Some books take such a mammoth effort to produce that it’s hard to want to be critical of them. Rolling Blackouts is one of those books. The nearly 300 pages of delicately crafted, watercolored panels make evident that Sarah Glidden is a workhorse of a talent. The dialogue—which is mostly transcribed from conversations—is incredibly natural and nuanced; the story itself is smartly constructed; the art is gorgeous. Rolling Blackouts is indisputably a solid piece of comics journalism. And yet, given the current political anxieties of 2016, I struggled to feel that this intricate meditation on journalism is an important read for this exact moment.
Rolling Blackouts (Drawn & Quarterly, 2016) recounts a two month trip Glidden or “Sarah G.” took to the Middle East in 2010 with Seattle Globalist co-founders, Sarah Stuteville—“Sarah S.”—and Alex Stonehill, and Stuteville’s childhood friend, Dan, who is a former US Marine. This was Dan’s first return to Iraq since his deployment in 2006. Saddam Hussein was dead, the media frenzy on the War in Iraq was subsiding, and in general the public had a lot of questions. As the group set out on the trip, no one seemed to know what to expect. Dan said he hoped to gain a “fuller” perspective on the war by getting to know some Iraqi people, and listening to their stories. Sarah S. and Alex wanted to approach the trip with less journalistic structure for the sake of telling some unusual, unanticipated stories. (One of those stories was Dan’s.) Sarah G. was curious about what real journalism is, and although nervous about traveling to this part of the world, was determined to tell the story—“CoJo”-style—of her two friends who were making important strides in independent journalism.
As they traveled from Turkey, to Iraq, and finally to Syria, the book depicts both dynamic and banal aspects of journalism—from interviewing a suspected US terrorist at an closed Iraqi prison, to awkwardly recording room tone for several dryly-humorous panels. Sarah S. began to question her role as a journalist as the trip became more and more organic in structure. At another point Sarah G. lost faith in her journalist friends, but regained it as their journey continued, and Dan—well, Dan became more and more frustrating and obnoxious. Sarah S. continuously asked him thoughtful and probing questions, and he dodged every one of them with seemingly rehearsed, and at times indecipherable, responses.
Sarah S.: “ I’m just wondering since the American military might symbolize fear for some of the Iranian people we met on the train, does that give you pause?”
Dan: “Well, I would say that it’s perspective that I can be proud of because I lived it.”
In Iraq he joked with a cab driver that he should get a discount because he liberated the place, and that he “should have brought a massive American flag and just wrapped myself in it…and run down the street here like, ‘Yeaaaah!’ ” He maintained a narrow and defensive attitude about the US involvement in Iraq on the whole by insisting that all his military friends were “good people,” and because he didn’t directly experience a negative impact the war had on Iraqi people he can’t say whether or not it’s true.
Ultimately, Sarah G. was unsuccessful at nudging Dan out of his defensive shell, and this felt like a let down. From the very first pages of the book I expected Dan’s story to be a big transformation, but it wasn’t. In fact, there wasn’t any big transformation. And I’m thinking this is the real glimpse at journalism that Glidden lets us in on. Good journalism requires an incredible amount of labor for very little—and sometimes no—payoff. It doesn’t always create the stories that people want to read. Change doesn’t always happen, but you still report on it. But why then?
Here’s the part that I struggled with: Rolling Blackouts is an infuriatingly neutral account, and neutrality doesn’t resonate in 2016. No character expresses any urgency, need, or desire. The roles they play as journalists, as travelers, and as political beings are earnest and thoughtful, but seemingly un-opinionated. It was a challenge for me to really appreciate this type of narrative in a moment that demands a collective attempt to create change, to have attitudes and to express them very clearly. Maybe it’s wrong to try to situate a book within any given political landscape, but we do this all the time when we praise books for their timeliness, so why not critique them when they feel out of sync? Right now in the US police are legally killing people of color with impunity, sexual violence against women is widely acceptable, and Donald Trump. (Period.) Amid all of this, I feel disappointed by Sarah S.’s polite take on her role as journalist:
…I think that creating change can’t be the goal of the journalist. I always ask myself: is it better that this story is out there in the world than if it wasn’t? If the answer is yes, then you do it. The best we can hope for is that the story gets passed along. The way the reader uses that story to understand the world is up to them.
I actually want journalists to have opinions and to want their work to affect change. According to Glidden’s book that wouldn’t be good journalism, but after reading it it’s not entirely clear why. I wish she would have questioned Sarah S. more about this.
To be fair, a book of this caliber of research, thoughtfulness, and craft doesn’t get made in a year. Or two, or even three. It took six. To dismiss it because it doesn’t fulfill the political urgencies of today would be a loss, and that’s certainly not what I’m trying to do. I’m pointing out that if it feels out of step with the kind of comics journalism that addresses those urgencies that’s because it is. For now. Soon, we will be in the aftermath of this crucial moment and we’ll have different kinds of questions, and this book will be a far more important read at that time.