NPR's Brooke Gladstone Deconstructs the INFLUENCING MACHINE

Brooke Gladstone is a name familiar to regular listeners of National Public Radio. As host and managing editor of the WNYC series On the Media, Gladstone has become one of the foremost journalists in exploring the changing face of the media, and coverage of current events. This year, she ventured into new territory with the nonfiction graphic novel The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media from W.W. Norton.

Photo Credit:

Christine Butler

In the graphic novel, which has already been hailed as one of the year’s best comics by several critics, Gladstone teams with cartoonist Josh Neufeld (A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge) to speak directly to the reader as she takes us through the entire history of media, looking at how information is disseminated, how facts are distorted, and what the future is likely to hold. Told in a breezy, easy-to-follow style, it takes a potentially dry subject matter and makes a book that’s both entertaining and thought-provoking.

We got on the phone with Gladstone for a two-part interview about The Influencing Machine. In this first part, Gladstone talks about why she wanted to tell this story as a comic, the challenges of getting her cartoon alter ego right, and how she tried to adapt her radio style to the page.

Newsarama: Brooke, this book sort of reminded me of Scott McCloud meets Marshall McLuhan…

Brooke Gladstone: (laughs) Well, Scott McCloud had everything to do with it. Without Scott McCloud, I never would have had the confidence to do it. Understanding Comics showed me that it was possible to do a non-narrative non-fiction treatment of complicated ideas.

 He did have the leg up of dealing with visual ideas, but still – it was non-sequential, non-chronological, he jumped back and forth in time, and he helps the viewer through it by being present.

Because I’m a radio person and radio’s such an intimate medium, I thought that I would be able to help guide the reader in the same way, and make a direct connection that I couldn’t do in any other form.

Nrama: Did you initially think of doing this as prose? 

 

Gladstone: Nope. (laughs) The deal is I get so many books in my office about the media, and they tend to fall into two categories. They’re either “We’re on the verge of civilization’s collapse” or “We’re on the brink of a glorious cyber-utopia.” And I steer between those two shoals.

I build my argument on a bunch of small historical moments, and I wanted to do it visually so that they’d be stickier, because it’s an argument that I anticipated people might, you know, be likely to poo-poo.

And oddly enough, two years ago this book would have been a much harder sell than I think it would be now – I think that graphic treatment of everything has moved squarely into the mainstream.

But it’s still different, because most graphic fiction – even the greatest stuff, the historic stuff, the Maus-s and the Persepolis-s and the Fun Home-s and Joe Sacco’s war comics, and Josh’s A.D., they’re telling stories, they’re chronologies. And I wasn’t doing a chronology. I hop back and forth through time with every idea.

Nrama: There’s only a few nonfiction graphic novels I can think of that have done the non-chronological thing, now that I think about it…stuff that uses vignettes, and that’s mostly autobiographical stuff like Jeffrey Brown’s work or David Small’s Stitches, and those still have a consistent idea all the way through.

Gladstone: Mmm-hmm. And those books – Stitches is a classic memoir, it’s profound, but it’s a story, it’s a tale. And mine is an argument. 

 

Nrama: One thing you talk about in the back of the book is your collaboration with Josh, and I gathered that while there’s a casual, conversational feel to the book I got the sense that it is much more heavily scripted than it might initially appear.

Gladstone: Well, you know, Josh told me right from the start that anyone who really knows graphic novels knows. When I first came to him with this idea, I gave him a few notes, saying, “I don’t want to crowd your creativity. And he went, “No, no, no – I can’t read your mind. You have to tell me exactly what you want.”

So at that point I started writing 200-word descriptions for a panel that might have eight words of text (laughs), along with links to the Internet for the sort of things I had in mind. And he would make panels out of these incredibly dense screenplays. It was like he was the very experienced director of photography for a newbie writer-director.

If you looked at the script, there is far more description than text by several orders of magnitude. There were lots of times he had to instruct me in the art of the possible. He’d go, “No, Brooke, you can’t put the entire Crimean War in one panel that takes up a sixth of the page. We can do a splash page, or you can have one horse and a fallen rider, or you can have a series of images, but you can’t have it all in one panel.” That kind of thing.

There’s a lot of times I would say, “Here’s a picture of Hogarth – I want something like that, only he’s reading these newspapers.” That kind of thing. And he was forced to draw every single era – from the dawn of the written word to 2045.

And I would send him links to all these period costumes that people had to be dressed in. He had to depict all kinds of silliness, and had to depict many, many panels of mayhem in the war sections. 

 

Nrama: It’s a pretty visual book for what could be a monologue – there’s a point where you recreate Dante’s Inferno, and you’re floating among the doomed souls…

Gladstone: I was so delighted with that! I got Josh an etching to work from, and I said to have all these different reporters from different eras. We both loved that particular panel so much that he gave it to me as a present. It was a big stretch for both of us in different ways.

Nrama: What was the process of getting “Cartoon Brooke” down?

Gladstone: Well, that was one thing that Scott McCloud taught me, and I’m sure Josh already knew it – the fewer details you put into a face, the more you can relate to it. So we did a very, very simple image, and Josh sort of despaired at one point that I had no eyebrows, so he made my glasses eyebrows, and they sort of angle down and angle up depending on the expression on “Brooke’s” face. He did a lot with very few lines.

In a way, it’s very easy to dress me in my standard outfit, because I have 20 black dresses, l the same, which is pretty much all I wear. (laughs) Beyond that, it was just making sure that, you know, there was some familiar face to help people deal with a lot of history, and a lot of speculation, and a lot of opinionating, and a lot of commentary.

Nrama: You’ve said it was about a two-year process to do this book. Were there any changes, or evolution in the story, as this process went on? 

 

Gladstone: Yeah! There was. The section that I call “Visual Narrative Bias,” where I am Saddam’s statue getting toppled, there was subsequent information in a New Yorker article about what happened that day, when the Saddam statue was toppled by the Marines in Firdos Square, and basically, I had to rewrite all the bubbles.

We kept the same art, but we changed some insignia, the characters changed, Josh had to tweak a few things, and I had to rewrite it, but still set everything in more or less the same space, because we were very close to the end.

And there was another case where Josh had to change a picture a bit. It’s when I use a cartoon from the New York Post, and they were afraid there might be some copyright issues, so they had to change it more, and Josh put me in that cartoon. (laughs)

Nrama: One thing about listening to you on the radio is how many current radio shows combine the effects of classic radio – creating visuals in your head – through more modern techniques of editing and media, such as combining different interviews, older recordings, that sort of thing.

What I’m wondering is – what similarities have you found in doing radio vs. a graphic novel, and what have you taken back from the experience of doing a comic in your radio work? 

 

Gladstone: First of all, I took back a huge amount in terms of the graphic – I wouldn’t say “novel,” but at least graphic nonfiction. I did so much research for it that a lot of it has gone back into the program already.

But in terms of what I was able to adapt to it from the radio program – first, the sense of intimacy, and also, the rhythm. There is a rhythm in comics writing and in radio writing, and you really need to “hear” it – the use of the silent panel, or how I use a lot of ellipses in my scripts as a radio person, and I use a lot of ellipses to indicate pauses throughout the comic for the same reason.

I want people to “hear” the book avatar saying things in a particular way – the little snatches of information, the dependent clauses. The rhythm is probably the thing that carries over the most.

 

The other thing is that some panels use the environment the way I use ambient sound when I’m doing a piece. Of course there are places where we do what we call “but cut” in radio, where one person answers another, then answers another – in a lot of radio reports, they’ll have a reporter, then a tape cut, then a reporter, then a tape cut, and in my interviews,

I like to stack those tape cuts up. In fact, there’s one place in the book where I have a Washington Post editor saying something, then cut to Michael Kinsley saying “Can he also bend forks with his mind?” right after. That is exactly, directly from an On the Media piece, exactly as it appeared on the radio.

It was so satisfying to see a lot of the same aesthetic choices translated into the visual, because that’s a pretty easy translation. The hard part was coming up with particular images to convey certain aspects of ideas. You’ll notice there’s about a dozen pages in the book where I just wrote text, because it seemed like imposing imagery on it felt artificial.

Next: Our interview concludes as Gladstone talks about her favorite graphic novels and what she’s learned from doing The Influencing Machine.

The Influencing Machine is in stores now.

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