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Life After the Deluge

We first met author and illustrator after he published his bestselling nonfiction book A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. For his newest project, Josh illustrated journalist Brooke Gladstone’s edgy and informative book about how the media works (and doesn’t work), The Influencing Machine. We talked to the artist about what his work added to the project.

What do you think of the stand Brooke is taking in The Influencing Machine? Is it a viewpoint you agree with?
When I first started on the project, I think that, like many people, I didn't have a terribly sophisticated idea of media's influence on society. To be incredibly simplistic, Brooke's thesis is that the media is a reflection of society rather than a driver for it. As she puts it early on, "What we're dealing with is a mirror: an exalting, degrading, tedious, and transcendent funhouse mirror of America." And as she takes us through the history of media, she shows how it's really always been that way, and probably will continue to be, even as more and more of us become part of the media (through mobile technology and services like Twitter, etc.). I find her argument very convincing.
 
Which part of The Influencing Machine did you find resonated the most with you?
There are so many. I was really struck by the section of the book that deals with war, how it has brought out both the best and the worst in journalism. That chapter has some really compelling imagery in it as well, with depictions of Civil War battles, World War I and II, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. (I just hope my art was up to the challenge.) I also was very engaged by the chapters on objectivity and bias—more than ever, these are issues for debate in today's media landscape. The short chapter called "The Great Refusal" is one of my favorites too, in many ways, because it was so challenging and fun to draw. 
 
How much of a change was it to begin work on this book after coming off of A.D.?
It was a big change, but that's exactly what I was looking for. A.D. had consumed much of my life for two-and-a-half years, and it was such an intense, personal experience—from working with the survivors, the characters in my book, to bearing the responsibility of writing and drawing their stories. With The Influencing Machine, it was a great change of pace to work on something from more of a distance, yet to stay in the same arena of "graphic nonfiction." Also, collaboration has always been part of my practice as a cartoonist, that back-and-forth creative process, the result of which is often more than the sum its parts. And it was something I looked forward to getting back to.
 
How did you and Brooke work together? 
Brooke and I developed a good creative rapport right from the beginning. Once I read the script for the first piece, "Meet the Author," I knew we could work together! Even though Brooke had never written for comics before, she immediately had a feel for the “beats” of panel-to-panel narration.

My only caveat at the beginning of the process was that the script stayed away from the typical tropes of editorial cartooning. By that I mean pictures of guys in suits wearing buttons that say "Congress," or illustrations of men in top hats to represent capitalists, and the like. But like I said, Brooke has an intuitive feel for the form, which is very rare in those who haven't spent a lifetime writing comics.

We put the book together a little bit by the seat of our pants! Section by section, chapter by chapter. In many ways, however, our collaboration worked pretty typically—the way mainstream comics have been made since the 1930s. Once Brooke had written a script for a chapter, she would deliver it to me. Occasionally, I would find image ideas or script elements that I felt could be clarified, and we would talk those over before I actually broke the script down on paper. But for the most part the scripts were fully formed.

Also, Brooke did an amazing thing, which was to provide me with online photo and illustration reference for almost every panel of the book. I can't imagine how much time it took her to find all those links, but when it came time to start drawing, it saved me a tremendous amount of work to have all that research done in advance.

After I produced a fairly detailed set of layouts, and editor Tom Mayer had had a chance to weigh in, I proceeded to full pencils, inks, and then colors. The preliminary work—laying out the whole book with the text slotted into the captions and speech bubbles—was something I had never done on any previous projects. It was time-intensive, but in the end it saved me from doing lots of subsequent revisions. We had been so fastidious in “pre-visualizing” the book that when it came to the penciling stage, there was very little need for redrawing.

For the most part, I would pencil, ink, and color a whole chapter at a time, and then move on to the next section. And so we built the book.
 
Why do you think it was important to put out this kind of book in the comics format, rather than as a prose one?
That's probably a better question for Brooke, as the concept was hers from the beginning! And I have to confess even I had a little trouble understanding why at first. But now that the book is done, it makes total sense. There are moments throughout The Influencing Machine where the story is told so much more effectively and powerfully in panels than it could ever have been communicated in prose. 
 
I was also intrigued by Brooke's rationale that the intimacy of radio—the feeling of a narrator speaking directly to you, the listener—is more closely approximated by the word balloon than any other medium. But again, ask Brooke that one!

Do you think The Influencing Machine will find a unique audience as a result of its being a graphic work?
I certainly hope so. I can see it being popular in journalism and communication programs, in both upper-grade high school and college. And I think it has the potential to reach people who don't read a lot of comics; the ones who may find the book in a bookstore or a library rather than a comics shop. Time will tell.

What are you working on next?
Well, I'm finishing up a short collaboration with my wife, Sari Wilson, for an anthology of feminist comics edited by Joan Reilly. And I've been invited to contribute something to the website Comics Movement, edited by syndicated cartoonist Matt Bors. They've already had some terrific pieces by Bors and Sarah Glidden (to name a few), so the bar has been set high. After that, I'm mulling over a couple of different ideas, any of which could form the basis for my next book. 
 
But whatever the next thing will be, now that I'm finished with this latest collaboration, I'm excited to get back to doing a solo project. I'd like to maybe alternate projects that way in the future. We shall see…