When SARAH GLIDDEN set off for Israel in 2007 — a “birthright” tour turned personal truth-quest about the region’s history of conflict — she had absorbed such influences as Satrapi and Spiegelman, as well as French cartoonists and countless other comic artists. The style of cartoon reportage she developed, however, was utterly her own — a visual and verbal language that would put her on the map.
“Glidden has a wonderful sense of characterization, color and observation that’s well-suited for comics,” says the Portland-based cartoonist/author Matt Bors, who traveled through Afghanistan last summer for his own comics reportage. “She is on the leading edge of a new generation of nonfiction cartoonists that, I expect, will be producing major works over the next decade.”
“The book is a pretty accurate portrayal of me and the things I was thinking at that time ... ,” says Glidden, 30, who will be in town Thursday to discuss the graphic novel at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center. “I now have some distance from that character and some remove. I’m forgiving of [Sarah] as a character in the third person.”
Glidden, a gifted artist based in Brooklyn, needn’t apologize for her earnestly curious 26-year-old self — her debut is compelling not only as narrative, but also as autobiographical reportage. As she journeys to the Golan Heights and Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea, the younger Sarah — a self-described progressive determined to be critical of Israeli practices — searches single-mindedly for facts in a sea of opinions, propaganda and one-sided tour-guide accounts.
Amid it all, Glidden the storyteller exudes intimacy and warmth — both in her tube watercolors and her sometimes confessional persona. And Glidden the knowledge-seeker thinks in much the same way as she paints: forever toward the light.
“I’m a secret journalist wannabe,” Glidden says with a conspiratorial laugh.
As Glidden continues her travels in the Mideast, conducting interviews for new projects, it is becoming less and less a secret.
Glidden’s professional growth has continued with her travels to Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon — some of which provide the material for her newest comic: working title, “Stumbling Towards Damascus.” Her work is also scheduled to appear next month on Cartoon Movement, a Web site co-edited by Bors.
Her motivation for “Damascus” is telling stories that she believes absolutely must be told. “We’ve ignored this,” says the artist, who graduated from Boston University before alighting for Brooklyn. “We think now, ‘That was Bush’s war.’ But we’ve ignored the fallout. I want to look at what some news organizations have overlooked.”
In “How to Understand Israel,” Glidden’s autobiographical character admits that she relishes the disorientation of traveling to a new place. Yet she also wrestles with feelings of alienation, finding that even the preparation for her quests has an isolating effect: “Hundreds of pages [of research] later, I had alienated friends with my obsession . . . ignored important things in my life . . . and somehow knew less than when I started.”
“I think travel isolates you — going out to places you don’t belong ...,” Glidden says. “Whenever I’ve traveled, everybody’s new and people can tell you don’t belong there. ... But in Israel, everyone’s constantly reminding you that do belong there — that you can live there. They are generally welcoming toward Jewish Americans. There’s this kind of strange dichotomy where I feel isolated and yet not.”
Whether traveling in Syria or sitting over the drafting board in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, Glidden has found ways to combat feelings of separation. Friends from the journalistic and comics communities have helped, she says.
“I used to work from home, [but] on long projects it was isolating — I wouldn’t leave the house and wouldn’t see anybody besides the grocer down the street,” Glidden says. “At some point, I started looking for a studio.”
Thirsting for workplace camaraderie, she and several fellow cartoonists — all women — opened their Pizza Island studio. “It’s six of us, working 10 hours a day — it’s a pretty solid group, and we help each other,” Glidden says. The studio now houses such similarly touted comic talents as Kate Beaton (“Hark! A Vagrant”), Karen Sneider (“The Collectors”), Julia Wertz (“Drinking at the Movies” and “Fart Party”), Lisa Hanawalt (“I Want You”) and Domitille Collardey (“What Had Happened Was . . . ”).
Glidden continues to win supporters abroad, too. “I got a really good reaction from Israel — I was kind of not expecting that,” she says.
Besides overcoming the challenges of professional isolation, Glidden also fully embraces the challenges at the table itself.
“Really, anytime I came across a ‘problem’ that needed to be solved, [that] would be the most fun panel to paint,” Glidden says of illustrating “How to Understand Israel.”
“I did really enjoy the painting part of making the book most of all,” she adds. “It made me remember that I love painting in general, and special lighting situations especially.”
On Thursday, Glidden plans to discuss that process of turning travel into a comic, from the reporting to the illustration to the art of spinning it all into compelling narrative.”
“I didn’t want to spell anything out too bluntly — a lot of the book is about trying to figure out things for myself,” she says.
“People can — should — read it in their own way.”