Sarah Glidden Discusses Rolling Blackouts, Comics Journalism

The Newton native has a new book out about her time speaking to Iraq war refugees in Syria.

Sarah Glidden Rolling Blackouts

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The question of what role the media plays in the 21st century is under constant examination. Is it ever possible to create truly objective journalism? What responsibilities do journalists have towards the subjects they cover? The comics artist (and Newton native) Sarah Glidden examines the nuances of that debate in her new book, Rolling Blackouts.

Half memoir, half reported piece, it depicts in a series of hand-drawn panels the two months in 2010 she spent with journalist friends interviewing refugees of the Iraq war in Syria and other areas in the Middle East. They were there to gather stories for their journalism nonprofit, and she was there to learn about what it’s like to report those kinds of stories. It was, as she freely admits, a complicated situation.

“We had a lot of boundary issues on this trip. We had me, reporting on these friends of mine, who were journalists, and the journalist reporting on a friend of hers. And you’re not really supposed to be reporting on your friends. There’s a lot of conflicts of interest there,” she explains.

One member of the group was a former soldier who had been stationed in Iraq, and a big part of the narrative follows the efforts of his childhood friend Sarah Stuteville, who was one of the journalists, to dig deep into how he feels about the Iraq war. It’s a mission fraught with conflicted emotions for them all, but Glidden says Stuteville was eager to have their stories told.

“She was really ready for the mirror to be turned back on her. She’s made this career out of talking to other people and then having to write about them and portray them as full human beings, which sometimes means showing their flaws,” Glidden explains. “She wanted to get a taste of her own medicine a little and see what it was like to be reported on herself.”

Of course, in the years since Glidden traveled there, the situation in Syria has undergone huge changes, which presented some challenges for writing a story depicting the country before its civil war began. “I kept wondering if I should be extending the scope of time covered in this book by more and more to cover what’s happened since then, but if I was honest with myself, I’m not an expert on what happened after 2010,” she explains. She decided to leave the reporting about Syria today to the journalists covering the war-torn country, and focus on the story she felt she could tell.

And when the stories are as difficult as the ones refugees have to tell, a lot of moral issues come up for journalists about the best way to share that information. Glidden’s book generally depicts the people telling the stories, and not the events they’re describing, which she says was a conscious choice. “I wanted to really focus on these people where they are now as they’re telling the story, because I think a lot of times we focus on the tragic thing that happened and not the person’s life after the most tragic thing,” she says, adding that it was important to “focus on their present at that moment and how trauma continues.”

While the form the media takes has changed a lot in recent years, Glidden thinks comics journalism has a place in that landscape. “We can slow things down, we can show the way someone talks, and because they’re hand-drawn, it really emphasizes the fact that a person made this,” she says. “It’s easy sometimes to look at photos and think it’s objective or something like that, because it’s a camera. But a photographer has to decide what to take a picture of and what to include in the frame.”

See Glidden in a session at the Boston Book Festival at 1 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 15, at Old South Sanctuary at 645 Boylston St.,