The Big Apple Con in New York City drew the usual assortment of comics fanboys and sci-fi geeks in full Stormtrooper regalia last weekend, but a more serious side of comics was on display at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art downtown, home to this year's MoCCA Artfest panels and CBR News was in attendance. There have been some gripes about the panels being inconveniently located two blocks from the Puck Building, where most of the action took place, but the panels ran non-stop both days and featured some of comics' biggest names including Alison Bechdel, Jeffrey Brown, and Joe Matt. One panel focused on the less flashy subject of non-fiction comics and war correspondents in particular, showing the potential for comics to tackle more serious subject matter.
"Reportage, Memoir and Comics" featured David Axe ("War Fix") and Greg Cook ("Catch as Catch Can"), with Brendan Burford ("Syncopated") as moderator. Ted Rall, syndicated editorial cartoonist and columnist for Universal Press Syndicate, was to attend but got stuck in China researching for his next book. Both Axe and Cook are journalists who started out in small town newspapers.
Axe has reported for The Washington Times, BBC Radio and C-Span and has spent three years as a war correspondent in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, getting back from Afghanistan the day before the panel. His first foray into comics is the graphic novel "War Fix," based on his trips and published by NBM Publishing, with art by Steve Olexa. Cook wrote and drew some strips that appeared in "Syncopated, Vol.3," an anthology of non-fiction, first-person journalism, historical essays and personal essays edited by Burford.
"That's how we kind of define the theme of the book. My reason for doing that - and I think David and Greg can touch on this a little bit - is I think it's just an accessible medium, a great way to tell stories and I think it's inviting to somebody whose maybe not indoctrinated into the comic lexicon. It's a good point of entry," said Burford.
Burford came across as a big supporter of the medium and its potential for different kinds of storytelling. He asked both reporters why they chose comics to tell their stories about the war in Iraq.
"Print reporting has a kind of sterile quality to it, which I guess serves a function,
but the rules in comics journalism are kind of loose, so I was able to inject a true story with some of the humanities missing in journalism," said Axe.
Cook interviewed both veterans with injuries and the families of Iraq casualties near Gloucester, Massachusetts where he lived, which appears in an upcoming collection of stories published by First Second Books.
"I wanted to bring the war home to people, help them directly engage it and to show it wasn't a faraway thing, but it's actually a part of our community," said Cook, "The advantage of comics in this kind of context is that you take in pictures differently than you do words and that's the power of movies or TV or the arts, it takes you past logic to this emotional place and sort of grabs you in a way that's different from words."
Burford referred to Cook's work in "Syncopated" (Vol. 3) as being "really powerful stuff" visually, with "silhouettes of soldiers being blown up on the battlefield."
"I think with comics, you're asking a little more from the reader, because you're engaging the reader to interpret more as opposed to telling them with words," said Burford.
The emotional quality of visual storytelling also played a big part in Axe's "War Fix," the first in a three book series about the war in Iraq. The second book, "Love and Terror," will be released next year by NBM. Burford asked Axe why he chose Steve Olexa as the artist for "War Fix."
"'War Fix' was about my first trip to Iraq, which had a sort of dream-like or nightmare-like quality to it and Steve is an otherworldly kind of guy without losing the journalistic accuracy I demanded, so he had the right combination of research skills, but also knew how to translate the emotional quality through his art," said Axe.
Axe also writes a bi-weekly comic strip called "War is Boring" published in a few newspapers and magazines, as well as online at his blog warisboring.com. It's drawn by editorial cartoonist Matt Bors and has a decidedly different tone from "War Fix."
"The strip develops the funny side of war, because missing from the abundance of all media is the hilarity of it. It's unfortunate that war corresponding has taken on this political cadence. You're not allowed to explore the whole experience in reporting. Doing a slice of my reporting as a comic strip is sort of a vehicle for getting away with funny war reporting," said Axe.
Cook discussed the difficulties in describing war, which often encompasses "tales of extreme violence or incident," and "conveying the range of experience" so that it doesn't come across like "an action movie."
"One of the difficulties of describing war, whether through fiction or non-fiction is to convey the boredom, the humor. How do you convey the tragic cost with the mundane stuff, where it's not just an action movie, but actually has this more pace of life," asked Cook.
He also expressed concern over describing things like the rebuilding of Iraq, soldiers giving things to Iraqi schoolchildren and "the sort of way the country is disintegrating around it."
Axe describes "War is Boring" as "about ridiculous people in bad outfits and once in a while shit blows up and people are running around shooting at each other."
"By volume, most of war is just sitting around waiting for shit to happen; you're always sitting around in some crappy ass terminal drinking bottled water waiting for the Air Force to show up and haul you across the ocean," said Axe. "This shit is hilarious. It's so absurd and ridiculous and you have no idea what's going on."
He also uses the strip to shed some light on lesser known conflicts underreported in the media, like a war in East Timor he described as "an Australian-led stability operation to facilitate U.N. rebuilding of a new country called East Timor."
"All these gangs run around in face paint with these makeshift like slingshots that shoot darts and shoot each other in the skull. Not only does it deserve more attention of a greater section of the world, but it's also great for stories," said Axe.
Cook asked Axe if he felt he was successful in reaching a larger portion of the world, to which Axe replied, "Absolutely not."
"Why do you think that is?" asked Cook.
"Well, because it's comics," said Axe with a laugh.
This spurred a discussion about the novelty of certain non-fiction comics and how comics can bring attention to social issues.
"One of the interesting things about non-fiction, not all non-fiction, but how the right book, or the lucky book, manages to get a lot of attention in a way that's different. Like Joe Sacco's book ["Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia"]. For the press who reports on books - and to an extent the booksellers - there's a novelty to non-fiction comics that on occasion helps them rise above other books," said Cook.
An audience member said marketing the medium would help bring issues surrounding the war to young people, comics' target audience, who tend to be complacent about the war.
"I'm an optimist, because it's become kind of sexy to report on comic books," said Burford. "Two weeks ago, there was a great review in the NY Times. Salon was in there, the Popeye book. The point is it's a great article and a lot of people saw it, a lot of people started talking about it. I mean, come on, it's the NY Times. If its become sexy to a reviewer to review a comic book, what better way than to get a reviewer interested in a comic book that has some real world implications?"
"We've been in a moment when comics are cool in the general readership," said Cook. "There's a chance to use comics as a tool through that novelty to get attention as opposed to writing a straight word book about Iraq. It's all a crap shoot. Certainly marketing is part of that. I think that's the hope. Many comics have a way of working outside the system, or around the system, or under the system, and working their way into popular culture. You don't necessarily need huge audiences to address this stuff, in a way it'd be helpful to have big audiences, but a lot of stuff starts off small."
Cook mentioned Art Spiegleman's "Maus," which he said, "became a hugely influential, widely read book in a sea of Holocaust literature."
Burford said, "I absolutely love non-fiction and I love comics, and I want comics to benefit from the idea that non-fiction is accessible and people gravitate towards it because they can reflect. There's some great stories of how this works. Greg mentioned Joe Sacco, excellent example of somebody whose well-respected in the literary world as well. 'Persepolis' is another one."
"And the thing with Persepolis is, here's a story nobody cares about if you write about it in the newspaper at that time," said Cook. "The exclusivity of her story [Marjane Satrapi], a story we don't have easy access to, made this book and got a lot of people to read it and gave insight to her personal story of Iran at a time when nobody knew anything about Iran. How much do we read about Iran? It gave people an on the ground view of what it was like to be in Iran during those years. That's the power - we can use comics for a story that nobody would normally pay attention to."
An animated film based on "Persepolis," co-wrote and co-directed by Marjane Satrapi, was released at the Cannes Film Festival in France back in May and has been released in France and Belgium, but no U.S. release date has been set.
Both writers had very different styles of reporting and relating war; Axe related the experiences of soldiers on the front lines in Iraq, while Cook related the experiences of battle-scarred veterans fresh from the battlefield.
"I've always been critical of the war, a skeptic of the war," said Cook. "I'm not a war correspondent. I've done it all through interviews with people who witnessed things first hand. I'm talking to somebody who was there, but I'm not going in. Part of me was scared and also I didn't believe in the war and I thought it silly to risk my life for something I didn't believe in, but I also think it's a great tradition; many of the great non-fiction books are based on that kind of reporting. 'Blackhawk Down' for example, he didn't witness anything, it was all through reporting by witnesses and 'Hiroshima,' he didn't witness anything. If we're supposed to be critical of the war, how can we report on the war without buying into the war? The flash and the excitement of the war?"
Axe replied, "The more time you spend at the war, the less easy it becomes to criticize about it because as you know it's very big, very complicated and it tends to shape your view of the world in such a way that, maybe, you don't treasure the lives of all those people that much as much as you did before. When you see that first hand, when you live in that foul-smelling, disgusting country for a few months, it takes the edge off your politically motivated gripes which might not be really about the war."
"What do you mean?" asked Cook.
Axe replied, "You hate George Bush. This is George Bush's war. They hate it because of Bush. I hate the war. I hate the war because it makes me so mad. I don't hate it because of George Bush. It's much, much bigger than him. Which war are we talking about here? He only has his finger in a couple of 'em. But, I think anyone who makes a living criticizing these conflicts should take a month and go. Otherwise, they have no credibility."
Cook didn't agree. "I don't feel that you have to kill somebody to know murdering is wrong. That's not a fair argument. Just because someplace is awful, doesn't mean we should be happy that it's awful. If you look at 'Blackhawk Down' in particular, it was done several years after the fact, it was someone went there late, but much of his reporting was done here in the States with veterans of the experience," said Cook.
"What kind of argument are you trying to make here?" asked Axe.
Cook said, "I feel that part of the reason that the press wasn't more critical leading up to the war was that there's a great romantic tradition of people making their name off of war in journalism and at the beginning of war, war sells and there's sort of a vested interest in the beginning at the least for the press not to be as critical, because war is exciting and war is thrilling and it makes for great TV and it makes for great stories."
"Don't you benefit from that as well?" asked Axe.
"Yeah, that's why I was asking the question, because how do we engage the war, if you're critical of the war, how do you engage the war without buying into the war?" said Cook.
"I was just going to say, embrace the fact that there are benefits," said Axe.
Burford opened up the floor to questions from the audience. One concerned the influences on their work from other writers.
"Yeah, Joe Sacco's one and Ted Rall, whose supposed to be on this panel is another. I picked up Ted's two Afghanistan books back like four years ago and that's when I decided I had to do something like that. Absolutely," said Axe.
Cook replied, "For me, definitely Joe Sacco, it's unavoidable. I also look at how he tells his stories and the mechanics of his stories. I also looked at 'Maus,' for example. For Spiegleman, it seems his heart is in experimenting with the form of comics, breaking down the form and in 'Maus' it seems he went away from that. He still disrupts the form, but he tells things more clearly. Instead of being more experimental, like the Dick Tracy ones, where he was interested in that kind of fractured storytelling, referencing the comic book, but in 'Maus' he worked to make it as clear as possible, which I think is part of the success of that book. It's not about formal invention, but using the form to tell something very clearly."
Another question concerned exposure and expanding the audience beyond the niche market of comics into more mainstream publications.
"I like this goal of trying to penetrate the consciousness of the masses instead of this niche market, putting comics in front of people that are meaningful. It's not entertainment, it's information in the form of comics. I think it's a great medium for communication and perhaps an underrated medium for communication. Historically, it's been a medium of humor and entertainment, but I think that's changing a little bit," said Burford.
Chris Ware ["The Acme Novelty Library"] was the subject of another question concerning his artwork appearing in the "Whitney" bi-annual, a publication from the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC.
"For a decade or longer he did a weekly strip in an alternative Chicago paper ["New City"] and probably had many more people read his strip than read the Whitney bi-annual, you know, so it crossed over into the art world and you expand your audience in a certain way, but he already had a significant audience because he was publishing in something akin to the 'Village Voice,'" said Cook.
Burford wrapped things up by saying, "Non-fiction appeals to a lot of people. It's relatable. And I think it's a good entry point for comics. It's hard for some people to get into comics because a lot of people are afraid to step into that comic store, because it's like a horrible dungeon where people are going to make them feel bad for what they don't know. So, I'd like to eliminate that stigma."
Now discuss this story in CBR's Indie Comics forum.