The Serco story… short-circuited

As the Global Mail folded around them, the talented team of Wallman, Olle, Armstrong, Bungey and Grant produced a major work of comics journalism artistry in record time. Pat Grant recounts the experience and the piece’s significance. Illustrations by Sam Wallman

This unusual piece of comics journalism was the last piece the Global Mail published on its final day of operation on February 18, 2014.


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In early January, the word had got out that funding for the Global Mail had been pulled and our team – Sam Wallman, Nick Olle, Pat Armstrong, Sam Bungey and me – were scrambling to get the comic finished while the organisation was collapsing around us. Designer Pat Armstrong got it in the can on a Friday afternoon, the tech guys sent it live and then everyone left the office with their cardboard boxes and pot plants.

By the end of the weekend the comic had gone viral.

Where had it started? A few months earlier I’d had a call from Armstrong, who told me the Global Mail was looking for a cartoonist to work on a web comic project. The story was about the conditions inside Serco detention centres. I had long been a fan of the Global Mail. I particularly liked what they were doing with design and data visualisation, so I went in fora meeting in the office up at the fancy end of town.

The Global Mail office felt like a retooled lawyers’ chambers filled with second-hand furniture. We drank mugs of tea, and Nick Olle and Sam Bungey told us about their story. Olle had an informant who was a staff member at an essential services company called Serco – the sort of company that governments and other big organisations might use to outsource their human rights abuses. Olle had a transcript of the interview. The informant had had a terrible time working there and had seen some terrible things.

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There was a lot of interesting stuff in the interview but it was difficult to see the ‘news’ story. The transcript was a long string of confronting anecdotes collected over several years of employment at Serco. Some parts of the account were truly horrific. One example was a story about an asylum seeker with a mouth full of broken glass. Another was a story about a kid deliberately cutting his head open on the way home from school. But we’ve heard stories like this before.

After much discussion we decided what was compelling about this story were the less dramatic elements. What seemed to have affected this Serco worker was the sum total of many small, seemingly insignificant events: the way staff members were trained to restrain people in the induction session or the offhand comments a colleague might make about the “hanging points” in the rooms. The takeaway from the interview wasn’t just the shock and awe response to the mouthful of broken glass; rather, it was the cumulative effect of so many smaller, quieter anecdotes. Together they created an uncomfortable picture of the operational culture in the Serco facilities. That was the story.

The transcript created this dreadful feeling of leaden mass building in your guts and we had to figure out how to present the information in a way that did justice to our informant’s experience. This is why the story needed a cartoonist: we all felt that visual language might do a better job than verbal language.

I have been a fan of Sam Wallman since I first came across one of his zines in 2006. At a glance his drawings depict characters in a familiar style reminiscent of The Simpsons, but then you look a little closer and his subject matter smacks you right in the mouth. The stuff Wallman likes to draw is confronting, complex and always political. He is intensely interested in leading us toward the fascinating fringe lands of any public debate, be it gay marriage, gentrification or asylum seekers, and he has a better handle on visual metaphor than anyone I have ever met. Earlier in 2012, I had seen his collaboration with Senthorun Raj on a story about queer asylum seekers called “Gay Enough” ( I knew he was the guy to draw the Serco story.

serco (4)After years of writing and making comics, I’ve come to realise the truths that comics best communicate are affective truths – those things we know because we can feel them with our bodies: in the prickle of the hairs on our spine, or the clenching of our bowels or the aching of our bunions. In comics journalism we can present truths using the tools of traditional journalism such as quotes, facts, anecdotes and photography, but there is also an opportunity to present a more fleshy fieldwork encounter through the act of drawing.
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A great example from the Serco piece is the scene in which the informant is part of a role-play during a staff training session. The informant volunteers to play the asylum seeker and the rest of his colleagues have to “restrain” him. The result is that our informant has a chance to step into the shoes of a Serco detainee. It is one of many moments in the informant’s testimony where he describes a kind of embodied empathy with the asylum seekers.

These are the moments in which Wallman’s drawings really work. It is one thing to run one’s eyes over the words on a page that describes the scene, but an entirely different experience to run one’s eyes over an outrageous clump of tangled flesh rendered in ink lines. I am particularly enamoured with the drawing of the informant’s colleagues smiling to each other as they squash him. There’s something about the expressions on their faces that speaks to the truth and complexity of the piece as a whole. I’m not100 per cent sure what that something is. That’s the trick about drawn stories – you often can’t find the right words to describe exactly what you are reading and feeling.

serco (3)I have heard the Australian cartoonist Nicki Greenberg describe how she must make a face to draw a face. She literally has to smile down at the page before she can create a smiley expression or frown to draw a frowny one. She’s not the only one. We all do it. It makes for an interesting spectacle when you’re trying to draw on the train or in a cafe. In many respects cartooning is built upon this fleshy kind of empathy. Cartoonists have to inhabit our subject matter before we undertake the little performance of drawing. This fleshy empathy is what Wallman brought to the Serco story. The informant’s experience is not another nasty story presented in typeset words rolling off the endless newsfeed of similar nasty stories. Instead, these experiences sit there on the screen, inviting us to pore over them. The drawings get under our skin.

I can’t describe the development of the Serco story without talking about the importance of visual design process. Olle’s transcript was redrafted with comics in mind and pruned back into something similar to a film script. It showed the copy with loose suggestions for possible drawings in italics. This was sent to Wallman and drawn up into a rough thumbnail draft, which was then sent back to be edited.

The editing process was interesting. Over the years, I have learned that the best way to edit a comic is to draw all over it. That January I had just bought a fancy new gadget called a cintiq: a screen that you can draw on with a plastic stylus. So I sent the second draft back to Sam covered in digital scribbles. This is important. The trick with visual language is to avoid the temptation to translate it back to verbal language. A good comic is an expression of visual thinking, not just a set of illustrations of someone else’s copy.

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The draft made a few trips back and forth between the journalists, Olle and Bungey, and our designer, Armstrong. Then we passed it over to Wallman, who spent several weeks making the finished art. Like all the best cartoonists, he uses old-fashioned materials, just basic pen and paper. It was a prodigious effort to get the job done in the time we had allotted. The same amount of art would have taken me about 12 months but I think Wallman had it done in less than six weeks.

Once the drawings were done, Armstrong took over with the design. In film-making they often say a film project is three movies: the one you write, the one you shoot and the one you edit. This project was a bit like that. The transcript needed to be redrafted into a story, the story into a set of drawings and then there was a lot of important story crafting that went on in the post-production phase. A comic is a bit like a map the reader must wander through. If it’s not carefully designed, the reader can get a bit lost or confused. The clarity and pacing of this piece was really dependent on the amount of space in between the images, the positioning of the drawings and the colour of the lines, as well as the arrangement of text elements. Lots of on-screen drawing was used at this stage of editing as well.

By far the most powerful and elegant scene is the closing sequence. I believe this scene is the major reason for the story’s popularity. In the story, the informant has left his job at Serco. Some time passes and by chance he comes across two of the asylum seekers he knew in the shopping mall. They had finally been emancipated from the Serco system.

This sequence emerged from an anecdote that wasn’t in the original interview, nor was it in our original script. Olle picked up this little gem on a follow-up interview. Wallman uses a visual callback here – an echoing composition that refers to an earlier encounter the informant had had with those characters on the inside. In earlier drafts this sequence had a narration to go with it, but we made a big change in the last day before the project went live. We started pruning back the verbal content of the story and in this final scene we removed the narration completely and let Wallman’s amazing ink carry the payload of this haunting – and strangely hopeful – conclusion.

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Even though it was released during the collapse of an important independent news outlet, the Serco story was a great success for the Global Mail and particularly for Sam Wallman and Nick Olle. The comic got 65,000 likes, and has been shared almost 190,000 times on Facebook and more than 4000times on Twitter, plus the story pulled in more traffic than the Global Mail would usually get in a month, with 77,000 visits on Facebook over the first weekend. And, of course, the team has been nominated for a Walkley Award.

My hope is that this story might be a call to action for traffic-hungry Australian news outlets. There are a lot of long-form cartoonists in Australia with the expertise in visual storytelling to produce work like this. Audiences want visual stories and comics are relatively cheap to produce. I don’t see the Serco story as an unusual piece of Australian journalism. I see it as a harbinger of things to come.

Pat Grant is a cartoonist, writer, teacher and a wharfie. His graphic novel, Blue, won an Aurealis, a Ledger and was listed as one of the 10 great graphic novels of 2012 by Salon;