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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Beyond Moonlight: how Hollywood is still failing LGBTQ audiences

2016 was a bleak year for gay and transgender characters in Hollywood pictures.

How was 2016 for LGBT representation in Hollywood? It was the year Moonlight was released – the breathtaking love story of two young black men that won Best Picture at the most recent Oscars.

Beyond Moonlight, many smaller studios produced thoughtful, empathetic explorations of the lives of gay characters: from Gravitas Ventures’s All We Had and 4th Man Out to IFC’s Gay Cobra to Magnoloia Pictures’s The Handmaiden.

So… pretty good, right?

Not when you look at the statistics, released by GLAAD this week. While a low-budget, independent production managed to storm the mainstream, of the 125 releases from the major studios in 2016, only 23 included characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. And almost half of those releases saw that LGBTQ character receive less than one minute of screen time. Only nine passed GLAAD’s Vito Russo Test – which, inspired by The Bechdel Test, asks whether characters are treated as real people, or just punchlines. Plus, while many studios claimed characters were gay, they refused to explicitly or implicitly discuss this in the script: take Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann in Ghostbusters.

A closer look at some of the LGBTQ characters we had from the big studios this year underlines quite how bad the industry is at portraying LGBTQ people:

Deadpool, Deadpool
While much was made of Deadpool’s pansexual orientation in the run-up to the film’s release, the only references that actually made it to screen were throwaway jokes intended to emphasize just how outrageous and weird Deadpool is.

Terry, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave’s bisexual pal Terry repeatedly tries to persuade other characters to sleep with her, often at deeply inappropriate times, and even attempting to bribe one character into engaging in sexual activity. According to this film, bisexuality = hypersexuality.

Marshall, Lubliana, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

This whole film was a mess in its treatment of LGBTQ characters, particularly transgender ones. The very concept of being transgender is here treated as a punchline. Edina’s ex-husband Marshall is described as “a transgender” and treated as a joke, Marshall’s wife Bo claims she is now black, insisting she can change race as her husband has changed gender, while Patsy goes undercover as a man to marry the rich Baroness Lubliana, who announces “I’m not a woman”. Other lines from the film include ““I hate how you have to be nice to transgendered people now.”

Random strangers, Criminal

Remember the moment when two men kiss on a bridge in Criminal? No, me neither, because it lasted approximately four seconds. See also: Finding Dory – which supposedly features a lesbian couple (two women pushing a child in a pram). Literally blink and you miss them.

Bradley, Dirty Grandpa

The black, gay character Bradley only exists in this film as somone for Dick (Robert De Niro) to direct all his racist and homophobic jokes at. But this film doesn’t stop there – there are also a whole collection of jokes about how Jason (Zac Efron) is actually a butch lesbian.

Hansel, All, Zoolander 2

Dimwitted former model Hansel McDonald is now bisexual and involved in a long-term polyamorous relationship with 11 people – his entire storyline of running from them when they become pregnant, finding a new “orgy” and eventually coming back to them – relies on the most dated stereotypes around bisexuality, promiscuity and fear of commitment.

Meanwhile, straight cis man Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a non-binary model named All, who has “just married hermself” after “monomarriage” has been legalized, and exists purely so other characters can speculate loudly over whether All has “a hotdog or a bun” – yet again reducing transgender people to their body parts for cheap laughs.

Various, Sausage Party

From Teresa del Taco to Twink the Twinkie to the effeminate “fruit” produce, these are stereotypes in food form, not actual characters.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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