Haunted by loss and made resentful by years of under-appreciation, a once-idealistic journalist dedicated to finding and telling the truth turns against his ethical basis. Shunning the quest for objectivity and reportorial remove, veteran print and broadcast war correspondent Mark Scribner, lead character of my new graphic novel THE STRINGER, yields to his darkest temptations in exchange for fame and fortune.
That’s what the book, with illustrations by Pablo Callejo, is about. But is it possible? It’s one thing for a journalist to make a mistake. That’s inevitable. But can they throw out basic morality altogether? Absolutely.
Journalism does its best to circle the wagons when one of its own goes rogue, which is why the reading and watching public isn’t always aware that the reason that what they see on the news isn’t always true is sometimes due to personal corruption. Journalists keep each other’s secrets.
Scribner doesn’t succumb, at least I don’t think he does, and I probably should know since I invented him, to drug or alcohol abuse. But drugs were and are a big part of the coping mechanism for some conflict reporters. One very well-known television war correspondent – if you watch the news, I guarantee you have seen him — is widely known in the business as a junkie. His beat takes him to countries where heroin is cheap and widely available, and he partakes regularly. And he’s hardly alone.
One correspondent assigned to the Middle East found that she couldn’t handle the stress of traveling to exceptionally dangerous areas without getting her fix first. “I would never get into that car to go to a place like that unless I was zonked out of my mind,” she told me. I’m not a particularly judgemental person, but even if I were, I have to concede that she had a point.
One threat to journalistic integrity is laziness. Jayson Blair, The New York Times reporter who infamously made up quotes and stories from his apartment in Brooklyn, seems simple enough to have had the drive to get off his ass and report. I knew another reporter from the same newspaper who had every opportunity to legitimately go out into the field and collect quotes, but unlike young Mark Scribner at the fire in Cincinnati, he preferred to fabricate them and kick off for beers early. As far as I know, he’s still there.
You might ask, since I knew about such rascals, did I speak up? The answer is no, typically because I’m not a rat and also because I knew nothing would really change as a result. When the Times published a long article shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks about the strategic importance of the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, I was drawn to a detailed description of the strategic border between the country and neighboring Afghanistan, then governed by the Taliban. I called a friend who was an editor there about it to point out the fact that the countries don’t have a border. A couple of days later, the paper ran a brief retraction about the absentee border, but the reporter remained even though he had clearly made up the story wholesale and had never been to this fictional place.
Then there was the colorful account of riding the new train line between Turkmenistan and Iran that appeared in a travel magazine. I was really interested in the story because I wanted to take that train myself the next time I went to Central Asia. Problem was, it didn’t exist yet. According to the authorities, it should’ve been finished years earlier. But it wasn’t.
Journalists sometimes succumb to the grandiose desire to break a big story even though they haven’t actually come across one. Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her obviously ridiculous 1980 portrait of an eight year old heroin addict. Sabrina Erdeley‘s 2014 “A Rape on Campus” in Rolling Stone had to be retracted after it turned out that her sourcing was a mess and that the horrific events described within may not have happened at all.
Then there’s the oldest motivation of all: money. In 2005 the George W. Bush administration used public funds to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to three conservative commentators in order to promote White House policy.
Probably the closest any reporter has come to Mark’s rock-bottom morality was Judith Miller of The New York Times. Miller broke one rule after another during the Bush administration’s propaganda campaign to gin up support for invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, completely subverting the most basic ethical guidelines regarding objectivity and conflicts of interest, to hobnob with the right wing proponents of invading Iraq and run their lives as fact in the Paper of Record. It is true, as she has since argued, that we didn’t invade the country because of her. But she played a large role in the murder of over 1 million people, serving as a brazen propagandist in the nation’s most influential newspaper for a completely baseless military attack on a country that had done nothing wrong to the United States and had no intention or ability to do so.
While Mark goes further than these examples, even than Judith Miller, it’s not such a radical stretch. After all, journalists are only human. And humans sometimes do awful things.
Mark Scribner, the antihero protagonist of my graphic novel THE STRINGER, “employs his battle-zone-honed knowledge to stir up trouble by faking a Twitter fight between two Afghan warlords that sends the rockets flying,” as the book critic for the Publishers Weekly trade magazine put it.
That’s the moment when the grizzled washed-up war reporter breaks bad. It happens after a conversation with a young, hipper, Millennial colleague sparks a moment of bleak inspiration that sets everything that follows into motion. In a world of online anonymity, the dark web, bitcoin, no one really knows who anyone else really is. That is, as an arbitrage expert on Wall Street once told me, an inefficiency in the marketplace that someone will figure out how to exploit.
THE STRINGER relies on a host of technologies to unleash mayhem around the world. Here’s a look at some of them, all of them real, all of them around right now.
Fake Email Generators are marketed as a way to protect your precious email account from nefarious spammers, and who can argue with that? But it doesn’t take a genius – although Mark Scribner is a genius — to fathom the potential downside for society. If I can send you an email that looks in every way shape and form as though it came from someone legitimate, I can really mess you up. I can certainly mess them up.
I have some experience with that. Back in 1999 a man I didn’t know decided he didn’t like my politics, my writing, the general cut of my jib, I don’t really know what his real problem was. He used a primitive listserv to send emails under my name to a bunch of my colleagues and editors. It could’ve been worse, though it was pretty bad. The emails were pompous and self-congratulatory and annoying, or seemingly so since they weren’t really sent from me, and it annoyed my editor at the New York Times enough for him to fire me. He seems to have stopped, which is a good thing because fake email generators would have made him even more dangerous.
Misleading Social Media Accounts are as easy as pie to create. Many people, famous and not famous, don’t have Twitter or Facebook or other social media account at all. It’s incredibly easy to go online, as Mark does, and create real-sounding accounts for them. It’s slightly more challenging to spoof someone with a well-established online presence, but hardly impossible. Because Silicon Valley doesn’t bother to check the identities of people who create these accounts, you can create an alternative account under someone else’s name that sounds legitimate.
While I was finalizing the script, and Pablo was drawing his amazing illustrations, I read an article about Deep Fakes, in which existing video and audio archives are mined and fed into AI algorithms in order to build a vocabulary of gestures and speech and verbal tics so that a subject target can be made to appear to be saying anything you want. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that these are an important part of the plot line.
And there’s no end in sight. For example, it is already possible to create fake three-dimensional representations of you and me that have nothing to do with you and me. It all happens inside the VR/AR virtual world.
It’s my nature to dwell on the downside risk of new technologies, but as my father, a notable aeronautical engineer told me once, technology is neutral. There are plus sides and downsides. Splitting the atom led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nuclear power keeps the lights on all over the world. Whether technology is a net positive or a negative depends on how it is applied in the aggregate. In the dark world of THE STRINGER, fakery becomes a tool for the most nefarious possible actors. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
My new graphic novel THE STRINGER drops next month in April. A tale of journalistic corruption in an age of high-tech warfare, THE STRINGER is a collaboration between me, as writer, and the Spanish artist Pablo Callejo. I couldn’t possibly be more excited that I’m about to hold the book, printed on old-fashioned paper, in my hands any day now.
Probably the first question that comes to mind is: I’m a cartoonist. Why not draw it myself? The answer is the same as when I worked with Pablo on “The Year of Loving Dangerously” (2009), a gorgeous, unconventional book that came out ahead of its time in the middle of the Great Recession. (Don’t tell anyone, but Important People in Hollywood are trying to figure out how to turn it into a movie.) I have a highly stylized, economic drawing style. Some people might even call it primitive. Some stories call for a lot more detail, and THE STRINGER’s globetrotting narrative with settings and flashbacks and heavy characterization certainly was one of those.
I knew from working with Pablo before that he could pretty much read my mind and put on the page exactly what I was thinking based on my scripts. For “Year” this guy, who had never been to New York, stunningly evoked the wild and crazy New York City of the 1980s. So I was incredibly grateful when he agreed to work on THE STRINGER despite our disappointment with the original sales of YEAR. (Fortunately, NBM later graced us with an expanded edition in paperback that really does the artwork justice.)
In a future blog post here I will describe my collaboration process with Pablo. He has already posted about that here as well.
99% of the work that I do, whether it’s editorial cartoons or essays for the Wall Street Journal or graphic biographies, by necessity are required to work within formatic and editorial constraints. Editorial cartoons have to run fairly small. Anything that runs in a “family newspaper” can’t include cursing or obscenity. There are a number of conventions in working within the political longform format. And of course that’s true about this graphic novel as well.
But, like a lot of artists, I’m sensitive to criticism and I often think that my most “Ted Rall” work is least popular with readers, and vice versa. I’m sure this is something that I should work out with a psychologist, but in the meantime, I struggle with self-censorship, with trying to tone down my internal voice and my real personality when I write scripts for a story.
THE STRINGER is a rare exception to that.
Mark Scribner, a classic antihero protagonist if there ever was one, is basically me as all Id, no ego or superego. He’s an experiment. What if I drowned myself in my deepest moments of cynicism? What if bitterness and ambition became my personal religions?
Like Mark, I’m disgusted and angry at what has happened to old-fashioned journalism, and I don’t mean the disruption caused by the Internet but rather the atrocious short-term profit orientation and mismanagement that has destroyed the newspaper industry responsible for generating over 90% of news. Also like Mark, I have done some war correspondency. NBM published my most well received example, TO AFGHANISTAN AND BACK (2002), which was the first book about the US invasion of Afghanistan published in any form.
I was sitting at a journalist guest house in Kabul, Afghanistan, a compound once owned by Osama bin Laden himself, in 2010 when the germ of THE STRINGER occurred to me. In addition to reporters from all over the world, guests included NGO workers and what were euphemistically called “contractors” — mercenary soldiers employed by the US and its allies in the war zone to do the dirty business countries pretended that they weren’t responsible for. As I watched the contractors pick up the NGO do-gooders, I thought to myself, what a bizarre mix of people. They have unique skill sets. And when I ventured out into the countryside, it all came together. I was meeting local commanders, warlords and arms runners. A war reporter, I realized, knows everyone. Obviously, they know members of the press. They know people who fight wars, often on multiple sides. They know who supplies them. And they know all the intermediaries, like those mercenaries. It’s kind of like Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about connectors on speed: a war reporter knows everyone and everything needed to start and maintain and grow a war.
Anyone who has that much knowledge is dangerous. Take away everything that they love and care about, and who knows what they might do? That was the theoretical construct behind Mark Scribner.
There was never any doubt in my mind about what kind of voice he would have. I love film noir. One of my favorite films, one that AMC described as the most cynical film ever released in the United States, is Billy Wilder’s 1951 “Ace in the Hole” (also sometimes called “The Big Carnival”), starring Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling at the peak of their formidable powers. Douglas plays a washed-up Manhattan reporter who finds and exploits the story of a lifetime in New Mexico, to viciously cynical ends. I knew that Mark had to have the most noir, utterly hard-boiled, unapologetically masculine verbiage of any fictional character in any form ever. And that’s exactly how I wrote him, although there were many times when I questioned myself, tempted by the desire to make him more likable.
Yet I resisted. Mark is as close to irredeemable any character I can think of ever, and that’s just the way I like him. Because after all, that’s the way the system made him. He wasn’t always like that. As you’ll see when you read it. For better and for worse, mostly, he’s a totally Ted Rall character.
The grand theory of THE STRINGER is that you can’t destroy one of the most fundamental societal needs, the documentation of history in real time by journalism and the retroactive analysis of what it means, without grave implications both personally and structurally on the world stage.
“I have an idea for a new graphic novel (…). Any interest?”
And with these two simple questions, Ted put the poison back in me.
After publishing “The Year of Loving Dangerously” with Ted Rall in 2009, I fell in my usual state of “feeling-void-after-finishing-a-book”. “YOLD” had been a colossal effort -although a rewarding one- in terms of searching references and creating an appropriate graphic atmosphere. Being myself a maniac of documentation and historical coherence in the silliest details – a car seen in such and such a scene, a magazine cover, the inside of a subway car of NYC in 1984… – and with the level of detail with which Ted elaborates his scripts, the work was simply exhausting.
This “I have lost all my energies and skills” lasts usually for some months for me. But in this case, aggravated by personal trouble, it took around three years until, in February 2013, I received a message from Ted that rang a bell in my brain.
“I have an idea for a new graphic novel.
The book is about a washed up reporter/war correspondent who is largely out of work because newspapers and magazines are all going under and slashing their budgets and closing their foreign bureaus. (…) A wicked take on the state of the media, the collapse of the economy, the Internet, the nature of warfare, etc.
Of course I was interested!!! So I climbed aboard, never imagining that I was embarking on a 6-year-152-pages-task.
First discussions were about what style would match better the story. I am always experimenting with new things, changes of style, attempts at evolution. At that time I was trying out a style that was not as realistic as “The Year of Loving Dangerously”…
… nor as dark as “Bluesman”.
I was looking for something more schematic, that synthesised reality in order to, without losing realism, give it a more “cartoonish” touch that would fit better with Ted’s satirical-cynical writing.
Ok, so we have the style… What about the main character? How should Mark look? He was a guy in his late 40s/early 50s, a little rattled by life but still in the mood, a bit cynical but still confident in himself and his ability. Someone just like Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men” or maybe Nick Nolte in “Under Fire”.
But there was something that didn’t fit the “schematic” style I was looking for. Also, it was necessary to reflect the passage of time – decades – as we told Mark’s story. An obvious recourse would be to make the protagonist’s hair greyer, so he needed to be dark-haired.
So I switched to a most modern look, dark hair and gray temples. Got it!
Discussing with Ted a cast if “The Stringer” were a movie, I see Ben Affleck as Mark. Ted’s betting more on George Clooney, who’s not bad either.
Anyway, Ben or George: if you’re reading this, know that we’re counting on you for the role of a lifetime 🙂
Thank you for reading. More to come on the creative process of “The Stringer” in the next days.
On Wednesday, October 7, 2020 at 6:30 PM, WILLIE NELSON: A GRAPHIC HISTORY writer T.J. Kirsch will be doing a live video Q&A with the fine people from Fantom Comics. Mark your calendars, and be ready with your questions!
Here is more info from Fantom Comics…
“We’re doing another comic creator event for your enjoyment. We’ll be talking to cartoonist T.J. Kirsch about his work; in particular about his newest project Willie Nelson: A Graphic History, in which he teams up with several other artists to tell the story of this country music icon from Hill County, Texas.
T.J. Kirsch is also the creator of Pride Of The Decent Man, a story with an episodic plot about a man from an abusive household who tries to lead a straight and narrow path, and his friend who always pulls him in the opposite direction and into significant trouble.
If you would like either of these books, please contact us at FantomHQ@fantomcomics.com or call during business hours at (202)-241-6498.“
Planet Earth, engaged in an intergalactic conflict, owes its salvation to the clone of Leonardo da Vinci and to the rebirth of his genius. Author Stéphane Levallois has created the fantastic universes of many of the big Hollywood blockbusters (Alien, King Kong: Skull Island, Harry Potter and many others).
The result of two years of elaboration and work, this space opera exemplifies his talent in two areas that he masters to perfection: the universe of science fiction and art. To build his story and compose his boards, Levallois draws from the painted and drawn work of the Renaissance master, selecting a large number of drawings and paintings by Leonardo to represent the characters, vessels or even the architectures in his story.
The grand scale result is stupefying as Leonardo’s everlasting visions are successfully projected into a stunning futuristic setting. A visual experience not to be missed, in a large format hardcover.
10”x14”, 96pp., color HC, $29.99 US. HC ISBN 9781681122649. DIAMOND CODE: AUG201471; Pub Date: October 14th, 2020
The highly successful series of graphic novels co-published with the Louvre museum in Paris (“Glacial Period”, “Museum Vaults”) continues with its next outstanding graphic novel. This time, the author invites us on a guided tour of the museum… by night… when the works of art come alive.
Our guide: a deaf night watchman who somehow manages to communicate with the souls of those ethereal and timeless works of art. A visual tour de force with a strong edge of the frighteningly fantastic.
61/2 x 9, 72 pages, full color trade paperback with flaps: $14.95 US ISBN: 9781561635771. DIAMOND CODE: AUG201473
Superstar European SF and Fantasy comics artist Enki Bilal revisits the Louvre in twenty-two portraits… He imagines 22 fates of men, women and children whose lives have been affected by a work of art. 22 portraits for 5000 years of creation.
They haunt the halls of the Louvre … they are long dead, often violently … they are a Roman legionary, a muse, a painter, a German officer … Each, one day, met a painter or a sculptor and was their model …
Bilal felt them, wandering the corridors of the Louvre, close to the work that tipped their life: Mona Lisa, the Victory of Samothrace, Christ reclining, an Egyptian mask …Bilal startlingly brings them back to life.
Both a work of Fantasy and a masterful homage, this was presented in a special exhibition in the Louvre in early 2013.
9 x 11 ½”, 144 pp., color Hardcover, $29.99 US, HC ISBN: 9781561638413; DIAMOND CODE: AUG201474
Fabian is supervisor at the Louvre. He loves his job. He also loves Mathilde. When it comes time, she presents him to her family in their vast country house and not without some apprehension, as the Benion clan is a bit special.
There’s her father, Louis, who heads since 1975 the family furniture company founded in 1947, and two brothers, Maxime and Joseph. They’re not bad guys, just rather clumsy and with a decidedly unsubtle sense of humor. The fact that Fabian works in the Louvre is a welcome coincidence, since they just found in the attic a painting by an ancestor in the nineteenth century.
It’s a sorry representation of a cross-eyed mutt. What is the value? ask the Benion. Is this an eyesore or a masterpiece? Fabian, pretty embarrassed, punts on the question. So for the Benion, case closed, if it ain’t an eyesore then no doubt it has its place on the walls of the Louvre!
Fabian is left hoping the whole delusion will just go away, until one day the two brothers show up at the Louvre and ask. Getting the Cross-Eyed Mutt into the Louvre would demonstrate his commitment to becoming a member of the Benion family! Fabian is now in a pickle when he meets Mr. André Balouchi, an oddball frequent visitor of the museum who turns out to have quite a bit of clout…
A raucous satirical comedy that asks: Who decides what makes a work of art worthy of being in a major museum?
Early in the pitching and proposal process of Willie Nelson: A Graphic History, the plan was to do every part of the book myself – the writing, drawing, and everything that goes along with that. It’s a daunting and intimidating thing imagining the work that will go into a project before you start it. In 2017 and 2018, the plan was still to do it all on my own. It wasn’t until really feeling truly overwhelmed by it all that I considered bringing collaborators into the mix. I spoke with Terry at NBM, and he suggested I bring in different artists for each chapter – similar to NBM’s recent Beatles biography. This seemed like a great idea to me for a few reasons, but getting to choose collaborators I admired and friends I’d made throughout my career seemed like a great benefit. I could also devote more of my time to writing the script. The rest is history! Graphic History, that is.
Here are some very early art pieces I worked on while developing the project.
For more information on Willie Nelson: A Graphic History,go here.