Usually, Campbell Robertson, as a thirty-one-year-old theater reporter for The New York Times, writes articles on Broadway and the actors and shows that populate it. But recently the paper dispatched him to North Carolina, where he used the traditional tools of a newspaper journalism—pens and a camera—to untraditional ends. Campbell produced “Primary Pen & Ink,” three twelve-panel reported comic strips illustrating (literally!) the lives, concerns, and decisions of Tarheel voters as Clinton, Obama, and their surrogates crossed the state in anticipation of the May 6 primary. Robertson’s work focused on Asheville, Whiteville, and Raleigh through an engaging and relatable blend of travelogue, ethnography, and pulse-taking. CJR spoke with Robertson about his rules for journalistic cartooning, the challenges of representation in an unfamiliar form, and how the series came to be.
Clint Hendler: What do you like to call these? Cartoons?
Campbell Robertson: I don’t even know myself, frankly. I don’t have any problem calling them comic strips or cartoons. I think the whole graphic novel thing can get a bit pretentious.
CH: Especially when it’s not a novel. You’re doing non-fiction.
CR: Right. I mean, it’s a comic strip, I guess. The only problem is, when I explain to people who might end up in the strip what I’m doing, and I use the words “comic strip,” I don’t want them to get the feeling that the idea is to be funny. Because it’s straight journalism, it’s just in a cartoon format.
CH: How does that conversation usually go?
CR: Well, I introduce myself, and we start talking. I have a camera with me, and I’ll talk to them, take their picture from several different angles. As I’m taking their picture, I’ll explain, look, I’m a staff reporter, but I’m also an artist, and an illustrator, and I’m doing a graphic representation of my reporting on the campaign trail, so I’ll include what you said to me, as well as an illustration of you. And that’s why I’m taking your photograph right now. And generally, they think that’s very odd, and they’re kind of curious. And sometimes, I’ll get their email or their phone, and I’ll call them back to say, again, “I just want to make sure you understand what this is.”
Obviously, the limitation of this form is that you can only portray people who you are sitting right in front of, and you have to portray them as you are talking to you. It’s the same standards as journalism. But you can’t do any work on the phone. And you can’t go back to somebody and put them back in a place where they weren’t. I take that pretty seriously. You have to put them where they were when they said whatever it is what they said.
CH: So if, for example, Professor Issa, from your Raleigh strip, when he’s cooking up some meat on the grill, that’s actually where you were when you were interviewing him?
CR: That’s where I was when I was interviewing him. And then he went to a picnic table, and that’s where he was when he said the thing in the third panel of that strip.
CH: So what about the panel when you are at that event, and you sort of just have all those talk bubbles over a field of people just chatting. Are those just snippets you heard over the course of an evening?
CR: That’s a good question. Those are snippets I heard over the course of an hour or so. I took a lot of pictures of the general party atmosphere and I took one of those photographs and did that sort of picture to give a sense of the party, and I took snippets of the quotes I heard around that same time, careful not to imply that the quotes were being matched with anybody I was picturing.
CH: That visual cue makes a lot of sense: the talk-bubble isn’t going to anyone’s mouth, so therefore it’s not necessarily coming from anyone in the panel. But that’s not something that your average Times reader that’s not the vernacular. Do they really get what you’re saying, as you’re making this up as you’re going along?
CR: It’s true! But I think people can understand the visual cues quite quickly, even if they’re not huge comic heads. I think the visual language is a little more general than people may realize.
CH: You did actually go to one Bill Clinton event. But I’m not even sure if you draw him, do you?
CR: No. And that was actually on purpose, because I didn’t want people to think of it as caricatures.
CH: Because everyone knows what Bill Clinton looks like.