Behind the Scenes Q&As

Finding humanity: How Josh Neufeld uses comics journalism to form empathic connections

What is comics journalism?

In the hands of award-winning cartoonist Josh Neufeld, it uses comics and illustrations to offer fresh perspectives on everything from health care to the influence of the media that engage readers. Neufeld is a Brooklyn-based award-winning cartoonist known for his nonfiction narratives of political and social upheaval, told through the voices of witnesses.

Storybench interviewed Neufeld to discover how he marries social issues with comics to form connections with readers. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What goes into creating a comics journalism piece?

To start, I think, “What’s an important issue that a new perspective would freshen up this topic? What’s a story that lends itself to the comics treatment?” As opposed to something that is not particularly visual or doesn’t have a strong central character that a reader can identify with.

Once I have the issue that I think needs to be given more attention to and that comics would be a good way to do it, I start doing research and I try to find real people who would make good central characters for the reader to follow this story along.

Then, I always try to reach out to people and do interviews.I get them on board with the project, so they understand what I’m looking for. I let them know that they’re going to be represented as comic characters and if they’re fine with that.

When I have the raw materials and have a sense of the thrust for the narrative, then I write a script out. I draw the pages and panels from that script. Usually, there’s interaction with an editor along the way who helps me refine the story which I value. An editor makes sure what is working well in my head is going to translate well with readers.

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Who are your target audiences when it comes to your pieces? What do you hope the audiences will take away from your comics?

I’d like to say my target audiences are people who read comics and want to expand their idea of what comics can be. However, I have to say experience seems to show that it is more often people who don’t read a lot of comics that read my works. But they are already aware that there are nonfiction narrative comics out there.

I think my audience is already interested and engaged in issues in the news and is looking for a fresh perspective. I’m bringing a topic to life that they had some knowledge of but are now seeing in a more impactful and empathy-generating way. That is what I go for most of the time: finding a way to form a connection – an empathic connection – between the subjects of the story and the readers.

How do you incorporate diversity in your pieces?

I try to represent the world as I see it and as I experience it. I live in a diverse place in New York City. I’ve always been around people with all sorts of backgrounds. To me, that is the world that is out there. I want to represent that.

I’m very aware that sometimes the world that is being presented in media is very non-representational. I don’t want to fall into those traps. It’s something I’m always thinking about. Even when it comes to drawing a crowd in the background.

Detailed drawings of diverse crowds in “Vaccinated at the ball: A true story about trusted messengers” by Josh Neufeld. From The Journalist’s Resource.

I always remind myself that there are all sorts of people. People look different. People are from different backgrounds, ages, genders, body sizes, races, whatever it might be. I never want to fall into the default, White, generic, character trope.

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What are other aspects of your comics that you’re intentional about?

The thing about comics journalism is there are a lot of different practitioners and people have different rules about the way it’s supposed to work…I just want to make it clear that in my comics, in particular, any quotes that anyone is saying, anyone with a word balloon above their head, that’s an actual quote of theirs. I never put words into people’s mouths. It’s something that is really important that be established.

Josh Neufeld’s “A graphic guide to the 2020 US census” illustrates the concerns of individuals who live in the United States when filling out the Census. From The Journalist’s Resource.

If I show them having done something, or in a certain location, at a certain time, then that would’ve been again something I would’ve fact-checked…I never move people forward or backward, in time or space. These again, are what I think, to be important journalist ethics in storytelling.

It is important to me for readers to understand that the people who are portrayed in my comics are real people. These are real things that happen to them. This is nonfiction even though there is a lot I need to make up and create to fill in the world around them.

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