He wrote long stories about refugees in The New Yorker, and used deep-dive, text-based essays that sometimes attracted limited audiences. At the end of a long day, she said, "The idea of reading about other people's suffering is a tough sell, even for people with the best of intentions."
So he was intrigued and hopeful when Bruce Headlam, then an editor at The Times, suggested that he look at the refugee story through a visual medium, a graphic narrative. About 18 months after that initial conversation, he and illustrator Michael Sloan won a Pulitzer Prize for their graphic narrative series, "Welcome to the New World."
Comic strips have rarely appeared in the newspaper, sometimes to the chagrin of our readers. And Mr. Halpern and Mr. Sloan's Pulitzer was the Times' first win for editorial cartooning. Although the graphic novel long ago became a serious literary genre in countries such as France and Japan, in the United States, the movement's growth has been relatively slow or stagnant. But that is changing.
Recently, Book Desk hired two graphic novel and humor columnists, Hilary Chute and Ed Park, to write alternate monthly reviews of graphic fiction, organized into categories such as Black and white stories or, this month, stories with emotional absence.
"I think something really special can happen when you bring pictures and words together in a humorous way," said Book Review editor Gail Beckerman. When it comes to the kinds of difficult topics that can feel abstract in text — sometimes "just hitting the boundaries of language," as he put it — comics can make those issues feel palpably concrete. "It's an art," said Pamela Paul, editor of the Book Review. "I'm blown away by the quality of the storytelling."
While working on "Welcome to the New World," Mr. Halpern said he was pleasantly surprised by how quickly readers of different ages could move through the story — almost "very quickly," he said. Said, every hour for working hours. 20 parts of narrative are required.
Part of its reach, he said, was Mr. Sloan's "warm drawing" of the characters. Mr. Halpern noted that "the characters are bordering on humanity," highlighting the characters rather than some of the darker aspects in other graphic novels about the war.
Humor can create meaning from small moments such as pauses in conversation, nuances of facial expressions and inner turmoil. Some comics, such as Nick Dernaso's "Sabrina," which Mr. Park reviews in an upcoming column, deeply explore "the inner quality of the human mind," Mr. Beckerman said.
The textless or "silent" panels in "Welcome to the New World" indicate a family's shock that its home has been destroyed. Mother's sleepless, restless night; A child is surprised to see snow from his window. Mr Sloan said the moments were inspired by the often completely silent comics of Frans Maserel, a Flemish graphic artist. "There's this beautiful economy that happens with pictures and images when you combine them with words or the absence of words," Mr. Beckerman said.
But, the editors caution, pretty illustration isn't enough to stop the story. It has to move the story forward and work together with the text. "Sometimes, a book can be really beautiful artistically, but it's not working well with the text," Ms. Paul said. And so critics of the genre should be art critics as much as they are literary critics.
This is why the format has seen an explosion in books for children and young adults. "There's a sense that being able to tell a visual story is such a part of learning to read," said Maria Russo, children's book editor at The Times, "and many children remain visually oriented after reading words." When she interviews young readers for her column in The New York Times for Kids, a special section for the monthly print, she finds that "easily half" of children name graphic novels as their favorite books. .