Review: Journalism

Is the greatest barrier to comics journalism its necessary subjectivity, or is it something else?

In the introduction to his new collection, Journalism, comics journalist Joe Sacco addresses the dissenters "who would naysay the legitimacy of comics as an effective means of journalism". He responds to the criticism that since drawings are "by their very nature subjective", the can never aspire to represent the objective truth – that which, his detractors claim "is what journalism is all about".

In trying to answer the criticism, Sacco already sets himself on the back foot. There is, of course, plenty of wonderful subjective journalism, and while the near worship of objectivity is a curiously American obsession, the country is also the source of some of the best writers to have given up any pretence of that aim. From Capote on, there have been no shortage of potential role models for Sacco to base himself on.

Yet its clear that he aspires to something different from the New Journalists, something which does require addressing the criticism. Comparing Sacco's work to something like Sarah Glidden's How to understand Israel in 60 days or less, which does owe a direct legacy to New Journalism, is instructive.

Sacco doesn't aim for objectivity, but at the same time he doesn't put himself in the work to the extent that it can be safely classified as a personal story. So the critics take aim, and the answer he gives is one which has defined Sacco's work for much of his life.

Drawings are inherently subjective. No matter how much an artist's visual style aspires to realism, they are still portraying the scene as they recall it, with all the quirks of memory. Photoreference can help a bit, but lessens the power of journalism – which is to portray those moments which a camera can't capture, but a pen can record.

Even if Sacco did aspire to realism, then, his objectivity would be slighted in the eyes of the arbiters of the view from nowhere. But he doesn't – his style is triumphantly cartoony, so while it might not give the full picture of what a scene looked like, it enables him to emphasise the important aspects of a situation with greater clarity. The portrayal of a Serbian camp guard's glee as he orders a prisoner to bite off another's testicle, or tension on the faces of soldiers in Iraq confronted with potential suicide bombers, ought to justify the stylistic choices from the off.

But why do the choices need justification at all? Sacco doesn't just feel that it is his decisions as a comics journalist which need to be explained, but his very existence as one.

He's right, of course. Comics journalism remains rare, and editors are loath to commission it even from proven practitioners like Sacco, let alone up-and-comers like Karrie Fransman, whose work was featured in the New Statesman this August. But while publications in North America may have problems with a lack of objectivity, real or otherwise, that's always been less of an issue in Britain, where the opinionated, openly subjective journalist is a much more common feature.

For all that Sacco is concerned about being locked out for bias, he's actually a comparatively measured reporter. It's clear where his sympathies lie, but these pieces are no mere polemics.

If it were just about perceived partiality, then comics journalism would be flourishing here. Yet it struggles just as much as in the US, even when you account for the relative popularities of the medium in the two countries. Why might this be?

The unexamined barrier Sacco comes up against is mere quantity. It's terrible to reduce art to something so basic, but that's what the people who commission him and his peers must do. For the effort – in money, time and space – it takes to put a four page comic in the New York Times Magazine, the editors could get a 3,000 word prose piece. It would almost certainly occupy readers for longer, and some days that seems to be all there is to it.

But comics journalism has the capability to be just as densely packed with detail as the most text-crammed page, as the trip to Chechen refugee camps exemplifies. Sacco visits the homes of several "internally displaced persons" in Ingushetia, the Russian province which neighbours Chechnya, and the portrayal of the cramped conditions and inadequate facilities in the images saves him from repeating them in text – allowing the captions to be used for the less visual task of telling the stories of the refugees. The painstakingly rendered mess of the tents becomes all the more noticeable when he visits some families who have traded up to an abandoned distillery: the walls are plain white, and the rooms so sparsely furnished that half the panel is simply blank.

Throughout the decade-plus of work represented in the collection, Sacco rarely ever skimps on this crucial work of displaying the setting as well as the protagonists. In more directly narrative comics, and much fiction, there is often a temptation not to "waste" energy depicting things which are merely incidental to the story at hand. (In fact, for some artists it is almost regarded as part of their personal style to do so; look, for example, at the simple gradients that Frank Quitely uses as backgrounds.) By doing so, we get a far fuller picture of the world his characters inhabit than even the most sparkling written-through descriptions in a prose piece ever could.

There is, nonetheless, a tradeoff, and it comes with the things that only words can say. Sacco is, in terms of what he covers and how he does it, a surprisingly traditional journalist. His stories are typically first person, quote heavily from conversations with his subjects, and deliver the necessary context at the right places in the story. But he faces a much stricter pressure to be parsimonious with his words than the prose journalists who developed that style, and sometimes doesn't quite hit the mark.

For instance, "What Refugees?" a two page editorial for the Boston Globe, written immediately after his return from Chechnya, feels rather swamped in captions. It tells a similar story to the preceding (in the book – it actually came out six years later) "Chechen War, Chechen Women", but without the space to let his characters and art speak for themselves, it feels too much like an illustrated op-ed to be truly successful.

When he is given that space – as in "The Unwanted", his study of migration to Malta, or his standalone books Palestine and Footnotes to Gaza – he uses it to offer up reportage that simply couldn't exist in any other form. Unfortunately, of course, that makes him even harder to fit in the same mould as the prose reporters who he is uncomfortably pitted against. Nonetheless, it is clear that Sacco is one of the masters of his craft, and although he is fighting an uphill battle for recognition – or even awareness that he and his peers exist – the pieces collected in Journalism make a strong case not just for his talent, but for comic journalism as a whole.

Journalism is released by Jonathan Cape on 1 November. (£18.99, hardback)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge