Comics Journalism

An exhibit at the UO art museum explores a new way to present news stories

Comics journalism, once a brash upstart in the stodgy newspaper business, is coming of age. It’s been two decades now since Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine, documenting life in the Occupied Territories, was published as a series of comic books and then a single award-winning volume, opening the door for a new kind of news reporting. Today the number of practitioners of the genre has grown into the hundreds.

Enter the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, where Sacco got his bachelor’s degree in 1981, and an English professor at the UO with an abiding interest in comics, and we have an exhibit titled The Art of the News: Comics Journalism, running through Jan. 16 at the UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

Is this news as art? Or is it art as news?

Perhaps a bit of both, suggests the show’s curator, Katherine Kelp-Stebbins, the English prof who is also associate director of the UO English Department’s comics studies program.

“This is a show I’ve been wanting to do since I was hired as the first professor of comics journalism in the U.S.,” she says.

For the uninitiated, comics journalism is the name given to serious journalistic projects presented in the format of graphic novels, which themselves draw on the visual conventions of comics books going back to everything from Superman to Archie Comics and even Mad Magazine.

Kelp-Stebbins lists a number of characteristics common to most comics journalism beyond the basic presentation. “It’s slow,” she says, given the amount of work it takes a comics journalist to both tell and draw a story. “Comics journalism is at odds with the rhythm of the 24-hour news cycle.”

Comics journalists often include themselves as drawn characters in the stories they tell. The fact that the panels are drawn by hand, she adds, gives the stories more immediacy. “This is the closest thing there is to seeing it through someone else’s eyes, as presented by a human being who was there.”

Another convention in comics journalism, as it has developed, is the denial of journalistic “objectivity,” she says. “‘Objectivity’ is a position of privilege.”

The exhibit at the Schnitzer Museum includes large wall panels blowing up pages from the work of 13 comics journalists, most prominently featuring Sacco. The show also features hand-drawn ink originals from some of the journalists, though a number do their drawing directly on a computer.

Other journalists with work in the show are Gerardo Alba, Dan Archer, Thi Bui, Tracy Chahwan, Jesús Cossio, Sarah Glidden, Omar Khouri, Victoria Lomasko, Ben Passmore, Yazan al-Saadi, Andy Warner and Portland-based Sarah Mirk.

Tucked in a corner on one side of the gallery is what might be comics journalism’s next frontier: virtual reality. Once you’ve donned the VR headset and had it adjusted by a staffer keeping watch over the display, you are transported from the Schnitzer’s darkened gallery to a spacious bright hall, in which — using a pair of video-game-style controllers — you can wander around and listen to Colombian people tell of their experiences in the 60-year civil conflict in that country.

The VR work is by Archer, who runs a company called Empathetic Media, using virtual and augmented reality to document events in a way that immerses the viewer more deeply than simply writing, photography or video can.

Comics journalism — sometimes called “graphic reportage” by practitioners wary of the term “comics” — is not likely to replace more-conventional reporting, Kelp-Stebbins says. But it certainty can expand the power and influence of stories for which the medium is suited.

It has made inroads into more mainstream venues, with comics journalism pieces being excerpted or run in their entirety in such publications as The New York Times and The New Yorker.

That more widespread publication amplifies the mission of most comic journalists, Kelp-Stebbins says, which is “bringing attention to people who don’t have a platform.”

The Art of the News: Comics Journalism is at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art through Jan. 16.

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