Esquire Interview on “The Warren Commission Report”

Here’s the full text of the interview I did with Esquire.com, from which selections were taken to accompany the article and book excerpt they published about the Warren Report comic book documentary:

  1. What about the Warren Commission in particular lends itself to being told as a comic?

Let me answer with the general before the specific. When Ernie Colón was interviewed about his work on the comics adaptation of the 9/11 Report, he was asked about the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, and his answer has almost become a mantra for me: When we do comics, we’re in the business of clarifying.

The distinction between simplifying and clarifying is hugely important. Comics have a great capacity to bring light and understanding in a way that dense prose can’t always do—and it’s hard to get denser than the Warren Report. Images have the power to fix important details in the readers’ minds and allow them to see the relationships between those details more clearly. When the facts are in dispute, as they are in the case of the Kennedy assassination and the findings of the official investigation, being able to hold on to that clarity and those relationships is even more crucial.

Comics also have the wonderful quality of letting us move seamlessly through time and space and from one point of view to another, which helped us a great deal, because any review of the Warren Report needs to cover a wide range of locations and viewpoints.

  1. What in your opinion is the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel? Or are they the same and you just dislike the term “graphic novel”?

Except in the extreme and unlikely case where someone might call a 20-page superhero comic a “novel,” there’s probably no difference at all. But there are a couple of reasons I’m not comfortable with the term “graphic novel”: it can be wrongly understood to refer to fiction alone or to content that’s “graphic” in the sexual sense; and in grasping after the respectability of the “novel,” it seems to me to overemphasize text and underplay the importance of visual storytelling.

On the other hand, one cartoonist friend responded to my rant on this topic by saying that when he made comics he was poor, but when he started doing graphic novels he got paid. If it must be done, I can’t think of a more valid reason to change the name.

But I’m happy to describe The Warren Commission Report as a comic book documentary.

  1. What was it like working with Ernie to put this together? How did you decide what to focus on and how best to render such a dense report visually?

Looking back, I think I was startlingly overconfident about how easily all the pieces would come together. The challenges weren’t so much in determining the broad sweep of what would be covered as in figuring out how deep into the weeds we needed to get. When was it enough to lay out the basics of a particular dispute over the evidence—showing an event as it would have appeared under one interpretation and then under the other—and when did we need to really delve into the argumentation, which would require finding oral testimony so we could show a person talking (in order to make the narrative as “comic book-y” as possible)? And when do we put an end to the otherwise endless theorizing? Is it absolutely necessary to give credence to the people who think that Jacqueline Kennedy had her husband murdered?

Even when we pared things down to what must be told and what can be implied or set aside, I had to rely on all my experience using the techniques of visual storytelling through comics (because a writer of comics who doesn’t draw them still needs to think visually and find the best ways to convey the information). But here’s where Ernie’s experience in nonfiction comics was so incredibly valuable. Starting with The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, he’s honed a particular narrative style that I was able to learn from and collaborate on. Ernie has committed himself to being a good reporter: witnessing without intruding; staying clear of attention-grabbing perspectives and angles that might overdramatize a scene that ought to be allowed to speak for itself. His art very literally stays on the level.

That approach forced me to be an honest broker of the facts…not that that wasn’t my intention to begin with. An odd thing about comics is that the medium is full of constraints—the size of the page, the amount of visual information it can contain, the limited space available for text—but learning to work within those constraints can be liberating; it focuses you on what can be done and what must be done. Here, Ernie’s reportorial style placed limits on what I could do, but kept me securely on the right path.

Ernie said to me one time that once we have enough experience making comics, we can throw off our constraints and apply our disciplines; and of course, “constraint” and “discipline” come close to describing the very same thing, the difference being intention. With the application of discipline, there was always a means of finding the core of what we were reporting, no matter how complicated, and rendering it visually.

  1. Were there any aspects of the Commission Report that you felt the comic renderings were able to clarify particularly well?

One of my favorite sequences in our book features two double-page spreads that are laid out very similarly, and in fact contain some identical images, but which represent very different understandings of the assassination. Both spreads cover the few seconds after the shots are fired, but the first shows witnesses who believed they heard shots or saw a gunman at the Texas School Book Depository, while the second focuses on those who were certain the shots came from the notorious grassy knoll. In so strongly echoing each other visually while telling opposing narratives, these pages demonstrate how close the two “alternate realities” are to each other, how easy it would be to find yourself a resident of either one, and how radically your understanding of the whole event is altered depending on which side of the veil you stand on.

One way or another, that’s a strategy we deploy many times—replaying a scene with greater depth or from a different point of view, but calling back visual cues or aural ones (like the sound effect of a rifle shot) to remind readers that what they’re seeing is both different and the same. And that goes to one of the key things we wanted to accomplish with the book, which was not only to indicate what the Warren Report said and what the report’s critics have said, but how and why the argument has persisted for half a century.

I was also very pleased that one gamble we took paid off in a big way. This grew out of a central narrative dilemma: It wouldn’t be very illuminating to the readers if we showed the events of the assassination—a confusing jumble of sights and sounds experienced from a variety of perspectives over the course of just a few seconds—and then didn’t try to make sense of those events. On the other hand, we didn’t want, and comics don’t support very well, endless captions full of longwinded explanation; anyone who wants longwinded can just go to the original Warren Report. So what we did instead was collapse the time between November 22, 1963 and the time that witnesses and participants gave testimony or had conversations or wrote diary entries about that day, and we turned that testimony into word balloons. For example, when we show Secret Service agent Clint Hill pushing Mrs. Kennedy back into the limo, he tells us in a couple of balloons what he saw and what he believed it meant.

We were a little concerned that readers would struggle with this combination of present action and future recollection if we weren’t careful with how we presented it. But I think it worked out very well, and that readers will benefit from the way we used the unique qualities of comics to bridge the gap between event and interpretation.

  1. Were there any aspects of the report that gave you a lot of trouble?

Besides staying awake while reading it?

I’m only half joking: the original report is dense, dry, and anything but transparent. The writers also seem to have adopted the strategy that piling on words, whether they’re particularly relevant or not, would make the effort seem more authoritative. We couldn’t let ourselves fall into that trap.

More seriously, it was tough to figure out how to handle the gory parts that are at the center of this whole story. When does a graphic medium become too graphic? Even though I had to look again and again at frame 313 of the Zapruder film, the one that shows blood and brain matter exploding from the president’s skull, did I want to subject the readers to that? Ernie—as a visual thinker—argued in favor of more gore, for not shying away from the violent reality; so there are a couple of pages where that’s more in evidence than I was initially comfortable with, though it falls well short of shocking or grotesque. I think that’s a good thing.

Beyond that, there was the challenge we always face in comics: how to find for each panel the single image that can stand as the representative of all the others we’re not showing, a task made more difficult in a story so dependent on split-second timing, the precise location of bodies, and minute differences in the interpretation of physical evidence.

We were also tested somewhat by a section of the book that doesn’t directly reflect what’s in the report at all. Although our book is emphatically not about presenting our own whodunit theory of the case, it does level some serious criticisms at the Warren Commission, which, even if one argues that they did get the main facts right, made serious and consequential mistakes that have haunted the last fifty years of American history. In an email with my editor, I could state the cultural-political-historical case for the commission’s failings pretty succinctly; but turning a political science critique into a visual narrative did not come easily.

  1. What’s next? Would you like to take on more historical events/texts in comic form?

A part of me wants to escape back to the fantasy adventures I built most of my career on—and where, as a I like to say, the only thing that has to be true is the characters’ emotions—but I also feel like I’ve been bitten by the nonfiction bug. I’m already well into the research for a project that deals with the space program and the Apollo missions; and I’ve been mulling over how I might approach the eventful year of 1968, perhaps through the personal stories of everyday people as well as those who made headlines.

And after that, maybe I can finally be done with the 1960s.

  1. What would you say the ‘mission statement’ of the graphic investigation of the Warren Commission is, if it’s possible to put the aim of this book into a sentence or two?

The major goals of our book are to show how the different interpretations of the events surrounding Kennedy’s death arose and why the disagreements about the facts persist; to illuminate the times in which the assassination occurred and which were the context for compiling the official narrative; and to explore the influence of the Warren Report on the years and decades that followed. Whether we lived through those times or not, we’re all living with the consequences of how the Warren Commission conducted itself.

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