I never read comic books as a kid. I fell in love with them as a grown man in 2004 when McSweeney’s published the 13th issue of their quarterly, which was “an assorted sampler of North American comic drawings, strips, and illustrated stories.” I spent hours and hours immersed in comics for the first time in my life. The comics artists featured in the issue were grappling with the questions and quagmires of existence, big and small. Kim Deitch got to know a death row inmate, was present at his execution, and told the story in his 6-page comic, “Ready to Die.” The depth and uncomfortable honesty David Heatley was able to achieve is “Portrait of My Dad” was remarkable—and he did it in a format that almost caused me to skip it: nearly 200 cells in just 5 pages. And there was “The Dead of Winter” by Debbie Drechsler, who told of her abortion—a story that included her representation of a dream she had afterwards of the aborted fetus, which had grown wings and drawn her outside on a winter evening. Her drawings of the dream are what made me feel her story throughout my entire body. Forget the heart—I felt it everywhere. Reading it again just now, I felt hot all over. I felt grief. There were tears. Incredible. I had never dismissed comics as a storytelling tool, but I certainly didn’t understand that comics could tell any story you could dream up or uncover—or that in some cases they might be the very best way to tell a story. McSweeney’s laid a seed in the dirt. I knew I wanted to make a comic. But I didn’t know what about. Not yet.
My First Comic
My first comic book collaboration came in 2013. My American Public Media colleague Samara Freemark, WBUR Boston reporter Martha Bebinger, editors Meg Martin, Jeff Jones and Kate Moos and I turned our reportage into a comic book called Invisible Injury: Beyond PTSD with comics artist Andy Warner. We had been reporting on the veteran experience for radio and the web and we were learning about something called “moral injury.” Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote at the time:
We’re turning our attention to this idea of moral injury and the limits of the PTSD diagnosis to explore what happens to a person who has experienced combat. There are no clean lines separating PTSD from moral injury (which is not a diagnosis) — there is no Venn Diagram, as with PTSD and traumatic brain injury but Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay explains a fundamental difference by using a shrapnel wound as an analogy. “Whether it breaks the bone or not,” he says, “that wound is the uncomplicated — or primary — injury. That doesn’t kill the soldier; what kills him are the complications — infection or hemorrhage.” Post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr. Shay explains, is the primary injury, the “uncomplicated injury.” Moral injury is the infection; it’s the hemorrhaging. PTSD in service members is often tied to being the target of an attack — or being close in relationship or proximity to that target. Moral injury, Dr. Shay says, can happen when “there is a betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation.”
As we started to imagine the print and radio stories we were tasked with making out of our reporting, there was a sense that neither medium was sufficient to capture the unseeable aspects of this sort of injury. It was around that time that I ran into Erin Polgreen, founder and editor of Symbolia the now-defunct (but still available–dig in!), tablet-only comics magazine “where comic books and journalism meet.” I ran into Erin at a journalism conference, where she was never without an iPad in her hands, constantly urging people to spend a few moments swiping through a sample issue. Epiphany: Our reporting wanted to be a comic book. I took hours of interviews and wrangled them into a script and a rough outline of frames sketched on Post-It notes (arranged and rearranged until the narrative emerged). Andy Warner (see some of his other work here,here and here) took the script and the Post-It outline and turned it into the thing I am most proud of in nearly 15 years of journalism.
My Second Comic Book
My second comic book was, again, not mine alone. And it isn’t journalism. I’m working with TerraLuna Collaborative on a qualitative research project documenting the lived experience of young people in Nebraska’s Douglas County juvenile justice system. I’ve been dabbling in the world of qualitative inquiry for a few years now (it’s part journalism sabbatical, part skill-building adventure, part maybe the rest of my professional life). When I conduct interviews in this world, participants must receive a consent form—something that says “these are your rights, and these are our intentions.” When it came time to create a consent form for the juvenile justice project, I got a little itchy. With adults, consent forms tend to elicit one of two responses: 1) A chilling effect as they parse the legalistic language on the sheet I’ve just placed in front of them, or 2) An immediate signature, with no review of the text at all. Neither response is ideal, and it was the last thing I wanted in interviews with youth (whose parents/guardians also sign a consent form). The first thing I did was rewrite the text of the consent form to emphasize the interviewee’s rights and the fact that their story belongs to them. Next I changed the title of the document, from “Evaluation Consent Form,” to “Know your rights! Your story belongs to you.” Then I started rewriting the consent text itself. “We are conducting these interviews to gain greater insight…” became “We want to hear your story because we want to show what it’s like…” Another example: “If you decide to do the interview but prefer not to share some parts of your story, that is your right” became “We believe you should answer our questions the way you want, and only *if* you want.”” Next my colleague Kevin Lytle Jr. sat down with a few kids he worked with in his mentorship work and read through the text with them. After each bit of consent text, he’d ask what it meant to them, or if it meant anything at all. We took their feedback and reworked the text again. I loved the document that resulted from all of this, but something wasn’t right.
Turned out our consent form wanted to be a comic book.
I reached out to comics colleagues for artist recommendations (my god, there are so many good comics artists out there). We partnered up with the wonderful Kazimir Lee Iskander, whose Slate comic about trans rights in Malaysia I had loved (you can see more of his work here and here). We sent Kazimir our consent text and a few concept notes from the team (I am so lucky to be working with Kevin Lytle, Desire Acosta, Andy Johnson, and Keith Miller on this project). He turned it into something completely unique in the world of qualitative inquiry (best we can tell). With our comic book consent form, we don’t just say “your story belongs to you,” we show it—in a half-dozen different ways. Pushing our comic book across a table to an interviewee is a completely different thing from pushing a piece of paper. Alongside the text “You are in control of this interview,” there is an image of a young person holding up his hand, palm facing an interviewer seated across from him. Next to the text “It is never too late to say, ‘I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to be part of this project,’” there is an image of a young woman dropping a microphone and walking away from the interviewer. Our most important message to interviewees is that they are in control, and telling them what that means might not be enough. With the comic, we can show them what it looks like. You can see the comic consent form in full below. What’s next? We’ve begun another comic–from the stories young people are sharing with us. There is nothing you can’t do with comics, I’m sure of it. It’s wonderful work, making the case.
About the Author Jeff Severns Guntzel has worked as a journalist for 15 years. He’s reported from the Middle East (Iraq, Jordan, Palestine) and from points all over the United States. He’s reported for Marketplace, GOOD Magazine, Utne Reader, the New York Times, and others. Before turning to journalism, he did humanitarian work in pre-invasion Iraq. In 2003, he co-founded Electronic Iraq, a website focused on the Iraqi experience of war. An experienced interviewer and storyteller, he has been doing qualitative inquiry work for TerraLuna since 2013.