It was just a few years ago that Sarah Glidden published a minicomic about the trip she took to Israel as part of the Taglit Birthright Israel program. The young cartoonist thought it would make a good topic for a long form comics piece and Vertigo agreed, as the company decided to publish her debut graphic novel based on the minicomic chapters she had published. The result is a very personal tale that avoids easy answers, and in the end, the understanding that Glidden’s title is about a lack of answers.
This month sees the release of the book in hardcover from Vertigo, and refusing to rest on her laurels, Glidden is returning to the region later this month to visit Turkey, Syria and Iraq as part of the multimedia Common Language Project, but she took time out of her schedule to speak with CBR.
CBR News: Sarah, what’s your background? Were you always interested in art and comics?
Sarah Glidden: I was always interested in drawing at least. When I was a kid, the comics I read were mostly just newspaper strips, but what I really wanted to be was a Disney animator. When I was 11, though, I got to go on a tour of the Disney animation studios in Florida and I was struck by the fact that all the animators had to draw like each other. I don’t know why that hadn’t been obvious to me before but it really depressed me and I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I still had this idea that I wanted to be an “artist” when I grew up but I wasn’t sure what that would actually look like. I went to art school at Boston University and majored in painting. I loved painting for a while. I was making abstracted landscape paintings and portraits. I think I wanted to be like Richard Diebenkorn. But I also took liberal arts classes and once I started getting more and more interested in politics and science, painting stopped being as exciting. I wanted to interact with what was going on in the real world. Then in my junior year we had a major loss in my family and then 9/11 happened and painting began to feel pointless so I stopped. I kept trying new mediums after that. For a while I loved photography and wanted to be a photojournalist. Somehow I came back to drawing again and then tried comics and it was like I had finally found my match. Comics could be used to talk about anything. It seemed like the perfect balance between art and ideas.
Where did the idea of doing this book come from? What it before the trip, during, afterwards?
I had the idea before going on the trip. I hadn’t been making comics for that long – maybe six or eight months – and with the exception of one silly stab at meta-fiction I had just been making daily journal comics as a way to practice. I thought maybe I was ready to take on a longer project. I was arguing with my mom about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one day and she said, “You know, maybe you should go on one of those Birthright Israel trips and see the country for yourself before you start having such strong opinions about it.” I had always resisted Birthright because I thought those tours were just propaganda, but then I thought, “What a great idea for a long project!” I thought that even if Birthright did turn out to be propaganda, at least it would be an interesting thing to write and draw about.
Now you first put out the beginning of this book as a minicomic. What were your plans for the story then and how did you find your way to Vertigo?
I don’t know how much of a plan I actually had when I started the book as minicomics. I figured I would self-publish them as chapters but I didn’t have the whole story outlined or anything. I really wasn’t sure anyone would want to read a comic about my thoughts on Israel but I got some good positive feedback after the first chapter so I kept going and made another one. I’m still amazed by how I got to Vertigo. I was selling the two minis at the MoCCA fest at a table I was sharing with some other Brooklyn cartoonists and this guy with a DC badge walked over and asked me about them. I didn’t think DC would be interested in my comics. Doesn’t DC publish Batman? But he bought them anyway. A few days later I got an email from this guy, Jon Vankin, saying that he was an editor at Vertigo and that they were interested in publishing my complete book. A few weeks later I’m sitting in the DC offices with my new editor Jon and signing papers. It was kind of surreal.
What was working with editor Jonathan Vankin like and how did he help you in putting together this finished product?
Jon was just an amazing editor. I had been nervous when I said “yes” to working with Vertigo, afraid that going with a bigger publisher would mean that I would have to compromise my work somehow and that Jon would ask me to cut things that were too controversial. You know, selling out. But none of that happened. He had taken a huge risk in signing me. I was this new creator who had never done a full-length book before and Jon trusted me enough to let me take the work in the direction I wanted to. Sometimes there were scenes that didn’t help the story and that needed to be cut, and he would make suggestions about those. I think a beginning memoirist can lose sight of what’s important in a narrative. If it happened to you it’s all important. So it takes a good editor to help cut away the fat and see the shape of the work at times when you may not.
Was the process of putting the book together largely an issue of killing your darlings and emphasizing the narrative? Any good stories that you wish had been included?
I originally thought this book should be at least 300 pages. I thought it had to include everything! I didn’t understand that writing a good piece of memoir was more complicated than just repeating everything that happened to you. So yes, I had a lot of darlings to kill, many of which would have been great as stand-alone comics but were out of place in the bigger scheme of things. For example, when we were in Jaffa at this ancient port – the one Jonah set sail from in the Bible – and our guide was about to tell this story about it but there was a fisherman standing nearby about to cast off so we all stood back and watched. He waved the fishing pole, whipping the line back and forth and then cast it out. At the same time, a bird was flying by. The fisherman’s hook made a direct hit and the poor bird dropped dead into the sea. Our whole group was so shocked and surprised! I was too, but I also thought, “Wow, when I figure out what this is a metaphor for, this will be perfect for the book!” But no, it didn’t fit, so out it went.
How has the experience of having years to shape the book and work on it affected the final product in terms of what was included, what was emphasized, and things like that?
When I came back, I immediately tried to start working on the book but found that I couldn’t. It was too close. I had to wait a few months to even figure out what had changed in me emotionally so that I could write about it. A journalist writes about events as they happen and sometimes all the information isn’t there in order to put it into context and talk about why they are significant. That’s the job of the historian. Maybe journal comics, done within a few days of the experience, are more analogous to journalism. And if you’re writing memoir, you’re an emotional historian. You know how an experience has changed you, how it made you relate to what came later, and you have a little more perspective on your own actions and thoughts.
The book really straddles two forms of comics, the memoir/autobiographical comic and the nonfiction/journalistic comic. Which form is the one that really interests you?
I’m interested in where those things intersect. Like I said before, I think of this book as more memoir than journalism, but I really want to push future work more in the other direction. I read a lot of narrative non-fiction, sometimes called the “new new journalism”, and I would love to make work like that in comics form if possible. In this kind of journalism, the author is present, so you’re constantly reminded that you’re seeing things through their eyes. It’s not trying to fool you into thinking that journalism is objective, which I don’t believe it is.
Let’s talk about the color palette you used for the book. How did you decide on it and was it important that you color the book instead of handing it off to someone else to color?
I really wanted to have control over how the whole book looked (except the lettering), but I wasn’t sure how I was going to color it when I started out. I thought maybe I would color it with Photoshop. But choosing colors in Photoshop is so different than mixing it on a palette and it felt really alien to me. For a while it didn’t actually occur to me that I could try painting the book. I had almost forgotten that painting was what I had gotten my undergraduate degree in! I had never really tried watercolors, and using the little brick watercolors was frustrating. But when I tried using tube watercolors it was like getting back on a bike and I remembered how much I had enjoyed painting. I just went right back to mixing colors the same way I had a decade earlier, with the same naturalistic muted palette and the same approach to how light works.
What do you think comics journalism can do that other forms of reportage cannot or do not?
Comics journalism can really give a reader a sense of place in a way that straight prose can’t. You can see some of the things that make a location different from what you’re used to, like architecture or signage. You can also see some of the things that make a location the same as what you’re used to, which I think is just as important. The drawings in the panel can make a reader feel like they’re traveling with the writer/artist. But there are limitations too. You have to be more careful about big dense areas of text and really economize on words. Sometimes I really just want to indulge in lots and lots of words. It’s a trade off.
You’re traveling to Turkey and Iraq and Syria this month. What are your plans for the trip and how are you preparing for the trip differently than you would have because of the experience of crafting this book?
Before I went to Israel I had no idea what I would need to write the book later. I took tons of notes and photos while I was there, but I later wished I had written down even more dialogue because dialogue is so important to telling a story. I had to try and recreate a lot of conversations, which pushed the Israel book further towards memoir and away from journalism. This time around, I have a digital recorder, so I plan on using that as much as possible. Otherwise, I’m not really preparing for this very differently than I did for my Israel trip. Maybe I’m being a bit less obsessive about my pre-trip research, but I’m just doing the same kind of general reading. I think I’m a bit more prepared for what will happen when I get back and have to start writing again, though. I know much more about shaping a narrative now and finding out what the story is really “about.”
Is this more of what you would like to do in the future as far as comics?
I think so. I have a lot of ideas for future projects in mind and they’re pretty much all within the realm of narrative non-fiction.
how do you talk about the Israeli-Palestinian situation differently after going on your trip?
I cringe when I think about how I used to talk about the situation. I was such a know-it-all. Maybe that’s just part of being in your early 20s though. I still have opinions about it, and I still get angry at what’s happening and every failed peace talk, but now I know better than to think that there’s a simple way to find a solution. It’s funny how many Americans there are who think they know how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You’d think that with so many armchair foreign policy experts, we would have figured this out a long time ago.
“How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less” is availble now from DC/Vertigo.