Ethiopian Boy's Journey Becomes an Interactive Comic

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is "The World". Cartoons and comics are not always fictional. Increasingly, they're used to tell real stories, serious stories. "Stowawayââ?¬  is an example of that. "Stowaway" is a comic being released this week only online. "Stowawayââ?¬  is the title. It's the story of Ethiopian boy named Fanuel and his long and harrowing journey to the United States. It was written by reporter Tori Marlan and illustrated by comics artist Josh Neufeld. Fanuel, which is not his real name, is now twenty-two years old, but when Tori Marlan first met him at a children's detention center in Chicago he was still a boy and not quite sure how old he was.

Tori Marlan: Well, he thought he was seventeen. He was actually sixteen. He was one of the few English speakers and he just struck me as someone who had gone through a lot, but really still had hope.

Mullins: He had a lot going on in his life before he arrived at the detention center here in the United States. He started off in Ethiopia which is where he is from. Can you give us an overview of his story and his journey?

Marlan: Yeah, he lived in a poor section of Addis Ababa with his mother and when he was eight years old his mother died and he lived in a park for five years, a park that had a lot of street kids in it, and he met a tourist in the park who would come with an interpreter. He took a particular interest in Fanuel, so when he said, "I know you're suffering a lot. Would you like to come live with me? I have a lovely home. South Africa's a lovely country. You can go to school," Fanuel jumped at the chance.

Mullins: And he went to Johannesburg, South Africa. Briefly what happened there?

Marlan: Very quickly things turned sour. He discovered he was not allowed to go to school. The man who took him there, Bart is his name, told him that if he left the police would arrest him because he was there illegally.

Mullins: How did he get out and where did he go next?

Marlan: The man died. His sister came to the house one day and told him that Bart had died and that he had to leave. He went to the Ethiopian restaurant, the only place he knew in Johannesburg, and sought help there and he found it in the form of a smuggling network

Mullins: He found a smuggling network which brought him where?

Marlan: From Johannesburg to Brazil, Brazil to Honduras, Honduras to Guatemala, Guatemala to Mexico City, and then he crossed into the United States by way of the Rio Grande.

Mullins: Josh, I want to bring you in now. You are a cartoonist and an illustrator. What makes a story like Fanuel's so ripe for what's called the comic's art form? I mean obviously when we think of comics or cartoons we think of something that is funny, animated. It's not funny, and I wonder how you were able to portray it in your illustrations.

Josh Neufeld: Well, my particular rubric of the comics world is non-fiction and journalistic comics and so that's something I've been focusing on for the last five, six, seven years. So this story was particularly compelling, not only because I've known Tori for twenty years and follow her work very closely, but because his story just has some inherent action and drama to it that it really lended itself to the comics form.

Mullins: This form, again, the form in which you're telling Fanuel's story is what's called in the trade an "enhanced non-fiction e-comic". Can you describe for our listeners just what that is?

Neufeld: It's a normal comic that you read panel by panel, but you can also look at it page by page or you can read it panel by panel [??], blow up each one, skim by. There's lot of embedded multimedia aspects, so at any certain point you can click on an icon and it will maybe tell you a little bit more about a scene and how Tori and I came to represent it, or it will show you a map of where Fanuel is at that moment in time, or a little animation will come up and show you the way that he traveled by plane and by bus, etc, from one spot to another.

Mullins: Give us one of those enhanced parts that maybe presented something of a challenge for you. I mean you didn't see Fanuel's mother in Ethiopia, but you have an image of his mother sick in bed; she eventually died basically wishing him well, hoping that his life is better. How did you come about an illustration like that?

Neufeld: Well, that's true. I mean that's the part that is tricky about doing comics like this and it being non-fiction because part of my job as the artist is to bring to visual reality things that we could never have seen and could only have been told to us by Fanuel and even his descriptions are often sketchy or incomplete, so there was a lot of imagination that had to go in on both of our parts in certain places. So that's why this is sort of [??] or journalism and art I would say, but we never made up any dates, we never created characters that didn't exist to make this story work better in some other level, but there was a lot of sort of [??] of imagination and deduction and a lot of visual research that went into creating a lot of these scenes.

Mullins: I wonder, in terms of the editorial research, Tori, it seems like you talked to a number of people who were involved in Fanuel's journey to the United States. They are part of this trafficking network in places such as Brazil, where he was, Guatemala, Mexico. Did you speak to any of the traffickers directly as you reported this, Tori?

Marlan: No, actually I didn't. I had no way to reach them. Fanuel didn't know names, he didn't really know much about where he was other than the name of the city. There was just no way to reach them.

Mullins: So how could you, and did you, confirm the information that he told you about his history?

Marlan: Well, I did some research to find the route. The route is actually a pretty common route, going from Johannesburg to Brazil. He'd crossed the Rio in an inner tube, that's a pretty common way of crossing, there are documented pictures of that. He told me things that were verified through other people's experiences, but I couldn't know. I certainly couldn't talk to traffickers and verify if his exact experience was exactly the way he say it, but it's his story and I wanted it to be told, everything to be filtered through his immediate experience. And this is also the story that he told to the Immigration Court and got green card for, so I think this is the story of record.

Mullins: What's happening with Fanuel now, Tori?

Marlan: He's doing great. He just moved from New York to Pennsylvanian. He is working on an associates degree in a business-related field. He is working at the same job that he's had for many years. He works at a big-box store and has been transferred, at his request, to several different cities and he has his green card. He's doing quite well.

Mullins: Thank you both of you for telling us the story of Fanuel. Tori Marlan and Josh Neufeld, thanks.

Neufeld: Thank you.

Marlan: Thank you.

Mullins: Tori Marlan is a reporter and editor based in Montreal. Josh Neufeld is an illustrator and cartoonist based in Brooklyn. He is currently a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. Their e-comic "Stowaway" comes from the online publisher The Atavist. We've got a selection of the story at