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January 7, 2012

Op-Ed: Graphic Journos: The State of the Graphic Journalism Art

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Annie Graham is a sophomore at Stanford University who may or may not declare herself an English major this year. She is from Phoenix, Arizona, and is interested in education reform, farming, and, most recently, graphic novels.


A picture is worth a thousand words. By this math, the artists I just interviewed are creating more words than their peers in journalism. Indeed they are artists, but their brand of art has not exactly developed to the degree of a cohesive label. Each one documents real-world events through the combination of words and illustrations. I first became interested in their work when Dan Archer, comics journalist, visited our Nonfiction Graphic Novel class at Stanford. “Nonfiction graphic novels?” you may scoff, “I knew the universities were up to some funny business with that tuition money!” Let me reassure you that this funny business is going to change the way the world sees news, and Dan Archer is part of that. He visited our class one day—abounding with a cool British accent and infectious energy—to show us his work.
 

 
Archer draws the news. No, no. Archer draws the news with perfect lines of ink, expert shading, and tremendous attention to the human form. One page of comic panels can take hours of work, which wouldn’t be perfectly evident as he eagerly laid out the draft of his newest project, Alcatraz—putting it within our potentially-smudging reach. Almost simultaneously he presented a PowerPoint presentation about his other work in comics journalism. The man is a multimedia machine. Then again, he is a multitasker by trade. A person who illustrates the news must be a journalist and an artist. This one happens to tell the nonfiction stories, past and present, in the form of comics.
 
As I researched Archer on his website, I was led to questions about the form of illustrated documentary. Who else is doing it and what other forms does it take? Within a few curious clicks, I was on the website of Graphic Journos, a collective of artists united in spreading “the good word of graphic-based narrative.” Within a few more clicks, I had the contact information of collective members Archer, Jen Sorenson, and Wendy MacNaugton. Each was willing to share the story of how they came to the work and the future they see for it.
 
Each member also mentioned Susie Cagle, who brought the collective together. Cagle is a journalist and illustrator, sick of people emphasizing the latter in exclusion of the former. Can an illustrator be a serious journalist? She is dedicated enough to reporting that she was recently arrested in Occupy Oakland protests, while sporting her bright orange press pass, for failure to leave the scene of a riot. She was unable for interview when I began the project due to a 15-hour stint in county jail. If not a “serious” journalist, then surely a badass dedicated journalist. Cagle formed the collective Graphic Journos to bring together other artistically inclined storytellers and prove that this form is compelling and important.
 
All three storytellers I interviewed began illustrating at early ages, but the jump to graphic-based narrative was later in life. In fact, Sorenson is still delving into the art of nonfiction graphic narrative. Her practiced art form is the political cartoon, a sometimes fictional and humorous lens to look at real events. She draws the comic Slowpoke weekly, illustrates for various publications, and has illustrated a small biography of Cynthia Heimel as well as a trip through Whitefish, Montana. Sorenson never expected to be doing this type of work, essentially meaning she never thought she could make a living with her drawing skills. Even with an anthropology degree from the University of Virginia and the belief that comics could not be a career, Sorenson ultimately made it work.
 
MacNaughton hadn’t planned on a career of creating graphic-based narrative either. Today she illustrates real life in many forms. One of her current projects is “Meanwhile,” a series published on TheRumpus.net where she visits and illustrates different sites in San Francisco. The most recent installment is a depiction of 6th and Mission—a collection of pictures and short descriptions that feels personal, as if you’re talking to the portraits yourself. MacNaughton was trained as a social worker at Columbia University, and she has a knack for bringing stories out of people. Even during my phone interview with her, the first question came from the interested MacNaughton, “How did you get interested in this?” The degree in social work came after graduation from the Art Center College of Design and writing copy for an ad firm.
 
“Art school kicks the drawing out of you,” MacNaughton says of her years there, where the curriculum was focused more on conceptual art than illustration. Immediately after graduating from art school, MacNaughton became a copywriter for an advertising firm. Though she reflects on the stint as a “dream job” to land right out of school, she hated it. Soon she was presented with the opportunity to illustrate promotions for democratic elections in Rwanda. Her reaction at the dream job: “I’m outta here.” Such is the impulse of all three of these storytellers: to illustrate and inform the stories that might otherwise go untold. MacNaughton can go to a place such as 6th and Mission and find people to tell their stories. Then she can bring them to life with illustration.
 
If this article had bigger pictures you might keep reading. As of now, I can’t be sure. Are you still reading? An audience tends to pay attention to pictures, and click on the articles with pictures on the Internet. It’s the same impulse that may cause us to turn to the comics page of the newspaper first, or look through photographs until our eye is caught by a special image. The news is often easier to digest in the form of pictures. The work of MacNaughton, Sorenson, Archer, and other graphic journalists shows it’s possible to create informative and important pictures by hand. The Graphic Journos website states, “Readers are bombarded with more information than ever before, but art has a unique power to make those readers stop instead of flipping the page or clicking away.” In my interview with Sorenson, she firmly echoed this statement. Her piece about Whitefish, Montana, in which she put her travels into comic form, received tons of positive feedback. Sorenson sensed a very eager audience for more of this type of work. Like any worthwhile vocation, though, graphic narrative has its difficulties.
 
As conventional forms of journalism may be reduced to a heap of ill-funded reportage, the niche of comics and graphic journalism experiences much of the same. There is less space for comics to be printed, and some editors are less willing to take risks on new material, or pay more for the work of a person who draws the news. Thankfully for the artists, illustrated narratives also stretch beyond the genre of journalism and into their own nameless genre that even this article has failed to determine. But how do they get paid after all? MacNaughtion’s work is published online, and she illustrates for magazines and other small jobs. Archer has worked the academic angle of his work as a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford and is currently working on a commissioned project called Alcatraz. His work is also published online by different media outlets and consistently on his website. Sorenson draws syndicated weeklies for alternative newspapers plus illustrations for magazine and a great deal of work online. Archer has even created full-length stories, shorter than Joe Sacco’s but still sizable, though it takes a great deal of time. Sorenson says she would think about dedicating herself to one longer work, but the time it takes to illustrate such a thing is a deterrent. All three artists agree that the Internet is an extremely important and quality vehicle to spread their work. On one hand, the Internet always pays in exposure, but on the other, it’s hard to pay the rent with exposure. Many different outlets accept the work of these three artists, but some are less willing to pay for the time and effort it takes.
 
All three of these artists seem satisfied with their line of work—that was the vibe I got from talking with them. They have found a way to do what they love and tell the stories of others. Though you can see clear differences in the style of each, all three are dedicated to this particular form of documenting life. I asked all three for advice for young comics artists or any people who may consider getting into this semi-undefined field. Archer welcomes everyone (“The more the merrier!”) while admitting you must have the skill to draw and write up a story pretty quickly. I asked MacNaughton about getting into her line of work, and even at the end of the interview, it was hard to rest upon a term for her particular form of graphic documentation. We decided on “the field.” Her advice was perhaps the opposite of every child-lecturing parent in the world: “Don’t be shy. Talk to strangers a lot. Draw everything.” Sorenson is more involved in political cartooning; she admits it’s hard to get your foot in the newspaper door now—one that’s been quietly closing with the arrival of online journalism and other forms of news. However, going to comic conventions is a good start to meet editors. As she says, “Something always seems to come of going to these things,” and you shouldn’t be shy to pitch ideas to editors or at least talk to them—the more people you know, the easier it will become.
 
Although it can be hard to get involved in, the verdict from these three artists is that the work of graphic documentation is satisfying. They are following the news and the lives of other people, and drawing. As we face a deluge, an onslaught, a superlative of information from the news sources everyday, graphic journalism provides an eye-catching way to direct people to certain stories. The institution of journalism is rapidly changing and welcoming new ways of communicating with people. Artists such as Sorenson, Archer, and MacNaugton are adding a new perspective to the news that could make more people care and understand.