Artist and cartoonist, Sarah Glidden was recently chilling out in Chicago after a long stretch of traveling abroad. I was first introduced to her work in 2011 when I was embroiled in a comics based travel project of my own. Since our first exchange, Sarah has been an invaluable resource for helping me think through what comics journalism is and is not. Her shorter works of graphic journalism have been featured on the Cartoon Movement, Ha’aretz, Symbolia Magazine and the Jewish Quarterly — a lot of which can be viewed on her website.
Her newest project, Rolling Blackouts which debuts with Drawn and Quarterly in 2014, is a travelogue documenting Glidden’s trip through Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon with friends from the journalist collective, Common Language Project. The story centers around the relationship between two childhood friends: a marine who fought in the Iraq war and an American journalist staunchly opposed to the war.
I was fortunate enough to ask Sarah a few questions about her work as an artist and journalist before she trekked out of the US again. As always, she assisted in sorting through some of the more confusing aspects of categorizing genres of comics and provided some much needed insight into the subjectivity of journalism.
A peek at Glidden’s newest book, Rolling Blackouts
Do you consider yourself a comics journalist? When did that title seem relevant to the kinds of work you wanted to make?
I don’t really know if that’s a title that applies to me, at least not all the time. I’ve done some work that I do consider journalism, but most of the time the comics I’m working on are better as an essay or a memoir comic. So I consider myself a cartoonist who sometimes works in comics journalism, I suppose.
Lately I’m trying to work on not even considering myself a cartoonist. I feel like it’s a little restrictive to just think of yourself as this one kind of artist. I’ll be less likely to explore other ways of telling a story if I keep walking around thinking “I am a cartoonist.” But it’s hard to break out of thinking that way once you’ve been doing it for a while. Then again, I always had a hard time focusing until I found comics. Maybe I shouldn’t mess with that.
How would you define comics journalism? I ask, because recently there seems to be a lot of differing definitions going around among writers trying to contextualize it as a genre.
In a way, defining comics journalism is fairly easy: it’s any work of journalism that happens to be done in comics form. Defining what journalism is is something which I think is a little more slippery and which people can’t seem to always agree on.
Maybe it’s been a little harder to pinpoint recently, but I think that asking that question–what is journalism?–has always been integral to the process of doing journalism itself. I don’t know how it works in other countries, but in the United States, there’s no governing body that hands down rules which must be followed in order for something to be considered journalism. It’s self-policing, and the standards are kind of agreed upon by publications and/or individual journalists, who then have to make choices in order to make sure their work adheres to that set of standards.
As part of my current project (which is partly about looking into what journalism is) I asked my journalist friend how she would define journalism. She told me that to her, for something to be journalism it has to be accountable, verifiable, transparent and, above all, true. Some of that can be checked easily by an editor: her name is on the byline, which makes her accountable for her writing, and she has the contact information for her subjects so that their statements can be verified. But it is completely up to her honesty as a journalist to be transparent and truthful with her work.
It is easy for journalism to get sloppy and still not be considered “bad journalism.” No one will really know if you fudge it here or there. But it’s up to the journalist to decide how important it is for their work to have integrity. Because that media collective (the Common Language Project) I followed is working in a new kind of journalistic format–one which is independent from one specific publication–they feel that it is very important to hold themselves up to very strict standards. They are newcomers and they know that if they want to be taken seriously, they have to take themselves seriously. I feel the same way with my work. I fret a lot about things that no one will ever notice because I don’t want this work to feel any less like quality journalism just because it is a comic. It can still be considered journalism even if there are subjective elements and things viewers might not be used to seeing in an article or documentary as long as those core principles are there. I like playing with some of those elements, but there is a structure behind it all.
How did your new project, Rolling Blackouts come about? Was the initial idea influenced by the current state and erosion of US international reporting?
The project was something I had been thinking of for a long time. Right around the same time that I started making comics, three good friends of mine started a non-profit multi-media journalism collective called the Common Language Project. They formed in part as a reaction to their own dissatisfaction with that erosion of international reporting you mentioned. There we were in our mid 20s and our country–which has always been very involved in global affairs–was involved in international issues in a more intense and violent way than we had seen during our lives. We were in the middle of two expensive and disastrous wars, a collapsing economy, and a handful of other tense conflicts and relationships with other groups and governments. Instead of expanding coverage of these issues, American journalism seemed to be turning inward. There are a bunch of reasons for this, of course. The business model the news media had been using for almost a century wasn’t working anymore, and it couldn’t adapt. Foreign bureaus and investigative reporting were the first things that newspapers cut to save money. International reporting still exists, it’s just that there is much less of it and there are fewer people doing it.
So these friends of mine were young journalists who wanted to do the kind of reporting that they just weren’t seeing enough of out there. They wanted to look at issues they thought were underreported, and focus more on the kind of storytelling that emphasizes how international politics affect real peoples’ lives, not just the policies themselves. Also, they acknowledged that traditional journalism structures wouldn’t really work for them. They hadn’t gone to Columbia for a masters in journalism and didn’t want to go the traditional route, which is pay your dues at a small local paper at the Metro desk and then work your way up the ladder. The small papers are going extinct anyway, so that option may not even exist anymore. They knew they wouldn’t find a media outlet who would give them the kind of dream assignments that journalists fantasize about, so they ended up doing it on their own. They scraped together the money to finance an 8 month reporting trip to south/central asia and the middle east and kind of just started making the stories they wanted to be making. That ended up working out, and their work started getting picked up by newspapers, NPR, and PBS…they eventually went into a partnership with the University of Washington to teach and to house their offices. It was risky and a lot of hard work, but they made it happen.
I really loved watching all this take place. I had always been interested in journalism and I had even wanted to be a photojournalist years back (but I was too shy to actually approach people with a camera). It was fascinating for me to watch my friends and get all their behind-the-scenes stories on how they did their reporting. I totally admired what they had done and was kind of their number one fan. Early on, I talked to them about making a comic about them. I thought that most of us really take journalism for granted and don’t think much about the people who do this work, so why not make something that would give readers a look at what it means to be a journalist at a time when journalism is changing so rapidly? We agreed that the best way to do this would be if I came with them on one of their international reporting projects. At this point, they were mostly reporting on local issues dealing with immigration, deportation and human rights in the Seattle area, but they still did about one major international reporting trip per year. I was working on my first book already, so we said that when the timing was right and I was finished with that, I’d go out with them wherever it was that they planned on doing their next project.
The day my first book came out in bookstores, I was on a plane with them headed to Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
Rolling Blackouts seems like a transitional point for you as an artist. I feel like you’ve alchemized your initial concerns as a cartoonist into a longer work: journalism, travelogues, realism, interrogating your own american-ness. How is your approach to comics different now than when you started?
I still feel like I’m making this up as I go along. When I started making comics, I made daily journal comics because it seemed like a good way to practice. You experience something, you go home and see what kind of narrative you can extract from that, and then play with different ways of putting that on paper with words and images. The next day you start over again. When I thought I was ready to do a longer work, I was really working in a very similar way. I figured I would go on this trip to Israel, experience several weeks of…something…and then come home and make something out of that. I wasn’t really sure what that would look like, but with a place as loaded with conflict and meaning as Israel, surely there must be something there. And there was, and I did the best I could at creating a story out of that. I really didn’t know what I was doing, I just decided to try and make something that honestly reflected that very personal experience.
It took me about three years to finish making that book; three years of writing about my very confused feelings and emotions and investigating how I think about my relationship to this very complex issue, and wondering if it’s ok to be thinking so much about how I feel about these things at all. Three years of drawing myself freaking out and looking confused. By the end of it, I was happy with how the book came out but I was also really sick of myself and my precious feelings. I’m not sure if making that book is what purged my desire to investigate myself, or if that’s just part of getting older. The result is that I really don’t have any desire to make a book where my character is the center of the story again. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people writing about their feelings and experiences, and in fact I really love reading work like that done by other people. I just don’t personally want to do it again, at least not anytime soon.
For my newer work, I have shifted the focus away from myself as the central character, but I still use some of that same subjective as a way to bridge the distance between the reader and the subject. I think comics work really well at allowing people to have an emotional connection with the people drawn in them. There is something about having my own character as a curious but naive stand-in for the reader that works. So I’m working with that balance.
Your first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less and Rolling Blackouts both form their narratives out of contradiction. In each you pin different subjective descriptions of historical events against one another. The story we are left with as readers is the new one that gets created out of that friction. Can you speak to this process a little bit?
I don’t know if that is a conscious process for me…to me it’s kind of just the way I think about things and how I go about trying to understand an issue. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that for any given situation, there is going to be more than one way that people experience it. To ignore someone’s narrative because it contradicts the one I am used to would be to deny that person’s experience. If you care about understanding human experience on this planet at all, that kind of denial is not really an option.
The comics journalism I have done has been mostly for a Dutch comics journalism website called Cartoon Movement. Their motto is, “There is more than one truth.” When I went to visit their offices in Amsterdam, that was written on a big banner in the main space. At first glance, that might seem like an odd motto for a journalistic publication. Isn’t journalism all about showing the truth? But the real challenge is showing that the Truth isn’t found in a listing of events (elections, attacks, policies), it’s found in the way that those things affect people’s lives. Everything is subjective.
To me, a good work of non-fiction–actually ANY good creative work, no matter what the medium–is something that activates the reader/viewer’s imagination and makes them process it for themselves. They need to be able to have an active experience as well, otherwise the piece will be dead.
Often in your work the lines blur between what’s memoir and what can be considered reporting. How important is using the subjective or first person in your comics? Given the content, it comes across as a particularly vulnerable position to take.
To me, its just an extension of trying to be honest with the work. I like to show that the reporting (or experience-collecting or whatever you want to call it) was done by a person going out and talking to other people. There is, or used to be, this concept of the “objective reporter” who goes out and records the facts. But that’s bullshit. The reporter has to choose who they are going to talk to, and that person has to trust the reporter enough to agree to having that conversation. There are relationships that form, even if they are very brief, which affect what the person might say. When I was on the trip for my first book, I was too frightened to go to a certain place. This meant that that place was not included in the book at all. To me, it was really important that that absence was explained. Yup, I was afraid. People get afraid. And I’m not special in that regard.
The first book needed to be memoir, as subjective as possible, because it was not really about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was about how one person (me, in this case) tries to think about that conflict. Like I said before, this next book won’t be about how I feel about things, but I will still be telling it from my perspective and including my thoughts from time to time. Even though the book is about other people, I want to remind the reader that we are just watching people from the outside, through my eyes. I am the one editing the conversations into a narrative. I’m the one constructing a new reality out of other people’s experience. If I don’t acknowledge that, then I am going to be sending the message that my interpretation of people’s words and action is “objective truth” which would be terrible!
When you are doing interviews with people, is part of that process drawing them too?
I don’t draw people while I’m talking to them because I can’t concentrate on what we’re talking about if I do that. The act of drawing takes up some weird silent space in your head and makes that kind of multi-tasking impossible. This is why I can’t listen to books on tape while I draw! Sometimes I don’t even have time to draw the person, so I’ll just take a photo for reference. But if I can, I like to spend time drawing someone for at least a few minutes. There’s something about being that close to someone, really looking at them, sitting in almost silence, that creates an odd, quick intimacy. When we’re interviewing someone, if we are doing a good job, we are making them feel like they’re being heard. If I am drawing someone, I think they are also feeling seen. If I can, I like to draw someone’s portrait first before talking to them. It’s like an introduction. It’s also a great way to meet people. Sometimes I don’t even keep the drawings, I’ll give them to the person I was talking to.
When I was in my early 20s I thought I wanted to be a photojournalist. I even had an opportunity to travel for a job to Mongolia to take pictures of some artifacts, and I tried to use the time to do some photo reportage on the people we met. But I could never get comfortable with taking pictures of people. If I went out on the street, every time I pointed the camera at someone it felt wrong to me, like I was taking something from them without their permission. Even if I asked for permission with that sort of sign language, it still didn’t feel right. The only portraits I ended up with were from far away with a telephoto lens, portraits of people who never knew I was there.
I would read about how real photojournalists got to know their subjects, sometimes over a long period of time. They worked up a relationship so that the act of taking the photo wasn’t this imbalanced thing. And I think that an experienced photojournalist can do this even in a short span of time. There’s a body language, a communication between them and the people they’re photographing. It just wasn’t something I could do because I was too self conscious. With drawing, I don’t feel like that. It’s slower and there isn’t any piece of equipment between us.
The funny thing is that I’ll be taking pictures of these same people sometimes as photo reference, but since we’ve usually already established some kind of relationship through the drawing (sometimes no more than a tiny sketch), I no longer feel like I’m taking something. It’s part of something we’re doing together instead.
Since drawing is a main component of cartooning, do you find yourself asking visual questions?
Definitely. Although I often have to go back to someone afterwards and ask follow up questions when I realize that I don’t have all the information I need to show something visually. I’ll ask them for photos if they have them. I think as I get more experienced in this kind of work, I’ll be more comprehensive about my visual questions in the first place. When you’re in the moment, you kind of forget about what you need for your final project. It’s hard to find the right timing for that. If someone is telling me a story about how they hid themselves in the wheel well of a truck in order to get smuggled across a border, I can’t really interrupt their story to ask questions like, “How big of a truck was it? Did it have any markings on it?” That stuff has to come later or maybe not at all. But certainly I try to ask questions that are open and encourage people to be descriptive. Interviewing is an art and I’m really just a beginner.
One thing that surprised me while reading your comics, were the sequences of you daydreaming. I’m thinking of your first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less and some of your shorter pieces. How do you see these moments working in your narratives?
I spend a lot of time daydreaming! It’s how I process stuff. And being able to depict that, and to depict thought in general, is why I use comics instead of prose or film or anything else. When we think, we don’t just think in words and we don’t just think in pictures. It’s a mixture of those two over time. Comics are really the perfect medium for showing the experience of thought because you can use all of those elements.
For the first book, there were passages where someone else is telling a story, and I had to decide how to show that. I was wary of just illustrating their story because I thought that would be presuming that my depiction of events was accurate, and of course I had no idea. In these cases I couldn’t follow up with the sorts of visual questions we talked about before. So I decided to use the comic form as a solution: I showed my character listening to the stories and imagining them, visualising them. It’s kind of the same thing as just illustrating the story in the first place, only I’m including this flag that says, “Hey! I’m imagining this!”
While traveling in the middle east, did you get a sense of comics having a presence there?
There is a lot going on in Beirut with comics. I was introduced by some Belgian friends to this group of cartoonists who put out a comics magazine called Samandal, which has some really wonderful work. It’s published in three languages (Arabic, French and English) and often includes artists from outside of Lebanon.
If there’s one thing I love about comics people, it’s that they’re usually very open to meeting other comics people. It was great to show up in Beirut without knowing anyone and being able to email these guys and say, “Hey, my name is Sarah and I’m from the US and I make comics too, want to hang out?” and to be welcomed into that community. Having something in common like making comics kind of erases the feelings of separation that we sometimes put up between ourselves and people in other places.
I didn’t get to meet any Syrian cartoonists when we were in Damascus, but one of the Iraqi refugees we got to know is around my age and is an amazing cartoonist. He was working on a book about his experience in Baghdad before, during, and after the US invasion. He had to leave most of the pages he had already done behind when he and his wife were finally resettled in Canada last year, but he’s working on the project again now and I can’t wait to see how the book comes out.
Where/When can we see new work from you, and what are your future inquiries?