The Big Jewcy: Sarah Glidden – Comic Artist/Writer Who Tried To Understand Israel In 60 Days (Or Less)

The key to traversing Glidden’s work is right in the title: understanding. Much of Glidden’s work to date has dealt with the relationship between the personal and the political, and her latest book is a fine example of an artist guiding her audience towards understanding a foreign experience. Read More

By / June 14, 2011
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How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Sarah Glidden’s personal take on what she saw and experienced on her Birthright trip to Israel, is a standout debut (via a major publisher, no less) from this comic artist and writer.  The key to traversing Glidden’s work is right in the title: understanding.  Much of Glidden’s work to date has dealt with the relationship between the personal and the political, and her latest book is a fine example of an artist guiding her audience towards understanding a foreign experience.

So let’s get a little background.  When did you start drawing comics?

It’s funny because in a way I started drawing cartoons and comics when I was pretty young but then I just stopped at some point and didnt pick it up again until I was 26. I was obsessed with Disney when I was little and wanted to be an animator for them more than anything else in the world and I would practice drawing their characters and my own characters and pore over books about Disney history to see how their art was made. Then my mom was able to arrange for a special tour of the Disney studios in Florida because a family member worked for MGM’s parent company. It was really exciting at first to see the studios but then I looked at all the animators hunched over their desks and the reality of a big animation house hit me: you have to draw the same thing as everyone else, over and over again. Suddenly it seemed much less appealing and I left the studio completely deflated. So while I still drew obsessively after that, I never thought of cartooning as a real career option.

I went to art school because that’s what you do when you know you want to “be an artist” but you’re not sure what that actually means. I studied graphic design, then figurative oil painting, then photography, but nothing really fit right. Then when I was a few years out of art school I started reading graphic novels and thought “wait, maybe I can do this…didn’t l used to like drawing cartoons?” I started drawing autobiographical comics every day and it just seemed like my perfect match, medium wise and it had been there all along. I ended up back where I started.

Do you remember your earliest influences?

That’s kind of a hard question to answer. You’re constantly influenced by all different sorts of art throughout your life! Do you mean like when I was growing up or when I was older and getting into making comics?

Did you go on the Birthright-Israel trip with the intention to write/draw the book How to Understand Israel in Sixty Days or Less, or was it something that came out of the trip?

I went on the trip only because I knew I was going to make a comic about it. I had only been making comics for about six months at that point. I had been making daily journal comics as a way of practicing the comics medium. Journal comics are great for learning how to tell stories because something new happens every day, but never anything really that interesting so you don’t get too precious about each comic and you can experiment with different styles and techniques. But then I started getting bored of that and felt like I was ready to try something a little longer—none of my comics had ever been longer than 8 pages but I wasn’t sure how to make the transition.

Then one day my mom and I were having some argument about Israel and she said something like “why don’t you go see it with your own eyes before you decide you know everything about the country? When I was your age I worked on a kibbutz. You could go on one of those birthright trips or something.” I had always avoided birthright but it DID seem like it could maybe be an interesting topic for a long comic. So I signed up for the next trip out of New York and bought a big sketchbook to bring with me. Beyond that I had no idea what I was doing.

You also have tackled subjects like the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in Syria and the issues they face.  How do you choose what subject you want to write/draw about?

There are a lot of things that I would love to write and draw about but until I finished the Israel book I didn’t have the time to work on anything else at all because the deadline was so tight. That short comics article on the Iraqi refugees came out of a collaboration with a group of journalists—the Common Language Project or CLP — that we had actually been planning for years. I had known that after the memoir I wanted to turn towards journalism and that the first thing I wanted to do was a book that would focus on the journalists themselves, so the idea was to shadow them as they did their work and make a comic about that. During that time I learned a lot about journalism myself, so now while I work on the book-length project on the journalists I’m also working on shorter stand-alone pieces. Some of these are taken from the reporting we did during that time, but I am also working on other stories now too.

I guess to answer your question, I choose my subjects based on a combination of what interests me the most and what’s logistically doable…but also sometimes stories come to you in ways you don’t expect. You’ll be interviewing someone for background on one story idea and they’ll just mention some guy they know who it turns out has an even more interesting story than the one you were researching. One of the most valuable lessons that I took away from my time with the journalists from the CLP was that you have to be flexible and let the story take you where it wants to go.

Do you consider yourself a political artist?

That’s another hard question! I guess I consider myself a political person in that I find politics to be infinitely fascinating and important. But I really want to avoid trying to push my own politics on readers. I hope I can keep choosing topics based on what I personally am curious about and want to explore rather than what I think other people need to know more about. I can’t lie and say that doesn’t factor into it though, especially when it comes to the piece on the Iraqi refugees. After we spent some time working on that and interviewing people I was pretty horrified about how little we hear about their situation back in the US. I was horrified about how little I had known about it myself.

If/when you tell a stranger that you draw comics, what is their usual reaction?  Are they expecting Superman and Archie?

I think we’ve gotten to a point in the past couple of years where people are much more familiar with comics and graphic novels and they seem to get it. Most people think its cool, then they ask me what my real job is: “yeah, but, like, what do you do for money?”

What’s coming up for you in the future in terms of work?

I’ll be making a full-length book on the Common Language Project and our time spent reporting out of Turkey, Northern Iraq, Lebanon and Syria as well as continuing to collaborate with those journalists on some stand-alone pieces from that material. Also I’m going to continue working on my own short comics-articles. Actually right now I’m on my way to Jerusalem where I’ll be working on three different stories in various parts of that city and the West Bank. So those will probably be the next thing you’ll see from me in the near future.