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  • Brookline Tab experiments with comics journalism

  • When the Newtown, Conn. shootings happened in December 2012, Brookline Tab editorial cartoonist John Hilliard had to rethink the "jokey" style comics he was submitting to the weekly newspaper. As he was considering more serious material for his work, the country's focus on the gun control debate also grew more serious. Hillia...
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  • When the Newtown, Conn. shootings happened in December 2012, Brookline Tab editorial cartoonist John Hilliard had to rethink the "jokey" style comics he was submitting to the weekly newspaper. As he was considering more serious material for his work, the country's focus on the gun control debate also grew more serious. Hilliard wanted to explore the issue in a way many journalists can't, and so was born "Packing Heat," a comics journalism look at the complicated issue of handgun regulations that Hilliard has worked on all year and which was presented in the Tab last week.
    Hilliard said he wanted to "explore the issue intelligently and slowly." As a former full-time staff reporter with The MetroWest Daily News and then the Brookline Tab in Massachusetts for about seven years, he knows what it takes to research and write a news story. But Hilliard is no longer a staffer. He left GateHouse in 2011 for another writing job, and now is attending Boston University to study business journalism. After he left the Tab, he started submitting editorial cartoons weekly as a stringer (it's a way to combine his love of art and journalism, he said).
    Hilliard said he knew it would be hard for a staff reporter to spend the time to pursue the gun debate as deeply as he wanted to with the "Packing Heat" project. And he knew the end product - lots and lots of text - could be hard for the reader to digest.
    "I wanted to make it so people want to read it," Hilliard said, explaining that a comic is designed to be approachable, like it's not "above" the reader. He imagines the reader thinking, "If someone can build a comic about this, then I'll be able to understand it."
    The result of many late nights of researching and drawing? A 13-page, multi-panelled brush and ink piece of comics journalism. Now what?
    "Something like this couldn't be done 15 years ago," Hilliard said. "There not enough room in the paper to do it."
    Brookline Tab editor Erin Clossey decided to include the cover page on last week's Opinion page with an editor's note referring readers to the website, Wicked Local Brookline. There, she posted a brief explainer of the project, each comic page related to it as a jpg photo and also linked as a pdf.
    Page 2 of 2 - "What is this that I'm looking at?" the explainer asked. "It's a piece of comics journalism, a newish format that tells news stories and features through the medium of comic art, which you probably associate with the stuff you read as a kid. Or yesterday. Dan Archer can better explain."
    Hilliard's project asked the question, "What does it take to carry a concealed gun in Massachusetts?" He decided to try to get a license to carry and conceal a gun himself, with the attitude of someone who is really interested and invested in doing so.
    After taking a gun license course in February and getting interviewed by his local police department in April, Hilliard was given a license in July. But not to conceal. As it turns out, his city is pretty stingy with those. Others might not be, though, and there are lots of ways to work around local and state regulations, which he found to be arbitrary and confusing.
    Despite all of the gun discussion initially after Newtown, Hilliard said he noticed people stopped talking about it by about July.
    "We have a political stalemate when it comes to guns," he said, adding that he thinks more discussion is needed, especially since the topic is so confusing. "Packing Heat" may help explain some of the basics for people who are otherwise unwilling to sort through all of the regulations and information like Hilliard did.
    As you'll see from reading the piece, it's not totally objective in the way a traditional news report is. Clossey addresses that in her explainer.
    "...Obviously, since he's creating all the images himself, he took some license with how he presented the information. In that sense, it's a little more subjective than, say, coverage of a selectmen's meeting. And you'll probably be able to detect his analysis between all the facts. But all journalism, whether written, drawn, filmed or photographed, is filtered through one person's (or a small group of people's) experience. So while it always strives to be fair and accurate, it can never be 100 percent unbiased."
    Now that he's focusing on school, Hilliard said he has to put the paintbrush away for a while. But he encourages other publications to be open to the idea of comics journalism if they're ever presented with the opportunity to work with a journalist artist.
    "Comics journalism is still journalism, even with the subjectivity in there," Hilliard said. "You have to obey the basic tenets in journalism."

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