02 August 2017

Comics Journalism Book Review: "Rolling Blackouts"

Book Review: "Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq" by Sarah Glidden

Sarah Glidden's "Rolling Blackouts" is an essential exploration of what it means to ask questions and tell stories. You should experience it.

I say "experience," rather than "read." Or "view." Because "Rolling Blackouts" is what other people might dismiss as a comic book.

What should one call, however, a 304-page illustrated navigation of national identities and communications theory, one that crosses borders and shares private experiences, and that seeks concrete answers while also celebrating ambiguity and complexity? Is the preferred term "graphic non-fiction novel"? A work of "Comics journalism"? To the uninitiated, these terms seem dismissive, inadequate to the artistic and rhetorical accomplishments at hand.

Although it defies easy labeling, Sarah Glidden's second book is imminently accessible. Each page is designed on a 9-panel grid, and filled with elegantly drawn pictures, warmly colored with watercolors. Action and exposition is primarily driven by dialogue—interactions among characters—rather than by authorial narration. To put it another way: There more word-balloons more than text boxes.

The illustrations offer setting and mood, giving readers a more-immersive experience than what might be possible via text, or even photo.

The book relates the 2010 story of four friends who make up a Washington-based non-profit journalism enterprise called The Seattle Globalist, who travel to Turkey, Syria, and Iraq in search of stories regarding the Iraqi refugee experience.

Glidden goes along for the ride, intending to observe and report on the process itself. Dialogue and events depicted in the book are based on her recordings, impressions, and memories of events. She notably and explicitly avoids labeling the work as memoir.

Multimedia journalists Sarah Stuteville and Jessica Partnow are life-long friends, who also knew former Marine artilleryman Dan O'Brien from high school days. As a military veteran, O'Brien goes along to file occasional video impressions of what it's like to return to Iraq, having deployed with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines to Ramadi in 2007. Alex Stonehill is the team's photographer.

Via Stuteville and others, Glidden learns about nuts-and-bolts journalism terms like "lav-mics" and "B-roll," and experiences first-hand the embarrassing, excruciating pain of transcribing interviews from digital recordings. Meeting other journalists in the field, she explores the limitations and advantages of embedding civilian journalists with U.S. military personnel, and how various types of sources are sometimes limited in their abilities to directly tell the stories of the refugees they're trying to help. Language is sometimes a barrier to effective reporting, a problem that Glidden's own visual, sequential medium seems uniquely able to depict.

Stuteville's standards of journalism are appropriate to all forms of non-fiction storytelling, whether blogging or Tweeting or writing for an old-school print publication. As such, "Rolling Blackouts" would be a useful text in journalism and communications classes:
  • Is it informative? Is it trying to inform people about a topic or a time or a person?
  • Is it reliable? Is it true and can we find out that it's true?
  • Is is accountable? Do we know who did it, and if we find out that something was untrue, will they take responsibility for it?
  • And is it independent? So did the person report this for no reason beyond getting to the truth, or did they do it because they were paid by an interested party?
"[Journalism's] not a medium and it's not a result and it's not a voice," Stuteville tells Glidden. "It's an expectation."

For the most part, Stuteville and her team are pragmatically idealistic, recognizing the freelance realities of marketing stories to editors. Some stories are necessary, because they'll help pay the bills. Other stories just won't sell.

Some of the dramatic tensions lay between individual team members as characters. Stuteville, for example, openly wants to leverage the powers of journalism to document a narrative change in her Marine friend O'Brien, but is repeatedly frustrated by her professional and personal inability to make that connection:
Dan O'Brien: "I feel a lot of pressure to give you good sound bites right now. I feel like the fate of your entire project is resting on me and I'm just blowing it and you guys are like, 'This guy hasn't said anything cool yet.'"

Sarah Stuteville: "Not at all. A good journalist doesn't go into a story already knowing the conclusion. People never say the stuff you want them to say … and the revelation that happens is never the revelation you were expecting. The story never goes the way it's supposed to. Which makes it kind of fun!"
Contrast this statement of editorial zen, however, with a later conversation between Stuteville and Alex Stonehill, the photographer:
Stuteville: "To me, the story of Dan is in the things he asserts that aren't true. The louder he says, 'I'm not that f---ed up veteran, the war didn't define me, I don't have bad dreams or anxiety …' the more I know it's true." […]

Stonehill: "Yeah, the best way for this to go from an editor's perspective is for Dan to meet some Iraqis and then have a nervous breakdown and be like, 'Oh, I'm so f---ed up over what I did and I have PTSD and war is so terrible.' That's the Hollywood narrative they want. But that's so f---ed up!" […]

Stuteville: "Dan was a little hippie kid from Seattle who was completely seduced by the bravado and romance of the military. He went in and he felt like he became a man, and some guys died, but he's glad he did it. And I don't get the sense that he will ever be un-glad that he did it. And you're not supposed to tell that story. No editor wants that story."
In a work full of professional trade secrets, clear-eyed self-examinations, and celebrations of ambiguity, Glidden has told a series of stories that is simultaneously behind-the-scenes, and insightful meta-commentary. She has effective captured the journalistic yin-yang by showing, not telling. As a non-fiction storyteller and as a military veteran, Stuteville's struggle is my own, as is O'Brien's. Glidden has provided a bridge, which privileges each perspective without judgement.

That's not just story-telling. That's art.

"Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq" is available in hard cover via Amazon and other booksellers.

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