Overseeing the Extraction Cumulus Press Improvises on Comics Journalism

Overseeing the Extraction Cumulus Press Improvises on Comics Journalism
Sleepy political cartoons that hibernate on a newspaper’s editorial page were long overdue for a shake-up. And comics journalism, a coupling of reportage on real events with comic illustration, could bring about such a paradigm shift. Comic books are increasingly home to hard news reporting that challenge newspapers’ daily fix, sucking readers in with lush visuals.

The journalism tradition prides itself as a bastion of objectivity, trading in the supposedly unbiased forms of text and photos. As a relatively new medium, comics journalism is ironing out some kinks in this regard, but it is also raising loaded questions about how to present reality in a creative form.

Acclaimed artist Joe Sacco essentially invented comics journalism. After travelling through war-torn regions like Bosnia and Palestine, Sacco wrote and illustrated his first-hand experiences; he helped dismantle the medium’s childish image, but many creators moving forward discovered that Sacco left some mighty big shoes to fill — after all, the combination of a journalist’s drive and an illustrator’s eye is a rare one.

Montreal-based Cumulus Press is reinventing the Sacco formula by pairing experienced news journalists with acclaimed illustrators to investigate the travails of the Canadian mining industry. Editor David Widgington seized on the idea barely a year previous. "Most [mining] coverage is based on stock prices or company takeovers,” Widgington says. "We were hoping that people who might like comics or who might just pick it up, would get sucked in by the images. The story would keep them in there and, when they finished it, they might hear another angle of mining that we don’t hear very often.”

Extraction’s first chapter on gold mining pairs Dawn Paley, an independent journalist from Vancouver, with Montreal-based illustrator Joe Ollmann, author of graphic novel, This Will All End in Tears. The chapter focuses on Vancouver-based Goldcorp Inc. and its mines in impoverished farming areas in Guatemala. "In [Paley’s] script, there were a lot of descriptions,” Ollmann says. "She would say ‘This guy wears a leather jacket and his glasses turn dark in the sun, so it always looks like he’s wearing sunglasses. He looks like a ’70s cop.’ I tried to make it realistic, but I’m limited. It’s filtered obviously through my imagination.”

The heart of their chapter concerns an ongoing struggle between Guatemalan landowners and Goldcorp Inc. A UN law dictates mining companies are bound to consult indigenous people before beginning extraction on their land. Goldcorp Inc. did indeed break that law by ignoring the villagers’ unanimous "no” to mining in the area. After determining that a Goldcorp Inc. mine is polluting the villagers’ water, a biologist’s life was threatened, forcing him to leave the country. Paley reports on these real events, while Ollmann translates her story in the Extraction comic. And herein lies the delicate balance of comics journalism. Is the ethical integrity of the report intact when creative interpretation moulds how the facts are presented?

Ollmann’s specialty is goofy-sweet drawings served with a sudden close-up of a character’s physical imperfections: zits, wrinkles, bald patches — you name it, Ollmann’s used it on a crusty cabbie or a pimply office worker. His style is what transforms the report into an engaging narrative. One page depicts Paley riding a bus through bumpy backroads, when Ollmann zooms in on a worn-looking mother beside her. Her liver spots and crow’s feet shroud a pair of expressive, kindly eyes. The detail plays on the romantic or gritty illusions one might have of Guatemala and, some might say, this sways the reader toward siding with the peoples’ plight. "It’s presenting the human story and if people see the human side of things they can’t be as disconnected from it,” explains Ollmann. With newspapers shutting their doors each year and reporters asking if the news matters anymore, is a different approach going to hurt journalism’s dire state? Paley is placing her bet on a diversity of reporting tactics. "As an independent journalist you get the feeling that nobody is reading what you’re writing and you don’t get any feedback on your work,” she says, on the phone from San Marcos, Guatemala. "And I think the most amazing feedback I’ve ever had is Joe drawing out the story.”

Before finishing up with Paley, I pose her one last question. It happens to be a facile one — "Do you think the medium could have a future?” — but Paley’s candid optimism has held out this far. She shoots back, almost automatically, with a laugh on the end. "Sure, it definitely has a future. If any comic artists are interested in drawing an article, they should call me. How’s that for a future?”