Review: Documentary Comics

MickwitzDocumentary Comics - Graphic Truth-Telling in a Skeptical Age
Nina Mickwitz
Palgrave Macmillan US
XI, 187 pages

eBook - $69,99, Hardcover - $95
Available via

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

Warning: Graphic Content

Political Cartoon, Comix and the Uncensored Artistic Mind

WarningcoverWarning: Graphic Content
Mr. Fish
409 pages, e-book, 2014
$8.26 on Amazon

The attack on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo showed the world once again how powerful cartoons are, and how dangerous. Mainstream media have been wary to publish the controversial cartoons that ran in Charlie Hebdo, out of fear of reprisals.

There is perhaps no better time to write a review of Warning: Graphic Content, an e-book written by US cartoonist Mr. Fish (aka Dwayne Booth). Mr Fish is an artist that is familiar with controversy. Warning deals with the power of (controversial) cartoons. In his book, he describes cartoonists as as '...a pest tasked with the mosquito-like responsibility of disrupting complacency...'.

Some say the profession of political cartoonist is in decline; I am not sure I agree with that statement, but the profession is in a state of transition. Where this transition will take us, we don't  know yet. In 2010, US cartoonist Daryl Cagle wrote a piece giving tips to cartoonists how to better sell their work. Sadly, this article is no longer online, but an excerpt is available here. In short, Daryl advises cartoonists that the best way to please timid editors is to avoid controversy. He goes on to say that cartoons with celebrities are more popular than cartoons with politicians, and that obituary cartoons are certain to sell well.

If Daryl's perspective is at one end of the spectrum, Mr. Fish's book is on the other. Although certainly not optimistic about the current state of things, Warning explains why controversy and hard-hitting satire are essential components of the political cartoon.

Warning1                                                     Join or Die, 2008, Justine Lai

This isn't the first book that's written about the power of cartoons. In 2013, we reviewed Victor Navasky's The Art of Controversy, a review of controversial cartoons through the centuries. But the approach and scope of Warning are novel. Instead of using a chronological order, the author jumps back and forth through time. This approach is not only refreshing, it also allows the author more freedom to compare cartoons and artworks from different time periods. Mr Fish has also broadened the scope by broadening the definition of what he considers to be a political cartoon. His selection includes paintings, sculptures, poetry and even performance art.

Cartoons have, since their inception, been considered a form of 'low art' (if they were considered art at all), but in my opinion Mr. Fish is quite correct to put them on par with other art that makes a social statement. What the book succeeds in doing is to make us reflect on the nature of art, and the role of art in society. Mr. Fish focuses on the ability of art to upset the status quo, to mobilize people and to inspire change.

In a way, Warning is a guided tour through a museum full of unexpected surprises, its pages filled with art you had not seen before, and familiar art seen in a new light. Structured like a play with different acts, the book is interspersed with conversations with people such as Noam Chomsky and Art Spiegelman.

Warning2                                                        Wanted, 1917, Art Young

It's not an easy book. In addition to the complex subject matter, the tendency of the author to use sentences that are a paragraph long can leave you feel exhausted after reading a few pages. The way the book is structured is novel, but it does hinder the construction of a clear argument. Mr. Fish's main point is that good social art should inspire people to take action. He often refers to the underground comix scene of the 1960s and 1970s with a certain nostalgia, but I would like to have seen more on his perspective on where social art is headed and where it should be headed. Because the book lacks a structured argument and a conclusion it indeed feels like the thoughts of the uncensored mind jotted down on paper. But sometimes, a little (self-)censorship might not be such a bad thing.

The critique above notwithstanding, the book is a worthy effort and certainly worthy of reading by anyone with a keen interest in art and society. There are not that many books that focus on political cartoons, and even less that do this as eloquently as Warning. Plus, you'll find out why New Yorker cartoon suck.

Tjeerd Royaards

(Author's note: I've illustrated this review with some of the art that's featured in Warning. To find out why these are significant, I recommend you buy the book.)

Sketches of Iran

Sketches of IranSketches of Iran
Omid Memarian (Editor)
106 pages, $ 29.95

'If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how much would a picture AND a thousand words be worth?' This thought, or something along these lines, must have been the starting point of Sketches of Iran: A Glimpse from the Front Lines of Human Rights, published by The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

The book is a compilation of cartoons by seven Iranian artists, coupled to columns and commentary by Iranian writers, activists and family of activists in prison or dead. The book is partly funded by a Kickstarter campaign, which was used to print the first 1000 copies of the book, but also to ensure that the book ended up in the hands 'of policymakers, human rights advocates, UN officials, and others who can make a difference in the human rights situation in Iran and in the lives of these contributors and others like them.'

ChristiansI have never seen cartoons and text used in quite this way. Instead of one providing support and context to the other, the images and stories enhance each other simultaneously, being dominant and supportive at the same time. The equal weight that is given to both is reflected in the composition of the book, where one page is given to commentary and the full page opposite is reserved for the cartoon. Printed in full-color, the cartoons are all without words, and demonstrate the skill and power of cartoonists from Iran.

To me, the most powerful pages are those where the visuals are tied to the testimonies of the family members whose sons, daughters, wives or husbands that have fell in the grasp of the regime, sentenced to years in jail, or killed by police, military or other government thugs. These heart-wrenching stories bring the reality of activism for human rights very close to home. What do you tell a 3 year old boy whose mother has just been sentenced to 8 years in jail? And what justice is there for father whose son was murdered by the regime?

In these testimonies the words seem to bounce off the image, reverberating with it, resulting in a resounding impact to the reader. Most of the images are powerful, and often a frontal assault on the regime in Iran. They not only show that art and creativity thrive even in the face of oppression, but also that visuals are a strong means of protest.

There are some drawbacks to the book. Some of the commentaries by activists are not particularly well-written, and an inconsistency in style and lay-out of texts makes for a slightly sloppy look sometimes. And there might have been a few more 'real' editorial cartoons instead of portraits. But these minor flaws do not lessen the impact of the book. Not many books can say claim to reinvent the role of editorial cartoons, but Sketches of Iran aims to do exactly that.                                        

Setting the images on equal footing with text is a new concept, and a good one. Browsing through sketches of Iran, we are forced to re-examine our concept of visuals and text, and how they interact. They also succeed in accomplishing the main mission: to present an overview of human rights violations in Iran and to raise awareness. This is not a book to read in one go; instead, it is a book to pick up once in a while to read one or two commentaries and look at some the images. This way of reading actually help the stories and the images to stick.

To maximise the reach of the book, it's available in a bilingual English-Persian edition.

Featured cartoon by Nikahang Kowsar, on the prosecution of Christians in Iran.

Tjeerd Royaards

Upcoming Review: Sketches of Iran


Published by the  International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Sketches of Iran - A Glimpse from the Front Lines of Human Rights is a collection of drawings, editorial cartoons, and portraits of human rights defenders:

Exquisite drawings, some in the unadorned clarity of black and white, others washed in visceral colors, sit side by side with searing commentary by leading Iranian writers, activists, journalists, lawyers, and family members of prisoners of conscience.

“These drawings depict defiance in the face of power. They are infused with a quiet determination. Their unflinching portrayal of suffering, as well as the occasional use of humor, resonates on an emotional level in a way no human rights report can,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Campaign.

Artists banned from work, writers silenced, students and lawyers imprisoned, journalists forced under torture to “confess”—these are some of the subjects that Sketches of Iran confronts head on, through visual images and personal narratives that give a rare glimpse into the front lines of the struggle for human rights in Iran.

Read more about the book here.

A review of this title is coming soon on the Cartoon Movement blog.

The Art of Controversy

Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power



The Art of Controversy
Victor S. Navasky
256 pages, $ 27.95

Available: 9 April 2013

Victor S. Navasky is a former editor of The New York Times and The Nation, and in his long career he has dealt with many cartoonists. Better yet, he is a fan of cartoons and caricatures, and understands (and appreciates) their power. The Art of Controversy is, as the author calls it, an 'unguided tour' of a number of great cartoonists (starting in the 18th century) and the controversy surrounding their work.

Before taking us on his tour, Navasky uses four chapters to talk us through three theories about why cartoons, and caricatures in particular, are so powerful: the Content Theory, the Image Theory, and the Neuroscience Theory. The Content theory focuses on what the cartoon is about, and the Image Theory on how the subject is portrayed, but the most interesting one is perhaps the Neuroscience Theory. Neuroscience has revealed (through experiments with birds) that, because of their simplification, the area of the brain involved in facial recognition reacts more quickly to caricatures than to photos of real faces. Although the implications of this theory for understanding how cartoons work are contested, it could expain why carticatures can be so powerful and upsetting to the ones portrayed. Caricatures are registered more clearly by the mind's eye, and therefore remembered longer and more strongly than photographs.

The book is not an academic attempt to methodically catalogue cartoon controversy through the centuries. Rather, Navasky describes himself as an aficionado who has 'long believed in satire as a particularly effective instrument of social criticism.' He also describes himself as a free-speech absolutist. The public sphere is, or should be, governed by what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls the power of the better argument. Satire, and thus cartoons and caricatures, are in as sense good or bad arguments competing with other arguments within the public sphere.

It is here that I divert somewhat from the review, and might even stir up some controversy myself, to pose what I (a free-speech absolutist myself) found to be a conundrum. Navasky shows that powerful cartoons can work as 'totems' that, once unleashed, can have an uncontrollable power, independent of the creator of the image. The book shows these images, the good ones (e.g. cartoons condemning corruption and power abuse), but also the very, very despicable ones. In the latter category, we find no better example than the work of German cartoonist Philipp Rupprecht (pen name Fips), a weekly contributor the Nazi weekly newspaper Der Stürmer.

Der_StürmerDer Stürmer was an important propaganda tool for the Nazis, and the images by Fips are viciously anti-Semitic, employing every gruesome stereotype available. At the beginning of the chapter on the work of Fips, Navasky recounts that Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Stürmer, was hanged after the Nuremberg trials, but Fips only served six years for his contributions to the magazine. He goes on to suggest that justice might have been better served with a death sentence for the cartoonist as well.

Although, in light of Fips' work, I can certainly understand the sentiment, it struck me as an odd one in a book that in all the other chapters whole-heartedly defends the rights of cartoonists to draw as they please. There were, are, and probably always will be despicable opinions out there, spreading hate, discrimination, aggression and intolerance. But either we agree that opinions (whether they be written, spoken or drawn) are so powerful that we need to punish those we, as a society, consider sufficiently dangerous, or we cling on to our hope that in the end, the better argument will prevail.

Apart from this incongruity, the book is a pleasant read, with a tone reminiscent of an old man with a wealth of anecdotes to share. It is especially interesting to read about his own experiences (and opinions) as editor dealing with cartoons that gave rise to protest among the readers and staff of The Nation. The book is a testimony that shows the influence and impact of cartoons in world history in the last two-and-a-half centuries. The cartoonists featured, over 30 in total, are excellent. Some notable examples are British artist David Low (who landed himself on the Gestapo death list because he enraged Hitler with his cartoons), Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali (whose figure Handala lives on long after the artist was assasinated in London in 1987) and John Heartfield (probably the world's first Photohopper). If you are not familiar with one or more of these names, then this book is certainly recommended reading. Because the book is basically a collection of cartoons, the publisher would do well to make it available as an art edition, with all the cartoons printed large and (when applicable) in full color. The works published in The Art of Controversy certainly deserve it.

Tjeerd Royaards

Upcoming Review: The Art of Controversy

ControversyGoing on sale in April, The Art of Controversy by Victor S. Navasky is (according to the publisher) a 'lavishly illustrated, witty, and original look at the awesome power of the political cartoon throughout history to enrage, provoke, and amuse.' The following description is taken from the website of the publisher:

As a former editor of The New York Times Magazine and the longtime editor of The Nation, Victor S. Navasky knows just how transformative—and incendiary—cartoons can be. Here Navasky guides readers through some of the greatest cartoons ever created, including those by George Grosz, David Levine, Herblock, Honoré Daumier, and Ralph Steadman.  He recounts how cartoonists and caricaturists have been censored, threatened, incarcerated, and even murdered for their art, and asks what makes this art form, too often dismissed as trivial, so uniquely poised to affect our minds and our hearts.

Drawing on his own encounters with would-be censors, interviews with cartoonists, and historical archives from cartoon museums across the globe, Navasky examines the political cartoon as both art and polemic over the centuries. We see afresh images most celebrated for their artistic merit (Picasso's Guernica,Goya's "Duendecitos"), images that provoked outrage (the 2008 Barry Blitt New Yorker cover, which depicted the Obamas as a Muslim and a Black Power militant fist-bumping in the Oval Office), and those that have dictated public discourse (Herblock’s defining portraits of McCarthyism, the Nazi periodical Der Stürmer’s anti-Semitic caricatures). Navasky ties together these and other superlative genre examples to reveal how political cartoons have been not only capturing the zeitgeist throughout history but shaping it as well—and how the most powerful cartoons retain the ability to shock, gall, and inspire long after their creation.

A review of this title is coming soon on the Cartoon Movement blog.

Political Cartoons and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Cover_Danjoux1Ilan Danjoux
Manchester University Press
$ 85.04, 150 pages

Not surprisingly, at Cartoon Movement we often talk about the power of cartoons, and their important role in media as the visual watchdogs of those in power. In Political Cartoons and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Ilan Danjoux also talks about the power of cartoons, but his premise is different.

His line of reasoning starts with the assumption that political cartoons have long been safe havens for extreme opinion and unfounded accusation. Looking at how political cartoons demonised Jews in Nazi Germany or Tutsis in Rwanda in the early '90s, it is clear that sometimes cartoons become propaganda, and targets of ridicule become victims of violence. Building on the special role of cartoons in conflict areas, Ilan Danjoux sets out to explore if cartoons can actually predict violence. Focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on the 2000 Al-Aqsa Intifada (uprising) in particular, Danjoux examines if there was a shift in the style, content and focus of Palestinian and Israeli political cartoons preceding the outbreak of violence.

In the introduction, he already provides an answer to this question. His research shows cartoons cannot predict violence; rather, they function as a kind of seismograph. The shift in content and focus of cartoons reflects the shift and focus in public opinion. So the obvious question is: why read a book in which the plot is given away on page 2? The answer is that you shouldn't read this book for its plot (the question if cartoons predict violence), unless you are a student of social research. If you're a cartoon aficionado or cartoonist (I happen to be both), you should read this book for the interesting insights it gives about political cartoons and how they work.

According to Danjoux, cartoons are special in a number of ways. They have an exceptional role within journalism, because they do not have to be evidence-based. Cartoonists play with the truth, mixing it up with fiction, myth, symbols and historical references. In his book, Danjoux identifies the main tools cartoonists use. Interestingly, exaggeration (a tool often employed in cartoons) is sometimes not needed; placing the main character in a cartoon at a table with Adolf Hitler will immediately convey meaning, although what meaning is dependent on the action depicted in the cartoon and the facial expressions of the characters in the cartoon.

Because cartoons are not bound by the truth, they are one of the best ways to gauge public opinion. Although opinion polls might give accurate figures, they might not reflect the entire truth, as people will often give answers that are socially acceptable, rather then saying what they think. The instruments employed by the cartoonist, such as exaggeration, symbols and metaphors, can convey the mood in a country better than polls. Another important point that Danjoux makes is that cartoons are incomplete narratives. Because they are often bound to current events, the outcome of the situation they depict is not certain yet. Several outcomes are possible, and it is left to the reader to interpret which outcome should be feared, and which should be desired.

This toolkit for analyzing cartoons is then applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in particular the outbreak of violence in October 2000, after the Oslo Peace Process collapsed. What is probably most interesting, is how cartoons can be compared as reflections of the public mood, even though the media of Israel and Palestine are vastly different. Isreael has a commercial, competitive and free media, while the media in Palestine is heavily censored and largely government funded. These differences do not inhibit the role of political cartoons to chronicle the conflict.

Some definitions in the book are too restrictive. Danjoux's statement that the main defining aspect of political cartoons is that they are bound to current events and therefore have a limited context in which they can be understood is flawed. Although this definition applies to lots of cartoons, it foregoes the equally considerable group of cartoons that deal with the more or less timeless issues of human rights, war, or the environment. Danjoux also devotes a lot of attention on the difficulties of reading cartoons, because they often employ symbols, inside information and word puns that can only be understood within the cultural context they were published. Again, this is true for many cartoons. But cartoons can, and many do, also employ symbols that have universal appeal. Especially cartoons that do not have any text and rely entirely on visuals can be understood throughout the world.

Another problem of the book is the price. I doubt many people outside academic circles would spend more than 80 dollars on a book of barely 150 pages. For a wider appeal, Ilan Danjoux might consider publishing a non-academic paperback on how to read political cartoons.

In spite of the minor flaw of narrow definitions (which might be needed, given that the book is devoted to social research) and the bigger hurdle of the price, the book is definitely worth reading. It is an especially interesting read for cartoonists. At the beginning of this review, I mentioned how, at Cartoon Movement, we often talk about the positive aspects of political cartoons. This book shows how cartoons can be deconstructed, and how to analyse the different elements of cartoons, such as the tone of the cartoon, the symbols it uses and the focus. All these aspects say something about the meaning of the author, but, more importantly, also how the cartoon will be read by the audience. After reading, I found myself regarding my own and fellow cartoonists' work with a new set of eyes. If we cartoonists want to live up to our (mostly self-proclaimed) title as watchdogs keeping check on those in power, we are also responsible to keep check on our own work. At the one hand of the spectrum, there is the danger of self-censorship, and at the other end cartoons become unsubstantiated propaganda. To stay in the middle, a cartoonist needs to understand the tools he uses to make cartoons work (beyond pen, ink and Photoshop). And that is exactly where this book can help.

Tjeerd Royaards

Can Cartoons Predict Violence?

DanjouxCan cartoons predict violence? This enticing question is asked by Ilan Danjoux, a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The idea behind the question is that the tone and content of political cartoons change in the period leading up to the outbreak of a violent conflict; in this way cartoons can actually be harbingers of conflict.

Danjoux wrote a book on the subject, for which he examined over 1200 Israeli and Palestinian editorial cartoons to explore whether changes in their content anticipated the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in October of 2000.

A review of this title is coming soon on the Cartoon Movement blog.

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

Guy DeLisle
Drawn and Quarterly
$24.95, 320 pages

by S.I. Rosenbaum

Picture-1I started Guy DeLisle’s 300-plus-page Jerusalem with interest; I finished it in anger.

Some background: Delisle has made his career by going to unusual places. His best-known graphic memoir, 2004’s Pyongyang, covers two months spent in North Korea, where DeLisle is alienated, bored, and culture shocked. He is also alarmed at the spooky machinations of the totalitarian state. He has also written similar travel memoirs about Shenzen, China, and about Myanmar.

I wanted to start with this background because I think that Delisle’s experience in these places — all three of them in various levels of humanitarian crisis — shaped his expectations of himself as a nonfiction cartoonist. In North Korea, for example, Delisle was kept isolated on a single floor of one of the city’s huge empty hotels — which was intentionally staffed entirely by Chinese guest workers, to prevent even the chance conversation with a Korean maid or bellhop. The few Koreans he came into contact with are either government handlers or non-English speakers. Had he made an attempt to ask questions of locals, it would have endangered his informants and himself.

So DeLisle’s Pyongyang is strictly subjective: he can report only the little he observed, often without context. It’s a shtick that has worked for him.

But Israel is not North Korea. Despite the injustices and human-rights abuses of the Israeli government, the country is open to foreigners, has a high percentage of English speakers, and most crucially, has a free press. (As a result it has been covered rather thoroughly in nonfiction and fiction comics — including Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds, Sarah Gidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, and of course Joe Sacco's Palestine).

Nonetheless, Delisle arrives, along with his NGO-worker girlfriend and their two children, in a state of general ignorance. Despite his professions of atheism, his frame of reference is Christian: he marvels that he’s walking in the footsteps of the apostles. He insists on calling Shabbat “the Sabbath.” He is surprised to learn that Yom Kippur is a holiday; he thought it was the name of a war.

Sadly, this ignorance does not get much revised during DeLisle’s year-long Jerusalem sojourn. We get a detailed chronicle of his life as an unemployed ex-pat. “Ah the joys of being a housewife!” he complains, waiting for his wife to arrive home from her work with Doctors Without Borders. We learn that there aren’t a lot of playgrounds in the West Bank, and that traffic in really bad in East Jerusalem. He plays tourist and sketches. On Purim, he goes into the Orthodox quarter to see the Jews in their funny hats stagger around drunk. It’s hilarious.

Most of the people he spends time with are either NGO workers, ex-pats, or Christians. His ignorance of Judaism borders on the offensive; during the entire year, he only once socializes with secular Jewish Israelis (who represent the vast majority of Jews in Israel), and he’s amazed to see them use light switches on the Sabbath, just like regular folks.

His knowledge of Palestinians is hardly any greater, however. In a Palestinian town, he’s shocked to see a woman among the posters of martyrs: “I don't even want to imagine how she ended up here," he says to himself.  "Maybe she was just an innocent victim." (Female suicide bombers have been a particularly Palestinian tactic since 2002). I know that Delisle doesn’t consider himself a journalist, but the artlessness with which he displays his lack of curiosity is alarming.

Perhaps the most infuriating episode, however, is when Delisle gets a gig teaching comics to some Palestinian women at an art school. He remarks that “all but one are veiled” (he’s referring to the hijab, the head scarf, not a face veil) and that they’ve never heard of Tintin. They show him their art projects and tell him their stories:  "One talks about prison. Her fiancé (she met him there) is locked up and she doesn't know when he'll be out. Another talks about sexual abuse and a third, about a brother who died of leukemia."

Yet, Delisle doesn’t feel the need to inquire further or help these women give voice to what sound like extraordinary experiences through comics. "I leave feeling a bit depressed,” he says, “not sure whether we should bother going back to do a workshop." Because they’ve never heard of Tintin? Because they aren’t enlightened secularists? Because their art skills are inferior? What reason could he have for being so uninterested in the people around him?
ImageIn Pyongyang, witnessing a terrifyingly cheerful concert of girl accordionists, Delisle imagines the grim trajectories of their lives; he writes that he feels like weeping. Here, no such compassion is evident, and its apparent lack — even when a Palestinian babysitter tearfully tells him that her house is to be bulldozed by the Israeli government — is conspicuous. In North Korea, as an observer, Delisle was blinkered by his government handlers. Here, he’s choosing to look away. Given a chance to witness the Israeli bombing of Gaza with some journalists, he feels squeamish ( a series of fumetti show him envisioning the experience being scary) and he decides to skip it.

Delisle has traveled to some extraordinary places, it’s true. But no matter where he goes, it always seems as though he’d really rather have just stayed home.

S.I. Rosenbaum is a journalist and cartoonist from Boston.

Artwork copyright Guy DeLisle

Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson

Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith
Abrams ComicArts
$17.95, 180 pages

by Sarah Jaffe

Picture-5The book is called Gonzo perhaps because that's what would sell, but it's not a story of the gonzo-myth Hunter S. Thompson. It's a darker story, of the things that drove him and pushed him to greatness--and to addictions and finally suicide.

And it's an incomplete story, like all biographies, but the tale it tells is, I think, an important one. It's the story of the man whose work matters to me and to so many other journalists who left the myth of objectivity in the dust, who can't help but let the anger and passion we feel show in our work. There's a number of us, who have taken from Thompson not his style or his habits but the feeling that rang in every line of his (best) prose. It's telling that the worst imitators always want to rewrite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but the real legacy of Thompson the journalist is in stories of politics and intrigue, freedom and fairness, not in drug binges and outlandish metaphors.

I am not objective about Hunter Thompson—without Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 I would not have the career I have; I would not be the writer I am. Thompson carved out a space for us outsiders with a healthy skepticism of all authority, but he was at his best when he believed in things. He faded to caricature when he stopped finding things to believe in, and this book's stark last pages capture that perfectly.

Whenever I pick up a graphic biography or other work of graphic nonfiction to read, the first question I ask is, why does this story deserve to be a comic? Why should it be told in this format rather than others, or if it has been told in others (as Thompson's life story surely has) what does this one add?

In this case, the book is narrated in first person; I actually flipped to the back to find out if Thompson's letters or some long-lost journal were the sources. But no, it's just writer Will Bingley's stark, economical prose that echoes Thompson's voice well enough to be compelling even to a fangirl like me. Those words are laid over images just as stark at times, the iconic sunglasses-and-hat face of the writer, his shirt always unbuttoned a bit too far, his smirk, his occasional slack-jawed amazement (or exhaustion) rendered a thousand different ways in these pages.

There's shocking brutality in these pages more often than buffoonery; it starts and ends with a gunshot and the writer alone. Violence defines the Thompson shown here, whether he's hunting alone in Aspen, being driven half mad with rage over Vietnam and Cambodia, getting “stomped” by Hell's Angels or cops outside the Chicago Democratic Convention. It also captures the writer's frenetic motion—to believe this story, he took the infamous gig that sent him to Vegas because the Sports Illustrated expense account would “keep him mobile,” and his early moves from city to city are rendered in just a few panels each.

Of course the story has holes. The beauty of comics is that certain things can be implied in the art without having to be stated in text—the intimacy, rendered in simple lines, between Thompson and his wife Sandy in just a few scenes leaves us believing that he was shattered by the end of their marriage, but there's little warmth to the other friendships shown here. Oscar Acosta, the lawyer immortalized in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Ralph Steadman make appearances, as of course does Rolling Stone boss Jann Wenner, but there's little feeling of connection between them.

Missing, too, is the visceral hatred that seeps out of every sentence Thompson ever wrote about Richard Nixon. The Watergate debacle here is reduced to Nixon as a cartoon villain, climbing up the side of a building, with claws for hands and feet. But Thompson's hatred for Nixon started well before that, and though the bombs falling on Cambodia are an easy shorthand for everything wrong with the 70s, the replaying of Nixon's speeches as a sort of shorthand for what was wrong with the man and the country doesn't work as well—politician-speak is notoriously bland and full of platitudes, and simply bracketing it with comments about Nixon's “lies” doesn't tell the story well enough.

It's funny—Thompson was worried, with the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that he'd be made into a cartoon, that his vision would be dulled by cartoons. (For the Thompson completist, I recommend the film Breakfast with Hunter for that full story.) Here, rendered as a comic, he's less of a cartoon than he was in his own prose before his death, at his own hand. And closing this book I felt once again the loss of a brilliant commentator; I wondered anew if he'd have been spurred into new life by the Obama administration, the rise of the Tea Party (which seems at times like something he'd have made up if he wrote more fiction).

Ultimately, I loved the book but it's not an entry point into Thompson. It provides two valuable services, though—a beautifully-drawn visual entry into a world most of its readers probably never saw, the late 60s and early 70s in America when we just realized that maybe the dream we'd been sold was rotten inside, and a reminder that inside the hard-drinking, hard-living “Gonzo” writer was a man with demons and grand loves and inspiration, a person who could perhaps have given us more if he'd slowed down or cleaned up but in the end, as his former editor Alan Rinzler wrote in the introduction here, “Who am I or anyone else to say what he should have done? That was him. His life.”

Sarah Jaffe edits the Labor and Media sections at, and is a political reporter who tries to cultivate the rage of Hunter S. Thompson with about 1/100th the drug consumption. You can find her work here and follow her on Twitter.