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Graphic Realities: Comics as Documentary, History, and Journalism

By Laura Schlichting and Johannes C. P. Schmid

While comics have traditionally been associated with fictional, especially funny and/or fantastic stories, they have in recent decades become a major vehicle for non-fiction, as well. In particular, graphic memoir or autobiography constitutes a popular genre and has received widespread scholarly attention (Chaney; Chute, Graphic Women; Hatfield; El Refaie; Schmid, Shooting Pictures). As an especially personal and subjective form, drawing comics appears particularly suited to represent one’s own life and experiences. However, with the pioneering work of Joe Sacco, comics has also been fruitfully employed to materialize the experiences of others, often from marginalized groups. Yet, as this special issue shows, graphic narrative forms a long-standing tradition of addressing ‘realities’ that precedes the current format of the graphic reportage. Comics have been analyzed and theorized as works of documentary (Chute, Disaster Drawn; Mickwitz; Schmid, “Memoir and Documentary”), history (Babic; Dolle-Weinkauf; Witek), and journalism (Vanderbeke; Weber and Rall). These forms of graphic non-fiction have been discussed especially with regard to the graphic narrative book, but also as contributions to serial news publications, and as webcomics (Mickwitz; Schlichting, “Interactive”; Schmid, “Documentary Webcomics”).

These different genres all face the challenge to do justice to the lives of other people, with a keen awareness of their responsibilities to the encountered witnesses. This becomes especially relevant as a majority of graphic reportages centers around highly traumatizing catastrophes, such as war, displacement, natural disasters, and oppression. Here, witness accounts, as measured and filtered through the author’s personal experiences, serve to reconstruct crises that tend to be overlooked in the mainstream media. As such, graphic non-fiction often serves as a distinct contemporary critique of dominant cultural norms of fact-finding and reportage. Indeed, the medium of comics in many ways presents an antithesis to the camera as a tool for visual documentary: Whereas cameras instantaneously produce naturalistic and thus supposedly authentic pictures, drawing long-form comics often takes years to produce. Moreover, comics ostensibly takes liberties in interpreting actuality and thus breaks with conventional genre expectations.

To understand the rise of graphic narrative as documentary, history, and journalism, also means to consider its historical context: With the rise of right-wing populism worldwide, ‘mainstream’ news media have been scathingly attacked as ‘fake news,’ and in a phenomenon that has been labeled “post-truth politics” even the value of fact-based assessment has been undermined (McIntyre). This political trend that socialist Bruno Latour traces back to the 1980s (17) coincides with rapid technological advancement in the digital production of documentary content and its distribution and (re-)contextualization online. Even moderately skilled users may now produce, manipulate, and spread contents that can hardly be identified as either ‘facts’ or ‘fakes.’ Accordingly, the once normative evidential function of camera-made images has deteriorated to a considerable extent.

Scholars in the humanities and social sciences have long pointed toward the constructedness of facts and evidence, even though a dominant notion of facts as ‘natural entities’ has prevailed ever since (Latour 23). The digital influx of potentially faked, manipulated, or misleadingly contextualized images inherently builds on the notion that photographs and videos impartially depict objective reality. Only based on this assumption can contradicting representations suggest that one is ‘fake news,’ while the other ‘the truth.’

These days, journalism finds itself in trouble, facing massive challenges that concern the journalistic system as such, for example, the loss of readers and their trust in the news due to a variety of complex reasons. Consequently, on the one hand, the individual journalist’s ability and field of activity has to change and has already started to do so (e.g. Bettels-Schwabbauer). On the other hand, journalistic institutions need to find innovative ways to guarantee a depiction of truth still and to offer a broad spectrum of well-researched topics, opinions, and high-quality content. Moreover, journalists are increasingly exposed to hostility, and risk getting threatened or arrested if they dare to disclose sensitive information. This tendency plays into the hands of a growing number of right-wing politicians around the world who are polarizing and popularizing with their harsh rhetoric against the freedom of the press, even in democracy-friendly nations. Still, freedom of expression and information continues to be one of the world’s most important rights: Independent journalism is crucial for democracy.

Ideally, journalism tries to explain the world to its readers, to contextualize happenings in their complexity, and to make them accessible to everybody. We live in times of upheaval in which journalism may be subscribed a significant role and may attract a new generation of readers. But the question is ‘how?’. Conveying non-fiction content in comics form might be a way to follow up: graphic narrative introduces creative, artistic, and narrative principles, challenging the conventional comprehension of genres that seek to represent actual events. Hence, comics demand that practices of documentary, historiography, and journalism must be re-negotiated, including their theoretical foundations.

As in ‘traditional’ non-fiction, each author has a personal, political, institutional, and professional background which will always influence the way of researching, drawing, and writing. Generally, graphic narrative draws particular attention to the link between the work and its creator. Conventionally, the idea of objectivity prompts, for example, journalists to minimize any markers of mediation in their reports. In turn, cartoon imagery immediately exhibits the subjectivity of the artist and her or his interpretation and motivates authors to narratively and visually make transparent how they arrived at their findings. Hence, comics shifts the weight of authentication toward making transparent the subject position of its authors. Together with the turn towards comics—a medium, which inherently promotes simplification and exaggeration—graphic non-fiction serves as distinct counter-gesture toward traditional notions of authorship and objectivity in non-fiction.[1]

Additionally, the sheer use of graphic narrative to document actual events serves as a self-reflexive problematization of what it means to represent reality. Comics not only make transparent how the authors filter their own experiences but commonly acknowledges how its own mediality frames its content.[2] As Hillary Chute points out, “while all media do the work of framing, comics manifests material frames – and the absences between them. It thereby literalizes on the page the work of framing and making, and also what framing excludes […]” (Disaster Drawn, 17). Comics, too, frame their represented realities through narrative devices such as prologues or epilogues, through stylistic choices, or by juxtaposing contrasting co-present visual elements on the page or screen (Schmid, “Graphic Nonviolence”). In contrast to the naturalizing mediality of film or photography, however, the medium raises awareness of this dynamic as a means to authenticate their own work, but also to problematize reality-based representation, per se (Schlichting, Formen und Funktionen).

This special issue presents the proceedings of the international conference “Graphic Realities: Comics as Documentary, History, and Journalism” held on 22 and 23 February 2018 at the International Centre for the Study of Culture at Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen, Germany. The articles collected here address a variety of issues concerning both theories and practices of graphic non-fiction, discussing the history of the form, as well as particular examples of its culturally-situated employment. What all articles have in common is their interest in the capacity of graphic narrative to represent realities as well as the possibilities and limitations that this endeavor entails.

The special issue opens with Dirk Vanderbeke’s historical exploration of the roots of graphic non-fiction in Medieval and Early Modern graphic narrative. Vanderbeke specifically argues that before the invention of photography, it was graphic narrative in its various manifestation as blockbooks, prints, and broadsheets that serves as the primary form to visualize ‘serious’ and factual information. As such, medieval and early modern graphic non-fiction precedes the emergence of comics as a source of entertainment in the 19th century and anticipates contemporary comics non-fiction.

The next contribution by Nina Mickwitz examines how authors balance the generic affordances and constraints of documentary with the aesthetic choices that the medium of comics offers and demands. Mickwitz traces back comics addressing actuality to mid-century true crime and educational comics and discusses their similarities and difference to the 1989-compendium Brought to Light as an example of more recent documentary comics, whose two stories she contrasts as satire and documentary realism, respectively. Mickwitz finally connects these genre mechanisms to the generation of affect as a primary tool for persuasion.

Dieter Declercq then focuses on issues of (non-)fictionality and truthfulness in the genres of satire and journalism. To this end, Declercq analyzes the work of cartoonist Matt Bors who divides his publications into two categories: political cartoons and comics journalism. Significantly, Bors has developed particular graphic styles for each. Declercq discusses Bors’ employment of style and genre to explore the possibilities and political implications of “fictional license” in satire as opposed to the “documentary realism.”

In the following contribution, Lukas Wilde compares comics with photographic media concerning their collective responses to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Wilde takes the discourses surrounding the 9/11 attacks and the particular blurring of the medial divide between fact and fiction as his point of departure to discuss the affordances of comics to facilitate documentary practices. Relating the technique of filmic reenactment to comics, the article explores the history, relationship, documentary capacities of both media and explores the foundations of their particular truth claims.

Wibke Weber and Hans-Martin Rall describe and evaluate similarities and differences between comics journalism and the related form of animated documentary in terms of how they manage to balance factual information and artistic modes of delivery. Discussing the two pivotal terms related to these genres, hybridization and authenticity, the authors first show how by conflating factual reporting and fictional storytelling, artistic subjectivity can add layers of meaning that are unique to these media, and, second, how artistic techniques serve as authentication strategies.

Analyzing a selection of Argentine comics about the 1982 Falklands War produced across three decades, Chao-I Tseng and Tilmann Altenberg focus on the aspect of narrative persuasion in graphic war narratives. The authors describe how stylistic and narrative features serve to generate message trustworthiness and affective engagement, and contemplate how narrative mechanisms are employed effectively or, conversely, undermine the graphic war narrative’s documentary and persuasive ambitions.

Jakob Dittmar and Ofer Ashkenazi consider the potential of graphic narratives with a documentary claim of participating in the academic discussion of history. While academic historiography is conventionally based on purely verbal arguments about historical events, the authors emphasize the benefits of including comics as a visual narrative form. Dittmar and Ashkenazi argue for serious consideration of comics as historiography, analyzing the preconditions for such dialog, namely the employment and contextualization of sources by the authors in comics.

In the final contribution, Jörn Ahrens challenges the documentary ability of comics. Ahrens claims that comics lacks any inherent medial qualities that distinguish representations of reality from imagination. Since comics operate in a transformative manner, as opposed to the indexicality of camera-based media, graphic narrative is necessarily fiction, he argues. Based on his analysis of two pages from Joe Sacco’s Safe Area GoraĹžde, Ahrens proposes, however, that the abstraction of comics generates a unique potential to transform actual events into fictional stories that reflect reality in a truthful and sincere manner.

Notes

[1] For an extensive discussion of this issue see Laura Schlichting’s ongoing dissertation project “Authorship in Comics Journalism.”

[2] For an extensive discussion of this issue see Johannes Schmid’s ongoing dissertation project “The Frames of Documentary Comics.”

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the International Graduate Centre of the Study of Culture at the Justus-Liebig-University Gießen as well as the Comics Studies Working Group of the German Society for Media Studies for the financial support of the conference of which this special issue presents the proceedings. Moreover, we are grateful to all participants for their contributions and to Sarah Glidden for kindly giving us permission to use her artwork for the cover of this issue. Our thanks to everyone at ImageTexT for the joint realization of this project.

Works Cited

Babic, Anness Ann, ed. Comics as History, Comics as Literature: Roles of the Comic Book in Scholarship, Society, and Entertainment. FDUP, 2013.

Bettels-Schwabbauer, Tina. “New Skills For The Next Generation Of Journalists.” EJO: European Journalism Observatory. June 28, 2018, https://en.ejo.ch/research-2/new-skills-for-the-next-generation-of-journalists.

Chaney, Michal A., ed. Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels. U of Wisconsin P, 2011.

Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia UP, 2010.

---. Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form. Harvard UP, 2016.

Dolle-Weinkauf, Bernd, ed. Geschichte im Comic: Befunde – Theorien – Erzählweisen. Ch. A. Bachmann, 2017.

El Refaie, Elisabeth. Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures. UP of Mississippi, 2012.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. UPOM, 2005.

Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Polity, 2018.

McIntyre, Lee C. Post-Truth. MIT, 2018.

Mickwitz, Nina. Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-Telling in a Skeptical Age. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Schlichting, Laura. Formen und Funktionen von Fotografie in Graphic Novels: Medialisierung und Fiktionalisierung am Beispiel ausgewählter zeitgenössischer Werke. UB Gießen, 2016, http://geb.uni-giessen.de/geb/volltexte/2016/11990/.

---. “Interactive Graphic Journalism.” VIEW: Journal of European Television History and Culture. vol. 5, no. 10, 2016, http://ojs.viewjournal.eu/index.php/view/article/view/JETHC110/246.

Schmid, Johannes C. P. Shooting Pictures, Drawing Blood: The Photographic Image in the Graphic War Memoir. Ch. A. Bachmann, 2016.

---. “Graphic Nonviolence: Framing ‘Good Trouble’ in John Lewis’ March.” European Journal of American Studies vol. 13, no. 4, 2018, http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/13922.

---. “Documentary Webcomics: Mediality and Contexts.” Perspectives on Digital Comics, edited by Jeffrey S. J. Kirchoff and Mike P. Cook, McFarland, 2019, pp. 63-88.

---. “Comics as Memoir and Documentary: A Case Study of Sarah Glidden.” Documenting Trauma in Comics: Traumatic Pasts, Embodied Histories & Graphic Reportage, edited by Dominic Davies and Candida Rifkind, Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming.

Vanderbeke, Dirk. “In the Art of the Beholder: Comics as Political Journalism.” Comics as a Nexus of Cultures. Essays on the Interplay of Media, Disciplines and International Perspectives, edited by Mark Berninger et al., McFarland, 2010, pp. 70-81.

Weber, Wibke & Hans-Martin Rall. “Authenticity in comics journalism. Visual strategies for reporting facts.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, no. 8, vol. 4, 2017, pp. 376-97, www.tandfonline.com/eprint/qiRvgH86fShTrE5YXna4/full.

Witek, Joseph. Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. UP of Mississippi, 1989.

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