A new piece of mine was published today in The Mint, India’s second largest financial paper (and “a content partner of The Wall Street Journal“). I was commissioned to do the 100th edition of their weekly full-page (tabloid-sized!) comic, “The Small Picture” —and the editor and I decided to do it about the field of comics journalism. The result, “Adventures in Comics Journalism,” can be read here.
Here it is mid-January and I’m already halfway through my fellowship. My study plan is focusing on Bahrain and the Pearl Revolution (as well as the wider Arab Spring), and last semester I tried to take courses which focused on that region:
- The Quran and Its Interpretations: Past and Present
- America and Middle Eastern Wars
- Journalism and Ethics
I also started taking a yearlong fiction writing workshop held once a week at the fellowship headquarters, Wallace House, with a bunch of the other fellows—and which Sari is taking too. That has been a fun and thought-provoking experience, and the skills I’m learning will undoubtedly help my work as a comics writer.
The America and Middle Eastern Wars class was fascinating, and gave me a very strong background on the recent history of the region, and how inextricably tied the U.S. is to everything that happens there (with Bahrain certainly being no exception). The class was taught by the very brilliant Juan Cole (who is also my academic advisor), and at the end of each perfectly crafted lecture I felt like jumping to my feet to applaud. The Quran class was an amazing experience, getting deep into a topic that I really knew nothing about. (I felt very strongly after completing my Cartoon Movement piece on Bahrain that if I was to truly understand the roots of the conflict there I would have to learn more about Islam and the roots of the Sunni-Shia divide.) The fine line the professor walked was treating the Quran as a sacred text (in deference to the many Muslim students in the class) while trying to really unpack it for a Western audience. A lot to chew on. The journalism & ethics class was relevant in the sense that here I am on a journalism fellowship and I had never taken a journalism class before. In the end, I found it incredibly useful—even if it does seem that I often break the “rules” in my own practice as a comics journalist!
But now here it is the Winter semester—which takes us through April and the end of the fellowship—and it’s time to decide what my final few University of Michigan courses will be. Our “head fellow” Charles Eisendrath always encourages us to stretch our horizons, and I’m acutely aware that this may well be the last chance I get to just be a student. I really want to take advantage of the intellectual resources available here at the university. So with that in mind I really pored over the Winter course catalog, looking at classes in Religion, Art & Design, Communications, English, Screen Arts, History, the Humanities, Political Science, Sociology, and even the School of Information. In the end I narrowed it down to three choices, and now after the first full week of classes, I feel pretty good about them:
- Introduction to Islam
- Apocalyptic Film & Television
- Comics/Graphic Narratives
The Intro to Islam class may sound a bit remedial, but it’s actually the perfect follow-up to the Quran class—and is being taught by the same prof. (In fact, he wrote the book on the topic!) Now that I’ve learned a bit about the Muslim holy book, I can follow its growth as a religion that started in a small portion of modern-day Saudi Arabia and today has spread to be the faith of over 1.6 billion people worldwide. The Apocalyptic Film & TV course, which is cross-listed in both Screen Arts & Cultures and English, is definitely my “fun” course, but I can justify its relevance to my craft by just citing A.D.: a graphic novel about the near-destruction of an entire city. (And aren’t all comics sort of about the end of the world?) Plus, it’s no joke of a class. Major critical theory reading is in store, from Roland Barthes to Jacques Lacan, Susan Sontag to Walter Benjamin. The teacher is younger than me (damn him!) but he’s whip-smart, with a really charismatic classroom presence. The comics class is being taught by the very great Phoebe Gloeckner, and I’m really excited to take part in my first-ever such class! After all, back in the day when I went to high school (and college, natch), academia wouldn’t touch comics with a ten-foot brush. Times have changed in 25+ years…
As I mentioned at the start, time is running out on this gift of a fellowship, and I’m feeling the pressure to squeeze out every ounce. And, what with the classes, twice-weekly fellowship seminars, the fiction writing workshop, and our fellowship’s upcoming trip to Turkey in March, my biggest challenge—as it was last semester—will be just keeping up with the readings.
After working in the field of comics-format journalism for the last six years, I’ve been “officially” anointed as a member of the fourth estate—I’ve been offered a 2012–2013 Knight-Wallace Fellowship in journalism!
The Knight-Wallace Fellowship gives mid-career journalists a chance to pursue customized sabbatical studies at the University of Michigan for a full academic year. The program also includes twice-weekly seminars, as well as training in narrative writing, multi-platform journalism, and entrepreneurial enterprise. Fellows also make two extended international tours to Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and Istanbul.
I’m the first comics journalist to be offered a Knight-Wallace Fellowship, and I believe only the second comics journalist to receive an American journalism fellowship of any kind (the first being Dan Archer, who was a 2010–2011 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford). I’m proud to be part of a growing recognition that this field—exemplified by the incredible Joe Sacco—is legitimate and lasting (as evidenced by the work of folks like Archer, Sarah Glidden, Matt Bors, Susie Cagle, Josh Kramer, Ted Rall, and the folks behind Symbolia and the Illustrated Press, just to name a few).
I was inspired to apply for the fellowship after learning that Archer had done the Stanford version, and realizing how beneficial such a program could be for my craft (particularly the journalism side of things). All during the early part of this year, I worked on my application, essays, and supporting materials, as well as rounding up letters of recommendation. (Thank you again, recommenders!) In mid-March I was notified that I was a KWF finalist, and in mid-April I went out to Ann Arbor for the big interview with the board. During that weekend, I got to tour the Wallace House (named after program benefactor Mike Wallace), and meet the current Fellows. Awkwardly, I also mingled with the “competition,” 30+ other finalists for the final roster of 12 American 2012–2013 Fellows. I came away from the interview weekend with a good feeling, but obviously it wasn’t until that April 30 early-morning call from program director Charles Eisendrath that I knew I had it. (I was asked to hold off on spreading the word until the program put out a press release, which they now have done.)
My study plan is to extensively research Bahrain’s Pearl Revolution (which I did a short piece about for Cartoon Movement, the Eisner Award-nominated “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand“). I plan on taking courses in the history of the Persian Gulf, Islam (specifically the Sunni-Shia divide), and the language and culture of the region. The ultimate goal is to produce a long-form comics-format book on the topic.
(My one tiny regret about the fellowship is that I have to back out of my October “Master Artist” residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Fortunately, however, ACA director Nick Conroy was gracious and understanding about my dilemma, and when I suggested that my long-time collaborator and pal Dean Haspiel take over for me, he was thrilled. And maybe I’ll get another chance to do the ACA residency in 2014…)
I really look forward to this amazing opportunity. I especially look forward to immersing myself in the practice of journalism, a field I’ve long been associated with (going back to my early days at The Nation magazine) but am now a designated member! I can’t wait to pick the brains of my fellow Fellows—both American and international—all of whom have more traditional backgrounds and training. The whole experience promises to be incredibly enriching.
So come September, Sari, Phoebe, and I will be temporarily relocating to Ann Arbor, Michigan. We’re all excited to embark on this new adventure. (Spouses and partners are invited to all seminars, and are Fellows in all but name. And the program is notoriously family-friendly.) Everyone I’ve talked to who’s had this fellowship just can’t stop raving about it.