Green River Killer

Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case
Dark Horse
$24.99, 240 pages

by S.I. Rosenbaum

GreenriverThere's nothing remarkable about Jeff Jensen's father. He's an ordinary guy. He has a wife and kids. He's into home improvement. As far as we know, there's no great tragedy or trauma in his life.

But he's a homicide cop in Seattle, in 1983, when the corpses of young women are starting to turn up along the banks of the Green River. Some of them are buried, some not. Some of them are naked, some are clothed. Some have been dumped haphazardly; others are carefully arranged.

Someone is killing young women in Seattle, and Detective Tom Jensen is drawn into a mystery that will consume his career.

The graphic memoir Jeff Jensen wrote about his father's quest for the Green River Killer - elegantly drawn by Jonathan Case - is subtitled A True Detective Story, but it's not a whodunnit. Not far into the book, we skip forward  to the surreal endgame of the case, as the cops install the serial murderer known as Gary Leon Ridgway in a makeshift safehouse inside their own headquarters.

Ridgway wants a plea bargain; the cops want a full confession and the bodies of victims who were never found. But as the narrative jumps back and forth in time, it becomes clear that for Tom Jensen - who spent decades as the sole investigator working the long-cold case - the object is something deeper and more elusive. He wants to know the truth at the dark heart of Ridgway, which even Ridgway doesn't seem to know.

As a kid, Jeff Jensen - now a journalist with Entertainment Weekly - wasn't privy to his father's professional life. He starts the book with a dedication: "For my father, with love, admiration, and deep gratitude," followed by the addendum, "This is what you get for teaching me how to read with Batman comics." The elder Jensen has the mustache and smoking habit of Batman's Commissioner Gordon, though if the resemblance ever occurred to young Jeff he doesn't say so. It was only in the early 2000s, when genetic sequencing broke the case open and Ridgway was finally convicted, that Jeff found out about his dad's work.

The book is written and drawn in a kind of uninflected deadpan.  Case's art recalls Mazzuchelli's Batman work: no greytones, strong lines, and a flatfooted realism in his draftsmanship. There's no narration until the epilogue, when Jeff Jensen briefly lets us in on  the story behind the story. Otherwise, events are presented without comment or sentiment. The effect is compelling. There are long wordless panels where we're left to decipher the expression on a character's face; the directness of the presentation preserves the ambiguities of real life.

I would have liked to see some kind of appendix, explaining how the story was reported and rendered into comics. This kind of thing has become popular at papers like the St. Petersburg Times, where I worked and experimented with comics journalism. On long-form, narrative stories, the paper often runs a "How the story was reported" box explaining briefly how the reporter knew all that stuff. It's a good way to maintain transparency without damaging the flow of the narrative.

So it seems that it would not be a bad idea to explain the reporting process - are the words in those speech bubbles approximations, or actual quotes? What visual references were used for all those supporting characters? Jeff Jensen offers only one comment, in the epilogue, saying that his father still doesn't like to speak about a certain part of the case - the part which forms the book's climax. "The details he gave me were few, and offered reluctantly."

It almost echoes the scenes in which the elder Jensen is interrogating his serial killer. So how did Jeff reconstruct that searingly dramatic scene? Alas, it's just another mystery.

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

The Big Lie

Rick Veitch
Image Comics
$3.99, 28 pages

by Matt Bors

BiglieIf you want to find your particular version of events surrounding 9/11 in comic format, you have a lot of options these days. The government's official line, The 9/11 Commission Report, was adapted into the graphic novel format all the kids are talking about. A recent 9/11 coloring book allows you bring to life an image of a SEAL operative shooting Bin Laden as he grabs his niqab-covered wife to catch the bullet--an early report proven to be false. "This is history. It is absolutely factual,"  says the publisher.

Rick Veitch adds his own version of facts to this growing pile with The Big Lie, a comic in the Truther mold. A longtime luminary in American comics, Veitch is responsible for acclaimed runs on Swamp Thing and scathing superhero satires like Brat Pack. Here, what he intends as an engaging way to address serious questions turns out to be unintentionally funny--if I didn't know better I'd be tempted to say it's a parody of moralizing, over-the-top Jack Chick comics.

The plot is as follows: A scientist travels back in time ten years to save her husband, who works in the towers and died on 9/11. Arriving on the morning of the attacks due to a miscalculation, and armed with her iPad ("your what?") full of data, she must convince her husband and his coworkers that a massive attack is about to destroy the buildings. No sweat, right? Well, her histrionic approach to explaining things doesn't win her any new friends.

If getting your loved one out of the building in 30 minutes flat is your only goal, it may be easier to concoct another plan rather than attempt to convince them you are from the future and a grand conspiracy is about to unfold. But these are comics, after all, and this is merely a set up to give the author a chance to expound on the many perceived holes in the 9/11 story.

Ten years out from the attacks, we aren't getting any closer to the truth.

Many Americans don't even remember the year 9/11 occurred. Around the world, polls show that in most countries bare majorities believe Al Qaeda carried out the attacks. In the Arab world the numbers hit rock bottom, while conspiracies about Israel's involvement soar. Veitch doesn't propose a single cohesive theory as to what happened, opting to throw out various suspicions--war games being played that day, the Neo-con agenda, possible foreknowledge had by Bush--to suggest that something was up.

TheBigLie3The most popular theory, and one Veitch focuses on the most, is that the buildings were part of a controlled demolition. "This looks exactly like every controlled demolition I've ever witnessed," exclaims the doomed husband watching a video of Building Seven's collapse on the iPad from the future. Indeed, the building collapses do look like other building collapses in that they involve massive structures crumbling earthward.  How radically different an unplanned collapse should look to the untrained eye is unclear, given the limited number of comparative studies done with giant buildings brought down by airplanes.

Building demolition is a months-long process whereby large teams eviscerate buildings, knock out walls, saw steel beams, and string thousands of yards of cable to connect hundreds of charges. It tends to be loud. An explanation for how this took place in a building with thousands of employees is never  given by Truthers, but they don't have to. They are just asking questions, they say.

The demolition scenario is implausible, but Veitch helps it along by visually misrepresenting a key claim. Explosive chargers called "squibs" are said to have detonated down the side of the building. Veitch draws them to look far more precise and fiery than they were in real life. (They were compressed air and dust--this and other theories were most expertly put down by Popular Mechanics magazine.)

It's not much of a spoiler to tell you the planes hit after the scientist is dragged out by security.

In an awkward touch, a black woman emerges from the blast, deliriously singing "Amazing Grace" while readying herself for heaven, and they realize the time-traveler had been right all along as they look up at the exposed thermite bombs rigged to a support beam. Like the end of Jack Chick tracts, those who refused the Truth are swallowed in the fiery death they deserve.

Uncle Sam, who introduces and closes out the tale like the Crypt Keeper of EC Comics, addresses the reader: "Lies are like unwashed socks. They come in all sizes and stink to high heaven."

You might say the same thing about conspiracy theories.

Matt Bors is an editor at Cartoon Movement.

Review: Paying For It

Chester Brown
Drawn And Quarterly
$24.95, 292 pages

by Melissa Gira Grant

Paying-For-It We know by now that men don’t go to prostitutes only for sex. For those men who are there to buy the experience of acceptance, sex is just a narrative device, forming the perimeter of the act. This is how Chester Brown illustrates sex with prostitutes in his new graphic novel Paying For It. Once he has paid a woman for sex and he’s stripped naked, the individual women’s rooms fade to a storybook black entirely inconsistent with his unflinching eye for all sex’s detail, but – this allows him to halo their bodies in light, dividing their skin from the dark. Maybe it’s just one way of showing the isolated moment of orgasm in a comic strip. The light always comes back on, and all too human conversation follows. There’s nothing idyllic about these exchanges. It’s not his point. Paying For It is prostitution in all its boring, everyday splendor. Unlike most contemporary prostitution myths against which its positioned, there are no victims and there are no saviors.

Chester Brown writes with the career client’s understanding of the practicalities of commercial sex. His project here is not too different from the one taken up by regular clients of prostitutes around the world: that of cataloguing their experiences by partner, date, sex acts performed, cost, and how much they enjoyed it. In his search for new prostitutes to hire, Chester Brown writes that he comes across websites where clients post these stories in a review-format, but distances himself from the behavior – one he himself engages in with Paying For It. It’s not just for the sake of cold record-keeping that he documents his time with prostitutes. If that was all Chester Brown – and those other clients – needed in order to make sense of what prostitution means in their lives, they could just use a spreadsheet.

There were two types of regular clients I encountered as a prostitute. One sees prostitutes over and over because he accepts the interchangeability of sexual partners when one’s aim for sexual partnership is self-centered; that is, it’s not one of mutual partnership, but a quest for self-definition. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s precisely what one should pay a prostitute for. Another type of regular client seeks a transcendent experience he ascribes to the individual attributes and skills of the prostitute he is with in that moment. He is a more traditional lover sort. He believes that the potential of sex – and of uncovering his selfhood – is in the body of the prostitute. He is buying not one perfect sexual act that will reveal the self, but one perfect state of being that will yield perfect sex.

Paying For It introduces us to – or, Chester presents himself as – the first type of regular. He wants us to believe that he’s telling us his story not to boast, but so that he might understand himself. His prowess, as he experiences it, is as a truth-teller. His heart is no less in his pursuit of coming into comfort with himself, even if he’s not willing to share his emotional life with another human being. Chester Brown portrays a man capable of that kind of opening up: early in the book, he goes through an unconventional sort of breakup with his live-in girlfriend, who continues to live-in and take other lovers. (She’s Sook-Yin Lee, the actress who portrayed a woman on a similar quest in John Cameron Mitchell’s landmark sex movie Shortbus.) The rapid cycling through of Chester Brown’s sex partners – and that he pays them – may make him come off like a man in search of kicks, but he’s just gone looking for himself. And he shows up, in nearly every frame, as consumed with the ritual of finding paid sex as he is coming to terms with what his actions say about the kind of man he is, the kind of men all men are.

Mercifully he makes few pronouncements about the kind of people that sex workers are. He puts this right up front in his story: he doesn’t want to out the women he hires, so he doesn’t draw their faces or include any information that might identify them to a reader. While this can seem like a dehumanizing choice, especially given how often the media defaults to such blurring and cropping in its depictions of prostitutes, in Paying For It, it’s an ethical consideration. Chester Brown rightly limits his gaze to himself, and some friends who consented to appear and be quoted. (In the appendices, he even gives them space to respond to his portrayals.)

Where Paying For It falters is less a problem of Chester Brown’s scope as a storyteller, and more a matter of how a book like this lands in such a limited field. Every book about sex work bears far too much importance, when there are so few that resist universalizing prostitution out of one person’s experience. (One that does this very well is another graphic novel: Rent Girl, by Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin, which has big and contradictory things to say about prostitution, and is still a deeply personal and particular story.) When Chester Brown winds up the book with two too-fast conclusions, one romantic and one political, he’s doing what feels like an about-face, a play at repositioning what came before as a moral tale of the kind he has opposed to this point. Then, once he drops the curtain on his story, he tacks on a call for the decriminalization of prostitution. It’s not that I disagree – but I went cold with his hasty proposal of a legal framework, as a coda to a story far more moving than any debate on prostitution. It would take nothing away from the rightness of his story, and how nakedly he tells it, to simply let it stand as his own.

Melissa Gira Grant is the co-editor of Coming & Crying, a collection of true stories about sex. She's written about prostitution, politics, and technology for Jezebel, Slate, and The Guardian (UK).

Review: The Influencing Machine

Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld
W. W. Norton & Company
$23.95, 170 pages
Book trailer here

by Sarah Jaffe

Influencing_machineThe Influencing Machine is more than graphic nonfiction. It's a media studies course in itself, distilling a solid chunk of what I and thousands like me studied in journalism school into about 150 pages of art, a book that is itself a lecture.

Of course it took a person like Brooke Gladstone, who breaks down the myths and mistakes of the media every week on NPR's On The Media, to make this book happen. Working with Josh Neufeld, the artist behind the heartbreaking A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, Gladstone's media manifesto provides valuable background critical for understanding the problems and possibilities in this particular moment in journalism.

The use of Brooke's image throughout the book, as a guide through both history and theory, works visually the same way her familiar voice works on the radio; as a comforting presence that adds  personality and allows perspective on recent events, while making the distant past come alive. There's humor aplenty—even a vintage dirty joke or two.

  Particularly when it comes to complicated theory and research about media's effects, the comic format shines.  Susie Cagle's work with infographics has shown that comics are actually a great way to break down numbers, illustrate statistics, and generate interest in otherwise wonky subjects. That works here as well, particularly with the illustration of Daniel Hallin's “Spheres of Influence” using a donut.

But the comics format also allows Gladstone and Neufeld to insert the personalities of the theorists, putting a face to the largely thankless work of communications research and media criticism. It also, of course, allows them to pass subtle judgment, poking subtle fun at Jeff Jarvis's “full disclosure” on his blog by portraying him  in an X-Ray machine or putting Clay Shirky in the Lotus Position, the Buddha of the Internet.

Can illustration ever be “objective”? Well, Gladstone doesn't think objectivity is possible in the first place, and she tosses the very idea aside with this book, the very existence of which is a statement in favor of point of view and personality in reporting. And yet she makes a good case for the continuing need to verify facts, provide context, and not mislead news consumers—particularly with an illustration that adds perspective to the famous photos of Iraqis destroying a statue of Saddam Hussein. Many have probably heard the debunking of the myth behind that story, but the wide-angle view of the square provided here gives a more visceral feeling to that truth.

The tone of the book is largely upbeat, particularly on the ever-present question of whether new media technologies are changing our brains (constantly the subject of Op-Eds and speeches by people who make their money in older technology—like, er, books and comics, as well as radio).  But Gladstone and Neufeld do leave us with a few worries.  Particularly about the “photoshopification” of society, and the growing ease of faking photographs making photos themselves less trustworthy.

“The big threat of photoshopification is not that we will believe documents and photos that are fake,” says comic-Gladstone, standing on a literal soapbox. “It's that we'll find it easier to disbelieve documents and photos that are real. When it's convenient.”

The next panel is a small but jolting rendering of that famous Abu Ghraib photo, of a hooded prisoner standing on a box with wires clipped to his fingers.

The book works this way many times—using a simple cartoon to call up the visual memory of something striking, poignant, or horrifying.  Often these are small, unadorned panels, the last one on the page, forcing you to pause and consider what those images really mean.

The introduction explains what Gladstone means by The Influencing Machine. It's a psychological phenomenon, documented throughout history, of paranoid patients convinced they're being controlled by a machine.  It's a great metaphor for the press, of course the biggest “influencing machine” of all.  The problem with it is that it falls by the wayside as the book wades into its material, returning at the end for the discussion of new technologies. The “influencing machines” of social media, after all, are being blamed for lack of attention span, credited with fomenting revolution, and of course, are currently in the process of screwing up another Congressman's career.

If the point here is that, as Gladstone quotes comic-book hero Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility,” then the book does a wonderful job preparing the reader for that responsibility. Unfortunately, it then seems to imply that all we can do about the media is shrug our shoulders and watch it change—and watch it change our lives. “We get the media we deserve,” says comic-Gladstone, but do we? Who deserves it? Did the people of Iraq deserve the media of the U.S.?

I called The Influencing Machine Gladstone's media manifesto above. But can it truly be a manifesto with a conclusion that leaves the reader—even a passionate media junkie like me—wondering what we can do about all of this, or if there's anything we should do?  Perhaps “primer” is a better word, since the book is the best single volume you can find for a deep background in history, theory, and a decent analysis of the current moment.

But I'm not content simply with analysis. I want to know how to fix things.


Sarah Jaffe is a freelance writer and comic book nerd. She has a master's in journalism from Temple University, and you can find her work here and follow her on Twitter.

Review: Prizewinning Political Cartoons: 2011 Edition

By Matt Bors

61-240PXydL._SL500_AA300_ In the sometimes too-quick-to-react world of editorial cartooning, there is barely time for reflection as the next deadline looms.  As the 2010 prizes have all been handed out at this point, we can look back at who was doing notable work, who was given a nod for it, and who was overlooked, but most cartoonists are already charging toward next year's entry and today's deadline. Book collections offer an attempt to capture the fleeting glory of daily editorial cartoons and have been notoriously spotty and of dubious necessity for as long as anyone has been printing them. The two mainstays, Daryl Cagle's The Best Political Cartoons of the Year (Que) which is currently on hiatus, and The Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year (Pelican) edited by Charles Brooks have been nearly alone up to this point.

While both of those collections are thick and deliver a good dollar-to-cartoon ratio, they suffer from cluttered layout and redundant, sub-par material. Cagle's collection is grouped by major news stories of the year, which often means numerous cartoons on the death of a celebrity or one who has has yet to die but has committed some other act deemed worthy of our attention, such as dating other humans or being a complete train wreck. This leaves cartoonists who hover beneath the blare of the media megaphone, churning out work on under-the-radar topics like torture and women's rights, largely ignored. For The Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, the bar to entry is so low – including scores of unprofessional work – that many cartoonists don't even bother to submit their work for fear of guilt by association. (The collection doesn't pay for reprints but will mail contributors a free copy.)

Prizewinning Political Cartoons (Pelican, again) edited by Dean Turnbloom, an annual collection published since 2008, ducks the question of who is the best by simply printing who is the most prizewinningest. And the collection is just that: prizewinners from U.S. competitions, from the RFK Journalism Award to the Pulitzers, presented in a slim volume of 109 pages but with comics printed in color and given the space earned by such prize-worthy work.

But right out of the gate, new problems present themselves. Mark Fiore, who snagged the 2010 Pulitzer for his brilliant animations and writes the foreword for this collection, is represented by screen shots of his work, without captions or context. After that awkwardness is flipped past, you are dealt a selection of largely well-regarded big names that seem to rotate in the prizewinning circle: Steve Breen, Matt Wuerker, Mike Keefe, Tony Auth, Nate Beeler. Wuerker's watercolors stand out as does the black line work of Auth, printed here larger than any space-strapped rag would dare.

The work of prizewiners Mike Peters and Jack Ohman are absent, with pages noting their wins and a simple line stating they were "unavailable for this edition." It's a shame that Ohman's work in particular wasn't included. His large, quarter-page strips for the Sunday Oregonian have earned him the SPJ and RFK Awards in recent years and are not available online, not available to anyone outside of distribution range of the physical paper. The standout in the collection is seeing the huge, intricate comics of Alexander Hunter printed regularly in the Washington Times as full page comics. Artists expanding beyond the single panel gag into more narrative work is a good development for the field and this collection – it's in displaying this work that a book can justify itself and its shelf life.

Contributors are still limited to prizewinners, but some of the award judges (the real editors of the series) have appeared open in recent years to bestow accolades on more inventive, involved work like this, with this year's example being Gary Varvel's "Path To Hope" series (winner of the Aronson and RFK). Perhaps with a broader interpretation of "prizewinner," say, including finalists as well, the collection could take off. Ted Rall's large full-page filings from Afghanistan to the Los Angeles Times (a trip I accompanied him on) would look well reprinted here and beef up the book's page count in the process. (He was a finalist for the Scripps Howard Award.) That and getting everyone to contribute.

Another option would be to expand to include international prizewinners, since many international cartoonists focus on major world issues U.S. readers are familiar with. As it stands, you have a book that gives you a feel for what is happening in the field, but with a high bar for entry that is inevitably going to overlook some truly great work. No true "best of" book exists for political cartoons. That is probably unattainable, but so far, Prizewinning is the only real contender.

Matt Bors is an editor at Cartoon Movement

Review: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

By Jen Sorensen

2010-11-03-HTUI_HC_CASE_100-thumb One of the most prominent works in the field of comics journalism right now is Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (Vertigo, $24.99), a graphic novel recounting her 2007 “Birthright” tour of Israel. Cartoon Movement will be featuring exclusive new work by Glidden in the coming weeks, and in anticipation of that, here is a closer look at the book that launched her career.

Taglit-Birthright Israel is a program that offers a free educational trip to Israel to North American Jews between the ages of 18-26. Glidden, trying to get to the bottom of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, braces herself for a barrage of pro-Israeli propaganda. She assumes the role of cynical, wisecracking observer, although her irreverence occasionally gives way to bouts of wide-eyed wonder. In page after page of expressively-watercolored artwork, she tours Israel’s famous sites, encountering some heavy spin as expected, but also engaging in conversation with left-leaning Israelis who complicate her tidy convictions. Glidden remains sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians throughout, but grows increasingly uneasy at the difficulty of assigning blanket condemnations (“You would have come here too” she imagines a man in a painting – a Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis – telling  her). It’s a book about finding humanity, with all the ambiguities that entails, as opposed to black-and-white answers.

What makes the book a particularly effective piece of graphic storytelling is Glidden’s extensive use of imagination to convey a point. As the Birthright tour guide lectures, we find ourselves drifting into an imaginary courtroom inside Glidden’s head, with the author serving as judge, jury, and attorneys. “This court is now in session to hear the case of ‘Birthright is trying to brainwash me vs. Birthright is actually pretty reasonable,” Judge Glidden announces. It’s the first of many fanciful scenarios that play out in the cartoonist’s mind as she struggles with the Big Questions posed by the trip. Later, while listening to a speaker at the Kinneret Cemetery who is glorifying the early settlers a bit too much for her liking, she envisions herself bursting in on the early-1900s kibbutz, frantically flailing her arms and shouting, “WAIT! None of you are thinking of the consequences of your actions! What you’re part of will escalate into a war in which thousands will lose their homes!” As the tour progresses and Glidden becomes increasingly conflicted and full of emotion, we find ourselves back in her mental courtroom – only now it’s empty. The jury’s out.

While the subject matter is heavy, there are lighthearted moments as well. Glidden goes swimming in the mineral-choked Dead Sea (“I feel like this is a metaphor for something, but I’m not quite sure what.”). At various points, she gently mocks the ditzier girls on the trip. Later in the book, she encounters a shopkeeper in the Muslim quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem who used to live in New York; he’s a Yankees fan, she’s a Red Sox partisan. He jokingly threatens not to sell her a pair of earrings she’s been eyeing.

Hanging in the balance throughout the story is the question of whether or not Glidden will get to make a side trip to the West Bank at the end of her Birthright tour, to explore the other side of the Green Line. [MINOR SPOILER ALERT!] A combination of safety concerns and arrangements falling through unfortunately thwart her plans. This reader found herself wishing Glidden could have gone on to Ramallah – it would have made a fascinating coda to the book – but things don’t always go your way when you’re traveling abroad. With another trip through the Middle East already under her belt, though, we can look forward to getting more of Glidden’s perspective in the future.

Jen Sorensen draws the political cartoon "Slowpoke" and recently had a graphic travelogue published in The Oregonian. Her work can be seen at