By Hannah Means-Shannon
At the Small Press Expo last autumn, in a panel about the role of place and landscape in comics, the word “journalistic” popped up in discussion several times to describe the ways in which a cartoonist might record and commemorate the places that have had the biggest influences on their work. “Journalistic” feels like a safe word to throw around these days. I’ve heard it applied to comics a fair amount in recent years, but it’s rare to use the word to describe a work that clearly identifies itself as journalism. When the word had been used in the SPX panel about three times, Dean Haspiel finally chimed in to challenge its meaning. “Are we journalists?”, he asked, referring to comics creators. The question hung there and was nearly a conversation stopper. Jumping from the safe word “journalistic”, to the harder hitting job title “journalist” was clearly a little overwhelming for the audience.
In the past decade, particularly, there have been many award-winning works of journalism produced in the comics medium. Joe Sacco’s books, of course, come to mind. It would take a particularly ignorant person to argue that comics can’t be journalism. Of course they can, and many are easily identifiable as such. But what about autobiographical comics? What about semi-autobiographical comics? The discomfort people may feel when hearing the word “journalism” applied to autobiographical comics could arise from the limits and expectations of journalism as a genre. Using the designation “journalism” implies a certain degree of responsibility to get the facts straight, to essentially record history as it is happening. It implies a purpose of communication that is information-based and not about spin or personal response.
There’s a difference for many people between “journalism” and “memoir” and autobiographical comics come more fully under the “memoir” heading. But there are a number of things that comics can do in the memoir form that trump strict fact-based journalism and contribute to the cultural record more fully. For one thing, journalism is often here today, gone tomorrow and doesn’t make a permanent statement about human experience. It may be logged somewhere in the black hole of the internet, but it’s rarely re-read, sometimes not even after the day on which it was published. Social media can be the same way. Our Twitter and Facebook updates may raise some discussion in the few hours after they are posted, but what then? Referring back to posts rarely creates a substantial, on-going discussion, unlike archived memoir comics that readers can return to again and again in digital or print format.
Of course, it’s relatively easy to update our lives on social media, whereas comics are labor intensive and require equal skill in writing and art, individually or working with a collaborator. When you use comics to talk about your life experiences, you still might face critical scrutiny, assuming that the material you’re presenting is somehow more fictionalized or sensationalized than the same subject matter handled in prose. If the word “journalism” instead of “memoir” is applied to autobiographical comics, there also might be a sense a pressure for creators to respond rapidly to major events and traumas in our society. This pressure to respond to the immediate, visceral experience of a trauma may not be the friend of the comics medium, which thrives on reflection, and careful choices in the visual narrative detail. Though autobiographical comics often use the first person narrator, and narrative text boxes, the demand to be recognizable, relevant, and transparent might downplay the artistry involved in visual narrative storytelling.
It comes down to the question of what comics can do that other mediums simply can’t. Even autobiographical comics frequently use the role of an avatar to speak direct truths from the creator’s life because it conveys greater truth than a simple one to one representation of personality. Some things that comics can do well that photojournalism or prose journalism may not convey are establishing a mood or atmosphere through control over emotional climate, controlling the pace of the story being told, creating a direct experience for the reader rather than simply providing “information”, and in short, creating a feeling of “being there” that may trump photojournalism’s use of images or even the most skilled prose-writer’s descriptions.
Information in comics is filtered through a specific perspective and that may remove it from a sense of being “factual”. But in the bigger picture, the “spin” that journalism puts on its information, however silently, is still spin. No information enters the media without some trace of “agenda”, either from the reporters or from the organizations sponsoring the news. If journalism and media were more willing to admit that, then the line between journalism and memoir would break down more fully, suggesting that autobiographical comics are closer to journalism than we might think.
Do comics creators have to be journalists? Certainly not. It’s a personal choice. If comics creators choose to be journalistic, they can be, but on their own terms, which may not necessarily be accepted or respected. Comics, as a medium, has nothing to prove, but the ways in which the medium is being used may go unnoticed or under appreciated. Journalism that claims to be devoid of the human element is misrepresenting itself, so why not set the record straight and delve more deeply into human stories, both from the observer’s perspective and from the multiple perspectives that news items are claiming to represent?
The comics memoir leaves an indelible stamp on culture far more fully than basic journalism alone, and the labor that goes into creating autobiographical comics justifies that role. Telling human stories in an enduring way bypasses the easy information flow we face in an increasingly digital age. If you’re looking for a way to document your human experiences in a lasting way, taking the more difficult road and crafting your own story in the comics medium makes far more of a contribution to the world than tweeting a picture at CNN or linking to a news article on Facebook. We should applaud creators who are taking that more difficult road. In many ways, autobiographical comics are showing what journalism could, ideally, be as a significant testament to human experience instead of the ephemeral tide of unregulated information it could, unfortunately, become.