Our latest Notable Narrative is “Stowaway,” an interactive comic, published by The Atavist, that tells the story of a young Ethiopian boy, “Fanuel,” who made his way to the United States via human trafficking and perseverance. The writer is Tori Marlan, a Montreal-based freelance investigative reporter and former Alicia Patterson fellow, and Josh Neufeld, a Brooklyn-based illustrator who’s currently a Knight-Wallace fellow in journalism at the University of Michigan. In chatting with Marlan and Neufeld via email this week about the burgeoning form of webcomics narrative, we asked them about storytelling challenges, journalistic transparency and the concept of visual voice.
Storyboard: How did this project begin?
Tori: The Atavist invited Josh to submit ideas for stories. He knew that I was working on a script for a graphic book about an Ethiopian orphan who was smuggled to the U.S., and he convinced me to pitch them an excerpt of it for us to collaborate on.
Did you have a model for this work?
Josh: There are a couple of antecedents to this, including my own A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which originally ran on SMITH magazine in 2007–08. In addition to the comic itself, there are links embedded in many panels, which lead to further information, videos, sound clips and other resources. A.D. also features an active blog and reader comments. Comics journalist Dan Archer has also done some really interesting things with comics and Internet technology — I am particularly impressed by his piece on Cartoon Movement, “The Nisoor Square Shootings.” But I don’t think anything else combines all the elements of Tori and my Atavist piece. I love the model developed by The Atavist, the way they combine a solid long-form story with an audiobook component, music, video clips and other bells and whistles. When they approached me about contributing their first comics piece, I was confident they’d be able to give it a real unique spin. And they really did!
Tori: I hadn’t read many other webcomics, so I wouldn’t say I had a model. But shortly after we started working on the Atavist story, I became aware of Cartoon Movement, which has published some really good narrative e-comics, including Luke Radl’s “Chicago is My Kind of Town,” which embeds hyperlinks in the images for videos and audio interviews; David Axe and Tim Hamilton’s “Army of God;” and Josh’s “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand.”
How did you work? Tori, did you write a traditional narrative that you then distilled into panels? What was the technical process for each of you, and how long did it take?
Tori: I wrote it as a script from the beginning. In comics, the reader has to make connections based on visual cues, so everything in the script has to be visual and translatable by an artist. My background is in print, so this was a new way of writing for me. Several years ago, before I started working on my book, I asked Josh to send me one of his old scripts. He gave me a short one he’d written many years ago – it was just a few pages – and I used it as a template. The book was well under way when Josh came to me with the idea of publishing a piece of it digitally. Because I wasn’t starting from scratch – I was modifying a chapter of my book to work as its own story – it only took about a month to finish the Atavist script. There was definitely a fruitful back and forth with Josh. I’d send him the script, we’d talk about it, and then I’d make changes based on our conversation. We did that a couple of times before I submitted it to our editor (Alissa Quart) at The Atavist. Josh not only thinks like an artist, he thinks like a writer, so he’s sensitive to things like character development, and his suggestions served the story.
Josh: For someone who had never written a comics story before, I was really impressed with Tori’s script, particularly her ability to take the reader right into scenes with Fanuel and let them play out for the reader. To me, that’s great comics. Once the script was locked down, I thumbnailed the whole thing, basically creating storyboard-type rough drawings for Tori and Alissa to evaluate. Taking into account any changes or suggestions, I then penciled, lettered, inked and colored the art, waiting for feedback each step along the way. As you can imagine, it’s a time-intensive process
What were the biggest challenges?
Tori: Giving up my journalistic voice and conveying the story almost entirely through dialogue and body language. I decided against using captions to drive the narrative, because I thought they’d be distracting, and I wanted the reading experience to be as intimate and immersive as possible.
What were you able to achieve with a comics narrative that you wouldn’t have been able to achieve in a traditional narrative?
Josh: We all know by now the cliché, “Comics are not just for kids.” They really can tell any kind of story. To me, comics offer the reader a uniquely intimate experience — I feel a good comics story draws the reader into the story in a way that other formats don’t do as well. There are also some things you can convey in comics that you can’t express only in words. The medium’s unique combination of pictures and text, and the fragmented narrative of the panel-by-panel format, engages the reader in a particularly active role of interpretation and inference.
Tori: A lot of people are visually oriented. For them, seeing someone’s story unfold might make it more personal – like you’re sharing the experience.
What were the drawbacks of the form?
Josh: Even though I love comics, they’re not the perfect medium for every kind of story. Even though art can sometimes replace large blocks of text, there are cases when it just works better to explain something in prose. For instance, there are sections of The Influencing Machine where the writer Brooke Gladstone chose to go with prose-only parts to convey data and historical information that would have taken pages and pages to represent in comics form, and might not have added anything special to the narrative.
Tori: With long-form journalism, you can go into great detail to provide history or background information for context. There’s an opportunity to get into the larger implications of the story. The way I’ve written this particular comics script – without using captions and focusing solely on Fanuel’s experience – that’s not the case. Because the story is told from Fanuel’s point of view, everything is filtered through his immediate experience. The reader doesn’t get a sense of the scale of the problem, doesn’t know how many kids are in similar situations. But that can always be addressed in a foreword.
How did the reporting for this medium differ from reporting that you’d do in a traditional print or online narrative?
Tori: I don’t think it affected my reporting, since I didn’t initially set out to tell the story in graphic form. That’s something I decided to do late in the process, when the reporting was basically done.
What comics conventions did you bring to this, Josh? I like how flashbacks are cast in bluescale – it suggests a time-sequence shift without derailing the narrative. Is that an example of a convention that works well in narrative e-comics?
Josh: The flashbacks in blue were suggested by The Atavist’s creative director, Jefferson Rabb. I thought it was a very elegant solution to the challenge of conveying flashbacks – which are used frequently in this story – without resorting to visual clichés like bubble-edged or rounded panels. Even with the limited color palette we use in this piece, the simple alternate color scheme really does the trick.
You used a pseudonym for the protagonist – why?
Tori: I offered that option to him a long time ago, and it may be why he was comfortable opening up to me about so many deeply personal things. Some of the more sensitive stuff he told me comes out in the book, and he doesn’t necessarily want it following him for the rest of his life. Also, he’s worried that some of it could compromise his relationships with other Ethiopians in the U.S.
How many drafts? And how does the final product differ from your first draft?
Tori: We went through a few drafts of the script, but I didn’t end up altering the structure or panel breakdown too much. I added more dialogue to later drafts, and we lost or combined a few panels here and there. Josh showed me the art at every stage, and there were only a few panels that I suggested tweaking. It was an easy and fun collaboration.
Talk about the “enhanced” form that’s particular to this kind of project. What kind of multimedia experience do readers get and what does it add?
Josh: It’s a normal comic in the sense that you read it panel by panel, but you can choose to read it a page at a time, or zoom in and swipe it one panel at a time. There are a lot of embedded multimedia aspects, so at any certain point you can click on an icon and it will maybe tell you a little bit more about a scene and how Tori and I came to represent it, or it will show you a map of where Fanuel is at that moment in time, or a little animation will come up and show you how he traveled by plane, bus, inner tube, etc., from one spot to another. The story also features atmospheric sound effects and an evocative musical score.
Tori: At various points in the story, you can click on icons to activate special features, such as a soundtrack, music, and animation, and I think these things have the potential to deepen the overall experience for the reader. The music, for example, heightens the emotion. There’s also a behind-the-scenes type of commentary with Josh and me, and that will answer questions people may have about our process.
Why is this form preferable to reading the story simply as a print narrative, do you think?
Josh: I’m biased, but I think a good comic does things that print alone can’t do. There’s something about the hand-drawn quality, the personal nature of that fact that conveys a feeling of intimacy, putting you almost literally into the shoes of the protagonist.
Tori: It’s very different, but I don’t know that it’s preferable. I think some people will respond more to this way of telling a story and others would probably respond more to a print narrative. I do think that graphic storytelling broadens the audience, though, and may pull in younger readers and people who love comics but who wouldn’t necessarily gravitate to this subject matter in a print narrative.
You’ve described challenges inherent to narrative, including reconstructing scenes and other moments that the reporter may not have witnessed. You’ve said you had to use “imagination” in certain places. Can you say more about that, and about the journalistic standards you imposed on yourselves and the project?
Tori: Josh has described what we’ve created as a hybrid of journalism and art, and he’s right: It’s not straightforward journalism. The story is told from one person’s point of view; it sticks to Fanuel’s direct experience and steers clear of anything outside of it. One thing that was new for me was creating dialogue. With straightforward journalism, if you can’t cross-check dialogue when you’re reconstructing scenes or moments, you can paraphrase. That wasn’t possible here. So I had to create dialogue based on what Fanuel remembered, which was often just the gist of a conversation. Another example: Fanuel didn’t know the name of the restaurant where he went for help after Bart died. If I were doing an article, I’d just say that he went for help at an Ethiopian restaurant. But here, in comics form, I needed to give Josh something to draw, and signs on restaurants typically don’t just say Restaurant or Ethiopian Food Here. Restaurants have names. So I went on Google’s street view and “walked” around the neighborhood in which Fanuel remembered the restaurant being located. I found what was likely it, and it was a great visual reference to put in my script for Josh. But I didn’t feel comfortable using what I thought was the real name of the restaurant, because I was placing a smuggling ring inside of it, and if I were wrong, if that wasn’t the actual restaurant in question, it could damage the reputation of the owner and the people who worked there. So I gave the restaurant a name that’s pretty common for Ethiopian restaurants, and that’s what you see in an establishing panel on the page where Fanuel goes for help. At first it felt a bit strange for me to be able to work with this kind of license, but overall the license was pretty small. I didn’t invent scenes or characters, and I did quite a bit of research and fact checking to make sure the story was as accurate as possible.
Josh: In my opinion, comics journalism has some leeway that other types of journalism may not. It’s a mixture of journalism and art, and to me the “art” part gives license to reconstruct some scenes – if it serves the truth of the larger story. This could include inventing dialogue that makes a scene read better. In prose, the writer would summarize a scene, but in comics that scene – invented dialogue and all – is integral to an exciting, compelling comics moment. All of this, of course, is dependent on the facts of the events being depicted. I would never invent a scene that didn’t happen, or create characters that weren’t there, or compress multiple characters into one just for the sake of “clarity.” All journalism – all stories – use devices to craft the most compelling story. This includes selective quotes, strategic editing, and other narrative devices. The comics form just makes those choices more obvious, because everything is a product of a subjective hand – literally the hand of the artist.
Yikes – inventing dialogue? For something that’s so well reported, why not use actual dialogue? Aren’t you risking a loss of credibility otherwise?
Josh: I’ve invented dialogue when the primary source material isn’t there, to help bridge scenes. In other words, if my source could only paraphrase the conversation or recall the gist of it, I invented dialogue to make a scene flow better and feel more natural. In almost every case, I ran the script by the original source to get their approval of this “reenactment.”
Let me push back here. If material is invented, it isn’t journalism. In a traditional print narrative a conscientious reporter would never invent dialogue, details, or anything else. Am I missing an important distinction here between your and my definitions of narrative journalism?
Josh: Yes, I think you are. This isn’t by any stretch traditional journalism. For instance, I believe one of the tenets of journalism is to never stage reenactments. Well, pretty much the definition of what I do is just that. Leaving alone the obvious fact that I am an artist – drawing, by hand, everything the reader sees. Let’s look at the “Stowaway” story: If you’re going to focus on inventing dialogue, I would think the fact that I invented the way Bart and his sister look – not to mention the entire house Fanuel stayed in, or the smuggler in Mexico City and his apartment – would be equally questionable. But it was necessary to do all those things to make the story come to life, to put the reader in Fanuel’s shoes as he is swept along on his harrowing journey. If we look at another piece of mine, “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand,” in that story I didn’t invent any dialogue. Everything in there is a direct quote, though I did for instance show characters talking directly to the reader when in reality those were quotes from conversations I had had with them over Facebook or email. All the same, I “dressed” the characters, I had to make up various interiors (Sara’s room, Mohammed’s apartment building, the room where he was interrogated by university officials, etc.), and so on. And in my opinion the story overall is not as successful as, say, A.D. or “Stowaway.” It’s much choppier, with lots of explanatory captions and very little panel-to-panel in-scene sequencing. I don’t feel that it draws the reader in in the same way those other stories do. In contrast, in the online version of A.D., Chapter 7, “The Bowl Effect, Part I” is entirely reconstructed from my conversations with Hamid, one of the two subjects of the chapter. I never was able to speak to Mansell, and Hamid’s descriptions of the events were pretty general, with no attempt to recall the exact conversation. The sequence of events is exactly as he told them to me, and the tone of the conversations is what he conveyed, but I invented the back and forth, the dialogue, the jokes, everything. That was a regular feature of writing A.D. Of course I use primary sources (interviews with the characters, excerpts from their blogs, etc.) whenever possible. But a lot of times it wasn’t possible. And none of the characters ever had a problem with anything I had them saying – except Denise, from early on, when I first introduced her character. At first, she was concerned whether I was portraying her too simplistically, as a stereotypical “angry black bitch” (her words). After that, I made sure to run all my scripts by her before I drew anything for publication. That worked out to both of our satisfactions, and she was really helpful in tweaking dialogue and other important issues of verisimilitude. (That’s probably another no-no of traditional journalism, right?) So to get back to your push-back question: No, I guess this isn’t traditional journalism. It’s a hybrid of journalism, historical research, and art. And I feel very much at peace with my process.
I think Josh has answered these questions really well. Neither of us is holding this up as traditional journalism, though Fanuel is a real person who went through the experiences we’ve depicted. When I started thinking of his story as a nonfiction graphic novel instead of a piece of traditional narrative journalism, I had to adjust my approach. I had long conversations with Josh before and during our collaboration that helped me fully embrace this hybrid form. As I said earlier, the idea of creating dialogue took some getting used to. But the bottom line is that if you’re going to tell the story as a visual narrative, you need dialogue, and I wasn’t able to interview everyone Fanuel conversed with (such as smugglers of unknown identity and a man who’s dead).
[I asked Evan Ratliff, one of The Atavist’s founders, his feelings on this. The subject matter – human trafficking, immigration, etc. – is of course notable. The format is equally notable: Narrative nonfiction in comics form is conceptually an interesting, fun storytelling tool. Yet shouldn’t the standards of accuracy, veracity, credibility, etc., apply to every form of narrative journalism? And shouldn’t we constantly be having this conversation?]
Ratliff: These are good questions to be asking. This was a tricky one for us, in some ways, and we ended up having to treat it somewhat differently than other pieces. We ran it through fact checking, but we just couldn’t give it the same treatment we normally would (and it wasn’t sourced in exactly same way we normally would, due to limitations on reporting out some of the story). But it was a different kind of tale – worth telling, we thought, but also really hard to tell without having some flexibility. And we were working with a new and different medium, one that’s more dialogue driven. We felt that comics readers understand what they are reading a little differently as well. But it’s certainly a good discussion to have, particularly if nonfiction comics artists want to be taken seriously in journalism – which I believe they deserve to be. Both Josh and Tori are accomplished pros in their respective approaches – and were responsive to everything we threw at them, fact checking wise – so that helped give us more comfort with the piece.
How important is it to be transparent with the reader, and let the reader know that some bits (or which bits) have been recreated?
Ratliff: There’s an argument for doing more than we did, sure. We do note some of that, i.e. name changes. But again, it’s a different format that I believe readers approach differently. An illustrated piece is inherently a recreation – I mean, the whole thing is a recreation. When you see an illustration accompanying a magazine story, for instance, you don’t typically see a disclaimer saying, “This illustrator did not actually witness this scene, but recreated it from photos and other reporting.” You assume that’s the case, because it is, after all, an illustration.
Josh, what sort of “visual research” did you have to do for Stowaway, and how did you go about it?
In the course of visualizing this story, the research I did was constant, as would befit a globe-hopping story with scenes in Ethiopia, South Africa, Guatemala, Mexico and the Texas border. It included Ethiopian goats, Mexico City fire hydrants, the Nissan Platina, what it’s like to be crowded into the back of a fruit truck with 20 other people for 18 hours, and the types of inner tubes used by undocumented immigrants to get across the Rio Grande river.
So what did you do, look up images of those things? Or go see them?
The cartoonist’s job is to create and populate a realistic and recognizable world for the story’s subjects to inhabit. This means the air, sea, and sky, the buildings, rocks, and trees, furniture, cars, animals – you name it. As best I can, I try to get my subjects to describe where they were and what it looked like. But in a story like Fanuel’s, the details were few – he often barely had time to catch his breath before he was whisked along to the next place – let alone taking note of the detailing on the wall sconces! So I do the best I can to get a sense of the place where he was, using whatever resources are available, be they Google Earth, Google Street View, or Google Images, as well as stock photo agencies like Corbis and Getty.
You’re on a Knight fellowship at the University of Michigan. What are you studying?
My study plan is to research the tiny country of Bahrain and its part in the Arab Spring. Their so-called “Pearl Revolution” was derailed by sectarian battles between the country’s ruling Sunni minority and the mostly disenfranchised Shia majority. So I am studying the modern Middle East, the Quran and Muslim sectarianism. I’m taking classes at Michigan, as well as attending twice-weekly seminars with the other Knight-Wallace fellows. Travel is a big part of the fellowship as well – during the fellowship year we’ll be visiting Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey.
Did you two know each other before “Stowaway?” How did you pair up?
Tori: We’ve been good friends since the early 1990s. I met Sari, who’s now Josh’s wife, at an ESL training workshop, and we hit it off. I met Josh soon after that, and we also quickly developed a close friendship. Back then he was making great little comic books that folded out like accordions, which I collected and cherished.
Josh: I have long followed her work as a feature writer for the Chicago Reader, and always admired her bulldog tenacity as a reporter. I’d been hearing for a while about her work on the subject of undocumented minors trapped in the immigration system, so I was really excited to help her turn the story into a comics format piece.
Can readers without an iPhone or iPad access it?
Josh: Yep, for the first time, this Atavist story is available on an ordinary web browser as well, with all the multimedia included, so that it almost exactly mirrors the experience of reading it on a tablet.
Describe your career trajectory to the point that you took on this project. And Josh, how did you wind up at the intersection of comics and journalism?
Tori: I wrote features, profiles, and investigative stories for the Chicago Reader from 1995 to 2007. Since then I’ve made a couple of radio documentaries and written a magazine piece, but mostly I’ve been working single-mindedly on the book about Fanuel.
Josh: I was always attracted to nonfiction. Ever since I discovered Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, I too appreciated Harvey’s maxim, “Ordinary life is pretty complicated stuff.” So when I started writing and publishing my own stuff, I was initially attracted to autobiography, since those were the true stories I knew best. As a collaborator with other writers, I began illustrating other true stories, most notably American Splendor but also R. Walker’s Titans of Finance and David Greenberger’s Duplex Planet Illustrated. After Hurricane Katrina – and due in large part to my own experience as a Red Cross volunteer – I was invited to write and draw a serialized webcomic on the Katrina experience in New Orleans. That turned into the New York Times bestseller A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon, 2009), a nonfiction graphic novel which profiles seven real-life New Orleanians who lived through Hurricane Katrina. I am also the illustrator of Brooke Gladstone’s media manifesto, The Influencing Machine (W.W. Norton, 2011), which was also a New York Times bestseller. A solo piece of mine on Bahrain’s Pearl Revolution, published on Cartoon Movement, has been translated into three languages. This year I am a Knight-Wallace fellow in journalism at the University of Michigan — the first time a long-form comics journalist has been awarded that particular fellowship.
How would you characterize your visual voice? Does your artistic style change according to the subject matter?
Josh: For my part, I focus on getting the details of scenes right, doing the research I need to make a scene feel real and fully imagined. And portraying honest human emotion is another thing I take pride in. At this point my style is pretty much what it is, but for some projects, like elements of The Influencing Machine, I can “bigfoot” it up a little bit to sell the humor of a moment.
Narratives such as these – about refugees and trafficking victims in particular – rely so deeply on personal recollection. How were you able to back up Fanuel’s story? To what extent was it documentable?
Tori: Great question. It’s really hard to verify these kinds of stories. Often there’s no documentation. I think this is why refugees and trafficking victims – especially kids, who generally have more trouble than adults remembering dates and sequences of events – have a tough time in immigration court. “Stowaway” is told entirely through the perspective of a boy who’s alone in the world. It’s based on someone’s memories, and we all know that memory can fail us. That said, I interviewed Fanuel repeatedly over the course of six years. His story was consistent, and I found him credible. I fact checked what I could, and The Atavist also had a fact checker go over the story. The research I did over the years only made me more confident in his story. For example, while there’s no paper trail that documents Fanuel’s time in Sandton (the Johannesburg neighborhood where he lived with Bart), his descriptions of it matched the research I did. The route to the U.S. that Fanuel reported taking turns out to be a common one that, according to a recent U.N. report, is used by smuggling networks from 70 countries. How he said he traveled through Central America is how many migrants wind up traveling – in the back of a fruit truck, in the luggage compartment of a bus, and in an inner tube pushed by a coyote. I spoke to U.S. Border Patrol agents in the sector where he was apprehended, and the descriptions they provided of the terrain were consistent with the way Fanuel described it. But a lot couldn’t be checked. During the time he was a domestic servant for Bart – who’s now dead – he had very little contact with the outside world. Someone did come to teach him English, but Fanuel knew the man’s first name only. And, unsurprisingly, Fanuel didn’t have names or contact info for the people who smuggled him to the U.S. So the story I’ve wound up telling is the story that Fanuel has consistently told: to me and to his lawyer and to his immigration judge, who, as a result, saw fit to give him permission to stay in the U.S.
What did you learn from this project that you’d apply to a future narrative e-comic?
Josh: Build more time into the drawing stage – it always takes me twice as long to draw something as I imagine it will.
Tori: I love the multimedia aspect of the project. If I were to do another e-comic, I’d certainly be looking for ways to incorporate sound clips, music, animation, and perhaps even video. Before I started working with the Atavist people, I didn’t know it was possible to enhance a comics story in this way.
Tori Marlan is an award-winning journalist whose stories have exposed abuses of power by Chicago police officers, illuminated subcultures (including cockfighting and brick stacking), and profiled “fascinating but unheralded Americans: inventors, street artists, visionaries, a disillusioned army interrogator, people on seemingly inexplicable missions.” From 1995 to 2007, she was a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, specializing in immersion journalism. Her work has also been published in the Texas Observer and the Christian Science Monitor, and broadcast on the public-radio shows This American Life and Weekend America. In 2006, she received a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation to research the plight of detained child immigrants. She lives in Montreal.
Josh Neufeld is a comics journalist known for his graphic narratives of political and social upheaval, told through the voices of witnesses. He is the writer/artist of the bestselling nonfiction graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon), and the illustrator of the bestselling graphic nonfiction book The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media (W.W. Norton). He is currently a 2012-13 Knight-Wallace fellow in journalism at the University of Michigan. His books have been translated into French, Italian and Dutch, and his illustrations have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.