I’m still a newbie to the massive universe that is comics land. But working at Kickstarter and living in New York has exposed me to a ton of fun comics projects and — most importantly — some really great comics aficionados who also happen to be project creators. As a result, I’m trying to wrap my head around this alien medium a bit and have jumped into Sarah Glidden’s How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, a graphic-novel memoir about a Birthright trip she took to Israel in 2007 and that comes out November 3.
Now Sarah’s raising funds for her next project, Stumbling Towards Damascus, which will be an investigation into journalism itself as she follows a small team of journalists on a reporting trip to Northerm Iraq, Syria, and Eastern Turkey. I asked her a few questions about the project below.
With Stumbling Towards Damascus you say you’re moving towards a narrative non-fiction journalism — in comics form. How will this new project differ from your past work and soon-to-be released How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less?
How to Understand Israel was a very personal book in many ways. It focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the prism of my own inner struggle when thinking about the issue. It’s less about the conflict than it is about one person’s process of coming to terms with their own political belief system. By contrast, I plan on Stumbling Towards Damascus having more of an outward focus. My own thoughts on what we’ll be experiencing will still play a role. One of the features of narrative non-fiction that I really love is that the writer includes themselves as part of the story, reminding you that in journalism there is always some measure of subjectivity. But with this new book I hope to step aside more and make myself less of a central character. Of course, depending on what happens during our reporting trip, the shape of the book will probably shift from the way I’m imagining it now.
You do both the writing and the illustrations right? How do you balance that? What’s the process like?
Yes, I do both and it’s hard to imagine it any other way. When making comics, you’re trying to create a synthesis of words and pictures, not just illustrating text. So even though I write a script first, I’m imagining what the images in each panel will be as I’m writing the dialogue. My script looks a lot like a screenplay, with numbers indicating what page and panel each “shot” will be and then a description of what the panel will look like. Its almost like sketching out the panel but using words.
After the script is complete, I go back and start drawing, using the script as my guide. I usually end up changing things as I go, cutting or adding text, and maybe I’ll draw a panel differently than I had originally imagined it while writing the script. But I like having the images planned out ahead of time so that the drawing process can be less about making editorial choices and more about the technical aspects of drawing.
And then after I finish the pencils, I go back and watercolor and ink the entire thing. That stage takes the most time but is maybe the most relaxing and fun.
Can you tell me who some of your influences are? They could be anything: journalists, novelists, graphic novels, etc. What goes into the artistic brew that is you?
I get excited about a lot of other peoples’ work, and I’m sure everything I read becomes part of how I think about making my own work in one way or another. As far as comics go, I do read a lot of non-fiction, idea-based work by artists like Joe Sacco and Kevin Huizenga, but I also love cartoonists who make more personal comics like Vanessa Davis, Julia Wertz, and Gabrielle Bell. On the prose side of things, I’m of course inspired by a lot of the journalists who have paved the way for narrative non-fiction journalism like Ted Conover and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. But my biggest influence or role model was probably David Foster Wallace. What both his fiction and his non-fiction reportage pieces have in common is this really deep respect and love for the people he writes about. He seemed to have this amazing ability to empathize with people who most of us would be content with despising or forgetting about. Maybe that’s less about writing and more about the way you see the world, but I think it was really admirable.
If folks like How To Understand Israel, what are three other books you’d recommend them getting?
To narrow this down to other comics that I liked and that are non-fiction, I would recommend Pyongyang by Guy Delisle, The Photographer by Emmanuel Guilbert, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
Anything else we should know about your project?
I’m going to try and update a trip blog as often as I can while I’m in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria with sketches, journal comics, and more, so people who are interested should check in at http://www.smallnoises.com/travel-blog/.
You can support Sarah’s project here.