Poynter: Ready to practice comics journalism? Ask these questions before you commit

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by Poynter and is shared with permission. 

Pairing illustration with news gathering is not a new idea.

More than a century ago, the Illustrated London News hired artistic journalists, like its “Special War Artist” Melton Prior, to draw global events. Over the past few years news organizations both national (The New York Times Magazine) and local (WCPO in Cincinnati) have used comics to tell true stories.

But creating non-fiction comics can be tricky. It certainly has been for me. While reporting for a newspaper in Missouri, it took several of us months to get my first piece of comics journalism off the ground, because of a host of formatting, aesthetic and ethical issues I simply hadn’t anticipated.

To better understand the medium, I interviewed a dozen journalists, artists and editors about their best practices for creating comics journalism. Based on their responses, here are seven questions every artist and editor should ask.

Some quotes were condensed for clarity.

1. Why should this story be drawn as a comic?

Several journalists pointed to three types of stories that work especially well as comics: “wonky” policy stories, sensitive investigations and history comics.

“Illustration can be a very, very powerful form of storytelling,” said Carrie Ching, who produced the animated video that accompanied the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’  Panama Papers project. Part of illustration’s power comes from the fact that it can make dense stories both entertaining and accessible. The Panama Papers investigation was both wonky and sensitive, but four minutes of animation coherently summarized the investigation’s major findings. “Like sugar-coating a vitamin,” Ching once wrote.

If journalists, editors and their readers are new to illustrated journalism, drawing a historical event can be a good introduction to the medium. “It’s lower stakes,” said Josh Kramer, a comics journalist who edits the anthology The Cartoon Picayune. “Everybody’s dead, and you don’t have to worry about mangling the quote of somebody that you talked to.” 

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