Earlier this week, the graphic narrative “Welcome to the New World” won The New York Times a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, representing the first Pulitzer of its kind. In the twenty-part series, we follow the story of Syrian brothers Jamil and Ammar as they and their families make their way to the United States and what happens once they arrive. It’s a perspective on life in America and on Americans from a vantage point we are rarely afforded.
“Welcome to the New World” is based off of interviews journalist Jake Halpern conducted throughout 2016 with two Syrian families who sought refuge from the devastating war and humanitarian crisis in Syria. Illustrator Michael Sloan turned these interviews into a cartoon which appeared in the Times Sunday Review.
Halpern wrote more about the graphic novel on his website:
My goal was to find a family that was still in the Middle East. I wanted to be there on the very day that they arrived in the United States. With the help of a refugee resettlement agency, I found — two brothers — who were arriving on Election Day with their families. So, on the evening of November 8th, instead of going to an election party, I hung out in a parking lot, waiting for the families to arrive. I was part of the team that welcomed them to America. When they arrived, they were dazed, overwhelmed, ebullient, and also a little sad — because they had to leave several of their family members behind in Jordan. Then, the next day, Donald Trump won the election. In effect, the family landed in one country, and woke up the next morning in another. My series, entitled “Welcome to the New World,” follows their ongoing lives in America.
The Times isn’t exactly known for its comics. In fact, it is perhaps known for its distinct lack of them. Times editor, Bruce Headlam, talked about this in an article he wrote about how the graphic novel came into existence back in May 2017.
Given The Times’s history, or lack of history, with comic strips, I wasn’t optimistic. (Jules Feiffer wrote that when he was a kid, the absence of comics made the Times “a total loss.”) To my surprise, the editors and art director here embraced the idea. – Bruce Headlam, New York Times, 5/12/17
In Headlam’s article, he discusses the difficulty of creating and editing comics. Something BEAT readers will likely know all too well, was a new process for the editor and his team. Here’s what he says about the process:
None of us had ever worked on a comic strip before. But Jake, who is also a writer of popular young adult novels (his latest, “Edgeland,” written with a co-author, Peter Kujawinski, was just published) and Michael, who had done illustrations for The Times, were very good at putting complicated stories into strong, sharply drawn narrative form.
Editing the strip turned out to be a fascinating, sometimes frustrating experience in visual storytelling. I’d grown up on comic books — Stan Lee pretty much taught me to read — but I hadn’t realized just how concentrated the form is. The average Opinion piece is about 1,000 words. “Welcome to the New World” typically has fewer than 200. — Bruce Headlam, New York Times, 5/12/17
It’s encouraging to see this work recognized and applauded. In a time where refugees and immigrants are often denied their humanity and agency, this piece from the Times seeks to give some of it back. It demonstrates the unique art form that is comics and the power it has to communicate and transcend personal and political boundaries. The story of Jamil and Ammar is a deeply human one. It’s the story of what we will do to survive and provide for our loved ones and how simple acts of love and kindness can see us through even the most difficult times.
The Pulitzer Prizes are awarded yearly to honor excellence in journalism and the arts. You can view the complete list of this year’s winners and video of the announcement here.
Image credits: Michael Sloan and Jake Halpern for The New York Times.