It took US cartoonist Sarah Glidden six long years to create a 304-page graphic novel that captures her Kickstarter-funded two-month-long trip to Turkey, Iraq and Syria. In 2010, Glidden accompanied two friends, Alex Stonehill and Sarah Stuteville , from Seattle Global, a non-profit journalism collective, primarily to understand how on-ground reporting in journalism works by recoding the scribes and soaking in the ambience.

Rolling Blackouts is the result of this journey on self-education. A firsthand experience of not only the places but also of compelling stories and how journalists dig them out, told in a series of old-fashioned rectangular panels in soft, muted watercolour.

A recent tradition

Though comics as a medium of journalism is a recent phenomenon, recording history and current events in words and pictures has a rich tradition. The early examples, however, with notable exceptions of hieroglyphics and Inca pictorial narratives, were mostly, to use a comics metaphor, single panels with text at the bottom. And these all talked about the lives and times of the rulers and rich benefactors of artists. The tradition continued into the early years of comics.

In the 1950s, in the English-speaking world some movement in the direction of the now-familiar narrative structure became visible. In the 1960s late Joe Kubert launched a newspaper strip. Tales of the Green Beret was based on Vietnam War reporting. For almost 35 years things did not change much partly because comics did not get graphic novel sobriquet and readership was limited.

After the publication of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning comic Maus and advent of Joe Sacco in the 1990s with his award-winning comics narratives from the warzones of Bosnia and Palestine, the face of non-fiction journalism changed forever. Nowadays, there are several online sites catering to comics journalism and publishers are warming up to this genre. Glidden is one of best-known young torch bearers of this tradition.

No instant gratification

In this a-minute-of-fame and breaking news world, Glidden’s work is a throwback to print journalism of yore. Rolling Blackouts is an addition that is going to change the how readers look at non-fiction comics. Even the great Sacco, the biggest name in the genre and Glidden’s inspiration, would have been proud to have created this work.

In this long-form graphic tale the cartoonist’s presence is only in the illustrations, but in the whole narrative structure hers are the only the eyes that record. This is a personal account, and yet the writer is only an observer, something that has been missing from journalism for a long time.

It is no less remarkable to note that the places Glidden talks about have completely changed since her visit. Syria is devastated by a brutal civil war, parts of Iraq have been reduced to rubble, and the city of Sulaymaniyah, in North Iraq, is now virtually unrecognisable. There was no ISIS then, and yet the comic stands on the narrative structure. It is a fresh account – like a film shot in 2010 but released six years later.

A unique technique

There is an underlying questioning tone throughout the work and the way it is woven into the narrative is brilliant to say the least. Glidden has succeeded by wearing the hat of the reader and asking questions to her companions on why they could get a particular source, or the challenges they were facing. No wonder it took her six years to achieve this balance in the entire comic.

Glidden has already had some success in using the technique in her 2010 award-winning debut narrative How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, but here it is more nuanced. The words are well-chosen and the eye and facial gestures of the Glidden character and others add to it.

The reporting is frank, open and one of best examples of ethical journalism – Glidden draws and writes only what she saw and heard on the trip. She also goes back to the decision-making process used by reporters once the information is gathered – what should be part of the narrative? – and faithfully records the arguments over those decisions and the resulting biases, if any.

There are no flashback panels. Even when the subjects talk about their past the panels do not go back in time – only the colour turns more pale, though the continuum is undisturbed. We read the individual tales of those interviewed as one composite memory packet, with the past melting into the present. It is easy to do this with words but in comics this is a stupendous achievement.

Sarah Glidden’s work is like a bridge between the past and the present status of the region, though there are hardly any hints of what was to happen next. She and her companions did not see it on the ground. She could only record that though people looked happy, the whole area was like a tinderbox, and any provocation would encourage people to take up guns and fight a bloody battle. We know what did happen after that.

Rolling Blackouts, Sarah Glidden, Drawn & Quarterly.