Sarah Glidden staked out a claim as a significant player in the journalism-through-comics space with her 2011 memoir How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less. In that rare non-fiction hit for DC's Vertigo line, Glidden addressed issues involving Israel and her neighbors via the mechanism of birthright trips to Israel by detailing her own. A latecomer to comics, Glidden managed to bring fresh eyes to an experience through both her personal perspective and her choice of medium. It was a perfect book for young people ready to move past traditional comics fantasies and into an appealing, challenging narrative about real-world issues and one's potential place in questioning the status quo.
Glidden charged down an even harder road with her major follow-up, this year's best of 2016 list mainstay Rolling Blackouts. In the approximately 300-page work published by Drawn and Quarterly, Glidden analyzes in meticulous a trip to Syria and other regions of recent US interest with a group of roughly same-age journalist peers. A book about pressing issues and how we process them as journalism, Rolling Blackouts is one of the most interesting works about modern news-gathering in any medium, told against a compelling backdrop whose truths and quandaries and quotidian moments sneak into memory.
I was so happy Glidden took some holiday time to answer a few questions. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I identified some potential tensions in Rolling Blackouts and its creation, and I thought that might make for the backbone of our chat. Hopefully, we can get to some areas that you haven't talked about in great detail yet. Or maybe not! I'm sympathetic to any artist at the far end of talking about a work, but I can't always help out!
SARAH GLIDDEN: I'm happy to get to do this.
SPURGEON: You've talked about some of the preparation you've done for the subjects of your trip. You sat in the back of a class on journalism. You studied some of the context about the situations on the ground where your travel was going to take you. What I wonder after is your preparation for process, how much you planned for what it would be like to collect the material you'd need to do this comic. You're still new to this. This is a second major book. How prepared did you feel about handling and processing the assignment ahead?
GLIDDEN: I prepared about as much as I possibly could. I had about six months between finishing the work on How To Understand Israel and going on this new trip. The book itself came out after I had left, but there was some time between handing in the final work and leaving for this trip.
I used the time to cram. Journalism school cram. I did a lot of reading -- there's a lot of books about this stuff you can read. Telling True Stories was one. That's lots of different journalists talking about their craft and the ethical dilemmas they get into. How they do interviews.
I also did a lot of stuff like I would take New Yorker articles I liked and diagram them.
SPURGEON: Oooh, that's interesting.
GLIDDEN: I would look at how they started with this scene, which I would label as this narrative line, line A, and then in paragraph three they'd start talking about background, which meant that they did research for that. I would think a lot about the works I really liked and thinking about how they were created. Then I went to Seattle for a month during the summer before the trip. Alex [Stonehill], the photojournalist in this book, was teaching a summer class at the University of Washington. He let me sit in on it. I did some assignments when I was in that class. I did some interviewing with Iraqi refugees here in Seattle.
Then I did a project I never did anything with before I left. Right before we went on that trip they were about to open this Islamic Center very close to the World Trade Center site. There had been a big... like, big nothing controversy over it. They were saying it was the "9/11 mosque." This was mostly reporting coming out of Fox News. More national, more sensationalist controversy. It wasn't a big deal in New York, where no one cared about it.
I had to go down there and talk to people that worked at World Trade Center and see what they thought about it. That was my first time going out by myself, going up to people on the street and talking to them and taking notes. It was very scary, but if there's any place to get your start doing reporting, then New York City on the street is a great place to do it because people just love talking. [Spurgeon laughs] They love to talk about themselves and what they think, and especially with 9/11 and that era of New York, people wanted to still talk about it even though it had been a long time. People were happy to answer questions about it.
So that gave me some confidence to do what I was doing. Mostly with this trip I was following friends that were very close to me, friends I felt very comfortable with. And what makes reporting hard when you're doing it in a more normal situation is that you don't know someone and you're trying to ask them personal questions, you're trying to build a rapport with them. With these people I was traveling with, I already had that rapport built. Like for ten years. I didn't need to kind of like tiptoe around how I talked to them.
It was a difficult trip and there was a lot of -- how do I put it? [laughs] -- different, difficult interpersonal relationships and conversations going on there with Sarah [Stuteville] and her friend Dan [O'Brien], and with me not trying to step on her toes. It was kind of like anything else. You just have to do it, and you're not going to feel prepared until you just do it enough times that you become comfortable with it.
SPURGEON: What was your anticipation of obvious, potential pitfalls, like the fact you were dealing with friends, and you might have a difficult time separating what you were seeing and how you felt about it? You talked at one point in the book about separating out the fact that these were your friends when it came to a specific action you needed to take. Were the problems of this kind as you anticipated? What threw you for a loop?
GLIDDEN: I was totally unprepared for that aspect of it, and I really don't think I anticipated it at all.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Okay.
GLIDDEN: This whole project felt more straightforward to me before I started doing it. I think it comes across in the book that I had this very heroic idea of my friends and what they were doing. Journalism, before you start doing it -- some people hate journalists, especially now. I had this very noble idea of journalist, especially these friends of mine. I respect them so much and admire what they've done. So I went into this situation thinking, "Oh, I'll just follow them around. They'll show us how it's done." I wasn't really anticipating that sometimes they'd make mistakes or that they'd say things that later on they might regret. That stuff all came later, and I think that if I had anticipated that, if I had know that was going to happen, I might not have done this project.
It's the same thing with the Israel book. I wasn't thinking about what I was doing when I started out on that project, either. If I had thought about it, "Oh, you're going to make a book about one of the most complicated conflicts in the world that makes people their most emotional when they talk about it" I would have been like, "Oh yeah, this is a really bad idea. I'm not going to to that." [laughter]
So in a way I think I go into projects sometimes with a certain amount of naiveté in terms of how hard it's going to be. It might be a good thing, I guess. You take on the assignment first and work out the difficulties later.
SPURGEON: One thing I find most admirable about the book is that you use this resolutely deliberate approach. You take the full measure of situations you find yourself in. In a way, this book is less about making strong points than letting reality sift itself to the surface in a way that exposes it, not proselytizes on its behalf.
What I wonder is how you developed that approach. When did you know this was going to be this big of a book, and that you would spend that much time on day-to-day realities and digging into specific conversations?
GLIDDEN: I guess... always. I have a hard time keeping things concise. [Spurgeon laughs] I would have liked for the book to have been even longer. The hard thing about doing non-fiction is that when you're experiencing something or talking to someone or listening to someone, everything seems important. It all seems important. So throwing stuff aways, there's a whole... we were in Lebanon for a week and a half, but I had to cut that whole section because in the end I feel like it doesn't add a lot to the main story, the main through-lines I was working on. So in the end it would feel sort of gratuitous. It didn't really help the narrative.
With the other stuff, I want people to be able to kind of pick things up on their own. I know what I do isn't that cool. [laughs] It isn't that artistic. I really am fearful of making stuff that's too on the nose and spells things out for people. I'm holding out for a measure of subtlety in work that isn't always that subtle. We're talking about the Middle East and emotions and earnest hoping that things can be better.
I'm always checking myself and making sure I'm not like, I don't know, making things too easy for people. I want them to make their own decisions about things. Some of the reviews for the book, one might say that I'm anti-American and it's clear what my political stances are, and another might say I'm too neutral. [laughter] I guess I'd rather be too neutral. If you can read this stuff and not come away with my opinion on it, that's good. I want you to make your own opinion about what this means and what these stories mean.
SPURGEON: Clarify something for me. You say you dropped the Lebanon sequence. Where does this dropping happen in the making of the book? Is this in a writing session after you got back? Is this later on, when you're assembling the book from material either half-way or fully completed? Is this while you were experiencing it?
GLIDDEN: It was getting too long. I have it all thumb-nailed out and written. It's in my computer now. My thumbnails are pretty detailed. I do the scripts first and then I'll do thumbnails so like Tom Devlin or whoever can read it.
I made that whole chapter and I wanted enough time in Syria to get into what was going on in Syria. Tom was flexible with length, but he said, "Try not to make it more than 300 pages." And so that ended up... yeah, that section ended up going. I don't know. Maybe someday I'll put it up on my site or something because I do think that material is interesting. If you look at it, it's like, "Yeah, this doesn't belong with the rest of the book."
SPURGEON: There's a level of complexity in Rolling Blackouts I don't know has been fully addressed. One level of the book is this study of journalism in practice. You also have these real-world events you are seeing at the same time as the journalists you're covering. You have to present information about that, even if only to clue us in as to what the journalists are doing.
I wonder how you dealt with those subjects, how you made the decision what to include there, and what to directly assay. How difficult was it to approach an issue like the refugee crisis given your emphasis going in? Does that make sense? You have two different, fully-realized levels of engagement.
GLIDDEN: My whole mission when I went into the trip was to talk about how the journalism works. But as soon as you're sitting in on these interviews, and you're listening to people who have been displaced, you can be like, "Why am I talking about the journalism? This other stuff is so much more important."
I really struggled with that a lot. How can I have both of these things? When you juxtapose them, to me one seems so much more important than the other. But I think part of the message of the book is that this stuff is all important. It's important for us think about where journalism comes from, and it's important for us to talk about the Iraq War, and our role in it as Americans, and our decisions there and how we participated in what happened, indirectly or directly.
It's also important to listen to the stories of people who have been displaced by that war. It's something I was really trying to be careful about when I did the book. I didn't want one to steamroll the others. I didn't want to convey that these four white people wandering around the Middle East was more important than the stories of the people we were interviewing. But that's kind of going to be there because that's what ties all the stories together. They are the main thread of the book.
It makes me uncomfortable, I gotta say. Journalism is an uncomfortable thing to do. You're just going to be putting yourself into situations where you wonder if what you're doing is a morally right or not. Sometimes I want to make one of those cats book like Jeffrey Brown made. Nothing morally wrong about that -- everyone likes cats! [laughter]
I felt like questioning the mission of the book. Then again, I couldn't have gone on that strip and only focused on what we were encountering and not on the process of journalism and these arguments between Sarah and Dan. That would have been stealing the work that these other reporters did. I wasn't the one doing these interviews. It would have been me being parasitical who were being kind to me and giving me access. I had to put it both in. I hope I did it the right way. It wasn't easy.
SPURGEON: That's the overall message, that journalism encompasses all of these tensions and many of them are uncertain.
SPURGEON: And that uncertainty is because... of the moral and ethical questions involved? You seem to have a "like it or not" attitude towards what might be the final outcome, or a final realization.
GLIDDEN: That seems like the message to me! You shouldn't run away from something because it makes you feel a little bad or uncomfortable. I think a lot of people are talking about this now, but as an American, as a journalist, as whatever, you have to be okay you're complicit with a lot of bad stuff. You have to be okay with the fact your choices are never going to be totally squeaky clean. You have to do your best and do the things you believe in and that you think are important. You have to think about all that stuff. You have to think about why some things make you uncomfortable. You have to measure whether it's still worth doing or not. With journalism, I think a lot of it is worth doing those things, even if it makes you uncomfortable to do them. I think journalism is a lot about making decision after decision like this on the fly.
I think I show the journalists I'm with making these kinds of decision. Like the heater. This guy we interview he asks for a heater and we can't provide that. We probably could afford to buy this man a heater, but there are ethical considerations involved with giving gifts to people you interview. You talk to somebody, and all you want to do is help them. But your mandate as a journalist is to listen to their stories and report on them as you're able, but if people feel like they're being paid to tell their story, that can have consequences.
Journalism is a weird and uncomfortable profession, but I think it's at least honest with itself.
SPURGEON: When I've conceived of Rolling Blackouts as a book about journalism, I thought of it as being about journalists, by a journalist. I've thought of it in terms of the straight-forward example that it sets, the complexities and moral issues involved, the boring parts of it, the connections between funding and results.
Yet there's also an element you talk about in other interviews I hadn't considered on my own, which is that this is a book for people that consume journalism, that read journalism as a matter of course or might be enticed to do so. You talk about ethical media consumption and suggest that knowing how the sausage is made can be of great use in figuring out how to process such material when it's presented to you. This is lesson not just for the presenters, but for those in the audience. This is a huge item of interest in news right now. Do you think your book accomplishes those goals? Would someone reading your book stand a better chance to consume news differently?
GLIDDEN: Well... [laughs] I hope so. I hope the act of thinking about it for a minute, realizing that someone else made this and talked to somebody else, and figured out who that might be, and asked for access to them to get at the story. I hope that makes someone realize these steps need to occur to make journalism happen. It seems obvious when I say it out loud, but I do think a lot of us take it for granted. I did before I started hearing from my friends. I would read an article -- I would try and figure out the publications I trust.
The more I bought into understanding how journalism works, the more I would question those sources as well. You have to. How does this pretty good NPR report that only focuses on one side of the story, why is that the only side of things I'm encountering? Who do they not talk to? I've been listening to All Things Considered for several months. Why haven't I heard this other perspective I know exists? Just being reminded that somebody made journalism happen: that might help people being mindful of when they're reading something.
[laughs] I don't know. Mindfulness is something... I've been meditating for a while and reading about mindfulness. I'm a very stressed-out person, so it's helping me. The whole idea of mindfulness is you meditate to be mindful about what you're experiencing as you're sitting, but then you're supposed to take that out to the real world. You're to be reminded that you are a person walking around in the world; the awareness that you're feeling a feeling right now as opposed to being swept up in that feeling.
I'm going off on a tangent, but that's the way I feel about this kind of work. If you're reading a book about how journalism works, hopefully that will make you think about the fact that journalism does work at all -- while you're reading other stuff, or watching TV.
SPURGEON: So where does comics fit into that? Is it our natural empathy with drawn characters that changes the effectiveness with which you might put into the foreground these kinds of messages? How is this work different for being comics?
GLIDDEN: I think that comics can be great for narrative journalism because you will identify with characters a little bit more. You'll see them, you'll see their gestures, and experience the looks on their faces. That makes you connect with the character and place you into their shoes better maybe than prose where you can't see them or a documentary where you may feel a greater distance. I'm not really sure if that's true. That's the idea. I want people to read a comic, connect to a person, and then when they're thinking about this stuff, or reading about it in a book or another article or something, they'll remember that connection and that will carry forward into a different meeting.
I've been using this example a lot in interviews, but Persepolis is one of the first long-form comics I ever read. It made me identify with the character of [cartoonist author] Marjane [Satrapi] and her family. That was when I was pretty young, and didn't really know a lot about politics. After reading that book, I thought of her every time Iran came up on the news. That was my way of identifying with Iran. [laughs] I was reminded of this person that I felt I knew and thinking about that country and its history through her eyes. It stayed with me into other stuff I was reading.
These are real places, not fantasy lands. You get very specific views of a place when you just see a photo essay, or you see one photo a accompanying an article that's supposed to represent all of Damascus. I really like being able to show the parts of Damascus that look cool and are touristy but also the parts that are bland buildings. A building that you might see in the city you're in; the banality of foreign places to people. People have no idea what other places are like. I have a friend in Israel, an Israeli guy, who had never been to the West Bank. When I came back from Ramallah, he was surprised to hear they had cafes and tall buildings. I don't know what he was thinking. And I do mean this one guy; not all Israelis think like him.
There's something about comics that can show those places and show what people are like and show people that we're all the same. That's a cliche, but people really are in many ways the same. We all have lives.
SPURGEON: I'm sure it's been devastating for you to think about what's going on Syria, but does the fighting there change the context of the book?
GLIDDEN: [sighs] I had to give myself little pep talks to remind myself as to why it even mattered that I was doing this. I came to the conclusion that it's not really fair to say it doesn't matter what Iraqi refugees were going through in 2010 just because there is another refugee crisis on top of that. Iraqi refugees are still refugees. Many of them have had to go home because of what happened in Syria, but they're still in danger or they're internally misplaced within the country. A lot of people we got to know in Syria are now in Turkey. Their stories ares still important and still true.
So that was something I thought about and decided, "Who cares? Syria is falling apart and I'm showing Syria before it fell apart." I've told myself it's important for people to realize what Syria was. This was not... how do I put it? We have a tendency, I think, to look at places that are being destroyed by war and imagine they were always like that in some way or another. Even though we know that that's not true. People think about Iraq and they have no way to compare it to anything before the invasion because we just never saw that. We didn't really get to see what Syria looked like in the news before the war started; we didn't have a lot of reporting coming out of Syria.
Part of that was because it was really hard for people to get into Syria to do reporting int he first place. Part of that is because Syria as a country is not important to the main news narrative that we were used to looking at before the civil war. I do think it's important for people to see that Syria was a functional state. The people we talked to had regular lives. It wasn't always diverted streets and bombed-out buildings. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I want people to know that this is a place I could not have imagined anything like this happening. Dan even said, "You look at people here and they look really happy, but I bet something could happen that would make them pick up guns and kill each other." We were like, "Ah, no way." [laughter]
We think we live in a stable country now but who knows what could happen? I went back and forth about that whole thing. It was hard working on it knowing what has happened because it's also really sad. A lot of people we met are not in a great situation now. There are people I know really bad things happened to them. It's hard to draw someone if you don't know if they're alive or dead. That was really... really difficult.
SPURGEON: Let me move this over to a couple of craft questions. This is a skillfully assembled book. I saw a couple of articles about your solution for depicting translations on the page, with overlapping balloons. Not to go too much into it, but how enjoyable is it for you to work in a medium still new to the point where you can devise new solutions like that? I can't imagine in other media a solution as matter of fact as that one coming into play in 2016.
SPURGEON: Do you find it enjoyable to work in such a nascent medium, where there's the opportunity to find your own way? I can't imagine a matter-of-fact solution like that one being available to a prose author. Do you enjoy that about comics as you continue to learn how to best use them? Are you grateful for the chance to experiment? Do you like the unformed parts of comics?
GLIDDEN: Oh, yeah! Totally. That's what makes it fun, to have these challenges. One half of you hates the problem and isn't looking forward to resolving it and wishes you didn't have to deal with it, but then you're thinking about it, working it out, and when you come across a solution it feels really good. That's kind of the way I approach drawing in general.
I know I'm not the best artist in the world. It's not easy for me. I like struggling with that stuff. I always work from scripts. The writing part is the hardest part for me so the script has to come first and then I draw. So I'll write whatever needs to happen and tell myself I'll figure it out once I start drawing it. I might give myself a couple of night scenes, or give myself a scene where it's raining. Having those problems that you set for yourself in the future, are kind of really fun.
The word balloons it took me a while to learn how to do it. It's like playing a game sometimes, and figuring something out is like beating the level. I do really like that stuff. With this meta-journalism thing, it's really hard: why the hell did I do this? A book about how journalism works is going to confuse half the names and is going to be several scenes of people sitting around talking. That's not good comics!
SPURGEON: Well, how confident were you in pulling that off? It sounds like it worried you. It seems you use the classic tricks: you move perspective, you create rhythms and then break them up... Did you gain confidence as the book went along? Do you feel better about the visual interest you were able to create?
GLIDDEN: I did. With journalism you have to accept it's going to be ethically weird. You have to accept with a book like this that you going to pages where it's in a room talking. It's going to be boring for a couple of pages, and that's okay. I didn't want to get too gimmicky and have the camera moving around and have every single panel be different to keep people from being bored.
You have to find a kind of balance. My husband is a good editor for me and he said it was okay if there are five pages of people talking at a kitchen table. You kind of have to do it. He assured me people will deal with it.
SPURGEON: My second area of craft that I wanted to ask you about, is something you've touched on a bit. You don't use as far as I can remember any kind of abstract cartooning; you don't use symbols to process an explanation. In fact, you seem reluctant to do anything, even background information, that involved taking the reader out of present-time narratives. Why is that? Was that a conscious choice for this book, or an ongoing choice for you as a cartoonist?
GLIDDEN: I feel like, for one thing, I wanted to keep this book specifically rooted in the present. It was supposed to be about the process of telling these stories and collecting these stories. I didn't want to do any flashbacks where people were talking, because that's how I would do a story about Sam, the guy from Iraq. I'd do a lot of flashbacks. Since I'm doing a story about people listening to Stan's story, I didn't want to do that too much.
It does kind of make me feel a little weird to illustrate something I didn't witness. I know someone like Joe Sacco does a lot of due diligence when he's doing flashback scenes for people he's talking to. The stuff he did with Footnotes In Gaza about having a map of the school, and having them point to where they were, he's very cognizant of something like what clothes people might be wearing, and I think that's the only way to do it. You have to be really careful about that stuff because you're making a lot of assumptions by illustrating somebody's story when you didn't get to see it. I feel like in the future, I'll do more of that than I did with this book. But it's something that makes me nervous and I know I'll be very careful about it.
SPURGEON: The color... I wondered if that was a basic challenge to make different parts of the world look different, the fealty that you have to have for just how different -- and sometimes the same -- places can look in a foundational sense. It's hard for me to make those comparison just in what I see, place to place. What were the challenges there for you? Is that something with your fine arts background you don't think about it as much.
GLIDDEN: I don't think about it as much. The art school I went to was so disconnected from the rest of the art world. Painting things the way you see it. Drawing things the way you see them. [laughs] That's something I default to a lot and it's frustrating to me a little bit.. I look at Lisa Hanawalt and how she paints in crazy colors that have no basis in reality. I can't do that. Stuff has to look real.
And for me, part of being truthful when you're making non-fiction work about places that people might have a tendency to exoticize, is to bring it back down to earth and defuse that. No, Damascus is not this cartoon version of the Arab world. It's a city, and it has some ugly furniture in the hotel lobby that is literally the same furniture as in the lobby at some hotel in Arizona. It's all made in China, anyway. [laughs]
Everything is very simple but it's also very specific to the real world.
SPURGEON: So you have this book out. And you have this two-month window where people are asking you about it and you're having deep discussions that you've probably prepared yourself to have. I wondered how that contrasted with the Jill Stein piece you had up at The Nib, which had no build-up and was just kind of sprung on the world, but in a way where you're plugged into an existing conversation.
What do you remember about putting that work out that way, and what came back at you, in contrast to Rolling Blackouts?
GLIDDEN: Yeah, that is interesting. Like nobody really wanted to sit around and ask me what I thought about third parties, even though I have plenty to say about them. [laughter]
There's an ego involved in having a book out. You get to talk about it. People want to ask you questions. That's nice. There's something less self-centered about putting out short work. It gets absorbed. People will retweet it for a couple of days and then it's done. That's nice, too. Articles are published every single day, thousands are published every day, the people who write those don't get to go on tours and talk about them. This is even though an article you read in a half-hour could have taken months to get out.
It's funny. It's very different. I feel really lucky to talk about this book. And I really, really care about the book.
SPURGEON: Is there a preferred next step you hope people take, learning about journalism?
GLIDDEN: Nothing preferred. I hope it makes people curious, and I hope it encourages to read other articles about many of the same topics. I want people to have enough curiosity after reading this. I want people to know when I talk to them about comics journalism and my comics journalism specifically that this isn't an encyclopedic approach to the Iraq War. There's only so much you can put into a 300-page comic book. I'm really want them to want to go and read more, to want to do their own research, but if that was all, that was all. [laughs] You can't have any control over what your reader does beyond what you give them. You hope that it does something. So I guess that's it.
I would like people to remember that refugees are human, I guess. And that journalists are, too. Those are pretty simple things I think certain people in this country could be reminded of, but I'm not sure they'd be likely to read my comics. [laughter]
SPURGEON: You went into pre-work for this project immediately after finishing your last book... so are you maybe reasonably far along on the next thing?
GLIDDEN: I kind of didn't know what I was doing for a while. It was great that the Jill Stein assignment came up right after I finished this. I love getting assignments; when I was a kid I loved getting homework. [laughter] It was fun because I wouldn't have made a comic about Jill Stein. I would have had fun working on that piece. I started looking for something else to do, and the Trump campaign galvanized it. I had some idea, but nothing really grabbed me. "I want to do this right now!" A week and a half ago, I had that feeling. Now I'm starting to work on that.
I don't if I should talk about it... It's about climate change. Fine. [laughter] Something big about climate change. We'll see where that goes.
* photo of cartoonist by Sarah Shannon provided by D+Q
* self-portrait by the artist
* page from Rolling Blackouts provided by D+Q
* two-panel sequence from How To Understand Israel
* page from Rolling Blackouts provided by D+Q
* page from Rolling Blackouts provided by D+Q
* video of Glidden coloring a panel
* panel from Jill Stein comic
* cover to the new book [below]