Breaking into Comics Journalism

SusieJourno-1 copyAs a child Susie Cagle loved to draw, scribbling little comic books and cartoons here and there. A talent for drawing ran in the family – her father was an editorial cartoonist. But to her, these illustrations were a hobby – she didn’t want to follow in her father’s professional footsteps. She decided that she wanted to be a reporter instead and enrolled at the Columbia Journalism School to help launch her career.

She graduated in 2006 and moved to the Bay Area in hopes of finding some freelance writing gigs. Eventually, she got hired at San Francisco’s Curbed blog a week before the stock market crash of 2008. Two and a half months later, she was laid off and her career ambitions came to a halt again. She decided enough was enough; she had debts to pay and was desperate to find a new way to earn some money. She’d never considered pursuing her drawing hobby professionally, but figured that some of her non-fiction comics might work in a journalistic setting.

Comic by Susie Cagle

Comic by Susie Cagle

She started calling herself an illustrated journalist – someone who combines hand-drawn illustrations with reporting. She picked up her colored markers and started pitching comics journalism to editors around California, hoping that this unique style might catch their attention.

The road to success was slow and full of uncertainty. Many editors had never heard of comics journalism before and didn’t want to invest into something they didn’t fully comprehend. In a piece for Medium, she said that she found the freelance world unforgiving, especially when working in a little-known medium. “I certainly don’t have a job that’s set out for someone like me,” Cagle said. “It’s been an exercise to convince one editor after the other that it’ll work.”

To get around the skeptics, she pitched stories in quantitative terms. “I would say, this is going to be about 1,500 words worth of reporting and writing, and I’ll do it in this amount of drawings,” Cagle explained. But the compensation barely matched the work she put in – drawing comics and reporting are both time-consuming endeavors and editors weren’t always willing to pay for the additional effort.

In the early 2010s, Cagle and a team of other reporters tried to change the perception that comics journalism was simply a niche pursuit. Along with Erin Polgreen of Symbolia, Matt Bors and a few other illustrators, Cagle attended panels at SXSW and other conferences, trying to convince editors that comics reporting was a legitimate form of journalism.

“It was the dog and pony show: ‘Look, this thing got so many Facebook shares. Look, this is what this can do,’ and doing this really hard sell,” Cagle said. As they met more and more editors, they found mainstream media publications began producing intelligent and beautiful comics reporting.

There was no linear way to break into the profession for many of the illustrators who are working now began, especially right after the recession. Little formal training is available and people often just fall into it.  “I know a lot of other people in the field…some of them went to grad school for journalism, some didn’t go to grad school at all,”  Andy Warner, a freelance comics journalist, said. “I did an MFA; that was the path that worked for me.”

Other comics journalists broke into the field through the art world. Molly Crabapple has illustrated for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Paris Review, and has a regular column at Vice. But when she was a fashion school dropout in her early twenties, she started by doodling for nightclubs. Eventually, this led to gigs with British reporter Laurie Penny. “She’d report from Chicago or Montreal, and I’d do accompanying drawings from her cellphone pics,” Crabapple said. In 2012, they went to Athens together to cover the Greek financial crisis.  “The first piece I wrote myself was an illustrated essay on my own arrest,” Crabapple said. Some of her art is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

Comic by Josh Kramer

Comic by Josh Kramer

More people seem to be following the same path as Andy Warner, including comics reporters Dan Archer and Josh Kramer. All of them graduated from the comics program at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont in the last few years. Kramer started the Cartoon Picayune and worked with Josh Neufeld, a well-regarded comics journalist Columbia Visuals wrote about earlier this year. Warner’s master’s project was published in Slate with the help of James Sturm, a faculty member at CCS. He was able to leverage this into a regular drawing relationship with the editor there. Now, he freelances regularly with KQED and Medium, and is teaching a comics seminar at Stanford.

Warner is hopeful that life will continue getting easier for comics journalists. New web outlets are more willing to invest into comics reporting. “The places that I’m doing a lot of work right now didn’t exist in 2010,” Cagle said. Publications like Fusion and Medium have hired comics editors and regularly commission ambitious illustrated reporting. Other editors are more willing to consider publishing comics reporting, especially on digital platforms. “It’s words and images, and it is interactive. It pulls people in in a way that editors are desperate for. If we measure everything with hits, they want something that’s going to work,” Kramer said.

Andy Warner hopes the interest will grow as editors continue to look for strategies to garner clicks. He thinks that comics journalism is still a small enough field that new talent can rise quickly. “I think there’s a real opportunity for people who are able to produce top notch work to get it out there. There’s space for even more comics journalism than is being produced right now.”

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