In 2010, cartoonist Sarah Glidden accompanied two reporters from the Seattle Globalist as they traveled through Iraq and Syria on a two-month trip. The Globalist reporters were there to find and report on as many stories as possible. Glidden was there, more or less, to report on the Globalist reporters. Six years later, Glidden’s full account of the trip has finally been published as a book titled Rolling Blackouts.
Structurally, Rolling Blackouts takes the form of a travelogue, similar to Glidden’s debut book How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. We follow the reporters in chronological order as they travel from Turkey to Iraq to Syria. We watch them assemble their stories, we see how some of the stories fall apart, and we watch new stories present themselves through coincidence and circumstance. Some interviews are fruitful. Many are not.
While Rolling Blackouts is absolutely a work of journalism about the Middle East at a pivotal moment in history, Glidden also manages to conceal a few years of journalism school in the narrative. Her friends from the Globalist — young reporters in their late twenties — keep Glidden apprised of the status of their stories, which gives Glidden’s account the feel of a job shadow. From the finer details of interviewing an unwilling subject to the loftier questions at the edge of the field, Glidden is interested in how reporters tell stories:
Is it even possible to report on a person’s life without intervening in it? There are rules to journalism that are common sense: do not deceive; work independently; minimize harm. But from there, lines start blurring. What is journalistic distance? Can it be measured? How much does it even matter? I’m beginning to see that so much of the practice of journalism comes down to questions that may be unanswerable.
One of the most compelling threads in Rolling Blackouts is the character of Dan, a childhood friend of one of the Globalist reporters who protested the war in Iraq and then signed up for the Marines. A civilian again, Dan comes along on the trip to revisit Iraq and be interviewed on his thoughts on the war. To everyone’s frustration, he’s decidedly blasé about his time as a Marine: “I’m not messed up at all and I have no regrets,” he says in the first interview.
Any reporter who tells you they don’t start a story with at least a few sentences already written in their head is probably lying to you. We all have our preconceived narratives, and the Globalist reporter — frustratingly for the purposes of identification, also named Sarah — clearly knows what she wants Dan to talk about: his complicated feelings for war, and for the Marines, and about America at the dawn of the 21st century. But instead of introspection, Dan only offers a cheery and placid surface. Again and again she interviews him, hoping to catch him with his guard down. Again and again, he presents a straightforward and uncomplicated persona.
This is a central tension of Rolling Blackouts. Is Dan telling the truth? If so, it’s a truth that the Globalist reporters clearly don’t want to hear. They continually suspect him of having some deeper story that he’s withholding, and this suspicion begins to poison the trip. They talk about Dan when he’s not in the room, they discuss the way they’ll approach him, they plot their next moves with care. Meanwhile, Glidden is in the corner sketching everything, adding another layer of observation to the whole interaction.
Is Sarah from the Globalist right to keep pushing at Dan in the search of a truth that may not be there? Would she be as hard on a source that she didn’t already consider a friend? Do all the plots and plans affect the content and character of the story she wants to write? When do a journalist’s attempts to coax a story out of a subject change over from investigation to coercion?
Glidden observes the Globalist reporters as they interview Iraqi refugees. The refugees hate America for blowing up their country, and they’re clearly not too happy with these young Americans wandering into what’s left of their lives, but they still consent to interviews. They want the world to know their story. These refugees have no agency; they fled Americans pointing guns at them, and the only way for that story to be heard is if they allow different Americans to point their cameras at them.
The Globalist reporters are aware of this complicated relationship, but they’re determined to tell these stories. In one of the most successful flashbacks in the book, Glidden places the dialogue of a discussion between the reporters about America’s involvement in Iraq on top of scenes of the reporters protesting the Iraq War years ago. The protesters before the war are discussing the consequences of it. It’s jarring to see the Globalist reporters carrying a hand-made “NOT IN OUR NAME” sign as one says, “It was fashionable to be against the war. That was what our generation did. But somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 dead Iraqi civilians later, was that really the best we could do to try and stop that?”
It’s a question without an answer.
One of the major interviews the Globalist reporters score is with a man who calls himself Sam. Sam was an Iraqi immigrant who moved to the suburbs of Seattle when he was allegedly approached at the Northgate Mall by an Al Qaeda agent. He was then detained by the FBI and exiled from the US without his wife and children. By the time the Globalist catches up to him in Iraq, you’d expect him to be embittered and hateful. Instead, he’s loving and generous, effusive about his love for Seattle and proud of his daughter, who is just about to graduate from the UW.
Glidden documents the Globalist’s interactions with Sam, their unspooling of his story as they try to determine what happened that this unassuming, rotund dad should be branded a terrorist by the FBI. It’s terrific meta-reporting, and it highlights the process of journalism at its best.
Early in Rolling Blackouts, the Globalist reporters pitch a story about Iraqi prison conditions to a major news outlet. Eventually, they hear back from the editor: the story was rejected. But not because it was uninteresting: “Their problem with it is that it’s dark. There’s no way to write about people in prison and not have it be dark!”
Rolling Blackouts captures journalism at a pivotal moment. In 2010, print media had just begun the enthusiastic migration over to Facebook in search of the millions of eyeballs that social media platform promised. Already, the Facebook feed had begun to shape journalism: the reporters bemoan the way print journalism in the 21st century has to be just as attention-thirsty as TV news. Loud headlines and sexy leads had already become a necessity.
Consider, too, that these reporters don’t enjoy the support of a news organization. Twenty or thirty years ago, they’d have the institutional support of a multinational media conglomerate behind them; now they have Kickstarter backers. They meet photojournalists who lament the death of the freelance photography market. A whole way of life had died just as they left school to become reporters, and now they’re scavenging in the wreckage like everyone else.
But occasionally, they also just complain for the sake of complaints. One night, Sarah from the Globalist feels sorry for herself: “Sometimes I feel like my eternal role is to get people excited about journalism and then show them how shitty and complicated it is. I wish I could make it more romantic. Oh well.” Of course, she’s playing the woe-is-me-romance-is-dead card in a vibrant bar on the other side of the world. She’s living the dream; it’s hard to feel too sorry for her.
Glidden’s two books share a subject matter — modern life in the Middle East — and they both could be labeled memoir. But on closer examination, they don’t really share much in common. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is a personal essay, a monologue about the complicated political choices available to a young Jewish American woman. Good as Israel was, Rolling Blackouts is a more mature, more complex work. It demonstrates real reportage with an impressive level of confidence.
Glidden’s cartooning style is perfect for this kind of journalism. She uses few lines in every panel, but they’re exactly the right lines. A face might be nothing more than two dots, a line, and a fluttery “v” for a nose, but those strokes of the pen can carry a ton of emotional weight. By stripping away the millions of details in every human face down to their most elemental features, Glidden’s reportage gets to the heart of a moment: the jagged downward slice of an eyebrow showing an interviewee's displeasure at a question, the defiant clenched shoulders of a reporter facing the latest in a long string of rejections depicted in a single slouched line.
The best aspect of Glidden’s art is how un-showy it is. She doesn’t use a lot of the gimmicks you’ll see in the flashier superhero comics: she favors the traditional nine-panel grid, and she doesn’t violate panel borders or use sound effects or any of the other special effects that you’ll find in American comics. She packs a lot of words into her word balloons, in direct violation of modern comics trends.
With all those noisemakers and flash-bangs stripped away, you’re left with an appreciation of Glidden’s strength as a cartoonist. Without vivid computer coloring, a scene with a car’s headlights illuminating desert dunes at night is even more striking. Without wide-angle double-page spreads of a room full of refugees, we’re left with the claustrophobic intensity of encountering the room through a series of tiny panels — rather than standing back and appraising the whole scene, we’re inside the room, trying to get a sense of how full it is.
And perhaps that’s the key to it all. Glidden’s drawings don’t put us outside a scene. They draw us in. Rather than staring at the reporters from across a table, Glidden pushes us up into the conversation. We can see their facial expressions and, practically, smell the wine on their breath. We’re in the car with them, in the room with them, seeing what they see as they see it. Glidden doesn’t give us the luxury of being spectators. Her art draws you into the story. You’re a part of this, too, she says.
The only moment in Rolling Blackouts that really lets us stand back from the characters and see them from a different vantage point is the cover. We’re looking down at a roof. On it, the two Globalist reporters, each smaller than your thumb, stand on a rooftop, interviewing Sam. One of them leans over a video camera. The other holds out an audio recorder. Even with his hands in his pockets, Sam’s body language is formal. The Globalist reporters are trying to look more relaxed. And then, off in the corner, is Glidden, leaning against the ledge of the roof, staring at the three of them, sketching in her book.
After you’ve read Rolling Blackouts, the distance from the characters on the cover feels wrong — you feel alienated, outside. It’s like watching a movie on the back of a seat two rows ahead of you on an airplane, or reading a book over someone’s shoulder. Glidden invites you so completely into her world that once you’re outside again, you don’t recognize yourself anymore.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant