Katrina. Much of the collectively kept digital diary of that catastrophe has already been forgotten—in some cases paved over in page redesigns or simply lost to “web erosion,” relegated forever to 404: Page Not Found status. . . . Contrary to what high school guidance counselors everywhere will tell you, the Internet, it turns out, is not forever.
Which is why, a few weeks shy of Katrina’s 10th anniversary, Cynthia has edited a fascinating—and essential—collection of blog entries from those first two years post-Katrina. Titled Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina, the book (quoting Cynthia again) “is a cross-section of first-person entries that reveals a layer of post-Katrina life that wasn’t typically picked up by traditional news outlets or preserved in any official record. It’s as much a testament to lost memories as it is to memories about what was lost.”
Published by the University of New Orleans Press, Please Forward is a blow-by-blow street-level chronicle of New Orleans and Katrina. Reading through it again is definitely intense: the lead-up to the storm; the flooding; the loss of lives, homes, and possessions; the chaos of the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center; the fear and uncertainty; the hyperbolic media coverage; the racial issues exposed by the storm; the demoralizing debates about the future of New Orleans—it’s all in there. Contributors include Kelly Landrieu, Rob Walker, Joshua Cousin, Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, Clifton Harris, Dedra Johnson, Cree McCree, and at least 50 other bloggers, most of whom are residents of the Crescent City. I have a couple of posts in there too, one from my stint as a volunteer and one from back in New York City. There’s a wonderful excerpt from the book on Salon; Rob Walker’s contribution is particularly affecting.
If you’re in New Orleans, the Please Forward book launch is on August 18 at Press St. HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.) It should be quite an event—sad and joyous in equal measure. For now, you can pre-order the book on Amazon.
Matt Bors, the cartoonist/editor/visionary/energizer bunny of comics journalism, has left Medium.com and is taking his groundbreaking site The Nib with him. To kick-off this move, he (and assistant editors Eleri Harris and Matt Lubchansky) are Kickstarting a 300-page hardcover collection of “the best of The Nib,” by some of today’s most accomplished nonfiction/political cartoonists.
Titled Eat More Comics, the book features work by Emily Flake · Tom Tomorrow · Matt Bors · Jen Sorensen · Ruben Bolling · Ted Rall · Susie Cagle · Emi Gennis · Eleri Harris · Jess Ruliffson · Sarah Glidden · Wendy Macnaughton · Mike Dawson · James Sturm · Shannon Wheeler · Eleanor Davis, AND MORE (including this piece by yours truly).
If Eat More Comics is successfully funded, not only will all contributors be compensated for their work being republished, but exclusive new content will be commissioned!
This thing is coming together REALLY quickly: help KickStart the project, and you’ll have it in your hands by SPX (September 19). Eleri and “the Matts” are already 60% of the way there, with about two weeks to go, so please contribute… and then you too will be able to Eat More Comics!
A couple of days ago I wrote about the two comics I’ll be debuting at the MoCCA Art Festival this weekend. I also wanted to mention a work of mine that, depending on how you look at it, is nearly eight years old—A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. (The web version appeared on SMITH in 2007–2008, the hardcover came out in 2009.) Believe it or not, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is coming up this August, and it’s an event whose repercussions continue to resonate. Apparently, the book continues to resonate as well: just this month, I’ll be traveling to Amsterdam to speak about it and some of my other comics reportage at a narrative journalism festival. The week after that I’ll discussing A.D. with students at a college in Boston who’ve been studying it during this school year.
To commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the hurricane, my publisher Pantheon put together a special oversize “Remember Katrina” postcard, and I’ll be signing copies of A.D. at the Pantheon table on Saturday at MoCCA. Look for me from 2-3 pm at table 405.
One more time, here are the MoCCA Fest deets:
MoCCA Arts Festival
April 11–12, 2015, 11am – 6pm
548 W. 22nd St., NYC
I’m debuting not one but two new comics at this year’s MoCCA Art Festival, this coming weekend April 11–12!
First off is THE VAGABONDS #4 (my second issue with Hang Dai Editions). This issue serves up a spicy blend of journalism, social commentary, memoir, and literary fiction. The lead piece is a new work of comics reportage called “Crossing the Line,” about profiling at the U.S./Canadian border. I’m also very proud of three collaborations with my wife, writer Sari Wilson (whose debut novel is coming out next year!). Throw in a couple of light-hearted travel tips, and The Vagabonds #4 is chock-full of goodies! The Vagabonds #4 is 24 full-color pages, and is only available for sale directly from me, or from HDE.
The other book I’m debuting is the print edition of Terms of Service: Understanding Our Role in the World of Big Data. Between social media profiles, browsing histories, discount programs, and new tools controlling our energy use, there’s no escape from Big Data. As we use technology to record (and share) new information about ourselves (such as FitBit health data), what are the questions we should be asking? What is the trade-off between the benefits we gain from sharing data and how that data can be used against us? And what are the technologies that seem invasive today but in five years we’ll unthinkingly accept? How do we keep up with new technology while not letting our data determine who we are? Terms of Service examines the role of technology and the implications of sharing personal information. Our hope is that it is a thought-provoking field guide to help smart people understand how their personal—and often very private—data is collected and used. Co-produced by myself and Al Jazeera America reporter Michael Keller, the 48-page “graphic novel” follows our comics avatars as we learn about such topics as the “Unravelling Theory” and the so-called “Internet of Everything.” Terms of Service debuted online on Al Jazeera America’s website in late October 2014, and is now available for the first time in print. Editor & Publisher calls Terms of Service “funny, informative, and ridiculously readable,” and Panda Daily calls it “smart, breezy, and beautiful.”
So come get signed copies of both new comics from me at MoCCA Fest (at its swanky new location, Center548, just steps from the High Line). And while you’re at it, pick up new books from my HDE partners Dean Haspiel, Gregory Benton, and Seth Kushner (making his triumphant post-leukemia return!). Here’s a lineup of all of HDE’s debut books.
We’ll be at the Hang Dai table (#314, Third Floor, Yellow Zone) both days, April 11 and April 12, from 11am–6pm. (I’ll also have copies of The Vagabonds #1–3, and my other books, should you be looking for those.)
Once again, here at the key details:
MoCCA Arts Festival
April 11–12, 2015, 11am – 6pm
548 W. 22nd St., NYC
Two of my biggest heroes when I was a kid were Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. I had posters of them on my wall! I read Douglass’s autobiography a number of times, and I thrilled to the daring exploits of Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
Many of the residents of Oberlin, Ohio, home of my alma mater, Oberlin College, were active in the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War. (Ohio borders Kentucky, which, during that period, was a slaveholding state.)
Recently, Oberlin Alumni Magazine commissioned me to illustrate an article about Oberlin’s role in anti-slavery activism. In reading the piece, by J. Brent Morris, and researching the era for my illustrations, I was fascinated to learn that many escaped slaves stayed openly in Oberlin—despite the fugitive slave laws—and became active abolitionists. Here’s a great quote from the article illustrating the fierceness of Oberlinians’ defiance of the “peculiar institution”:
Even though federal marshals and Southern slave catchers seemed a ubiquitous presence in Oberlin, it was nearly impossible to reclaim a free Oberlinite or “fugitive slave” from the town’s protective grasp. . . . Brooklyn abolitionist William Watkins could tell that Oberlin African Americans were “not afraid of the white man.” He noted “a sort of you-touch-me-if-you-dare” attitude about them and would not have been surprised by the security plans of a man like Gus Chambers, who declared that “If any one of those men darkens my door, he is a dead man.” In his blacksmith shop, Chambers always had a hammer and iron bar at the ready for protection, and most often also had a red-hot poker in the fire. Above his door was a loaded double-barrel shotgun, and beside his bed were razor-sharp knives and a pistol. He would never kill a man, he conceded, but clarified that a “man-stealer”
was not fully human. “The man who tries to take my life,” Chambers declared, “loses his own.”
A number of brave former slaves even journeyed back across state lines into Kentucky to recruit slaves to escape back north with them! In a four-panel comic I did for the piece, I show what one hapless U.S. Marshall based in Oberlin was confronted with when he tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, from being run off with a shotgun to being beaten with a walking stick, to finally being run out of town by a group of Oberlin citizens. Ha!
I was given my choice of what to draw for a full-page illustration, and there were many amazing anecdotes of Oberlin’s place in abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. But the story I ultimately chose was a key moment in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. In 1858, an escaped slave named John Price was abducted by Southern slave catchers, who intended to bring him back to Kentucky. A large group of Oberlin residents, including many African-Americans, rushed to the nearby town of Wellington, where the slave catchers had holed up in a hotel for the night. In blatant defiance of the “law,” the Oberlin residents forced their way into the hotel and rescued Price.
My illustration shows the aftermath of the rescue, as the joyous crowd of rescuers carry Price out of the hotel on their shoulders. Photos from the era showed many of the Obies who took part, as well as the Wellington hotel itself, all of which I incorporated as best I could into the illustration. I even portray the slave catchers, cowering up in the attic, peeking out the windows as their “prize” is taken away.
It turned out that the Oberlin-Wellingto Rescue was a key moment in the lead-up to the Civil War. Ohio state officials defended the rescuers, despite their flouting federal law (the Fugitive Slave Law), and even tried to repeal the law at the 1859 Republican convention. (Remember, the Republicans were the “good guys” back then!) The resulting attention kept the issue of slavery very much in the public eye right up until secession and the shots fired at Fort Sumter.
Seeing as how it’s Black History Month, I’m proud to share this story, and my visual representation of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, which has rarely been portrayed.