Graphic artists from Latin America use comic journalism to communicate society’s problems

*This story is part of a special project on Innovators in Latin American and Caribbean Journalism.

Germán Andino was in his teens when the gang war in Honduras began at the end of the 90s. He experienced first-hand, in his own neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, the increase in violence and he knew members of these criminal groups closely.

His mastery of the streets and gangs allowed him to work as a guide for foreign journalists interested in telling what was happening in his country. But over time, he felt the need to tell stories about those conflicts from his own point of view. He had no journalistic training, so he took refuge in what has been his passion since childhood: drawing.

Andino, who was a tattoo artist and studied graphic art and later computer systems engineering, took his first steps in journalism by illustrating reports from correspondents such as Antonio Pampliega and Alberto Arce, both from Spain.

In 2012, he began an investigation that would become "El Hábito de la Mordaza” (The Habit of Silence), his first report in comic format that would take four years to produce. That project, which earned him the 2017 Gabo Award in the Innovation category, was published by the Spanish newspaper El País.

"'The Habit of Silence' comes from my own experience in Tegucigalpa and of having grown up more or less at the time the gangs developed in the capital of Honduras and in San Pedro Sula," Andino told the Knight Center. "One day I decided to tell my own story, because it was quite clear that the work that was done at a journalistic level from the outside consisted of arriving, staying a week, and with what you had, go out and tell the story that you could. Then I decided to invest my own time in this."

Andino is one of several graphic artists from Latin America who have approached journalism from a need to tell stories about the reality of their countries and communities, on topics that do not normally fall into the coverage of traditional newspapers. This is how comics have become part of the journalistic toolkit on a growing scale.

"There is a vision that cartoonists have of approaching journalism from the self-narrative, of them telling their experience about an event," Susana Escobar, specialist in visual communication, visual narratives and comics and journalism at the Autonomous University of Chiapas, Mexico, told the Knight Center. "In Latin American countries, it is usually the cartoonists who ventured into journalism. They dabble as they can. Many of them have no [journalistic] training."

Although comic journalism has been practiced for several years in the United States and Europe –where there are even media dedicated entirely to the format– in Latin America it began to strengthen at the beginning of this decade due to the need to tell stories that they are complicated to deal with in traditional formats, either because of the difficulty of the investigation or because they deal with very local issues.

For Andino, the main innovation of "The Habit of Silence," which tells the story of Isaac, a young man who suffered violence as a child and found refuge in the gangs, is to present a longform investigation in comic format, on a digital platform with multimedia elements.

"It's the closest thing to a longform crónica," Andino said. "It's a huge drawing, horizontal. With this format, what I did was control the flow of the story. I had to draw some very long things to be able to follow that linear sense of the story, which also comes in handy because it works like that, like a timeline."

Andino turned to drawing from the start of his investigation. Through portraits he managed to get close to gang members and gain their trust so they would tell him about their lives in the streets. He realized that drawings are a good replacement for photographs when carrying a camera is dangerous.

"It is not the same to take a photograph of a gang member as to sit with them for an hour to draw a picture," Andino explained. "That allows you to establish a totally different link from that of a normal journalist who takes notes or photographs. [The gang members] almost ask you to 'make me a portrait.’ I say 'good, but while I'm doing it we're going to talk a little'. And they say 'yes, yes cool.’ And I do not know, the thing flows better."

Andino does not consider himself a journalist, but said that the "people who I talk to always know that they will end up being drawn or part of a story."

Brazilian artist Alexandre De Maio also benefited from working without a large camera or recorder in hand. In 2013, he collaborated with Agência Pública reporter Andrea Dip to publish "Meninas em Jogo" (Girls in Play), a comic investigation on child trafficking networks in Fortaleza, Brazil, within the framework of that year’s Confederations Cup.

"When possible, I take reference photographs to help with the realism," De Maio said in an interview with the Knight Center. "But when there is danger, I see, I memorize and then I draw. When I wrote about child exploitation, I went to several places, at night, very dangerous. In Fortaleza I could not photograph, nor write anything down."

The graphic artist said that most of the time, he identifies himself as a journalist. But in cases in which he is reporting and people do not know, he does not identify them. When he works on issues like child sexual exploitation, he changes physical characteristics.

De Maio and Dip were the winners of the Tim Lopes award for "Meninas en Jogo." The work required three months of investigation plus another two for the drawing process.

“In Brazil, no one had ever done such a big report in this format,” De Maio said. “It was published online, but the print version of it would be 80 pages long. I think the great innovation was to show that the format of comics works to tell this kind of story. A serious theme, with care, that leaves nothing to be desired in comparison with great longform articles.”

Like Andino, De Maio's entry into journalism was through his desire to tell stories about his community. He began making illustrations for a magazine specializing in rap, in which he later combined comics with writing.

"In 1999, I thought about making a comic about real things happening on my street. And I looked for a publisher to release this comic," De Maio said. "I did not have education in journalism. I practiced journalism, I received my professional certification. I wrote about almost every subject. I spent time just writing. And I went back to drawing in 2006."

De Maio realized that comics had enormous advantages for journalism, especially because they appeal to the strength of the image.

“Comics are incredible for journalism as a language” De Maio said. “It brings the impact of the image, the strength of the image. You add two very strong languages. The written language with the visual. Investigative journalism is highly valued in comics.”

An extensive issue like sexual exploitation or gang violence has limited possibilities to run in daily publications beyond breaking news articles or notes that report the actions of the authorities. The comic is an option for in-depth investigation to find a place in the mass media.

"The comic is a genre that adapts to an infinite number of formats, and that has a great advantage," Susana Escobar said. "With the comic, we can deal with issues that daily newspaper practice does not take into account due to different circumstances: war, human rights, enforced disappearance, environmental issues, which are the topics that Latin American authors are dealing with."

To reinforce the self-narrative character of their work, Andino and De Maio included themselves in their stories, in order to humanize conflicts and gain the empathy of the audience.

The first vignettes of "Girls in Play" show Agência Pública reporter Andrea Dip organizing an investigation on child exploitation in Fortaleza, and throughout the comic you can see how Dip and De Maio become involved in the conflict.

Andino appears several times in "The Habit of Silence," and sometimes he himself provides commentary and thoughts.

"It does not help me to separate myself from the story, pretending that it does not affect it's objectivity," Andino said. "I'm not commenting and giving my opinion all the time, I do it very specifically and I try to make it clear when I'm making a comment or something that is not hard data, that it is my opinion. I think you have to 'get wet' and get into the story, and do not pretend to be objective because it's impossible."

Changing the face of their sources in the drawing and not being totally faithful to reality when recreating a place are other licenses taken by the authors of comic journalism. This has led to questions about whether these kinds of stories are really journalism.

"I think that the genre demands other forms and that this is not without an ethical component to inform," Escobar said. "What is being said there is not a lie; they are just other ways of telling a story. The licenses have value and also enrich the work and the look. I believe that the public automatically enters that language and knows that it is reading another type of journalism, another kind of information, it doesn't demand that they're 100 percent realistic."

Despite the creative licenses, both "Meninas em Jogo" and "The Habit of Silence" incorporate journalistic methods like field research, verification of information and the incorporation of hard data, among others, just like other important representatives of the genre in Latin America, like  Jesús Cossío, from Peru, and Augusto Mora, from Mexico.

"I think it's journalism because the new journalism is exploring languages that get out of the boxes imposed by the journalistic genres," Escobar said. "They are journalists trying to do journalism from the subjective perspective. They realized that the public needed to read other things, they needed to learn about things in a different way, in a reflective and experiential way."

There are also traditional journalists who decide to experiment with the format of comics, and for that they turn to illustrators to turn their reports into cartoons. Reporter Carla Hannover, of the Bolivian newspaper Página Siete, turned to comics for the digital version of her report “Choqueyapu, un Río Enfermo que nos Alimenta” (Choqueyapu, a diseased river that feeds us), an extensive investigation about the contamination of the main waterway in La Paz. Her goal was to make her text more than 30 pages in its print version friendly and understandable on the internet.

"When you prioritize paper, you do not think much about digital," Hannover told the Knight Center.

For that reason, Hannover said she didn't think about getting multimedia material during the reporting process. Video and audio elements she captured as part of the report did not have high enough quality to post digitally. For that reason, a multimedia comic was a better solution.

Hannover did the work as part of her participation in an investigative journalism course with the transnational journalism organization Connectas in 2017. She looked for the illustrator Joaquín Cuevas of Bolivia, who designed a comic book in the shape of the letter U, which is the same shape of the Choqueyapu River in La Paz.

The journalist also gave the comic a self-narrative touch, and although she does not appear in the story, it is the river that narrates the report in the first person, something that would have been unthinkable in the original version.

"The text was very repetitive," Hannover said. "Then I took a chance and said 'let's take a license. Let's talk to the river.' Nothing he's going to talk about is invented, but we treat him like a character, because the river is an icon of the city and with it you can create a character."

To give validity to the narration of the Choqueyapu River, the comic is accompanied by infographics, tables and audio that appear when clicking on certain responsive points.

"Choqueyapu, a sick river that feeds us" is an example of how comics for journalistic purposes stimulate collaborative and multidisciplinary work. In several cases, the artists rely on a reporter to carry out their research, and vice versa, thus forming a pair like the duo of reporter and photographer. Additionally, when the comic is presented on a digital platform, a programmer is added to the team.

"Usually, famous illustrators like (Maltese-American) Joe Sacco almost always do it alone. They report, immerse themselves, interview and document," said Cecibel Romero, Connectas editor who oversaw the Hannover project. "In this case there was a division of tasks. The team members were never in the same place, it was all done long-distance. It was a work of great collaboration and with a combination of talents from different disciplines put at the service of one project. "

The high costs and the long production time required for a comic strip prevent news organizations in Latin America from including this type of work in their daily publications, which is why comic journalism has been explored mostly independently.

However, the creators of comic journalism believe that the traditional Latin American media are beginning to realize that it is an area they should explore.

"The possibilities in Latin America are endless," Andino said. "Especially because there is not much being done. There is a lot of room; it is a medium that is in diapers in Latin America in non-fiction themes. "

After the success of the works of Alexandre De Maio in Brazil, large traditional media such as Estadão have invited him to collaborate, and he has given journalism classes in comics to students who, under his mentorship, have managed to get some media outlets to publish their works.

“The outlets are understanding how to use comic journalism in Brazil,” De Maio said. “There are at least three or four people who can publish this kind of comic journalism in magazines, online. I myself did more than 42 stories for different magazines, online publications after the TIm Lopes prize. As I am one of the first to do this in Brazil, I managed to do a lot and saw other people doing this kind of work as well.”

The internet and social networks are key to the future of comic journalism in Latin America, since they facilitate the distribution of reports in this format, which are difficult to publish on paper because of their size and characteristics.

"The internet reaches a lot more people,” De Maio said. “‘Girls in Play’ had thousands of hits in Brazil and more than 250,000 hits through Buzzfeed in the United States. A magazine would hardly give that kind of visibility. The internet is much easier and it's free as well."

The main contribution of the authors of comic journalism in Latin America is the way to approach issues and sensitive social conflicts from a human perspective, according to Escobar.

"That is the contribution of Latin American journalists: turning to see the issues that hurt the journalist himself," she said. "Journalism in comics humanizes those situations, that conflict has a face, people are affected, there are victims."

The "Innovators in Journalism" series, made possible thanks to generous support from Open Society Foundations, covers digital news media trends and best practices in Latin America and the Caribbean. It expands upon our previous series and ebook, Innovative Journalism in Latin America, by looking at the people and teams leading innovative reporting, storytelling, distribution and financing initiatives in the region.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.