Drawn Nonfiction: an Overview

Reflection is a linguistic and an imagined process, we talk about illustrated essays, cartoon journalism, visual journalism, sketching, and visual thinking

Ilya Bolotowsky's WPA mural for the Hall of Medical Sciences at the 1939 New York World's Fair

Ilya Bolotowsky’s WPA mural for the Hall of Medical Sciences at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Wikipedia. Public Domain.


Although we talk about “illustrated essays”, “cartoon journalism”, “visual journalism”, “sketching”, and “visual thinking” as though they were radically new phenomena, they are actually recent forms of practices that have existed for decades, if not centuries. European newspapers have been publishing cartoons – generally satire-opinion – since at least the 18th century, and caricatures or portraits have also commonly been used to accompany or illustrate texts. The process of “visual thinking” is familiar to all children who have gone to school: we start out representing the world in images, and only later add words to our representation. Likewise, “sketches from life” are as old as painting itself. It is true, however, that the skill of authors like Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman popularised non-fiction graphic novels on historical or current subjects in the late twentieth century. And that the various forms that mix reporting, essay, and illustration have become standard, mainstream, regular material for adult readers. As well as a fertile laboratory in which to experiment with the real.

In the guise of a reader’s guide or an invitation to explore a complex phenomenon, the following levels or fields can be seen as possible categories of drawn textual-visual nonfiction. I outline them below, without any attempt to dissertate, as a cloud of links, as reading suggestions:

Visual thinking

Reflection is both a linguistic and an imagined process. There is a connection between the human eye, brain, and hand. Visual thinking stimulates this connection and represents the development of complex cognitive processes through the hybridisation of drawing and text, in diagrams that record the design of individual or collective projects. Visual thinking techniques can be used to develop creativity and also to summarise, organise or hierarchically classify shared information. It expands towards manual or digital design, and also towards mapping, psychogeography, infography, and data visualisation. Visual thinking is an accepted representational strategy in contemporary art (from Seymour Chwast and Francis Alys to Efrén Álvarez. More recently, highly codified informational genres with great potential, such as the instruction manual, have also been reformulated in these terms. For instance, Google commissioned Scott McCloud to create a comic to explain the inner workings of the Google Chrome browser.


Court reporting has always used life drawing as one of its tools. And travel notebooks, which stretch back at least as far as the Grand Tour, combine the diary form and illustration to visually expand the genre of travel writing. Sketching has the immediacy and freshness of real-time photography, but it adds a degree of interpretation and a personal slant that is lacking in the photographic process. It can be used to experiment with formats such as reports and chronicles of events, interviews, opinion, and other genres. France has been the cultural incubator of this form with the tradition of the “carnet de voyage”, which has many active, living exponents, including the classic author Titouan Lamazou and the up-and-coming Lapin. It expands towards editorial design and animation (see Niños del holocausto and Cuentos de viejos).

Cartoon journalism

Due to their emotional links to childhood, comics are a language that is in principle easy to absorb, and can be used to explore all kinds of adult subjects without the resistance of other formats. Their length – as graphic reportage or graphic nonfiction novels – makes it possible to include the strategies of comics and also those of visual thinking, mapping, infography, photography and sketching (and to expend into animation, multimedia, and transmedia). In the wake of the mastery of individuals like Joe Sacco and of collective projects like La Revue Dessinée, the United States and France have become the two great arenas for the development of the genre (with authors like Dan Archer and Enmanuel Lepage). There is also a high level of cartoon journalism in Italy, where the genre’s most popular author, Zerocalcare, has published Kobane Calling, an extensive travel chronicle that began as a report for Internazionale. Italy is also home to the magazine Mamma!, pioneer of “giornalismo a fumetti” or graphic journalism. There is also a growing interest in cartoon journalism in Spanish speaking countries: in Colombia (where examples include projects linked to the memory of the conflict and Power Paola’s interview with Liniers, who had, in turn, interviewed Les Luthiers in comic form; in Peru (where the movement is led by Jesús Cossio and where the magazine Cometa was published in comic form); Argentina (where the most active authors are probably Julián Gorodischer in print, and the Documedia team at the Universidad de Rosario in transmedia format), and Spain (with the publication of cartoon reportages in mainstream newspapers like El País, and the release of the first journalistic graphic novel, Barcelona. Los vagabundos de la chatarra).

Autobiographical narratives

One of fields in which the language of comics has traditionally developed is biographies of famous or inspiring figures. In the eighties, Art Spiegelman expanded this option into the field of autobiography and family biography, in the framework of the narrative of trauma (in this case, the holocaust). In the 21st century, authors like Alison Bechdel have worked extensively on the issue of gender and queer culture in comic form, while others like David B. have explored the world of illness). In Spain, Miguel Gallardo has produced two works along these lines focusing on his relationship with his daughter María as well as humorous travel journals. In the field of the “selfie” or self-writing genre, these and many other works (from Craig Thompson to Guy DeLisle) take on a unique dimension given the craftsmanship and artistic nature of the language, which expresses confession and introspection in very different terms to traditional literary or audiovisual works. The enormous reach of autobiographical works that recount the transformation of the Arab world, from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis to Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, connects these first-person narratives to popular history and political opinion.

Illustrated essay

Comics have a great potential for transmitting information because they are (at least in theory) for all ages. They have traditionally been used in the fields of popular science and history. Some notable examples in recent years include works like Best of Enemies. A History of US and Middle East Relations by David B. and Jean-Pierre Filiu, to name just one of a very rich and varied selection of comic books that address all imaginable subjects, including gastronomy and climate change (an example of educational approach; and another, more sophisticated example). Just as W.G. Sebald normalised the use of photography in essay narratives and travel books at the turn of the century, Frederik Pajak has now created a new hybrid genre, in which his own texts and drawings interact smoothly, without either prevailing over the other. The comic book form is also becoming increasingly common in academic circles. Nick Sousanis published his doctoral thesis in comic form at Harvard University, for example, while the anonymous artist Una wrote the autobiographical activist essay Becoming Unbecoming in comic form. Perhaps the pioneer of the illustrated essay is Scott McCloud, who uses it to think about and explain the actual language of comics as a subtle and complex form.

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Drawn Nonfiction: an Overview