Drawings can´t be objective – or can they?

Comics can´t be objective – they are drawn. Welcome to the most established criticism about comics journalism. Find out here how the makers deal with that argument.

Comics are not just funny.

Eckart Sackmann

A discovery that establishes as slowly as the discovery that daily newspaper has no future without the internet. The English phrase „comic“ in the German regions still is a barrier on the way to a „prejudice free classification and association“ and „fundamentally inappropriate“, says Eckart Sackmann. As proof of that even journalistic anthologys put comic into the entertaining chapter, e.g. Böhn/Seidler (2008) or Reumann (2009).

Nevertheless: Comic journalists such as Dan Archer and Matt Bors are convinced to be working with journalistic criterions.

We research + investigate a story in the traditonal way(,) but our stories are filed as Comics, not pure text, photos/video.

Dan Archer

Comics Journalism is (t)elling true stories with accuracy and transparency.

Matt Bors

Joe Sacco, who is said to be the fater of comics journalism, put it a similar way in connection with his opulent travelogue „Palestine“ (1993): To Sacco honesty and transparency where important factors. Part of transparency in the daily routine of journalists is to unveil the conditions of reporting, according to communication researcher Stephan Ruß-Mohl.

In a collection of Sacco´s works the author does that in form of notations at the end of the comics. In a comic about the International Criminal Court in The Hague he talks about problems while creating the story (translated from the German version): „I had apprechiated it if the two main persons in charge had explained the importance of the Criminal Court instead of doing it myself.“

In an English Interview with magazine „The Believer“ Sacco says that journalistic accuracy is more important than the asthetics of the comic. Asked about square brackets clarifying changes within a quotation, Sacco answers:

I do agree that this is not what I want to see if I’m reading a comic book, for god’s sake, but on the other hand, the journalistic imperative means more to me when you’re quoting someone than the “nice comics balloon” imperative.

Joe Sacco

Terms of Service1
Square brackets in the bubbles: The comic „Terms of Service“ clarifies like this that you are reading a quotation.

Josh Neufeld und Michael Keller use square brackets in the English comic „Terms of Service“ about big data. Apart from that Neufeld draws hisself and Keller into some of the comic panels. And they use footnotes that refer to a bibliography at the end of the 46 page comic.

Consequently subjective instead of objective

„The News in Comic Format? Impossible. Because it´s drawn, therefore subjective.“

That is what an editor is saying according to comics journalist Dan Archer in his piece explaining comics journalism in the form of comics journalism. Archer thinks that social networks and links, e.g. to videos in the comic, are arguments against that. A hypothesis that I found out in my bachelor thesis too.

The prejudice does also not quite work when you look at how comics journalists work. Lukas Plank did scientific research about that in his master thesis (in German). Plank uses the term „transparent subjectivity“. That is, to put it simply: Yes, we are subjective, we have our own opinion. And we emphasize that by means of making our sources consistently transparent.

Plank designs a guideline und recommends to include symbols into every panel to make the source transparent. He also suggests alternatives to the symbols such as fore- or afterwords, an appendix, footnotes, links or the first person account.

According to scientist Dirk Vanderbeke subjectivity is one of the components to come closer to an „essential truth“ that „classic“ journalism can´t always reach. In that context comics journalism can put the alleged validity of photos into question. Comics journalism can, according to Vanderbeke, also show certain things that other forms of journalism can´t show. That could for example be a distance „shot“ of a scene of which no photo was available.

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