Print Issues
Destler Dodge

The story is always a concept; it is always composed of abstract bits and pieces of information, ideas and facts. It is never the story itself which completely dictates the reception the public will have of it. Rather, it is presentation. It is breaking the binds of the concept to weave a work of art based around the concept of the story. In a sense, all narratives — whether they are journalistic, biographical, entertainment or scientific — are works of concept art. And, much like good art, storytelling is at its most candid, engaging and enthralling when it shatters the traditional conventions of its own medium, creating a story gift-wrapped in a unique, compelling package.

In the world of journalism, there is a tense tightrope to walk between creatively interpreting a story while remaining true to the sources and disrespecting the severity of a story by diving too deeply into artistic liberty. In this world, which is constantly evolving and experimenting with new forms of telling stories, few stylistic choices are as hotly debated as that of comic journalism, exemplified by the 2014 attack on France's Charlie Hebdo Magazine office. That is, hard news stories adapted into comic book and cartoon format run the risk of falling into the realms of simple satire, such as Charlie Hebdo.

While satire is certainly a valid way of approaching news, it was through Joe Sacco, whose 1996 graphic novel "Palestine" documents life on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that the framework of a groundbreaking new approach to journalism was laid, shattering the expectation of comic journalism being simply political satire. Following the opening of the floodgates by Sacco's form of reporting came a masterful pushing of the boundaries of what both journalism and the graphic novel can do on a powerful, social level, embodied in works like Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" (2000) and Josh Neufeld's "A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge" (2009).

"I think that comics have a particular power when it comes to portraying certain types of events, giving them a certain sense of immediacy or intimacy that other forms of reporting may not be able to," Neufeld said. "With a story like 'A.D.,' I saw the potential to use comics to bring people right into the experiences of people on the ground during Hurricane Katrina."

"A.D." follows the lives of seven residents of New Orleans from different walks of life in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, during the storm and through the devastation it left behind — all presented in very simple yet elegant illustrations reminiscent of classic newspaper "funnies," including cartoon renderings of the storm itself captured by satellite images. "A.D." screams the beauty of simplicity, featuring little to no back story. The vast majority of the written portion is composed solely of dialogue obtained through interviews with the subjects, a format extremely similar to traditional superhero comics. However, while the expectation is that works like "A.D." would generally be consumed by those already reading comics based on form alone, Neufeld argues that the exact opposite is true.

"I've noticed that a lot of people that read traditional comics, your sort of typical fanboy or fangirl who read comics for fictional or fantastic stories of superheroes, horror or science-fiction, those kinds of people tend to not be as interested in the kind of work I try to do," Neufeld said. "I often find that people who are more serious consumers of news, who read magazines and books and watch documentaries, are more engaged in news stories and non-fiction. They open their mind to different forms of media more willingly."

Looking at critical reception of "A.D.," it seems that the world of journalism and "serious news" agrees with this statement. Neufeld is the first comic journalist ever to win the University of Michigan's prestigious Knight-Wallace Fellowship. In addition, The New York Times, perhaps the most decisive outlet for judgment of journalistic integrity, raves in a massive deconstruction of the path of "A.D." from a web series to a serial in Smith Magazine to a print book about the power of the graphic depiction of Hurricane Katrina. Los Angeles Times' Geoff Boucher, in addition, said that calling "A.D." simply a comic book is "a bit like calling 'Schindler's List' a talkie."

We see here an overwhelming acceptance of a new form of journalism. Though it's in its infancy, in the pages of "A.D." there is an undeniable power, an engagement missing from so many different coverages of Hurricane Katrina — a feat that Neufeld describes as his sole ambition in setting out on this project.

"When you have someone like Joe Sacco, who really popularized this form of journalism — I saw what he was doing from the beginning, and that is using comics to change people's view of what comics can be. People often confuse the medium with the message," Neufeld said. "When you look back at 'Maus,' Art Spiegelman's story of his father's survival of The Holocaust, that was really horrifying for a lot of people, that something so serious, so terrifying was being presented in this format. But every person who did that was striking a blow to what the message of what works like that can do. If someone was to say to me that they felt like my work was unfair to the sources, I would say they must not have really been paying attention to what they just read. All of this is real. I don't change quotes, I don't make stuff up or falsify events. This is real journalism."

Neufeld's work represents a beautiful addition to the blooming field of journalism that both thrives and faces frightful change in the age of the internet. Journalism is a field where the story, the concept the art is built around, is rarely malleable. In a sense, the story a journalist works with is akin to a scientific theory. It is solid, based in fact, research and cross-checked information; however, it is also always based in perspective, able to be contested by others in the field with differing research.

Thus, the concept of a scientific theory is, much like journalism, open to interpretation. And, again like journalism, a theory can always be granted the liberty of an artistic packaging.

Enter RIT's own Astro Dance, a collaboration between Director of the RIT/NTID Dance Company Thomas Warfield and Manuela Campanelli, a professor in the School of Mathematical Sciences and program faculty in the Astrophysical Sciences and Technology in the School of Physics and Astronomy. Astro Dance is the incredibly unlikely marriage between astrophysics, computer generated effects and dance.

"I saw a simulation of black holes merging, and I just thought 'My gosh, they look like dancing! What is that?' because at the time I didn't even know what it was," Warfield said. "So then I went to a science and arts conference in New York City and I was just blown away by all of these things people were doing. It was mostly music and theater combined with some kind of science, there was nobody doing any kind of dance thing. So I thought I could do some kind of dance thing."

Warfield went on to discuss the birth of Astro Dance through a common bond he found between Campanelli and himself.

"I told the director of the College of Science that I really wanted to do some kind of dance thing that merged with science, and he set me up with Manuela, who is an astrophysicist," Warfield said. "So I went down to her office and told her about this idea I had. I didn't even know what the idea was at the time, I just knew I wanted to do something with this black-holes-merging idea. And her reaction was just...with scientists there's often this difficulty to see things in a creative, artistic way. But she told me this story about how when she was a little girl she always wanted to be a ballerina, and I think that's a thought that, even when she went to school for science and became a professor, it was always a thought in the back of her mind. So when I came to her with this idea, she just thought it was the greatest thing in the world, because it maybe resolved something for her."

Astro Dance went on to tour across the East Coast, receiving a grant from the National the Science Foundation. The idea is as simple as it is endlessly unique: a narrator provides a bit of background information about what the audience is about to see as light displays and dancers, half of which are RIT students and the other half NTID students, perform a choreography that abstractly portrays the scientific processes of theories such as the aforementioned merging of black holes and gravitational waves. Warfield explained that this presentation is a way of elegantly merging two very different schools of thought in a manner proposing that perhaps they aren't very different at all.

"There's a lot of talk about the left and right brain, the logical mind and the creative mind," Warfield said. "But I think its all one brain, that creativity has to be blended with science, that when someone is handed just the platter of information, it can be very bland. So what we found when we did these performances is that the artistic minds were now drawn to these scientific theories, and could walk away from one of our performances with a bit of knowledge, since it's presented in a way they can approach and understand. Meanwhile, those people who are more logical-minded, who would generally have no interest in dance and theater, were now coming to see these shows and embracing it. It was just really amazing to hear what these people would say, that they really wanted to know more about astrophysics, how the stars collided."

While the works of Warfield and Neufeld are essentially universes apart, their basic principles are astoundingly similar. That is, to present stories in a manner that is as engaging as it is provocative. But what of the often overlooked, more conventional arts of storytelling whose full potentials are rarely given much consideration?

Professor William Finewood of RIT's College of Imaging Arts and Sciences has taught a course on pop-up books since 2003. While the pop-up book is a staple of children's literature, it is also a relatively forgotten form of art, and an extremely small amount of people ever take critical consideration of these books.

"A lot of these books are for children," Finewood said, "but we also have nature books, graphic novels, art books and all other different forms that pop-up books take."

Finewood presented a large, hardcover book adorned with a "Star Wars" logo. Inside, the true complexity of these works becomes apparent, with each page featuring multiple pop ups of the Sarlacc, Chewbacca and every other "Star Wars" character, vehicle and setting, all in exquisite detail.

"This one right here would take about three weeks from concept to finished project," Finewood said, pointing to a small pop-up of the Millennium Falcon in the bottom right corner of a page.

While the "Star Wars" book is essentially a solely visual experience, other works show the potential of pop-ups to tell a story.

"This is Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' as a graphic novel," Finewood said, flipping through the book as elevated faces of horror fly off the page to accompany the dialogue boxes. "It really has a way of animating the story and making it a more engaging experience."

This parallels Neufeld's work, which in turn parallels Warfield's work. They are astoundingly, starkly and objectively different, yet they all feature a common bond: they present the concept of the story by means that shun tradition. While tradition has brought us many of our classics of literature and art, it is experimentation that has birthed the truly groundbreaking pieces of artwork. All stories are concepts, and it is through these marvelous, sometimes subtle and sometimes blindingly brash interpretations that their nature can truly shine.