On March 14, I'll be helping give a presentation about comics reportage at the College Media Adviser’s convention in New York. Our goal is to show them some of the ways the comics form has been used in journalism beyond editorial cartoons. I've looked at all of the archived CulturePulp strips, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to take a few minutes to answer some questions.
Following are my answers to those questions. It's the closest thing I've ever given to a history of the CulturePulp pop-reportage comic strip.
I've been drawing comics since I was in grade school; I had a four-issue comic-book series (about robots, natch) in my elementary-school library for fellow students to check out.
I later wrote and drew a couple of narrative comic strips for various student publications at the University of Oregon and self-published them as books.
(I also majored in Magazine Journalism at U of O, and wrote for and edited high-school and college student publications.)
I did experiment a little with journalism in a comic-strip format during my college senior year -- collaborating on a cartoon feature in which my college comic-strip character interviewed two other college-comic-strip characters drawn by two other students.
I more or less let my cartooning career languish after I left college in 1992 -- tackling the medium in little fits and starts ("Santa's Lil' Gimp" is the standout), but putting most of my energy into running a couple of community newspapers and writing movie reviews on the Internet. Then, in 2004, I was hired on as a film critic at The Oregonian on the strength of my Web writing.
In March 2004, I had made a nonfiction comic strip for A&E about the history of superhero comics -- but I'd been kicking around an idea for YEARS about doing a comic strip in which I was the lead character, a strip that chronicled me doing weird/funny stuff as a pop-cultural reporter. And so, needing extra income, I simply walked up to my then-editor Grant Butler and pitched the idea a few months into my Oregonian gig. He said, "Make a prototype," and sent me to a zydeco concert. I made this comic, and to my surprise, Grant published that prototype and basically gave me a space in A&E every couple of weeks to do nearly anything I wanted. I was VERY lucky to have an editor willing to take that risk.
From there, I enjoyed the singularly terrifying experience of learning to do non-fiction pop-reportage comics in public.
I presented some of my ideas on the form at a journalism conference in Denver in (I think) 2005, and since then, I've also done a couple of journalism/semi-journalism strips for the Boston Globe: "A History of Aeon Flux" and an interview with filmmaker Richard Linklater.
Yes. I've been freelancing with The Oregonian as a film reviewer/interviewer and as a cartoonist since Feb. 2004. This works out well; under the terms of my freelance contract, I own the copyright to all my comics in the paper 24 hours after publication.
2a. I’m interested in finding out more about the print version. What size does it run in the paper? What kind of play does it get in the section?
CulturePulp (and "Mr. Do & Mr. Don't") comics generally appear monthly in the front-of-the-book section of The Oregonian's Friday arts section, A&E. A couple of special strips were done for Sunday arts sections, as I recall. The A&E strips take up an entire roughly tabloid-sized page of the section -- about 9.5" wide by 10.5" tall.
(It's a really generous news hole, actually, given the ever-shrinking size of comic strips on other pages.) When I started doing the strip, it was half that size, and I had a LOT more trouble with cramped art and making everything fit.
I rearrange the panels for the online version of the strip.
In recent years, time constraints have me taking breaks from the journalism/reportage comics to do a far less research-intensive humor strip called "Mr. Do & Mr. Don't" -- a spoof of "Goofus & Gallant" in which two "instructional cartoon characters" teach Portlanders how to behave at various cultural events.
(After you tally the reporting, transcribing, distilling, scriptwriting, layout, drawing, lettering, editing, and post-production tweaking, each CulturePulp journalism comic takes about 30 hours to make. And that's been with considerable inking assistance by my good friend Bill Mudron and digital coloring by the likes of Mudron and the talented animator Chad Essley.)
There are several. Newspapers have experimented with the form here and there. Here are a few I like, in papers and elsewhere:
- "Phables" by Brad Guigar
- "Framed" by Chris Lowrance
- David Chelsea (autobio/textbook)
- Dennis Eichhorn (autobio)
- Khris Soden's "City of Roses" history-of-Portland comics
- Ryan Alexander-Tanner, who did a one-panel journalism comic for a rival paper in town called Willamette Week. (Ryan and I actually were pitted against each other in an art battle, depicted here.)
- I'm also a HUGE fan of Kate Beaton's history and autobio comics, which stretch the definition of "journalism" but are also brilliant. (She did an amazing strip about her years working off her student loans in a Canadian oil-field office, but it's not online.)
4. What do you think is gained from creating a comic about an event rather than simply writing about it?
Honestly, I'm not sure my thoughts on the matter are terribly complicated: I just thought it was a funny/unusual/attention-getting way to cover Portland's weirder subcultural corners while giving myself a cool excuse to do stuff like ride a Segway. Doing it in comics form often allows you to play up the subjectivity and comedy in a way that not even video can match.
5. Taking photographs can be done in seconds, but drawing panels is quite laborious and time-consuming. Why is creating a comic worth the extra time? What does the comics form offer that traditional story-plus-photographs does not?
See above. I guess maybe I'd put it this way:
Comics are the hardest form of writing for the easiest form of reading, which makes it interesting to me as a formal experiment. A lot of people could film themselves doing the sorts of things I do in these strips; a lot of people could write about doing the sorts of things I do in these strips. Very few people would choose to make comic strips along those lines, however -- and none of those comics would look quite like mine. (Most of them would probably look BETTER than mine, but that's another story.)
My point being: This personal authorial stamp provided by the comics form is interesting to me -- not just in my own pop-culture-centered work, but in all nonfiction-comics work, especially by masters like Sacco.
I think what you gain from chronicling a pop-culture event in comics form is that you lend the experience an extremely subjective personal stamp that can be vivid and funny in ways that other mediums can't.
Also, as I once heard Art Spiegelman say (I'm paraphrasing), comics work like the human mind -- distilling information into quicks bursts of words and images. They can be incredibly effective as a journalism vehicle.
Well, I can't speak for hard-core masters of the form like Sacco or Crumb. But for me, I make myself a character because
(a) it ensures I always have something to make fun of, i.e., myself, and
(b) I started the strip without having a lead character as a guide, and it just wasn't as fun to read as it was when I provided the reader with a little first-person everyman who can act as the reader's entrée (and anchor) into whatever world we're visiting. I'd argue it's not narcissism so much as satisfying the reader's need for a protagonist. TV-news reports have anchors and correspondents; why not comics?
7. In the online versions of CulturePulp, you always include “Endnotes and Digressions.” Do those appear in the print version, as well? Why do you feel the endnotes are necessary?
There are endnotes in the print version, but I usually expand them for the online version. I do this partly because I love footnotes (I'm a HUGE fan of David Foster Wallace's nonfiction work) -- but also because supplementing the comic with hotlinks and denser textual information just makes the reading experience richer, and gives a greater sense that the piece was actually reported. I try to make each comic a sort of multimedia "information meal," and the endnotes are a big part of that.
8. Obviously, these questions just scratch the surface of comics journalism. Is there anything else you’d like to add for our college audience?
Mostly, I'd just love to see more people trying to do pop-culture journalism comics. I started mine because I'd always wanted to read one in a newspaper. By all means feel free to make yours better-drawn, funnier and/or more insightful than mine.
9. May we quote from your comments in our paper/presentation?
Only if I haven't made a complete jackass of myself.
-- Mike Russell