How comics journalism brings stories to life

Chicago's Illustrated Press is at the forefront of a burgeoning movement

Darryl Holliday and Erik Rodriguez, self-portrait.jpgDarryl Holliday and E.N. Rodriguez of the Illustrated Press, at work. (Illustration by E.N. Rodriguez. Used with permission.)

CHICAGO, IL — For much of last year, Darryl Holliday worked the “crime and mayhem” beat at DNAinfo Chicago, documenting the consequences of violence on the city’s South Side.

That’s how he stumbled upon the story of Nortasha Stingley, whose daughter, Marissa, was gunned down in June 2013. Holliday wrote a straightforward article about the family’s search for clues in Marissa’s killing, but he didn’t drop the story there.

Over the next five months, Holliday and his collaborator, E.N. Rodriguez, kept in touch with Stingley, and eventually produced a follow-up—this time, as a cover story for the Chicago Reader.

How to Survive a Shooting” chronicled Stingley’s story: coping with the loss of her daughter, being a loving mother to her two sons, and becoming an anti-violence activist in the face of apparent apathy. In a sense, it was a dismayingly familiar narrative—in a city plagued by violence, we’ve heard similar tales before. But Holliday and Rodriguez sought to bring the story to life through their choice of format: “comics journalism,” the shorthand term for reported nonfiction told through sequential art.

They nailed it. Stingley’s words, rendered alongside Rodriguez’s illustrations, are heartbreaking in a way few written articles or even videos achieve; a panel about her being woken from a dream about her slain daughter by the barking of the family dog is indelible. The piece received tons of attention, and eventually snagged a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia in the category, “Outside-the-Box: Innovation/Format Buster.”

“I’ve written a whole lot of crime stories, you know. People would usually give it like 20 seconds to scan it,” Holliday says. “But package it up with the comics, and it’s like you’ve never heard it before. The same people will read the story all the way to the end. It can become that bridge.”

The Stingley story is just one example of a striking body of comics journalism that Holliday and Rodriguez have been producing for the Illustrated Press, which they founded in 2011. At times evoking the tradition of big-city metro columnistsor even the spirit of one of this city’s literary lions, Studs Terkel—their work offers heartfelt, often newsy, snapshots of life in Chicago, from a jail inmate’s wedding at the Cook County Courthouse to one South Side community’s drastic demographic change through the eyes of a longtime resident. Many of these tales were compiled into their first book, and they are working on their second, due out late next year. The traction that their work has gained, in Chicago and elsewhere, reflects a growing appreciation for the genre by other journalists and news organizations around the country.

The concept of applying the graphic novel format to nonfiction storytelling is not new, of course. Joe Sacco, perhaps the most prominent comics journalist, has been working with the format for decades. But the Illustrated Press is part of a definite flurry of activity in recent years, spurred in part by the ease of publishing online and the success of visual content on social media. In 2011, The Cartoon Picayune debuted as a semi-annual “anthology of journalism in the form of comics.” Symbolia, a first-of-its-kind tablet magazine devoted to comics journalism, was launched the following year. Last year, Medium joined in the fray with The Nib, which curates the works of comics journalism along with other forms of nonfiction cartoons.

What separates the Illustrated Press’ work from others is that it is fiercely Chicago-centric, focused on capturing voices from the city’s diverse communities.

“One of the things that really impresses me about what the Illustrated Press guys do is that they are able to keep their work true to Chicago and be committed to depicting the city in a really thoughtful and visually affecting way,” says Erin Polgreen, co-creator of Symbolia. “They just have a really strong sense of place and vision, and look at Chicago in a way that real people do.”

A creative format continues to evolve

Despite their experiment with form, Holliday, Rodriguez, and their new collaborator, Jamie Hibdon, are—in terms of what they cover and how they do it—traditional journalists. They base their stories entirely on their own reporting, quote heavily from interviews, and deliver context at all the places you’d expect it.

As a rule, Holliday takes the lead on reporting, and leaves the other two to do what they do best: drawing. But Hibdon says he makes it a point to go out on reporting trips with Holliday whenever possible. “Being there and being present is what really allows me to help create the atmosphere, the story, and the tone, so I try to go as much as I can,” he says.

Like many other comics journalists, Rodriguez and Hibdon have a visual aesthetic that is, while not “cartoony” in the way of the Sunday funnies, definitely stylized. That’s by design—a deliberate departure from realism that Hibdon says engages readers and gives the stories the “ineffable quality of comic books.”

That’s one of the genre’s strong points, says Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief of the lefty website Truthout, which regularly publishes comics journalism, including work by the Illustrated Press. “A lot of the reasons for doing the comics has to do with the necessity of having [readers] engaged with individuals identified in the story,” she says. “Seeing people’s faces—drawn faces—changes the way you interact with the subject matter. So it especially works well for us on issues where the main goal of our stories is to humanize.”

Humanizing the material weighed heavily on Holliday’s mind, he says, when he worked with Rodriguez on “Degrees of Literacy,” about student debt. “These stories often fail to reach students, because they are about this tedious, boring glut of financial information,” he says. “But seeing it in the comics makes the issue more real than any text story ever could—it makes you more comfortable with engaging with the subject and consuming the material.”

The format can even be useful for investigative journalism, where it offers a different way to look at material that’s a little too real. In late 2012, the Center for Investigative Reporting released “In Jennifer’s Room,” a video feature that used a series of illustrations and voice narration to explore allegations of sexual abuse at state-run institutions for the developmentally disabled. The project won a national Emmy last year.

“Very dark, disturbing stories can be more effective with illustration because it allows the viewer a bit of emotional distance from the subject matter—it makes it less overwhelming, easier to digest,” said Carrie Ching, who led multimedia projects at CIR until last year.

Another takeaway from the project’s success is that it made future projects easier to pitch. The genre still has its skeptics, and Ching, who’s recently been working on the series “Correspondent Confidential” for Vice, says she encountered some pushback to animated journalism at first.

But “nowadays I don’t have to sell the concept anymore because my work, and the work of others doing similar forms of comic or illustrated journalism, has broken through more with mainstream audiences,” she says. “Now people come to me with ideas and stories they want me to produce in ‘my style’—that’s exciting.”

Symbolia’s Polgreen says an approach like Ching’s, which uses illustration as part of a larger multimedia project, might be what’s next for comics journalism. “We are headed more and more in that direction where the comics are just part of the broader storytelling that we provide,” she says. “The comics will always be really, really part of who we are and what we do, but we’re excited to start experimenting with other types of media.”

Back in Chicago, the Illustrated Press crew is keeping one eye on a short-term goal—to finish gathering materials for their second book—and the other on where the comics journalism community is headed next.

“We’re at the forefront of this burgeoning thing. It’s interesting to see what it could become,” Holliday says. “But, for now, what we’ll try to do is to keep putting out the best, deeply reported, well-researched, on-the-ground narratives as we possibly can.”

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Rui Kaneya is CJR's correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya. Tags: , , ,