A Manifesto Anyone?
This volume collects most all the shorter reporting pieces I have done over the years for magazines, newspapers, and book anthologies. As such, it seems to call for some sort of introductory fusillade to rout all those who would naysay the legitimacy of comics as an effective means of journalism.
But before we commence firing, perhaps we should hear out the dissenters. After all, their objections may have merit. How should we respond, for example, when they question the notion that drawings can aspire to objective truth? Isn't that—objective truth—what journalism is all about? Aren't drawings by their very nature subjective?
The answer to this last question is yes. There will always exist, when presenting journalism in the comics form, a tension between those things that can be verified, like a quote caught on tape, and those things that defy verification, such as a drawing purporting to represent a specific episode. Drawings are interpretive even when they are slavish renditions of photographs, which are generally perceived to capture a real moment literally. But there is nothing literal about a drawing. A cartoonist assembles elements deliberately and places them with intent on a page. There is none of the photographer's luck at snapping a picture at precisely the right moment. A cartoonist "snaps" his drawing at any moment he or she chooses. It is this choosing that makes cartooning an inherently subjective medium.
This does not let the cartoonist who aspires to journalism off the hook. The journalist's standard obligations—to report accurately, to get quotes right, and to check claims—still pertain. But a comics journalist has obligations that go deeper than that. A writer can breezily describe a convoy of UN vehicles as "a convoy of UN vehicles" and move on to the rest of the story. A comics journalist must draw a convoy of vehicles, and that raises a lot of questions. So, what do these vehicles look like? What do the uniforms of the UN personnel look like? What does the road look like? And what about the surrounding hills?
Fortunately, there is no stylebook to tell the comics journalist how far he or she must go to get such details right. The cartoonist draws with the essential truth in mind, not the literal truth, and that allows for a wide variety of interpretations to accommodate a wide variety of drawing styles. No two cartoonists are going to draw a UN truck exactly the same way even if working from the same reference material.
Here I can only lay out my own standards as far as pictorial veracity is concerned. I try to draw people and objects as accurately as possible whenever possible. To my mind, anything that can be drawn accurately should be drawn accurately—by which I mean a drawn thing must be easily recognizable as the real thing it is meant to represent. However, there are drawings—particularly in scenes that take place in the past that I did not see myself—for which I must necessarily use my imagination, or, rather, my informed imagination. By this I mean that whatever I draw must have grounding in the specifics of the time, place, and situation I am trying to re-create. In film terms, a cartoonist is a set designer, a costume designer, and a casting director, and to successfully carry out those roles probably requires research in books, archives, and on the Internet. When relying on eyewitness testimony, I ask pertinent visual questions: How many people were there? Where was the barbed wire? Were the people sitting or standing? At the minimum I want to orient readers to a particular moment, but my goal is to satisfy an eyewitness that my drawn depiction essentially represents his or her experience.
But, as I have implied, this can hardly be a perfect undertaking. Ultimately, a drawing reflects the vision of the individual cartoonist. I do not think this exiles a drawn report from the realm of journalism. I think it is possible to strive for accuracy within a drawn work's subjective framework. In other words, facts (a truck carrying prisoners came down the road) and subjectivity (how that scene is drawn) are not mutually exclusive. I, for one, embrace the implications of subjective reporting and prefer to highlight them. Since it is difficult (though not impossible) to draw myself out of a story, I usually don't try. The effect, journalistically speaking, is liberating. Since I am a "character" in my own work, I give myself journalistic permission to show my interactions with those I meet. Much can be learned about people from these personal exchanges, which most mainstream newspaper reporters, alas, excise from their articles. (The stories journalists tell around a dinner table, which generally involve similar interactions, are often more interesting and revealing than what gets into their copy.) Despite the impression they might try to give, journalists are not flies on the wall that are neither seen nor heard. In the field, when reporting, a journalist's presence is almost always felt. Young men shake their guns in the air when a camera crew starts filming, and they police each other when a reporter starts asking probing questions. By admitting that I am present at the scene, I mean to signal to the reader that journalism is a process with seams and imperfections practiced by a human being—it is not a cold science carried out behind Plexiglas by a robot.
This brings us to American journalism's Holy of Holies, "objectivity." To be clear, I have no trouble with the word itself, if it simply means approaching a story without any preconceived ideas at all. The problem is I don't think most journalists approach a story that has any importance in that way. I certainly can't. An American journalist arriving on the tarmac in Afghanistan does not immediately drop her American views to become a blank slate on which her new, sharp-eyed observations can now be impressed. Does she suddenly stop thinking of the American soldiers she is following as basically decent, well-meaning countrymen who share many of her values in order to assess them as instruments of a nation-state operating in its own interest as—objectively speaking—they are? At the very best, she tries to report on their actions and behavior honestly whatever her own sympathies. As the legendary American journalist Edward R. Murrow said, "Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices—just recognize them."
Another trap promoted in American journalism schools is the slavish adherence to "balance." But if one side says one thing and the other side says another, does the truth necessarily reside "somewhere in the middle"? A journalist who says, "Well, I pissed off both sides—I must be doing something right," is probably fooling himself and, worse, he may be fooling the reader. Balance should not be a smokescreen for laziness. If there are two or more versions of events, a journalist needs to explore and consider each claim, but ultimately the journalist must get to the bottom of a contested account independently of those making their claims. As much as journalism is about "what they said they saw," it is about "what I saw for myself." The journalist must strive to find out what is going on and tell it, not neuter the truth in the name of equal time.
I've picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections my own sympathies should be clear. I chiefly concern myself with those who seldom get a hearing, and I don't feel it is incumbent on me to balance their voices with the well-crafted apologetics of the powerful. The powerful are generally excellently served by the mainstream media or propaganda organs. The powerful should be quoted, yes, but to measure their pronouncements against the truth, not to obscure it. If I believe power brings out the worst in people, I've observed that those on the short end of the stick don't always acquit themselves well either, and I've endeavored to report that. I think the great British journalist Robert Fisk gets the equation about right: "I always say that reporters should be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer."
In short, the blessing of an inherently interpretive medium like comics is that it hasn't allowed me to lock myself within the confines of traditional journalism. By making it difficult to draw myself out of a scene, it hasn't permitted me to make a virtue of dispassion. For good or for ill, the comics medium is adamant, and it has forced me to make choices. In my view, that is part of its message.
Joe Sacco is the author of the Eisner Award-winning graphic novels Footnotes in Gaza and Safe Area Goražde, among other books. His works have been translated into fourteen languages and his comics reporting has appeared in Details, The New York Times Magazine, Time, and Harper's. He lives in Portland, Oregon.