Review: Documentary Comics
March 24, 2016
Documentary Comics - Graphic Truth-Telling in a Skeptical Age
Palgrave Macmillan US
XI, 187 pages
eBook - $69,99, Hardcover - $95
Available via Palgrave.com
Our slogan is there is more than one truth, because we believe that different people view the world in a different way. This means that subjectivity always plays a part in journalism. Subjectivity is a central theme in Documentary Comics, by Nina Mickwitz. Mickwitz sets out to answer the question if comics journalism can be seen as a genre of documentary. Documentaries have long been associated with audiovisual recordings of reality. And audiovisual recording have, in turn, been long associated with objectivity. Documentary Comics argues that all documentaries have in them elements of subjectivity. This subjectivity starts with the decision of what the subject of a documentary will be, but can be found in almost every aspect of the narrative that is told, or rather constructed, in a documentary.
If audiovisual documentaries have long been thought of as objective, hand-drawn comics have a long tradition of being thought of as subjective. One of the biggest challenges for comics journalism has been to establish itself as a form of serious journalism. In part, this has to do with the tendency of people to think of comics as subjective, and therefore not representative of reality. Mickwitz challenges this notion. In several case studies, she shows how documentaries deliberately use subjectivity to create and steer the narrative in a particular direction. She compares this to how comics use a particular drawing style, color (or lack thereof), the composition of panels on the page, and the representation of sound to construct a version of reality.
Seen through this particular lens, comics have the advantage that they are very transparent in the way they translate reality onto paper or screen. No one will ever argue that a comic is reality, while audiovisual recordings are still regarded by many to be 'real', in spite of many examples to the contrary. Mickwitz shows how both (audio)visual recordings and drawings are, in fact, construction of reality. Once we accept that notion, we can begin to see subjectivity as a tool instead of a hindrance, a tool that can be used to construct a certain perspective on reality. As long as documentaries are honest and straightforward about the perspective they set out to create, this form of subjectivity can coexist with all the demands we make of good journalism. And comics journalism cannot prevent but be clear about the fact that it creates a perspective on reality.
Nina Mickwitz proposes to compare comics journalism to documentaries to see if this framework can have added value for the analysis of comics journalism. What follows is an exploration of the nature of subjectivity, and a breakdown of what makes comics tick.
Documentarty Comics is a thorough and comprehensive book, but it is meant for the serious student of comics journalism. The book is very academic in the way it deals with the subject matter, and will most likely not appeal to people outside academia. The rather steep price ($95 for the harcover, $65 for the e-book) doesn't help either. The subject matter, however, is intriguing and the way Mickwitz approaches comics as documentaries is certainly novel. One thing I missed was having all the comics she discusses at hand. Some pages are reproduced in the book, but the (modest-sized) black and white prints only made me eager to have the real thing to see right away what Mickwitz meant when she refers to a particular type of coloring.
In conclusion: we are delighted to see a field emerging within academic research that is devoted to comics journalism. Documentary Comics is a solid publication that will certainly help further establish comics journalism as something that deserves to be taken seriously. And that's something we can only applaud.
Review by Tjeerd Royaards