By Danica Davidson
Investigative journalist Tori Marlan is working on a book about 16-year-old Ethiopian orphan Fanuel, who experienced human trafficking and smuggling while trying to make it to the U.S. In the meantime, she’s hooked up with graphic novelist Josh Neufeld (A.D. New Orleans) to make an enhanced e-comic about part of Fanuel’s story. Published at Atavist, the 43-page e-comic “Stowaway” includes special extras for more understanding of the story, including maps, timelines and videos. It’s available both through the Atavist mobile app or online via a web browser. MTV Geek caught up with Marlan and Neufeld to get more details.
MTV Geek: How did all this get started?
Tori Marlan: I had an idea for a nonfiction graphic novel and I discussed it with Josh because he’s a good friend and that’s what he does. Josh called me up and said he’d been in contact with the Atavist people and what did I think about turning a section of my book into a standalone story?
Geek: How long have you two known each other?
Josh Neufeld: Oh, gosh . . .
Marlan: Early 90s.
Neufeld: Since we were babies!
Geek: Tori, if you hadn’t known Josh, do you think you would have thought to turn this into a comic?
Marlan: Probably not, because Josh introduced me to this world. I’ve followed his career for 20-some years and was inspired when he ventured into comics journalism. I’m not sure I would have been familiar with graphic novels if not for Josh. I’ve been reading them for a while now.
Geek: Why do you think comics make a good format for the story?
Marlan: It’s an inherently dramatic story and I think comics pull you in and let you experience it personally. It’s a very intimate form.
Geek: Do you meet a lot of kids with similar stories to Fanuel’s?
Marlan: I did. The life Fanuel led in Ethiopia was hard, but I think it’s not unusual. There are thousands of kids every year who come across our borders in similar situations. Once they’re apprehended they get sent to one of approximately 40 detention centers for unaccompanied minors who are awaiting immigration proceedings. I spent a year in the Chicago center. A lot of the kids there were alone in the world, like Fanuel, but there were also many who had family in the U.S. that they were trying to get to.
Geek: Why did you pick this particular kid to profile?
Marlan: Fanuel was one of the kids I met while at the center and he stuck out. He struck me as an unusually bright, smart kid, and he spoke English very well. He’d clearly suffered a lot but he was interested in what I was doing and saw the value in his story being told. He wanted people to know what kids go through in our immigration system.
Geek: How did you two collaborate on it?
Marlan: I wrote the script and I would give Josh drafts of it for feedback because I’d never written a script like this before. My background is in print journalism. When we got the script in shape to where Josh felt he wanted to draw it, we sent it to the editor.
Neufeld: It’s important to mention that both of our spouses were really helpful in helping us shape this thing. Neil is a screenwriter and video game writer and my wife Sari [Wilson] is a fiction writer and a video game writer as well. Both of them have a really good sense of how to structure stories, so they came in at different times and gave us advice.
Geek: Josh, did you meet the people you were drawing?
Neufeld: No, that was one thing that wasn’t able to happen. Tori was able to send me photos of Fanuel, who’s on-screen 90% of the time. But everyone else in this story is either dead or wouldn’t want to be photographed because they’re doing illegal activities. We had to go on what Fanuel described.
Geek: Can you talk about the special features you have for readers?
Neufeld: I like to think of them as DVD extras. As you’re reading through the story, there are various prompts of things like conversations between Tori and myself about our creative process, research, etc. There are also maps of each relevant area as Fanuel is going through his odyssey from Ethiopia to South Africa, to South America and up to the United States. And of course there’s the musical soundtrack and the ambient sound effects. There’s also a five-minute video at the end that’s a nice conversation between me and Tori that goes into the background of the piece and shows some of the stages of development: the script, some of my thumbnails, and pencils and inks.
It’s fun to do something like this and to be on the cutting edge, but we also both feel compelled to tell stories like this and raise awareness. When you use comics to do it, you’re probably reaching an audience that has never read this kind of story in comics form. There are also people who do read comics who may have never thought about issues like unaccompanied minors and these detention centers.
Marlan: There’s a lot about immigration in the public debate, but kids who come alone aren’t usually the image people have when they think of illegal immigrants. And I think it’s worth paying more attention to their issues. For example, immigration judges don’t have to consider what’s in the best interest of kids in immigration court, and there’s no automatic right or guarantee for these children to have attorneys. That’s unlike any other part of our legal system. In family court, kids are guaranteed attorneys. In juvenile court, kids are guaranteed attorneys. This isn’t something that comes across in the Atavist story–it’s in the book–but you certainly get a sense of Fanuel’s struggles. He was a domestic servant in South Africa and then wound up in the hands of an underground smuggling network that sent him on a long and dangerous journey. So I would like to see this story raise some awareness about these things, and I think that by rendering the story visually we’re broadening the audience for it.
Neufeld: [Fanuel] agreed to having his story told this way, after being told by Tori and having a tour of graphic novels at a bookstore. I feel that a story like this is so intimate, and you see what he’s been through, and he’s just 16-years-old. This story deals with the issue of human trafficking.
Marlan: For people interested in social issues, this has a lot of entry points.