Comic Book Artist Sarah Glidden Retells a Story of Foreign Reporting in Turkey, Syria and Iraq
What is journalism? What role does narrative and story play in reporting the news in conflict zones, and how do media makers choose the stories they tell? These are some of the central questions Sarah Glidden’s new book, Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq attempts to answer.
In 2010, cartoonist Glidden, joined her two friends, Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill, cofounders of the journalist collective The Seattle Globalist, on a reporting trip to Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Another childhood friend, Dan, an Iraq war veteran and current university student, joined in order to get a different perspective of Iraq.
Comics reportage is a laborious form of storytelling and in the six years Glidden worked on the book, the region has dramatically changed. In 2010, the civil war in Syria hadn’t yet begun, and it’s difficult to comprehend how different the region had been a half decade prior. In a news cycle that is hyper focused on the current conflict, often at the expense of peripheral stories or the aftermath of war, Glidden’s comics reportage resonates in a way that text and photography might not be able to.
Glidden uses watercolor as her medium, and many of the panels are colorful, cheery, depictions of simple interactions between two people, or portraits of families and friends sitting together in homes, talking and drinking. The violence and destruction often depicted in news on conflict zones is absent here. Instead, simply, and in soft colors, the panels depict a depth of expression through gestures, arched eye brows of confusion, a simple hand gesture of invitation.
Glidden tells the story of journalism from an outsider’s perspective, by watching Sarah and Alex as they cycle through their work as freelance reporters. She illustrates the issues her friends come up against, like how to sell stories that appeal to editors while remaining true to the subject’s narrative. In Van, Turkey, Sarah and Alex interview Amin, a blogger and his wife Mina, political refugees from Iran who share how they fled to Turkey with their dog. Amin and Mina tell the journalists they are the first who “want to ask about the situation for political refugees,” because most people are more interested in social refugees.
The story also deals with the issue and ethics of American’s understanding, or lack thereof, of the US invasion in Iraq and its aftermath. According to Sarah, there were three million Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan at the time. “Those are populations created from conflicts we started,” she says early on in the book, “We can’t just turn away and say ‘done!’” We see this subject addressed with the most friction with Dan. For the majority of the story, Dan stubbornly sticks to the narrative that the US invasion was overall beneficial, and denies any personal responsibility for the destruction. This frustrates Sarah to no end, who is interviewing him for an article and insists on eliciting deeper reflection from him. For a travel story that is focused on refugees, however, the clash between Sarah and Dan’s ideologies often takes center stage, overpowering the other, more nuanced stories about the refugees in these regions.
The book really comes alive through the people the group encounters on their travels. They meet two artists in Syria, Momo and Odessa, who fled Iraq as art students. In Iraq, Sarah and Alex spend time interviewing a man named Sam Malkandi who found himself mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report. Malkandi fled Iraq for Iran, Pakistan, and then the US, where he was deported after it was discovered he let an acquaintance use his address on a medical form who was later identified as a Bin Laden operative.
Rolling Blackouts simultaneously tries to tell the story of refugees in three countries, define the meaning of journalism, and tell Dan’s story as a war veteran. Yet it often feels like the book is trying to cover too much ground. In a sense, Glidden includes all of this because she wants her readers to know the full story: the main narrative, the counter narrative, and the parts of every story that get left out. The impulse for inclusion is so important to Glidden, it becomes a part of the story itself.
Though 2010 might now seem like another era, the ethical questions Glidden addresses and the overall situation of refugees are still relevant, if not more so now, given the rising anti-refugee sentiment throughout Europe and the US and the emerging “post-truth” era where journalism and the media have come under attack, particularly in the aftermath of the U.S. election.