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Anything but ‘Fake News’: Cartoonist Josh Neufeld on his graphic account of the ‘Donald Trump-Russia dossier’ saga

New York Times best-selling cartoonist Josh Neufeld discusses his recent Columbia Journalism Review comic strip, “The Trump-Russia memos.”

“Fake news.”

It’s hard to get through a day without hearing at least one person–usually President Donald J. Trump–drop this now-common phrase. And as there are so many different ways to share information these days, it’s become harder than ever to tell what we should and shouldn’t believe.

Fortunately, there are still those who are dedicated to telling stories based on facts, such as New York Times best-selling cartoonist Josh Neufeld (A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, American Splendor). In the fall of 2017, Columbia Journalism Review published Neufeld’s five-page comic strip, “The Trump-Russia memos.”

The strip is a graphic account of the story of the infamous “Donald Trump-Russia dossier” (or “Steele dossier”) that was published by BuzzFeed January 10, 2017. AiPT! had a chance to attend a reading of Neufeld’s comic at Pine Manor College, where he teaches in the Comics & Graphic Narratives concentration for its Low-Residency Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program. Afterward, we chatted about the work that went into translating this controversial news story into a graphic format.

AiPT!: How did this project come about? Is this something you pitched or were you approached by Columbia Journalism Review?

Josh Neufeld: CJR came to me with the idea. They were planning a special issue on Trump and the media and wanted to include a comics piece in the magazine. Knowing my work, they reached out to me about doing a “behind-the-scenes” look at the Christopher Steele-Trump-Russia memos story in comics form. We determined early on that the story would focus on when the media started to hear about the memos, their decision NOT to publish details from them before the election, and then the story into why Buzzfeed decided to publish the memos right before Trump’s inauguration as president.

AiPT!: Though only five pages, this comic strip is packed with detailed information. How much time would you say you spent researching before you began the illustrations?

Neufeld: I did a solid month of research and interviews, and started writing the script a few weeks into that process. One of the real challenges was interviewing the journalists who covered the story. They’re used to ASKING the questions, not answering them. And even when information was already out there, some of them insisted on keeping secrets–about the details in the memos, about what they knew and when they knew it, etc.

As you say, the story is packed with information–a lot of my job was finding the through-line, figuring out how to focus the piece and not get sidetracked by all the juicy tidbits about Trump and prostitutes, etc. I really wanted to focus on the timeline–almost a countdown sense to both the election and the inauguration–and the memos themselves. To me, the memos–old-fashioned spycraft–were the graphic element that anchored the visuals of the story.AiPT!: In your opinion, how does the comic book format enhance the information you’re sharing in this strip? Do you in any way feel illustrations make news of this nature more digestible to readers?

Neufeld: I think Scott McCloud has talked about comics as akin to maps, and others compare them to infographics. I often think of comics that way–as a visual pathway to understanding something. To me, good comics tell you information in multiple ways, both through the text and also through the images. So whenever possible, I tried to pack each panel with multiple information streams. The goal is that the reader is getting all this dense info seamlessly, almost without being aware of it. The other issue, however, was that I knew this story was so complex and “insider baseball” that I couldn’t sustain it for too long. I originally conceived of it being a four-page piece, but I was convinced to give it that one extra page to really pay it off.

AiPT!: No matter where people stand politically, there’s no denying Donald Trump elicits strong opinions. Have you received any interesting feedback on this piece from the public since its release?

Neufeld: The most gratifying feedback has been from people who say the piece clarified the story and helped them better understand not only the sequence of events but also the ethics behind the story (the idea of journalism as a “gatekeeper” of information). It’s also been amazing to see how this story continues to resonate many months later–the question of whether Trump is a Russian mole is the basis of the special counsel investigation, and some say that the Steele memos are a “road map” for that investigation.

One of the things of which I’m most proud (semi-sarcastically) is that during the course of working on the piece, I “broke news’ that there were actually 17 memos in the “dossier,” not the 16 that everyone else counted!

AiPT!: There’s so much news coming out of the Trump White House on a daily basis. Have you seen anything that you’d be interested in exploring in future comics?

Neufeld: As a journalist, he’s fascinating–a disrupter on all levels. As a U.S. citizen, I worry that he’s permanently eroding so many of our institutions–most importantly the presidency. But my strength as a cartoonist is not covering the daily craziness. I’m much better at longer pieces–comics “essays,” if you will–taking a look at the bigger picture. So, to answer your question, I’m definitely accumulating a lot of material–who knows what long-form comics story may emerge from the Trump presidency.

But someone who IS doing a great job documenting Trump in comics form is R. Sikoryak. His graphic novel The Unquotable Trump is brilliant on so many levels–whether you’re an old-school comics fan, a political junkie, or, like me, both!

“The Trump-Russia memos” is available to read here.


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