You need distance to tell a story: talking with Sarah Glidden about comics journalism

Sarah Glidden debuts her great book Rolling Blackouts at Elliott Bay Book Company.

A photo posted by The Seatttle Review of Books (@seattlereviewof) on

On Wednesday, October 5th, I interviewed Sarah Glidden about her excellent book Rolling Blackouts at the Elliott Bay Book Company. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

PAUL CONSTANT: So you traveled to the Middle East with reporters from the Seattle Globalist in 2010. Over the next few months, they published reported pieces and videos and photo essays. And now six years later, here comes your book about the experience. I was wondering if that lag signifies a drawback of comics reportage to you, or if you think there's something comics journalism can do that other forms can't?

SARAH GLIDDEN: If you're going to do a big book like this, you definitely want to pick a topic that will have a shelf life, that will last longer. When we went out to do this book, I wasn't thinking, "I'm going to make a book about Iraqi refugees." It was, "I'm going to make a book about journalists and about how journalism works." I figured within the next five years or decade, the way journalism works wasn't going to change that drastically — and I don't think it has.

Those topics are still the same, but also I think that when it comes to the things that they were reporting on, and then that I was reporting on, the facts on the ground might have changed and those regions have changed — definitely, Syria has changed — but that doesn't mean that what they were reporting on then didn't happen. It still happened. Maybe it's less of-the-moment journalism, but it's still something that these people went through, and it's still a time in the history of that country that's important.

I think it's important to us as well because one of the reasons the journalists I was with wanted to report on Iraqi refugees was that this was already seven years after the invasion of Iraq and the U.S. had kind of moved on a little bit from that war. The war was winding down and Obama was elected, so there were just other things to think about. The fact is, for the people who were affected by that war over there, that stuff still mattered and was still important.

This is a very thoughtful book about both journalism and about that specific situation and I don't want to get too deep into process, but I do want to know how much of the finished book you had envisioned right after the trip, and how much of it came about in the process of writing and drawing?

There were certain moments that, as they were happening, I was like, "Oh this is definitely going to go in the book." Like the first page of the book was one of those moments were I was like, "Oh wow, this is a really strong moment. I definitely want this to be in [the book]." There were also some funny moments, like the second page of the book, where I thought, "Okay, this has got to go in there. It's just too good."

There were some things that happened that I had that same feeling, and then when you're working on the book you realize that they don't actually have a place there. Then you have to do the whole "kill your darlings" thing and let them go. The book took a long time, and it wasn't just because it takes a long time to draw and paint everything. That, for me, is some of the stuff that takes the least time.

Just sorting through all the material I had and figuring out how to tell this onion of stories — there's the story of the people reporting, and the stories that they’re reporting on, and then the stories of how those things interplay — that was a very complicated knot to untangle.

I was recording everything, so almost all of the dialogue in the book is from recordings that I took. The first year when I got home, I was really spending most of my time transcribing everything, because I thought that I needed to transcribe everything. I kind of needed to figure out what the voice of the book was going to be and how much my character was going to be in it. There was a whole part where we went to Lebanon and I cut that whole part out because it really, in the end, didn't have anything to do with the major themes of the book.

Are you more comfortable working in books as opposed to shorter pieces published in magazines and things like that?

I don't know about comfortable. This was a very uncomfortable thing to work on. A lot of it was material that felt almost over my head in a certain way. I felt at times like, "I'm not qualified to talk about journalism," or, "I'm not qualified to talk about the war in Iraq because I'm not an expert on these things." If you give yourself enough time, you can force yourself to talk about anything.

I do like working in short pieces, but, for me, length is really comfortable because you can go on and on. For me, doing like a two-page comic is the hardest thing because you have to get a whole bunch of information into a very short space and you don't want to put too much text in the panels because people's eyes get tired.

After working on this for so long, I feel like it's going to be a while before I start another book. I'm probably going to work in short pieces for a while now.

It's October 2016, so we've got to talk about the orange elephant in the room. Your book's about Syria and refugees and I wonder if you have any special perspective on the election and Donald Trump because of your experiences?

I will say that the thing that makes me the most angry that Trump says, and that a lot of other politicians on his side of things talk about, is using the refugee crisis to stoke people's fears about terrorism and saying things like, "We don't know who these people are and they're not vetted properly." It just makes my blood boil, because we spent a lot of time talking to refugees and talking to people at the United Nations about these refugees. I spent five years really looking into refugee law and how all that stuff works. Now I know that [what those politicians say is] the opposite of true. There's almost two years of vetting that refugees go through before they come here. They don't bring single men ever, they bring families or they bring widows. They bring the most vulnerable people first.

Really only 1 percent of registered refugees ever make it to the U.S. anyway. When I hear people using refugees to get people all riled up and afraid of terrorism, it's so sad to me because we should be letting more people in, not fewer people. We made all these promises to translators and people who worked with soldiers in Iraq, and we haven't let those people in yet. For me, that's my little tiny corner area of expertise when it comes to this election. When I hear Trump saying things about refugees, it makes me upset. The rest of it I feel like I have no control over whatsoever. I'm just going to fill out my ballot and mail it in and hope for the best, I guess.

One of the most striking scenes in the book for me is when you're all talking about protesting the war and you drew yourselves as younger protesters at an Iraq War protest. One of the things that you're talking about is whether you could have done more to stop this. With that in mind, I wonder if you think there's anything we could have done to have stopped this political situation we’re in right now?

I remember when we were protesting the war. [Globalist reporter] Sarah [Stuteville] and I had very different ideas about what were good protesting tactics. I would see people smashing windows and be like, "That's not good because that will make people think that we're bad. That's not helpful." Whereas she wasn't going to go out doing those things, but I think she understood better that we need lots of different kinds of tactics for protesting.

I think I've come over to that point of view a little more now as I get older and you have seen protests that work, like at the pipeline in North Dakota: people really getting in there and doing direct actions, and things happened because of that. At the time, I really was of the mind, "We did all we could. We went to protests." Who knows? There have been governments that have been toppled from people filling up a square. Just yesterday, Polish women all went on strike to reverse an abortion law.

Maybe we just didn't go far enough, I don't know. I do think that is the job of young people: I think the older you get, the less you can just leave your job and the more you think about whether this is a good idea or not. When you're in your early 20's or you're in high school, yeah, it is your job to go protest. And maybe a little bit later, you become a reporter.

Is your work going to continue to be focused on the Middle East or were the first two books just the way it happened to land?

It was kind of a coincidence. When I was working on [Glidden’s first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less], I talked to the Globalist — I said, "Next time, you guys, when I'm done with this book and it's your next trip, then we'll do it together." It just so happened that it was for this trip. If I had finished a little bit earlier, I probably would have gone with them to Pakistan. If it had been a little later, I would have gone with them — they did a journalism series in the Ukraine called “Generation Putin.” I would have gone on that trip if I had finished later. It just so happened that it was this trip.

I'm glad that I went, because from doing a book about Israel and Palestine, I did have a little bit of context for what we were seeing and who we were talking to. I think for my next works, I'm going to try to stick a little closer to home. I think there's plenty going on here.

You moved to Seattle last year — almost exactly this time last year I interviewed you for the Seattle Review of Books as a new Seattleite. I think it's been kind of a banner year for comics in Seattle, and you seem to be a big part of the community already. I was wondering if you could talk about your perspective as a newcomer?

We've been friends with [Short Run co-founder] Eroyn [Franklin] for also a really long time. So when I would come here and visit, Eroyn introduced me to the comics community. I remember one of my first visits here, I went to the Fantagraphics Store in Georgetown and I have a picture of me in front of the store with a little bag because I bought something inside. I was really excited because between Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly — Montreal and Seattle, those were the two indie comic centers.

When Eroyn started doing Short Run a couple years ago, I remember seeing it go from something small she was talking about to a festival that people who I knew, who didn't know them, were talking about — and they were talking about it being one of their favorite shows.

It was exciting coming here and getting involved with that. I'm on the board now so I got to help them figure out which international guests to bring. It's been nice coming to a new place, but feeling like you have a community and that you're helping be a part of it.

It’s a good thing that there’s Short Run because otherwise you might not see other cartoonists. It's a job where you're sitting at home, usually, and you're working alone. I was working on this book until March or April and there was a couple months there where I couldn't go out at all. I think it's good that there's something like Short Run that makes these events — not just the festival, but also there's Summer School and stuff like that — because otherwise I think cartoonists are prone to just staying inside and not socializing very much.

When you lived in New York, you were part of Pizza Island, a cartooning community, and pretty much everyone from that group is sort of blowing up now: Kate Beaton and Lisa Hanawalt and Julia Wertz. Did you feel like it was something special at the time? It's almost like a rock group, going off in your own directions. And if that analogy is correct, are you Wings?

It really did feel special. I think we kind of knew it. It happened by chance: I was friends with Julia first and then we got to know Lisa when she moved to New York and Domitille [Collardey] was — you know, she came from France, and she was dating a musician that I knew. Then I got to know her and then at that time, we decided just to get a studio.

We kind of knew Kate from around the way and Kate knew Meredith [Gran], so we all ended up together. I don't think we really understood how special it was until people started writing articles about us. I think people made a big deal out of it being an all-female cartoonist studio. We didn't go out to make an all-female studio, it just happened that everybody was a woman.

It was a really magical thing. I kind of thought, "Oh this is just what a shared studio is like." I've had shared studios since then that have been major disappointments because [with Pizza Island] there was a certain chemistry there. Everybody was doing really amazing work, but everyone's work was really different so it didn't feel competitive. It didn't feel like you were looking over your shoulder and thinking, "How did she get that and I didn't?" Because, well, it's obvious — she's doing that thing and I'm doing this.

It was really inspiring and it was very motivating. It's sad that it only lasted a couple years. Basically none of us could afford to stay in New York anymore and now two of them are in L.A. and Kate is back in Canada and I think Meredith is the only one left in New York. I don't know, if any cartoonists want to start a new studio, I'd be willing to give it a shot — even though it will probably never be Pizza Island. But who knows?

[AUDIENCE QUESTION] I love the style of your work and to me it's very much a documentary illustration. As someone who can also appreciate how drawing someone speaking over six panels can get really repetitive, what would you do to break up that repetition? Did you find yourself working on other projects in between things or would you bounce around from chapter to chapter to take care of that?

Well, that was really hard. That was one of the big challenges of this book because it was a book about the process of journalism. The process of journalism is a lot of sitting around in rooms talking. Someone like Joe Sacco — the process is in there, but it's really about the people's stories, so he can really illustrate what they went through.

I do a little bit of that in the book — like I do some flashbacks — but I didn't do a lot of that because I wanted to keep the focus on the process of journalism. I worried a ton. If I had more than three pages of people sitting and talking and going back from head to head, I started sweating.

Actually, my husband would tell me, "You worry about that too much. It'll be fine." And now I think that it is. It's good to think about that stuff and try to make sure you're not having 20 pages of people taking, but if what they're talking about is interesting, and I hope that it is, then I think that it's all right.

Some cartoonist once said that there should be a drawing of a foot on every page. I don't adhere to that rule completely, but I like the idea that you can vary things a little bit. You can zoom out a little and show the setting the people are sitting in, and kind of give an idea of this space. A lot of times I'll show the details of a room while someone is talking. You can also change camera angles and stuff like that. As far as whether I was working on other things: I was for the first couple years while I was working on this book, but that was more because I didn't want to work on the book because it was hard.

[AUDIENCE QUESTION:] It strikes me that you were there six years ago, and you’re drawing all these drawings and you have to remember what the material environment looked like while you were there. How do you keep that in your mind?

I take a lot of photos. When I go on a trip like this, I'm taking pictures constantly. I do have a sketchbook and that's mostly for taking notes. I'm recording and then if someone's making some weird gesture, I'll write down that he's flailing around madly. But then I'll also be taking a lot of pictures because it's really important to me that the setting looks real.

[Points to the image on the cover of Rolling Blackouts] This is Sulaymaniyah in Iraq. I posted a picture of this cover and a guy I know who's from there recognized it, and that's what I really want. I want people to really feel like this is a specific place.

That means not just cityscapes, but it also means if you're in a restaurant, the certain type of plastic chairs that are there and what the lighting looks like. Anytime when I can't use a camera like a border crossings or something more intimate like interview situations, I would be drawing — like furiously drawing — floor plans and stuff to kind of get that right.

There's a lot that you can hear in a recording when it comes to how someone's mood is. And you're observing them and you're observing body language as it's happening, so then when you listen back to people talking, you can kind of think, "Oh yeah, I remember how they move, I remember she was going like this [makes waving gestures] when she said that."

It is really weird spending five or six years on two months. For my first book too, it was two weeks of time and I spent three years on it. It's this strange extending of time, and you remember moments because you keep forming that memory over and over again. I don't remember what I did in the two months after I got back. I actually have no idea.

Do you find you have a better idea of what details are important when you go into a space as a reporter now or do you still just soak everything up as a sponge and figure out what's important later?

I do, although there's still always the photo that you wish you had taken that you didn't: “I cannot believe I didn't take a picture of the front of that building.” Now I kind of think about that a little bit more when I'm reporting.

I did a comic over the summer about Jill Stein. I followed her around on the campaign trail, and there were still things like threads that I was following that I thought were going to be really important. Then I'm like, "Why did I waste all my time talking to that guy? That didn't make it in at all." It was just actually a distraction. As you get more experience as a journalist, maybe that gets easier, but I think a lot of the deciding what goes in the story happens after you get back and you have a little bit of distance from it.