The Case for Comics Journalism
March 11, 2005 8:37 AM   Subscribe

The Case for Comics Journalism
posted by njm (18 comments total)
I liked Comics Journalism the first time I saw it...

when it was called "Political Cartooning."

Seriously, I don't get how someone can write a piece with this sentence - "Now comics, or graphic, journalism is turning up in daily newspapers, where its inherent subjectivity contrasts sharply with the newsroom’s dispassionate prose" - and not even mention the medium of politcal cartooning, which has been doing exactly that for more than a century. What, always using more than one panel to make your point suddenly makes this a revolutionary medium? I don't get it.
posted by soyjoy at 9:08 AM on March 11, 2005

Well, Scott McCloud, writer of Understanding Comics, makes a fairly interesting argument that single panel cartooning and multi-panel comics/graphic narrative are significantly different media. The former is basically a set piece while the latter captures the passage of time and movement.

But, does that make it revolutionary? Probably not. Different, yes.
posted by papakwanz at 9:23 AM on March 11, 2005

Your point is not lost on me, soyjoy, and it does seem like a it could be a glaring oversight. The writer is not oblivious. He specifically mentions artists who have made politcial cartoons and who have since created larger works. It's also notable that, for the most part, political cartoons exist within the context of the op-ed pages, and this article is speaking of more ambitious works that stand on their own.

I would also point out that Scott McCloud, who wrote the book on comic books (after Will Eisner, did it first, of course), suggests that comics become comics only once you have more than one panel. Up until that point they are cartoons. There is a difference between a medium that tells a story and a picture that makes a comment.

On preview: too slwo on the draw.
posted by KS at 9:25 AM on March 11, 2005

Tom Tomorrow and Doonesbury kind of have this covered, don't they?
posted by doctor_negative at 9:29 AM on March 11, 2005

I understand that comics represent a generally different overall medium from political cartoons in general, but much of that is based in topic area, not the structure. Political cartoons, especially the early ones, often evoked stories to render their commentary, and yes, sometimes used more than one panel to do so.

One could argue that it's not just the number of panels but the importance of narrative flow that makes for the distinction, but look at that Spiegelman cartoon that serves as the main figurehead for this article: It's a political cartoon! The panels are all variations on each other, taking different ways to make his point, rather than telling any story (other than the increasing frustration of the cartoonist, which is clearly secondary to what he's trying to say). On preview: Yes, when did Doonesbury, clearly a "comic," win the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning? Around 1975, wasn't it? This doesn't rate a mention?

So given that there's so much overlap, I would have hoped for some discussion of political cartooning and how this "new" medium fits into or is distinguished from that tradition. Instead it's as if the previous medium never existed.

Also, Spiegelman's great, but come on - no shout-out for the man who practically invented underground comix - R. Crumb? There's an implicit sop to him with "The underground comics of the previous decade had helped demolish some of the barriers to more adult work" but that's only part of the story. Crumb's work was frequently juvenile but often it was also, at the same time, quite trenchant sociopolitcal commentary. Pretending Art Spiegelman broke onto the scene as though from Zeus's forehead ignores how important Crumb was in laying the groundwork for so-called "Comics Journalism." And note that the examples of mainstream media having cartoonists cover major events by writing comics about them are all after Crumb did so with his coverage of the Academy Awards in the early 90s.

In short, this is a promising and fascinating subject but seems to be covered here by someone who lacks a sense of the larger context in which this medium has emerged.
posted by soyjoy at 9:41 AM on March 11, 2005

In short, this is a promising and fascinating subject but seems to be covered here by someone who lacks a sense of the larger context in which this medium has emerged.

Of course. Those of use who have always taken comics seriously have suffered through many an article by someone who has just discovered them and must point out "Comics... they aren't just for kids!"
posted by KS at 9:44 AM on March 11, 2005

I think there is an inherent difference between what Sacco does and what Doonesbury does in that Sacco's work reveals the autobiographical stance inherent in all reporting. I agree with KS that the discovery of comics is always annoying, but it needn't be an indie band shout-out either, i.e. that one can only be taken serious with the proper cred - for your cred is going to be different from my cred, after all. Case in point being I would rather the writer talked more about Eisner than Crumb if I was going to concern myself with that, or there could have been some mention of Dennis O'Neill Green Lantern and Green Arrow of the Seventies which went a long way to preparing the mainstream ground for things like DKR and Watchmen, while also being a kind of reporting, etc., etc.... Great article, thanks!
posted by Slothrop at 10:07 AM on March 11, 2005

Political cartoons, daily/weekly comics, and graphic novels are different beasts entirely. Graphic novels or books are just that - books told in a form that's more than just text. There's extended plot, character development, backstory, etc, not to mention facts, footnotes, and whatever else seems to be called for. This goes even for political/historical graphic novels, which tend to be presented in an autobiographical manner - think something subjective as hell, sort of like a graphic version of Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail." The usual political cartoon, by comparison, is like a very short story or perhaps an op-ed column. No continuing characters, generally no real story or even passage of time, just an economical use of words and [generally familiar, if distorted] images to get one or two basic points across. These points are made explicit by the use of captions and in-panel commentary. Weeklies and dailies vary a little. Some are much like truncated versions of their larger serial cousins - soap operas in which each episode stands more or less on its own, and the main characters are slow to change if they change at all. Others are more like political cartoons, in that they attempt to deliver a simple message in three or four frames. Doonesbury's sort of a cross between the two, obviously - but despite its long running time and its continued focus on politics, it still lacks the topical cohesion and narrative structure of a journalistic graphic novel. While the subjects may be the same, the message as filtered through political cartoons, serial comic strips, or graphic novels/books comes out vastly different. Compare Sacco's book on Palestine to the frequent one-panel political cartoons on the same topic - I find it hard to argue that the nuanced "comics journalism" of the first is equivalent to the simple message of the second. Because of the limitations that structure imposes on older and simpler forms of graphic political commentary, and the differences that result in the content, I think it's legitimate to follow McCloud's lead and call political cartoons and journalistic graphic novels different [albeit related] media.

Sure, politics has been part of cartoons and comics since Richard Outcault started penning "The Yellow Kid" way back in the twilight of the 19th century. However, complex journalism is not the same as the one-two punch of a political cartoon or a Doonesbury strip. And no, Crumb's comics aren't quite what the CJR is talking about - a portion of his works address the culture of his times, but he isn't an artist who spends most of his time trying to draw strips that deal with current or historical events, while Spiegelman, Sacco, and even Ted Rall [who ventured closer to graphic novel territory with his book on Afghanistan] are. Artists like Crumb certainly prepared the stage for works like Maus - the article itself mentions that "the underground works of [the '60s and '70s]" started experimenting with new narrative strategies and more adult themes, many of which are visible in today's "comics journalism." They were not, however, the only influences - for example, I think a case could me made for the influence of New Journalists [Wolfe, Thompson, et al] and their stylized subjective reporting on "graphic journalists" like Sacco. So sure, most of the elements that form graphic journalism existed earlier, but they didn't really come together much before artists like Spiegelman started out.

Perhaps I'm being a little pedantic here, not to mention way too long-winded; taking a class on comics and writing papers on the development of text and framing in early comics will do that. But while the CJR article does have a touch of the "Bang! Pow! Whizz! Suddenly Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore!" attitude, I think that one can make a case for the topical and structural novelty of "comics journalism" as defined by said article.
posted by ubersturm at 11:07 AM on March 11, 2005

"Comics": We take the term completely for granted, and for me it immediately brings to mind dozens of wonderful associations.

But how hideous is the term!

"Comics Journalism"--as if it's one step away from the Sunday "funnies" ... as if some of the "Sunday funnies" don't occasionally have more merit than what passes for Literature, too.

It's all cursed by the name, isn't it?
posted by Shane at 11:25 AM on March 11, 2005

ubersturm, I'm not denying one could make a case for the topical and structural novelty of "comics journalism" as defined by said article. I'm saying that said article did not make the case. How can one make a case for novelty without even addressing any of the relevant precedents to show what makes it novel?

Also, we needn't stop at The Yellow Kid - political cartooning has a rich 19th-century tradition, and the medium itself goes back at least to Ben Franklin's day. And Hogarth, among others, was doing near-cartoons that both made political points and told stories nearly three centuries ago.

Other than that, points well taken.
posted by soyjoy at 11:27 AM on March 11, 2005

Heh. I have to admit when I was going on about Crumb I thought "man, I hope Shane doesn't wander in here and see me spouting off about Crumb again." Busted!
posted by soyjoy at 11:28 AM on March 11, 2005

The next big thing: Photoshop Comics

I'm on the cutting edge, man
/not egomaniacal enough to be serious
posted by wendell at 11:47 AM on March 11, 2005

Reasonable enough, soyjoy... I think I'm probably just making the more technical arguments I wish they'd brought up. I viewed the article more as a history of recent "comics journalism" - something that's still a bit caught up on the whole "wow, comics can be rewarding for grown-ups too" thing. It's a fluff piece, and it doesn't really go into the history/details needed to make its point... but the point is valid, nonetheless.

And Shane, you're right. It's pretty awful - "comics journalism" makes one think of either superheroes or Calvin and Hobbes. Both good stuff, certainly, but nothing like the rather serious stuff that guys like Sacco or Spiegelman produce. If only there were a term more dignified than "comics"... well, a term other than "graphic novel" or "sequential art", neither of which really seem to fit the bill.
posted by ubersturm at 11:52 AM on March 11, 2005

...politics has been part of cartoons and comics since Richard Outcault started penning "The Yellow Kid" way back in the twilight of the 19th century.

I think a case could me made for the influence of New Journalists [Wolfe, Thompson, et al] and their stylized subjective reporting on "graphic journalists" like Sacco.

These omissions are probably the biggest failing of the Columbia article. The tradition of political cartoons is vital to "comics journalism" because they are not merely stand alone drawings, but inseparably linked to the writing, the reporting on the issues of the day. Comics is fundamentally a marriage of drawing and writing. An examination of the works of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Thomas Nast suggests that their drawings are not meant to stand on their own, they illustrate, introduce or summarize a news story.

Some of the daily political strips throughout the century pushed this medium further. Strips like Lil' Abner, Krazy Kat, Pogo, Doonesbury and early Boondocks were meant to be read in the paper each day, and incorporated the day's issues into their storylines. They are a reward for educating yourself about the issues of the day.

And not is does Hunter S. Thompson's subjectivity and symbolism expressing itself in today's graphic reporting, but he paved the way through his long partnership with cartoonist Ralph Steadman, who perfectly illustrated the madness all around through Hunter's eyes. Steadman's pieces in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail really illuminate the frenzy of a political convention.

However, complex journalism is not the same as the one-two punch of a political cartoon or a Doonesbury strip.

I disagree, given the long arcs of Doonesbury or even more so Walt Kelly's Pogo, the strip format can be used to characterize political ideas and situations over long periods of time. Take Trudeau's use of symbols to depict politicians: a waffle for Clinton, a cartoon bomb for Gingrich, a giant hand for Schwarzeneggar and an empty cowboy hat and later gladiator helmet for George W. Bush. He fleshed out his idea and impression of the characters through arcs, such as Bush's Yale reunion.

Kelly used an even more subtle and intricate way to make his point: placing political figures as characters in his swamp who would be identifiable through characterization alone. A long running story in the 50's featured Simple J. Malarky, a dark character representing Senator McCarthy, who wreaked havoc for Pogo and his friends at Okeekanofee Swamp.

As in the Washington Post's Watergate coverage, the individual stories do not tell the whole story: it is the serial coverage that shows the bigger picture.

The reason this story is significant is not the merging of poultices and comics, it is that comics and journalism are each reinventing themselves at the moment and therefore their relationship is changing. Part of this is graphic reports, part will be blogs, and part will be webcomics, and there will certainly be some overlap.
posted by ScottMorris at 12:08 PM on March 11, 2005

Most political cartoons I see these days (I avoid them admittedly, but still see quite a few) are very ineffective.

99% resort to the tired practice of labeling each part of the cartoon to explain what it is they are saying, and in one panel, you can cram in maybe the same amount of info that you get from a brief soundbite on the news.

Anyone who has read Sacco's work can see that his comics go very deeply into the subject he is investigating. He almost NEVER resorts to dumb puns and generic donkey/elephant political symbols. It is very different from 99.9 % of the political cartoons that everyone sees in their paper. Those crappy cartoons are on the same level as the 99% of comics that appear in the comics section of the paper.

I do love Tom the dancing Bug, and tom tomorrow is good.

Why should this articles writer show a morsel of respect for a form of cartooning that has shown so little respect for the people who read them, and for the potential of the space they waste so often in a mass produced paper? Now, I'm sure some political cartoonists are doing a good job, but even with the best, they seem to be working in conditions that only limit what they could do. Sort of like telling a good journalist . . ."hey, sum up this massive disaster, with all its complicated political and social wake . . . with a Limerick!"

Oh I just don't know.

I guess I'm just sick of seeing stupid cartoons with bad (but obvious caricatures labeled with their obvious names).

Sacco doesn't try to be funny either. There are funny parts to his stories, but he doesn't try to wring a giggle out of political BS the way that a billion hack Political cartoonists do.
posted by JBennett at 1:18 PM on March 11, 2005

Political cartoons began as news for the mostly illiterate and today little has changed.
posted by DigDugDag at 8:33 AM on March 12, 2005

It's all cursed by the name, isn't it?

Yeah, but who cares. CJR-equivalents were probably asking the same thing about movies 70 years ago: "Film 'journalism' - can we make a case?"

Fuck 'em. If you can't see that what Joe Sacco does is at least as worthy of showing up in newspapers as any other heavily syndicated columnist, then you're a moron.
posted by mediareport at 10:17 PM on March 12, 2005

Political cartoons began as news for the mostly illiterate

Yep - that's exactly what Boss Tweed was afraid of - and with good reason. "I don't care so much what the papers write about me -- my constituents can't read, but damn it, they can see pictures," Tweed complained, before Thomas Nast almost single-handedly destroyed his Tammany Hall, one of the biggest, most entrenched and corrupt political institutions of the 19th century.

Attacking the entire genre of political cartooning is idiotic. There are also a billion hack web-comics cartoonists. Comparing them to, say, Tom Toles is the equivalent of comparing political-cartoon hacks to Sacco.

My point remains that this had the promise of an interesting study of an emerging medium but was very disappointing for its lack of (ignorance of?) the context in which that is occurring.
posted by soyjoy at 9:55 AM on March 14, 2005

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