The interview is fun to look back on and read—it’s a real conversation, with some good back & forth, and I felt Jon’s questions really pushed me to go deep in my answers. Topics we discussed include whether comics journalism is “real” journalism, what subjects call out to be treated in comics form, collaborating with Brooke Gladstone, how comics are treated in the U.S. as compared to France, the media and Donald Trump, and the insertion of myself into my stories. Shout-outs to Joe Sacco, Scott McCloud, Harvey Pekar, Dean Haspiel, Martha Rosler, and Sari Wilson.
I can say for a fact that Jon’s intro and the interview itself is the most serious treatment of my stuff that I’ve yet seen. I’m blushing here!
Anyway, there’s a short excerpt from the piece here, but I think you have to have an academic journal subscription, or pay a one-time fee, to read the whole thing online.
I’ve been working the last three months on a 10-page comic about COVID-19, “Black immunity,” and historical health inequities. Titled, “A Tale of Two Pandemics: Historical Insights on Persistent Racial Disparities,” it was published yesterday by Journalist’s Resource (out of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center).
The piece springs from the work of three doctors— Lakshmi Krishnan, S. Michelle Ogunwole, and Lisa A. Cooper — and a recent paper they wrote for the Annals of Internal Medicine. In their paper, they discuss the similarities between the COVID crisis and the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic, particularly racial health disparities and the spread of misinformation.
With their piece and my interviews with them as the frame, I take readers through some of the misinformation about coronavirus circulating on social media, and the impact of that on communities of color, particularly given that African Americans have been dying at a much higher rate than white Americans during this crisis.
I learned a lot while working on this piece — particularly the insidious myth of “Black immunity” to disease that was used in our country as rationale for all sorts of horrible things, from Benjamin Rush urging Philadelphia’s Black citizens to act as nurses for white people during the 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak, to J. Marion Sims’ 19th-century experiments on enslaved Black women, to the infamous 20th-century Tuskegee syphilis study.
No wonder polls show that many African Americans are distrustful of any potential COVID vaccines in the offing!
But I also learned about the work of Black newspapers and columnists from the World War I era, who worked to combat misinformation about the Spanish flu as it related to their readers. So one thing I really appreciate about the doctors’ paper and my conversations with them is their commitment to finding paths forward — like working with “trusted voices” and with modern organizations devoted to protecting the lives of BIPOC. As we enter a new, deadlier third wave of the virus, that’s something to look forward to.
Apparently, the woman I captured on video the other night (from the George Floyd murder protest), throwing what I thought was a glass bottle at a stationary police van, actually threw a Molotov cocktail. (If you watch the video you can see that the bottle as it flies through the air is faintly glowing.) At the time, I had no idea that’s what happened, even though I was standing very close nearby! (Although you can see from the reaction of those even closer than me, that many people did see what the object was.)
As you can see in the video — which I shot at approximately 10:40 pm on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Washington Avenue — the bottle shatters harmlessly on the side of the van. Immediately afterward, the van then reverses on the street and four officers jump out and pursue the woman. They eventually corral her on the steps of the nearby Brooklyn Museum. Subsequent reports have listed her name as Samantha Shader, of Catskill, New York.
Shader was initially charged with four counts of attempted murder of a police officer, attempted arson, assault on an officer, criminal possession of a weapon, and reckless endangerment.
From my perspective, it appears the case against her has been exaggerated by the police. And much of the news reporting on the incident has been shoddy — because much of the information in the reports came from police rather than reporters or eyewitnesses. For instance, multiple outlets initially blamed Shader for a totally separate incident of an unoccupied police van being set on fire in Fort Green, a different neighborhood in Brooklyn. (I live in Prospect Heights.) The oh-so-reliable Washington Times, for instance, writes, “The officers were able to quickly exit the vehicle before it became engulfed in flames.”
From my video, you can clearly see the bottle did not break any of the van’s windows, and the van certainly never caught on fire. (My wife Sari also filmed the incident, from our apartment window, and you can also see from her video that the van is unharmed.)
Other reports on the story I found last night on the web made similar claims, and errors. For instance, The Mount Pleasant Daily Voice wrote that “the four officers inside the van were able to escape as the fire broke out.”
It looks like much the misinformation can be attributed to an NYPD spokesman, Det. Brian Magoolaghan, who told Hudson Valley 360 that “the bottle shattered a window but did not explode on impact, Magoolaghan said. The four officers, who were not injured, were able to get out of the van before the firebomb exploded and van burst into flames, Magoolaghan said.”
In another example of poor reporting, the New York Daily News wrote that “An upstate woman admitted using a Molotov cocktail to set ablaze an NYPD vehicle with four officers inside. . . . At about 1:12 a.m. Saturday, Shader approached a police vehicle near the corner of Eastern Parkway and Washington Ave. and lit up a bottle containing ‘an incendiary chemical.”
So the Daily News apparently got their facts from the police affidavit, which has the time wrong by almost two-and-a-half hours. More importantly, they state that the vehicle was “set ablaze,” which it definitely was not.
To its credit, the Daily News reports that “Two other protesters are suspected of setting fire to a second police vehicle at about 12:57 a.m. Saturday near the 88th Precinct in Clinton Hill.” (Clinton Hill is adjacent to Fort Green, so sometimes the two neighborhoods are confused for each other.)
The New York Post initially wrote that Shader had set the van set ablaze and the four cops had barely escaped with their lives — but they have now changed the story to get closer to the facts (though with no record of their correction).
The N.Y. Post and Gothamist both write that the NYPD announced they were charging Shader with four counts of attempted murder, but apparently now the federal government is taking over the case, charging her with the much less serious crime of “Causing Damage by Fire and Explosives to a Police Vehicle.” I’m not sure if both cases will still proceed, (The Gothamistpiece also gets the time wrong, saying it was at 1:12 AM — I’m assuming they got that from the police affidavit.)
The New York Times reported that “A Molotov cocktail was thrown at an occupied police van at around 1 a.m., Mr. Shea said. . . . While the firebomb Ms. Shader threw shattered a rear window of the van, the officers inside managed to jump out.” The time is wrong, and I still contend that the van’s window was not broken.
I’m not in any way trying to excuse what Shader did, but it appears — big surprise — that the case against her has been exaggerated by the police, and has been amplified by some weak reporting.
My homage to Captain America Comics #1 (with apologies to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon)
I’ll be tabling at MoCCAFest this weekend (table I 270 A) with the latest issue of THE VAGABONDS. 24 thrilling pages of COMICS JOURNALISM and other great features!
A lot has changed in this country—and the world—since the last issue of The Vagabonds, so it’s only fitting that this issue features a Donald Trump story. My explainer on the former British spy Christopher Steel’s “dossier,” originally published by Columbia Journalism Review in the fall of 2017, remains surprisingly relevant, as the special counsel seems to be using the memos as a “road map” for his investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. This issue’s longest story—originally published by The Nib in the fall of 2016—looks into the influx of costumed characters into New York’s Times Square. In the piece I explore the phenomenon — who are these unlicensed Elmos, Spider-Men, and Minnie Mice, and why are they there? This issue also features a fun story I did for Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge. Do you often find yourself losing or breaking your old phone just when a new model reaches stores? Well, you’re not alone… The story shows how researchers — using the game of Jenga and a precious coffee mug—were able to get test subjects to replicate this risky, self-destructive behavior. THE VAGABONDS #6 closes out with a couple of shorter pieces, including a collaboration with my mother, the artist Martha Rosler.
I look forward to seeing you at MoCCA Fest this weekend and handing you an autographed copy of THE VAGABONDS #6. (And of course I’ll have copies of previous issues of The Vagabonds, as well as A.D., The Influencing Machine, Terms of Service, Flashed, and much more!)
MoCCA Fest 2018—April 7-8, 2018
11:00AM – 7:00PM on Saturday; 11:00AM – 6:00PM on Sunday
West 46th Street between 11th and 12th Avenues, NYC
Remember the Donald Trump-Russia “dossier”? Released by BuzzFeed in January (shortly before Trump was sworn in as U.S. President), the 17 short memos (compiled over seven months) featured some pretty wild claims—sex parties, etc. But the main takeaway was that Trump and his cronies were in the pockets of the Russians.
Amidst the furor over the memos’ contents was an equally strong uproar in the journalistic community. Was it ethical of BuzzFeed to publish the so-called dossier, which was unverified and contained some specific errors? The backstory, of course, is that during the previous months, the memos—and their author, former British spy Christopher Steele—had passed like a hot potato through every major news organization before BuzzFeed finally pulled the trigger. So was the outrage honest, or really just a case of sour grapes at being scooped? A new piece I just did for Columbia Journalism Review—“The Trump-Russia memos”—tracks that long strange journey.
The events described in the five-page comics story are based on reporting and research, including interviews I did with journalists who sought to verify the memos and wrote about them—or chose not to…
As far as the actual contents of the memos, none of the more outlandish claims have been verified—although the FBI and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller apparently are using the memos as a “road map” for their ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia…
As a native New Yorker, I don’t visit Times Square very often—too noisy, too bright, too many tourists. Of course I was aware how much the area has changed over the years, with the banishment of the porn palaces and prostitution, and the Disneyfication that began during the late 1990s. Back in the day, if you walked around the area, you’d get “asked for a date” ten times per block. Now, improbably, the area had returned to its early 20th-century roots as a tourist Mecca.
But when I did walk through the area a few years back I couldn’t help but notice a whole new group of inhabitants: Elmos, Minnie Mouses, Spider-Mans, and packs of others in Sesame Street and superhero costumes, posing for photos with tourists for tips. It was like they had come out of nowhere and had taken over the Square. (By the way: did you know that the area is actually not a square at all, but really more of a bow-tie shape?)
When I first began noticing the costumed characters it was really freaky and random to me, totally out of left field. And now, a few years later, it’s just another fact of life in NYC. Despite the shiny electronic billboards and chain restaurants, you still can’t walk through Times Square without being accosted. Maybe times hadn’t changed that much after all.
All this got a ton of local recent coverage, particularly in 2014. And believe it or not, the City Council held hearings on the matter—including the idea of requiring you to undergo a background check before you can put on a Spongebob costume—and instituted some new restrictions.
I was intrigued, so I spent a little time hanging around the area, and I couldn’t help put notice that most of the people underneath the costume were Latino. I wondered about them. Where do they come from? How much money do they make? What’s it like to do that job all day long? I decided I would find out–and show what I learned in a comics piece.
I spent two months doing research and interviews, and another couple of months writing the script and drawing the piece, which includes more than 50 panels of comics. (Much credit goes to The Nib editor Matt Bors for helping me winnow down the more than 70 panels I originally envisioned!)
The pull of the story, of course, is its sheer wackiness—plus, for those not from New York, this whole scenario is new information. And that’s how I suck you in. But then, halfway through the story, I go “behind the mask” to get the other perspective—that of the people in the costumes. And with all the new regulations spurred by the hyperbolic press coverage and local business associations like the Times Square Alliance, the real story comes into focus.
This story in particular is perfect for the comics treatment because of the costumed character aspect. It’s all be very meta, with the reader not being sure if he or she is looking at someone in a costume or just a drawing of the actual character from the cartoons or comics… (In that vein, I had fun with the color concept of the piece—let me know if it works for you.)
There’s an old saying that journalism is the first draft of history. I was thinking of that recently when I presented A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge to students & teachers at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. Pretty much the entire 10th-grade there had read A.D. in their English classes, so I spent a full day at the school, bringing the story behind A.D. to the more than 1,000 kids from that grade (and a selection of 11th-graders who had read the book last year). It’s crazy to think that those students were around four years old back in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and nearly destroyed New Orleans. So to them my book is not a journalistic perspective on the disaster, but rather (ancient) history.
(One positive about that is in regards to the section of A.D. that deals with Denise’s experiences at the New Orleans convention center—without the burden of the false rumors about gang violence, rapes, dead bodies in freezers, etc. that flew around the media at the time, the kids will have a fresher understanding of at what actually went down at the convention center…)
I write at the end of A.D. that
… there are many, many stories about Katrina and its aftermath. Those of the seven people in A.D. are quite particular and highly personal, but my hope is that they provide a window into a larger world, one that few of us understand and that we’ll be trying to make sense of for a long time.
And I always paraphrase that sentiment when I discuss A.D.—that my book is merely one document of many about the storm and its aftermath. And I make sure to mention some of the other great narratives about Katrina/New Orleans (a few of which are much more expansive in scope). Documentaries like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke or Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water. Books like Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge, or Chris Rose’s 1 Dead in Attic, or Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, or Dan Baum’s Nine Lives. Or more recent works like Roberta Brandes Gratz’s We’re Still Here Ya Bastards, and Please Forward, edited by Cynthia Joyce. And even fictional works like HBO’s solid series Treme.
Well, now there’s another “graphic narrative” to add to that list: Don Brown’s Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Published last summer on the 10th anniversary of the storm, it’s the only other comic book format history of Katrina that I know of. (And I only just found out about it, though apparently it’s been very well received…)
Definitely for a younger audience than A.D., Drowned City takes the reader through the breadth of the Katrina story, from the storm’s formation as “a swirl of unremarkable wind” in Africa to its building in the Gulf of Mexico and finally sweeping into Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. The book shows New Orleans preparing for the storm and the city’s belated & haphazard attempts to evacuate. It shows the breaching of the levees, the people trapped in their attics, and the drowned bodies. The book details how helpless/useless the authorities in New Orleans were to deal with the flooding and the aftermath, and how thousands of people were abandoned at the so-called “shelters of last resort,” the Superdome and the Convention Center. Drowned City shows the chaos that settled over the city, how people were forced to help themselves to much-need supplies—and the instances of looting—and how some brave groups and individuals performed heroic rescues. The book spares no blows in its depiction of the ineptitude and infighting of officials like FEMA head Michael Brown, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, and President George W. Bush. The book ends in October 2005 with the city finally dry, but totally devastated. It talks about New Orleans’ subsequent depopulation, particularly the decline of the city’s poorest (mostly African-American) populations. Nevertheless, the book ends on a tentative note of hopefulness.
Drowned City is gorgeously illustrated, mostly in large panels of pen & ink and watercolor. And it is meticulously researched & documented, with a full source list/bibliography at the back.
I often speak of A.D. as a “people’s history” of Hurricane Katrina. Don Brown‘s Drowned City takes more of a holistic perspective, and in that way is a perfect complement to A.D. I highly recommend you check it out.
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 French translation (published by Ça et Là) is already the third one for the book, following Korean and Italian editions, with a German translation coming soon. (I already wrote about the evolution of the cover for the French edition in a previous post.) It’s ironic, because when we were working on the book, Brooke kept saying that she didn’t expect much interest from foreign-language publishers because it deals mostly with the unique trajectory of American media. Apparently, however, the book is more universal than even she imagined!
La Machine à Influencer has received a nice reception in France, with the distinguished newspaper Libération even doing a large spread about the book. Despite the fact that Brooke already visited France to promote the book (back in May), it gladdens my heart to be invited as well.
I want to say this without any bitterness whatsoever, but so much of the American reception of The Influencing Machine centered solely on Brooke, to the exclusion of my contributions as co-author. Yes, it’s Brooke’s manifesto, and I illustrated her ideas, but it wouldn’t be a comic book if I hadn’t drawn it. Ya know? In the U.S., the role of “illustrator” often seems to be dismissed, as if it were the work of a soulless machine. (Since I’ve collaborated with so many writers over the years, I can tell you this from long experience, and many of my comic artists cohorts would echo my feelings.) The fact is I sweated over the book for two years, working on it every step of the way from concept to scripts to finished product, and I felt as invested in communicating its “teachings” as anyone else—including Brooke. So, as I was saying, it’s gratifying that Ça et Là’s editor, Serge Ewencyzk, thought enough of my contributions to ask me to come represent La Machine à Influencer at Angoulême. Merci encore, Serge!
It probably doesn’t hurt that in the last few months the book has been blessed with a couple of journalism award nominations. The first one was from the Assises Internationales du Journalisme, a big three-day international congress on journalism which takes place in the northeastern city of Metz. La Machine à Influencer actually won the “Education to media” award, a special category created just for the book. There was a ceremony back in October in Metz, which Serge E. attended and accepted the award on our behalf.
The other prize the book was up for was the Prix France Info, an award for comics which contribute to journalistic understanding. It didn’t win that one, but still—not bad for our little collaboration!
P.S. One other thing: after Angoulême, I’ll be going up to Paris to do some more signings at some Parisian comics stores. One of them, Librairie les Super-Héroes, previously commissioned an exclusive bookplate for which I drew an image of Brooke as Spider-Man (riffing off a panel from the book, with her exclaiming, in French, Spidey’s famous phrase,“with great power comes great responsibility”). And here’s the image in question:
I’m currently in the middle of a really cool comics project for Al Jazeera America‘s interactive multimedia team. In conjunction with AJAM staff reporter Michael Keller, it’s a process piece on big data and privacy, especially in relation to our roles as consumers. Michael came to me with the project, having already done a ton of research and reporting on the topic. Once I came on board, we did more reporting, wrote the script together (with great help from our editors), and now I’m penciling it.
Not to give away too much in advance, in the story we get into the pros & cons of such “free” services as Gmail, Facebook, and Foursquare, as well as the increasing popularity of devices like Progressive’s Snapshot and activity trackers like the Fitbit. Some of the experts we talk to include former California State Senator Liz Figueroa (one of the first politicians to recognize the privacy implications of Google’s Gmail), cyber-security researcher Dan Geer, privacy law experts Scott Peppet and Paul Ohm, social researcher danah boyd, and Alessandro Acquisti (who studies the economics of privacy)—as well as a bunch of “regular folks.” Also making an appearance: Al Gore! Imploding robots! The Database of Ruin!
As I mentioned, it’s kind of a process piece. Michael and I are both characters in the story, which tracks us as we travel the country, interview people, and wrangle the issues. It has a similar feel to my prior collaboration with Brooke Gladstone, The Influencing Machine, except I’m a character in the story too! (I find it ironic that after starting my career as an autobiographical cartoonist, I segued away from that into journalism, and have now come full-circle to “autobiographical journalism”!)
Being that the piece will live on the web, it’ll also include some multimedia functionality, à la A.D. on Smith and The Stowaway on The Atavist.
It’s been a fascinating piece to work on, and really the perfect thing for me. Michael did the bulk of the research and reporting, but I’ve been integral to shaping the script, and of course drawing the thing. I’m also excited to be working with the new-on-the-scene news organization Al Jazeera America.
One thing we haven’t been able to settle on, however, is a title for the thing. Even though you haven’t read the piece, feel free to weigh in—or suggest your own. These are some of the candidates (personally, I feel they’re all way too long):
“The Penumbra of Fear: The Future of Privacy and the Technologies and Temptations that Could Get Us There”
“The New Normal: The Future of Privacy and the Technologies that Could Get Us There “
“Cloud City: How Much Privacy is Technology Worth to You?”
“My Data for Your Love”
“TMI: The Dangers of Over-Sharing”
It’s been a labor love project so far: I came on-board in February and we spent at least two months just reporting and writing the script. I’ve been penciling since May. I should begin inking, coloring, and finalizing the piece after next week; we hope to debut it on Al Jazeera America in mid-to-late August. It’s going to be close to 40 pages in length!