Comics Journalism:

Learning about Current Events through Funny Books

It’s an exciting time to work in the field of comics today, even for those us—the comics critics and scholars—who possess far less artistic ability to create captivating images or weave spellbinding tales. As an undergraduate over ten years ago, few proper English majors would ever admit to being a fan of comics let alone broach the topic in class.  Today, however, I am thrilled to be able to incorporate comics in the college courses I teach as well as in my doctoral dissertation.  However, comics are doing more than establishing themselves in the world of big “L” literature.  They’re expanding mainstream (and fan boy) expectations of what the genre can do.  There is movement developing in the field of comics that is continuing to grow in popularity both amongst casual readers and academics alike: Comics Journalism.

Comics Journalism, as I understand the term and will refer to it in this article, is a form of comics that provides readers with a news story—one that might otherwise be encountered on the nightly-televised news, the newspaper, or an online source such as a blog or even social media outlets like Twitter or Facebook. Unlike these mediums, however, Comics Journalism makes use of the comic book (or graphic novel) format as its vehicle for bringing that particular narrative to its readership. You could say, in a simplified manner, that the biggest difference between any other graphic novel on the shelf at the library or bookstore and one that falls in the scope of Comics Journalism is the content and trajectory of the story. A comic book that aims to be a work of journalism attempts just that: a comic that relates a researched story through a nonfictional (but not always objective) approach to a reading audience with a greater prioritization on informing and educating over entertaining.

I’m not looking to push any academic boundaries in suggesting there could be a field of Comics Journalism, nor am I in anyway suggesting Comics Journalism is a newly discovered phenomenon.  The reality is that it is already here, and the groundwork was laid sometime ago. Daniel Archer provides a helpful and succinct article on the topic on his website, discussing some of the ways in which comics journalism has come into its own.  In his article, he points to many winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning (including Gary Trudeau for his political satire, Doonesbury) as influences on this field, and suggests that these individuals illustrate the ability of both cartoon and comic art to inform readers of current events of the world. Following McCloud’s formalist—and widely accepted—approach to differentiating between comics and cartoons (30), however, these individuals and their works should be seen as influences rather than early examples of the field—even if they are directly informing this new field.  And perhaps recognizing a void in the field of comics—or even in journalism itself—a few intrepid graphic storytellers took a cue from their cartooning counterparts and began establishing this field of graphic journalism.

To illustrate the concept of Comics Journalism, readers can look at a few examples from award-winning creators, Didier Lefevre & Emmanuel Guibert, Joe Sacco, and Guy DeLisle.  Each of these individuals takes a vastly different approach in their artistic renditions as well as method in which they tell their respectives stories—even if Delisle and Lefevre do share a common tie through their work (direct or indirect) with Medecins Sans Fronteires (MSF).

The first example is an exceptional example of the power and potential of this emerging field of comics.  The critically-acclaimed and award-winning graphic novel, The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders by Didier Lefevre and Emmanuel Guibert which was published by :01 First Second Publishing in 2009 is one of the earlier examples of Comics Journalism. The book is set in 1986 and covers Lefevre’s first experience with the MSF—the French branch of Doctors Without Borders—as he crossed through Pakistan into Afghanistan and his harrowing return back. Many Western readers may be vaguely familiar with Afghanistan since September 11, 2001; however, this work provides in the years prior to the conflict with the United States giving the reader a close up inspection of the dangerous and tentative life of the Afghani people living in conflict with their Soviet rulers.  It also covers Lefevre’s journey out of Western naiveté to hardened understanding, which serves as a vehicle for the reader’s own parallel experience moving from one page to the next.

Driving this story is the power combination of black and white photographs of Lefevre, the comic art of Guibert, and coloring and design layouts by Frederic Lemercier.  Guibert eschews the traditional, mainstream comic book style to his art, and instead, he embraces a significantly more minimalist, comic-oriented style in his work with rough, thick, and unfinished looking lines that reflect the people and landscape he portrays.  This harsh, earthen approach is highlighted further with the muted earth tone palate Lemercier brings to the project in his coloring of Guibert’s art.  Further, the effect of juxtaposing this sort of art against the already moving photos is nothing short of a tour de force of realism and comic art that takes the reader in and out of real life scenes that a text-based novel would simply fall short of doing justice. Readers are not only exposed to the mission of the MSG, the difficulties they and the Afghanis faced, but also find a truly human face to put on the people of a nation with whom many Western readers have been at war with for over a decade. This is truly a documentary unlike many others readers may have witnessed.

Works Cited

Archer, Daniel.  “An Intro to Comics Journalism, In the Form of Comics Journalism.” 19 Aug. 2011. 7 Oct. 2011.

Lefevre, Didier and Emmanuel Guibert.  The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders.  New York: First-Second, 2009.  Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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Also by Forrest Helvie:

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  1. David Balan says:

    This book has been on my reading list for some time, actually. Great article, now I’m more excited to get a hold of it!

  2. David,

    As someone who has an eye for the technical elements of graphic novels, I rather suspect you will find a lot to enjoy from this particular book. So many of the elements of this book work together seamlessly to drive the narrative, and it’s a truly wonderful example of the potential comics have today.

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