Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq by Sarah Glidden

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In the tradition of graphic novel journalism such as Sarajevo, Fixer and Palestine, Rolling Blackouts takes the reader into a world touched on only lightly by the nightly news. Glidden chronicles her travels with friends in a journalism nonprofit as they follow the aftermath of the Iraq war from Kurdistan to Syria, picking up stories from those they meet along the way as well as from the group itself as they contend with what it means to be journalists, friends, and Americans in the modern era.

The key to the tale is transparency; it seems that practically everything makes it onto the page in one way or another, and Glidden scrupulously details when dialogue comes verbatim from a voice recorder, and when it is condensed from multiple episodes into one. This comports well with the general behind-the-scenes nature of the action taking place. Even as the author discusses the challenge of making the work itself, she is presenting her journalist friends grappling with similar issues of the ethical complexity of crafting a narrative from the plotlessness of life. Even the seeming promise of a tidy arc in the form of an Iraq War veteran travelling with them fails to materialize in the way the reader, author, journalists, and in fact the vet himself expect.

As a result, the drama is low-key and frustratingly diffuse, a situation which is echoed by the characters themselves. There’s little by way of action, and little more tension apart from the anxieties of doing a good job in an ever-more poorly defined field. Much of the appeal comes from the plainspoken outsider perspective on journalism as a trade, hearkening back to its popular conception in the pre-Watergate era. There’s a good deal of discussion about journalistic ideals, but the degree to which the practice of the craft is revealed is a surprising highlight.

The art, which in this copy was still mostly uncolored, suits the workaday ethic of the story well. The focus is on faces, which are simple, expressive, and well-differentiated, which is a vital factor in a story where the characters are fairly average folks mostly talking about stuff in normal clothes. Nonetheless, the depiction of the middle eastern streets, homes, and scenery where all this talking and thinking take place are not given short shrift, but are detailed worlds in their own right. The panel breakdowns are highly regular, with occasional wider vistas for context. One choice in depicting the real mechanics of reporting in a distant land does stand out and serves to further emphasize the author’s commitment to showing the process of journalism: when speaking to subjects through an interpreter, the speech of the subject is represented as a speech balloon overlapped by one from the interpreter, at once showing the voice of the original speaker and illustrating how it is, for the interviewer and their audience, well-meaningly eclipsed by the words of others.
More comics journalism by Glidden and many others can be found at Cartoon Movement.