Tuesday, December 19, 2023

A death row comic book origin story

Last year, I spent several weeks shadowing investigator Sara Baldwin as she tried to save a man from execution. Bernard Belcher had killed a young woman named Jennifer Embry; despite deep remorse for his actions, he couldn't explain why he did it. 

Baldwin's goal was to unearth his life story, looking for material that would persuade a jury to choose mercy. Her job title is "mitigation specialist," but I started calling her a "mercy worker," seeing in her profession a set of lessons for how to build a less punitive country. 

And it really is work. I watched her knock on doors for days. But eventually it paid off, when Belcher's parents revealed episodes of bloody violence that formed their son's earliest memories. 

It made me think of the origin stories you see these days in movies and TV shows: flashbacks to the tragic, trauma-soaked childhoods of superheroes, antiheroes and villains. So I was primed for an editor's proposal that we turn this journalism into a comic. 
A color illustration of Sarah Baldwin, a White woman wearing glasses, sitting across from Bernard Belcher, a Black man wearing a prison uniform, in a prison. Baldwin is holding a notebook and taking notes as Belcher speaks.

The Mercy Workers, Illustrated

We enlisted illustrator Jackie Roche to create a version for News Inside, a free Marshall Project publication that circulates behind bars. Many incarcerated readers experienced traumas like the ones in this story, but they also tend to have lower rates of literacy, and visual storytelling can make our reporting more accessible to them. 

"The way the text is presented in small sections can be helpful to readers who struggle with long texts," Roche told me. A comic can also grab new readers outside prison, when they're "standing in line on their lunch break," and "filling in the moments between the panels with their imagination," Roche added.
A series of three versions of the same image showing the process of drawing a comic panel, the first being a loose sketch, the second a pencil drawing, and the third a full color digital image. The comic panel depicts a White woman and man visiting a doorstep and making a phone call. Text reads "As a journalist, I wanted to see this process in action, and asked to tag along. Baldwin and I spent long days driving around New York and Florida, looking for people from Belcher's past. Many people wanted nothing to do with her." A speech bubble from someone on the other end of the phone call reads "I don't want my name out there."
I got into journalism because I love writing and can endlessly tinker with a sentence, and so I found it difficult to condense my 8,000-word story to around 40 panels. But the process helped me see how Belcher's sense of his own trauma was defined by key visual scenes in his own mind. 

Roche based her drawings on photos and videos I'd gathered while reporting over months in New York and Florida, making color choices that help you keep track of the courtroom and prison (greens, grays, browns). She sets moments from the 1970s in black and white — except for the blood, which remains starkly red on the page, just as it had in people's memories. 

As I wrote, I was thinking about movies and TV, but Roche's panels of the courtroom bring to mind theater: Belcher's life hangs in the balance as two sides compete for the sympathy of an audience of jurors. One side will win and one will lose. Seeing it rendered so starkly underscores the limits of these legal rituals for helping both victims and perpetrators find healing and reparation. 

And so I find myself hoping these images might inspire people behind bars to draw images from their own childhoods, which in turn might help them understand their past actions and even visualize a future where they're happy, healed and thriving.

"The Mercy Workers: Illustrated" is out now; thank you for taking a look.
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