What is Journalism? A Review of Rolling Blackouts

Rolling Blackouts Feature via Sarah Glidden and Drawn + Quarterly

Rolling Blackouts Cover via Sarah Glidden and Drawn and Quarterly

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq

Sarah Glidden
Drawn + Quarterly
October 2016
A review copy was provided by the publisher.

What is journalism? This is the primary question cartoonist Sarah Glidden pursued while traveling through Turkey, Iraq and Syria in 2010. Glidden’s friends and co-founders of The Seattle Globalist, Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill, organized the trip, hoping to tell stories about Iraqi refugees still displaced by the Iraq War. (A quick note: I refer to Sarah Stuteville as “Sarah” and Sarah Glidden as “Glidden” to avoid confusion.) Dan O’Brien, a childhood friend of Sarah’s who shocked his friends and family by joining the marines during the Iraq War, rounds out the group – or perhaps gives them an odd edge. Glidden tells the stories of several refugees surviving very different and distinct situations, but always circles back to question the nature of journalism.

Glidden’s central pursuit pushed me to ponder a related question: is Rolling Blackouts a journalistic work? Early in the comic, Sarah offers her personal definition of journalism: “anything that is informative, verifiable, accountable, and independent.” This book is certainly informative; readers with little prior knowledge about the regions that Glidden and her cohorts visit will be comforted by explanations of various conflicts and issues that affect their residents.

Sam Malkandi image via Sarah Glidden and Drawn + Quarterly
Sam Malkandi, in Glidden’s soft, kind watercolors.

The artist most deftly reveals her ability to inform when depicting the process of interviewing Sam Malkandi, an Iraqi Kurd originally from Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, who escaped during the Iran-Iraq War first to Pakistan and eventually to the United States. After spending years in Seattle with his wife and children, a complex series of events landed Malkandi in detention for five years under suspicion of aiding an Al Qaeda operative. The US government then deported him back to Sulaymaniyah. Malkandi’s is a story with a documentary-worthy level of complexity – Alex and Sarah released a documentary about him titled Barzan that can be purchased on iTunes and Hulu – but Glidden never loses her readers, even as she steps back to expose the careful and considerate process through which Sarah unravels the tale. Simultaneously, she captures Malkandi’s personality and humanity; on the page he is kind, portly, balding, and even a bit doe-eyed – a middle-aged sweetheart in watercolor.

Rolling Blackouts is very obviously verifiable and accountable; Alex and Sarah’s reporting for The Globalist and other outlets verifies each story, and the players who can be held accountable are not only accessible, but also discuss their accountability throughout the comic. “Independent” is where things become interesting – although Glidden isn’t the one with questionable motives. This piece of the definition is where Dan’s story comes into play.

Glidden and Dan image via Sarah Glidden and Drawn + Quarterly
Dan, the former marine.

According to Sarah, “independent” asks, “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?” While Dan was not paid – although he is receiving credit for school by recording vlogs during the trip – he may not be after truth. As the trip progresses, and as Sarah and Dan get farther along in their interviews about his experiences meeting refugees, their relationship becomes strained. Dan seems to be holding back, and is unwilling to try and reconcile his feeling that attacking Hussein’s regime was necessary with the fact that he was part of an act that resulted in the deaths of at least hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (there is no exact count), and the displacement of many others.

As with Malkandi, Glidden is quite sympathetic to Dan; in fact, her paintings of him contrast Sarah’s description given in the piece she eventually wrote for the Seattle Times Magazine, Pacific NW. Dan is tall and gangly, with a rounded chin and big ears exaggerated by the military buzz cut he maintains. He’s far from intimidating; Glidden shows Dan getting into snowball fights, playing soccer with kids, and growing giddy each time he makes a new friend. Just as she gives attention and weight to the anger, fear, grief and frustration of each refugee, Glidden creates a complex picture of Dan, who seems to be changed more by the trip than he lets on.

Nightmare image via Sarah Glidden and Drawn + Quarterly
Sarah Stuteville, conducting an interview.

Rolling Blackouts successfully fits into the definition of journalism Glidden seems to have discovered over the course of the trip, but it is still quite different in nature from an article for The Seattle Globalist, or even a documentary. Glidden has the privilege of an artist; she can use her brush strokes to capture the emotion behind a statement awkwardly uttered, and subtly gift the readers glimpses into the beauty of cities she visited by transitioning from the muted tones of a conversation to vibrantly painted landscapes, markets and city centers. In some ways, Glidden’s artistry allows her extra access into the truth of a story, because she can match images with words to bring out the full humanity of a complex circumstance.

Graphic journalism is essential in this era of fake news, when the nature of journalism has been called into question. How do we trust what we read? For those of us who are librarians and educators, how do we teach people to determine if a source is reputable? What do we say to those who claim truths they don’t want to hear are just alternative facts? Ultimately, what Glidden’s beautiful watercolors and excellent editing reveal is the capacity journalistic comics hold to tell real, human and important stories. Crucially, in this instance, the artist was enabled by her friends: journalists who insatiably pursue truth, work to complicate our perspective of the world, and honor the human beings who are living those stories.

To read all of the stories that the Seattle Globalist reporters wrote after the trip, visit this handy, link-filled page on Glidden’s website.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka is a queer librarian and intense cat parent. They spends their days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts @alenkafiga.