Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays (Villard)

syncopated-header.jpgJoe Sacco-style comics-as-news-reports attempt to rescue traditional journalism in this collection of true life stories.

 

153 pgs. B&W; $16.95

(W / A: Various, edited by Brendan Burford)

 

Some professional journalists like to blame citizen journalists for the death of journalism. It’s a bizarre argument, because the rise in citizen journalism shows that there’s a growing number of people who not only want to be journalists, but who don’t necessarily like what journalism has become. In a way, it’s traditionalists doing the killing.

With that in mind, it’s ironic that one of the most exciting nonfiction documents of the year is a direct offspring of the golden age of newspapers.

When it was independently published, Syncopated earned a reputation as The New Yorker for comics readers. Now that it’s getting the mainstream, wide release treatment, it stands as another outlet for thoughtful storytelling and possibly another inspiration to thousands of artists and writers.

The cover to Syncopated. Click for a larger image.The re-released Syncopated is a collection of historical, journalistic and personal comics presented as essays are in glossy prose magazines like Harper’s or, yes, The New Yorker. Brendan Burford, who edited the original magazine and is now comics editor for King Features Syndicate, chose the 16 stories in Syncopated. He’s an adept curator. He works in newspaper comics, which were the monkeys to modern comic books’ humans. His selection of stories for Syncopated reveals a clear reverence for tradition and a high tolerance for experimentation.

There are a few bold steps in Syncopated, in both style and theme. The standouts are a report on Guantanamo Bay prisoner abuses and a travelogue of Chinese child adoption. The book opens with a reflection on hay bailing that isn’t really about hay bailing. The art varies from story to story, but is consistently compelling. My favorite piece is a collection of renderings of musical subway buskers, drawn on-site. It’s a live report, presented unedited much later.

The time it takes to write, draw, edit and publish comics hurts Syncopated‘s ability to be a consistent source of hard-hitting reportage, but it seems like the publication’s indie days provided ample time for finding a voice. Joe Sacco proved that nonfiction comics didn’t have to be breaking to be prescient, and Syncopated follows Sacco’s example. The personal essays are evergreen, so to speak, and capture personal events that don’t need to be tied to world events.

But in a larger sense, that’s how all of the pieces in Syncopated work. By turning journalism (a medium that is, by definition, timely and therefore bound to become obsolete to anyone outside of archivists and students) into art, Syncopated preserves time-specific work for future generations, and maybe that’s how to save journalism. The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting is perhaps the most famous journalism of all time, but who can remember anything Woodward or Bernstein wrote about the break-in? Now who can remember scenes from All The President’s Men? | Gabe Bullard

Click here to read an excerpt from Syncopated, courtesy of Villard.

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