From radio reporter to graphic novelist, how Brooke Gladstone became a character in ‘The Influencing Machine’
In “The Influencing Machine,” which she wrote with graphic novelist Josh Neufeld, Gladstone shares her views on the types of media bias, the effects of technology on media, and the notion that objectivity is essential for quality journalism. (It isn't, she says.)
Shaping Gladstone’s voice, creating her character
As narrator of “The Influencing Machine,” Gladstone wrote the dialogue and brief descriptions of what she wanted Neufeld to draw.
Neufeld, who is the author of “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge,” acted as a director of photography would, helping Gladstone visualize her ideas and draw connections between words and images.
Neufeld sketched five different variations of Gladstone’s avatar in hopes of finding one that matched her physical features and personality.
He encouraged Gladstone to think of herself as a character, and suggested she refer to herself in the third person when they were drafting the book.
"It helped us both to have the psychological distance we needed to have this character do whatever we needed it to do, even if it was making fun of herself," Neufeld said by phone. "In a way, the character wasn't even Brooke anymore; it was her avatar."
Neufeld said he tried to capture Gladstone’s avatar moving and talking, in large part because graphic novels work best when they have little narrative and a lot of action. The illustrations in “The Influencing Machine” tell a story on their own.
In a section about journalists’ use of political polls, for instance, Gladstone’s avatar says “Polls can swing wildly when the public doesn’t know or care much about the issue being polled.” She could have been standing up saying this. Instead, Neufeld drew her on a swing, her hair disheveled from the wind.
Tom Mayer, the book's editor at W. W. Norton, said these types of images made Gladstone’s voice and character that much more powerful.
"They show her 'talking' to the audience, and provide the 'listener' (i.e. the reader) the visuals that might ordinarily spring to mind while tuned into her show,” Mayer said via email. “The best graphic novels and nonfiction books feature an alchemical harmony between the words and the art.”
Pairing words with illustrations helped Gladstone feel as though she could draw a greater connection with her audience -- and give them a new way of experiencing her as a storyteller.
"I wanted to approximate the intimate experience of radio -- that sense of a one-to-one relationship with the listener," Gladstone said. "I thought I could get there if I spoke in bubbles and looked the reader in the eye.”
Others have also found that graphic novels allow for more creativity when it comes to developing characters that readers can relate to. Graphic novelist Brian Fies said he found this to be true when writing and illustrating “Mom’s Cancer."
"One reason my editor and I omitted a photo of me or my family from the back cover of 'Mom's Cancer' is that we were afraid seeing the 'real' characters would break the spell of readers identifying with the cartoon ones,” Fies said via email.
“In a photo, we're specific people. As cartoon abstractions, we can be anyone. I think that's why readers sometimes tell me, 'My family is nothing like yours but it's like you were sitting in our house watching us.' A good comic is like a direct tap from brain to brain."
Comics, he said, invite readers to identify with characters who are nothing more than black lines on white paper. “Charlie Brown's face is two dots and a few lines inside a circle,” he said, “but it can break your heart."
Experimenting with different ways of telling stories
“The Influencing Machine” is one of many graphic novels about real people and real events.
Others include Art Spiegelman’s “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” about a Polish Jew’s struggle to survive the Holocaust; Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” a graphic novel about a girl growing up during the Iranian revolution; and Joe Sacco’s “Safe Area Gorazde” about a cross-section of Bosniaks who are trapped in Gorazde during the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
In her book, Gladstone challenges the idea that the media is an “influencing machine” -- an external device that controls our behavior and poisons our culture. The media, she says, isn’t a machine, but a mirror.
"The media as an institution is a mirror that reflects the world. The 'ripples' in that reflection are caused by politics and technology," Gladstone said. "This book is focused on those ripples -- on historical cycles and on they way humans are wired to accept or reject information."
Neufeld said he was skeptical when Gladstone first told him about her idea for the book. But he realized early on that she had an appreciation for graphic novels and had thought a lot about how to tell the story through words and illustrations.
"I didn't see the immediate connection between using comics to talk about a lot of these things," Neufeld said. "But Brooke really pulled it off; she had a concept before I drew a single line."
Gladstone's decision to create a graphic novel with Neufeld is a reminder that just because we're used to telling stories a certain way doesn't mean we have to stick to the medium we know best. When we challenge ourselves to creatively adopt new forms of storytelling and reinvent old ones in collaboration with others, we sometimes surprise ourselves with the results.
“I wanted to see how well I could adapt the [graphic novel] form to present more abstract ideas," Gladstone said. "It was hard, at least for me -- a comics novice -- to come up with those visual ideas, but it was a thrilling enterprise. And I really think it worked."