Tuesday 15 January 2008

An investigation of investigative comics

I wrote a feature piece on the surprisingly old - to me anyways -medium of investigative comics (or "comix reportage" as one publisher recently dubbed it) in the new issue of THIS magazine. This is the first time I've written for the awkwardly-named proudly-socialist publication, so I wasn't sure what to expect (requests to include more quotes from Naomi Klein maybe?). But I'm happy to say it was a pleasurable doctrine-free experience; they're a swell bunch of folks.

Anyway, here' s a link to the piece. And here's a snippet, starting with the words of noted comics journalist Joe Sacco:

“The great thing about comics is that they’re so loose and so little had been done with the form that I didn’t feel like there were any footsteps that I had to follow,” [Joe Sacco] says. “Comics then, and maybe even now, were like untrampled grass and you could walk across it in any direction you wanted. It’s one of those mediums that’s so open to interpretation.”

Sacco is by no means the only cartoonist to take advantage of this creative freedom. Though he’s credited with giving comics journalism its name, many other cartoonists have worked in a similar vein, including Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman (founders of the socialist comics magazine World War 3 Illustrated), British cartoonist and anti-capitalist Sue Coe (an alumni of the groundbreaking “commix” anthology RAW), Canadian Guy Delisle (with Pyongyang, Shenzhen and his forthcoming book about Burma), and even the likes of Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith and Leonard Rifas, the rabble-rousing leftist cartoonist who created Corporate Crime Comics during the 1970s.

But to many comics historians, including Jeet Heer and cartoonist Art Spiegelman, the roots of today’s comics journalists can be traced nearly 150 years further back, to the American Civil War. When the war began in 1861, newspaper and magazine editors were hungry for images to run alongside their coverage of the divisive confrontation. Unfortunately, nascent photographic technology wasn’t advanced enough to allow photographers to capture battles, says Heer.

“During all of the 19th century wars, like the Crimean War and the Civil War, the main defining images weren’t photographs of the battlefield, but from illustrators who were sent out there,” he says from Regina. “There are photographs of the Civil War, but they’re always after the battles because the cameras required exposures of five to 10 minutes.”

One of the most enjoyable things of doing a wide-ranging piece like this is you get to do some real digging and can occasionally come across some really neat stuff. In this case, it was journalistic work done by Harvey Kurtzman, original editor of Mad magazine, architect behind Little Annie Fanny and all-around comics innovator. They couldn't include any of these 1950's gems in the THIS piece due to copyright issues, but here's a sample of the Jimmy Cagney profile he did.

Anyone interested in the other journalistic comics Kurtzman did should check this out. It's beautiful stuff.

All things said, I'm pretty happy with this piece of writing. My only regret? The picture I sent them for the contributors page (too surly) and my bio, which is about 200 words longer than anyone else's. I didn't know - i swear!

Later - B.


Von Allan said...

It's a good piece. I enjoyed it quite a bit. :)

Brad Mackay said...

Thanks man! Sacco gave me a great compliment to; I had clearly done my homework, and that he had learned something fron it. Made my day, -B.