Comic book journalism, once a brash upstart in the heavy newspaper business, is coming of age. It has now been two decades since Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine, documenting life in the occupied territories, was published as a comic book series and later as a single award-winning volume, opening the door to a new kind of reporting. Today, the number of practitioners of the genre has grown to hundreds.
Enter the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, where Sacco received his BA in 1981, and professor of English at UO with a constant interest in comics, and we have a exhibition titled The art of the news: comic book journalism, until January 16 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at UO.
Is this news art? Or is it art as a topicality?
Maybe a bit of both, suggests the show’s curator, Katherine Kelp-Stebbins, the English teacher who is also associate director of the UO English department’s comic book studies program.
“It’s a show that I wanted to do since I was hired as the first professor of comic book journalism in the United States,” she says.
For the uninitiated, comic book journalism is the name given to serious journalistic projects presented in the form of graphic novels, which in turn draw on visual conventions of comics dating back to everything from Superman To Archie BD and even Crazy magazine.
Kelp-Stebbins lists a number of characteristics common to most comic book journals beyond the basic layout. “It’s slow,” she says, given the amount of work it takes for a comic book reporter to tell and draw a story. “Comic book journalism is at odds with the pace of the 24-hour news cycle. “
Comic book journalists often include themselves as drawn characters in the stories they tell. The fact that the panels are hand drawn, she adds, gives the stories more immediacy. “It is the closest thing to seeing her through someone else’s eyes, as presented by a human being who was there.”
Another convention of comic book journalism, as it has developed, is the denial of journalistic “objectivity,” she says. “’Objectivity’ is a privileged position. “
The exhibit at the Schnitzer Museum features large wall panels exploding pages of the work of 13 comic book journalists, featuring Sacco. The show also features ink originals hand-drawn by some journalists, although some draw directly on a computer.
Other journalists working on the show are Gerardo Alba, Dan Archer, Thi Bui, Tracy Chahwan, Jesús Cossio, Sarah Glidden, Omar Khouri, Victoria Lomasko, Ben Passmore, Yazan al-Saadi, Andy Warner and Sarah Mirk, based in Portland. .
Tucked away in a corner to one side of the gallery is what could be the next frontier in comic book journalism: virtual reality. Once you’ve donned the VR headset and had it adjusted by a member of staff monitoring the screen, you’re transported from the Schnitzer’s dark gallery to a bright and airy room, in which – with the help of a pair of video game style controllers – you can walk around and listen to Colombians recount their experiences in the 60 year civil conflict in this country.
Virtual reality work is done by Archer, who runs a company called Empathetic Media, which uses virtual and augmented reality to document events in a way that immerses the viewer deeper than mere writing, photography, or video.
Comic book journalism – sometimes called “graphic reporting” by practitioners who are wary of the term “comic book” – is unlikely to replace more conventional reporting, Kelp-Stebbins says. But its certainty can extend the power and influence of the stories for which the medium is suited.
It has made forays into more mainstream places, with comic book clips or clips in their entirety in publications such as The New York Times and The New Yorker.
This more widespread publication amplifies the mission of most comic book journalists, says Kelp-Stebbins, who “draws attention to people who don’t have a platform.”
The art of the news: comic book journalism is at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon until January 16.