Illustrated Journalism

Forget videos and photos.  Journalists are reverting to pen and paper to tell visual stories. Reported illustrations, also known as comics journalism or graphic journalism, are appearing in well-established magazines, books and multimedia presentations. Why the revival?

“I think that it’s happening because the Internet is an extremely visual medium,” said Erin Polgreen, who runs Symbolia magazine.” Sequential or comics-based art allows us to absorb information on multiple channels.”

Symbolia is an iOS-based tablet publication that Polgreen started in early 2012 to create a platform for the ever-growing field of comics journalism. The quarterly publication quickly gained an international audience with the help of a crowdfunding campaign. It also sparked collaborations with major illustrated artists like Dan Archer.

But comics journalism was around before the rise of the Internet. Pioneering comics journalists like Joe Sacco started publishing reported illustrations in the early 1990s. Graphic novels, like Maus and Persepolis, blended comics with non-fiction storytelling, and gained strong followings in pop culture. Though they look more like traditional comic books, divided by panels, these books have reached a wide audience in the 21st century.

Comics journalists continue to produce work in this original panel form. Josh Neufeld is a cartoonist by training, and he has worked both as a reporter and with reporters. He has illustrated many comics journalism books, including A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge and The Influencing Machine. Just like any reporter, he interviews his subjects, takes pictures of them to use as reference points and often immerses himself deeply into his reporting.

“The projects that I’ve worked on so far in my career have all intersected with something that I had a personal relationship with in way or another,” Neufeld said. He believes his success comes from the unique visual draw that comics have on their readers. “You’re going to have a more visceral relationship to these issues than in your typical print version,” he said.

Reporters are also going beyond the classic panel-style comic. Carrie Ching, the former senior multimedia producer at the Center for Investigative Reporting, used illustration to tell visual stories that were difficult to tell through video or photo.


Above: Preliminary sketches from ‘In Jennifer’s Room’.

One of her first forays into illustrated journalism was with the award-winning piece In Jennifer’s Room. The story looks at the sexual abuse of a young woman, Jennifer, who was being kept in a state-run institution for the developmentally disabled. She started working with investigative reporter and narrator, Ryan Gabrielson, who discovered Jennifer’s story and initially wanted to turn it into a print story. She then brought in an illustrator, Marina Luz, to take the story even further. “I wanted to gather, get video, get photo and tell the story as a little web documentary,” Ching said.  “But in this particular case we couldn’t get any video and we couldn’t get any photo. It was a very sensitive subject because of sexual abuse, and so there was a lot of anonymity involved.”

The team collaborated to craft the production in a way that would give both Jennifer and her mother anonymity, and that would allow the reporters to show Jennifer’s story in a tactful and discreet way. The piece is under 12 minutes in length, and uses illustration with sound and narration to punctuate how Jennifer and her mother dealt with the institution.


Above: Illustration from ‘In Jennifer’s Room.’ 

In Jennifer’s Room was a unique success for CIR, winning an Emmy, a duPont and a Gracie award for the organization. It’s encouraged Ching to continue pursuing illustrated journalism through the new Vice News video series Correspondent Confidential, where she interviews foreign correspondents about difficult situations they’ve encountered while reporting.


Above: Sketch from ‘Strange Border Kidnappings in Kosovo’ by Marina Luz. 


Above: Sketch from ‘Strange Border Kidnappings in Kosovo.’

More of these partnerships are taking shape now, presenting both animated and more traditional comics journalism. Neufeld is currently producing a piece with Al Jazeera America reporter Michael Keller, which will appear on an online comics reader that Keller designed specifically for the project. Erin Polgreen says that she is reimagining ways to present comics through her tablet app and Symbolia’s online blog. Harper’s Magazine has recently published pieces of comics journalism by Olivier Kugler and Joe Sacco, among others.

Neufeld and Polgreen have both seen the appreciation for their art form grow in recent years.  Collaborations like those between Neufeld and Keller blend millenial-friendly technology with traditional comic art. This new twist on a comic books comes at a time when journalists are also looking for a way to reach their readers beyond their computer screens.

Polgreen thinks comics journalism appeals to people in a new way. “There’s a warmth and an intimacy to artistic work that you can’t necessarily get through typography or vector-based infographics,” she said. “The great thing about comics and illustration is this process for connection for the reader. And it’s a really beautiful and rare thing when that can happen.”

Update: This story has been changed to clarify Ryan Gabrielson’s role in reporting this story.

Top image: Illustration from ‘In Jennifer’s Room.’ 

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