I had a brief struggle this morning, because I felt like doing something kind of light and breezy and there were a couple of pretty funny strips to consider. But I got to Cartoon Movement and there was Sarah Glidden with this engrossing look at the Iraqi refugee community in Syria.
Not what you'd call "light and breezy," but, since my first reaction was "21 pages? Maybe I need to come back to this," and my second reaction was click-read-click-read-click-read to the end, well, that's a pretty strong argument for skipping "light and breezy" in favor of "engrossing and compelling."
Thing is, there are a fair number of cartoonists out there committing journalism, but a lot of it seems more like the 3-minute report on the downtown merchants that you'd see on your local TV news. It gives you some images and a few sound bites, together with a bit of narration, but, at the end, it's kind of impressionistic and shallow.
There are others, like Sarah Glidden and Joe Sacco, who work at greater length to use the medium to immerse you in the topic and to really let you meet the people they have met.
They don't have the quick turnaround time of video, so that "60 Minutes" can provide a 12 or 15 minute segment sooner than Glidden can get her 21 pages in front of you.
But the trade off is, in her hands, greater depth. There is more space between her drawings than between the shots of a video report, which is an advantage of the medium as well as a testament to her use of it.
I've noted several times that Bunny Hoest of the Lockhorns says people fill in action around her single panel, building an entire scenario based on a single panel and a single line of dialogue. In that case, it's because she relies on familiar memes and images.
In this type of work, the space between the images needs to be built more explicitly by what is in the images themselves, because it's not familiar, time-worn material. Here's an Iraqi woman describing her situation and that of her family:
As you see how much you brought to that panel, how much you filled in, between the bits of dialogue, using your own experience and the common experience we all share, to both put yourself in her situation and to recognize the gulf between her situation and your own, and our own here in the States, you begin to see what this form of journalism can accomplish.
There are two ways that journalism can work.
One is the "freak show" approach in which you find images that so contrast with our own lives that the people in them become a curiosity. This is the old newsreel-travelogue approach in which the camera focuses on a nearly-naked woman with her lips stretched by a disk while the narrator makes some cheerful remark about phonograph records.
But it's also the bombs-in-the-street approach, in which everyone is covered with dust and blood and is screaming over the dead body of a family member, and the impact is, perhaps paradoxically, dulled by the extremeness. That is, we sympathize, but we're not able to empathize. It's too weird, too outside anything we have experienced.
We feel sorry for the emaciated, dull-eyed famine victim holding a skeletal, fly-covered child, and we may even send some money. But we feel bad for her just as we feel bad for the abused puppy in the Sarah Mclachlan PSA, as something other, as someone we're not.
The other journalistic approach is to depict people in these dire places as people with hopes and dreams, with expectations of life, in such a way that we identify with them. Whatever concern we feel, whatever aid we may try to give, comes from a true sense of "There but for the grace of God go I."
It is particularly effective when the settings are not so foreign, when the people may dress differently and may speak differently but then behave the same and express our same familiar hopes and dreams, ramped up or hammered down only by the situations outside their apartments, never by anything inside themselves.
Sarah Glidden's work insists that we sit in middleclass livingrooms alongside her and her journalistic colleagues drinking tea with the refugees ourselves, that we stand in the long lines in familiar-looking public buildings alongside a young Iraqi woman much like ourselves, and enter into those conversations, filling in the spaces between the panels and being a part of the event.
And it works. But only if you quit reading this and go read that.