"Comics can wed different parts of a story together and really show things in ways prose can’t,” said Riva Hocherman, an editor at Metropolitan Books (an imprint of Holt), about Verax, a forthcoming work of graphic nonfiction that tackles the history of the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance of American citizens. Dan Simon, publisher of Seven Stories Press, agrees with Hocherman: he’s signed comics journalist Ted Rall to produce a graphic biography of NSA whistle-blower and international fugitive Edward Snowden. The work will recap Snowden’s life, incorporating perspectives from earlier whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and overarching issues of privacy.
These titles will arrive in the wake of a number of acclaimed nonfiction comics in recent years by such writers as war correspondent Joe Sacco (Footnotes in Gaza), science biographer Jim Ottaviani (Feynman) and Rall, whose latest project, After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan, is a mixture of prose and comics and will be published in September by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. (Rall is profiled in this issue of PW, see p. 40.)
In early spring 2014, Simon met Rall to discuss possibilities for his next book, and suggested a graphic novel on Snowden. “I think [Snowden] is arguably the great hero of our times,” Simon said. “The reason Ted is a great choice [for the project] is that he has both the political mind for what’s at stake here for our country, in terms of privacy... and then of course he’s a terrific graphic novelist.”
Simon picked up the graphic nonfiction work from Sandra Dijkstra for a five-figure advance. He will edit the book, which is tentatively scheduled to be released in fall 2015.
The Snowden bio, according to Simon, advances two parallel stories—one with episodes from Snowden’s life, and the other, the “story of the rest of us, and what we need to know.” Rall will talk to whistle-blowers like the NSA’s Thomas Drake and Daniel Ellsberg. Seven Stories also picked up foreign rights on the book and plans to tout it at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair in October. “This is obviously an international story,” noted Simon.
While the last year has seen a handful of investigative nonfiction titles tackling Snowden and the NSA, Simon believes that the graphic novel is a genre particularly suited to probe such a divisive topic. “I think [the graphic novel] is an effective way to explore the issues because there is a universal visual language which honestly can speak louder than words,” he said. “These are very contemporary issues, and this is the most contemporary medium.”
For her part, Hocherman acquired world rights to Verax—the Latin word for “truth teller,” which Snowden used as an email address—from Sam Stoloff at Frances Goldin agency earlier this year. The book will be about 220 pages, with publication slated for fall 2016.
The book is being written by Pratap Chatterjee, an investigative journalist who covers the “war on terror” (his most recent book is Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War), and will be illustrated by Khalil Bendib, author of Zahra’s Paradise (First Second), an unusual fictional graphic novel that began as webcomic and blog about an Iranian political activist incarcerated in the country’s grim prison system.
Verax will cover Snowden’s key role in revealing the extent of the NSA’s surveillance, as well the important parts in the story played by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and journalists Eric King, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald. The book, however, “is not a Snowden bio,” Hocherman said. “Snowden’s story runs throughout, but the book lays out the NSA surveillance apparatus post 9/11 at the CIA and the FBI, and also explains the technology behind it all.” Hocherman emphasized that Bendib’s drawings “will provide technical details of how the [surveillance] technology works.”
Hocherman said that Chatterjee is depicted as a character in the story, which grew out of a 2011 visit the author made to Milipol, a giant trade show for military and police arms and assorted technology held each year in Paris.
Hocherman, who also acquired Sacco’s 2010 Footnotes in Gaza and the graphic novel based on the 2008 Israeli animated film Waltz with the Bashir, noted that both Chatterjee and Bendib are fans of David Macaulay, the British illustrator known for The Way Things Work and other children’s books that offer lively, detailed, and accessible drawings that show how different technologies work.
Hocherman also acknowledged that there really wasn’t the need for another prose work about the NSA’s tactics, since a number are already exist. Verax, Hocherman said, “will be an action story set on the international scene as Snowden escapes to Russia.”