Cartoonist Sarah Glidden followed some journalist friends of hers around Turkey, Syria, and Iraq a few years ago and made a comic about it called Rolling Blackouts. It's graphic novel in length, but it feels weird to use that term when describing non-fiction. Her focuses throughout the book are important topics like the troubles in the Middle East and the plight of refugees as well as journalism itself — what it is, what it's for, theories, ideals, and the nuts and bolts of how it works (or doesn't work) in the field. Rolling Blackouts is an engrossing read, and it moves at a steady clip while remaining dense with information — the flow is smooth, though the material is complex and the page count nearly 300.
Glidden reporting on her friends' reporting illuminates the complexity of journalism and the topics these journalists are investigating. The group's somewhat improvised trip through three countries is further complicated by a former marine coming along with them several years after his deployment to Iraq. Real life is more nuanced and surprising than most fiction, and Glidden captures this in vignettes. In one such episode, little Turkish children rush towards the journalists with outstretched hands... not begging for money, but offering holiday candy.
There's built-in suspense that allows Rolling Blackouts to work as pure entertainment, too — the journalists are discovering their story as they go along (this group, while professional, is much less experienced with this type of international journalism), and all through the book we wonder what the ex-marine is going to do...
I loved learning about logistics. A journalist explains to Glidden that she promises herself she'll process things later so she doesn't cry during the interview, as she doesn't want to embarrass the subject or pull focus away from them. I was struck by some very modern details, like an in-person interview being translated by someone over Skype.
The anecdotal details of how the United States took or ruined people's lives can be difficult to read, but I believe it's important. Glidden's book allows us to empathize with those who rarely are given a voice in our media and culture, and we gain a deeper understanding of our world by reading it.
Rolling Blackouts is also impressive on a technical and artistic level. Glidden's watercolors emphasize the humanity of the real people depicted, and her linework is realistic enough to invest in emotionally but simple and cartoony enough to be clear and direct. On an interview panel with Glidden and fellow cartoonist-journalist Joe Sacco at the last Small Press Expo, Glidden talked a bit about trying different techniques of depicting translated dialogue. In the end, she drew the translator's English language word balloon overlapping the original speaker's balloon. This approach proves to be very effective, and it's more space efficient than if she'd, say, written out the original dialogue in the word balloons and added a translation caption at the bottom of a panel. (Efficiency of space is of high importance in comics, as every word takes up real estate on the page that could otherwise be image.)
I highly recommend Glidden's Rolling Blackouts, particularly to those with an interest in journalism, non-fiction comics, or the other topics the comic explores. I'm eager to read whatever Glidden's next book winds up being.
And speaking of war and empathy, early this morning I posted new pages of my weekly sci-fi war/romance webcomic Flesh Machine on my website, michaelavolio.com. You can read the whole comic thus far there for free. Best to start at the beginning if you're new to it. And to those who are loyal readers: we're nearing the end of an act, so expect some surprises in the coming weeks... (Or DON'T expect them, and be even MORE surprised!)
If you like Flesh Machine (or, actually, if you hate it and want me to spend time getting better at making comics!), you can support my comics work with a small (or large! or MEDIUM!) monthly pledge on Patreon. It's easy to set up, and it makes a real, concrete difference to me. The more money I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to making comics instead of dayjob work. Thanks, as always, to those of you already pledging — you're the best.
Thanks for reading, everyone!