Illustrating Privacy: behind the scenes with Comics journalism

Michael Keller, a member of the Interactive Multimedia team at Al Jazeera America, has created work with data visualizations, video, graphics and in print. When he decided he was interested in reporting on privacy and Big Data, he turned to a method he hadn’t used before: comics journalism.

Keller first got the idea to do a piece on consumer privacy in the fall of 2013.  “It was on my mind how to tell stories visually in a way where you could do what good written text does, which is create a narrative: walk people through, go through a very complex issue and see the nuance of it,” Keller said.

His editors, some of whom had art school backgrounds,  introduced him to graphic novels like The Watchmen. During his exploration of comics, he also read The Influencing Machine and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge – two pieces of award-winning comics journalism done by a nonfiction cartoonist named Josh Neufeld. “I liked the visual style and I also liked that [Neufeld] was someone doing non-fiction in that space,” Keller said.

It took a few months for Keller to feel ready enough to bring in an illustrator for this specific project. “I got the idea in November, got enough time to work on it around January, and had to essentially already have an outline and identify the expert characters…[to] have it concrete enough to bring someone in and keep working on it,” Keller said.

By February, Keller decided to pitch the collaboration to Neufeld. Keller envisioned the comic being published online through a specially designed reader platform. Neufeld, who’d worked with journalist Brooke Gladstone before on The Influencing Machine, was eager to jump in, especially since it offered a new way to present his work. “I still draw in an analog way; I draw in pencil on paper and that’s kind of old fashioned but it works in a digital medium as well,” Neufeld said.

They interviewed lawyers and privacy experts around the country.  They discussed digital security with each other extensively , whether it was the birth of Gmail or how much they trusted FourSquare. Many of their experiences and discussions eventually became scenes in the final project.  “When we talked through it more, we discovered that in a way he and I both exemplified two different positions in relation to privacy and consumer data, and the whole idea was for us to be characters in the story together,” Neufeld said. “I just thought it was a great idea.”

Once the interviews ended, writing the script itself took an additional four to six weeks. The collaborative process, however, allowed Neufeld to skip a few steps in storyboarding.  “Once we finalized the script, we had a fairly good idea of the visuals that would go along with it,” Keller said. “It seemed like a waste of time to go and do a whole pre-layout of the whole thing, which would have taken a month on it’s own. So basically I just started drawing,” Neufeld said.

The summer was spent putting the final touches on the piece – Neufeld drew, inked and colored the comics, while Keller finished coding and designing the special comics web reader.  At the end of October, after almost a year of work, the pair finally published the forty six-page graphic novella through Al Jazeera America. You can experience the comics reader and the piece here.

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