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The Arc of a Life – in a Graphic Novel

How do you tell the story of 5,000-some inmates who will spend their entire lives in Pennsylvania prisons, with no chance for parole, because they are convicted of murder?

Tom Ferrick, founder and senior editor of Metropolis, an independent news startup in Philadelphia, sought an enterprising way.

“The Ballad of Red Dog” captures the narrative arc and delivers an emotional tug of the story of Haywood Fennell, now 60, a model prisoner who’s been in jail since 1968 for a murder committed when he was 17.

And it’s all done in seven panels of illustration by Jacob Lambert, whose work occasionally appears in Mad Magazine.

The Ballad of Red Dog, as Fennell is called, is a graphic novel (or at least a non-fiction short story) published yesterday as the cover story in The City Paper and last month on Ferrick’s site. J-Lab funded it with a $5,000 Enterprise Reporting Award from the William Penn Foundation.

“I was interested in the narrative arc of the story of what happens to a lifer when … they realize they’re never going to get out of here,” Ferrick said, referring to Fennell’s current abode, Graterford Prison.

Distilling Fennell’s story to its essence entailed hours of interviewing, tracking down the prosecutors, and searching for documents by Ferrick, who sharpened his journalistic chops as a respected reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer (where I used to work).

And it included five hours of interviews at the crowded, pre-cast concrete, barbed-wire facility where Fennell will likely die.  Pennsylvania is one of several states that have life sentences without parole.

“For years, I have been reading or writing stories about young men – sometimes in their late teens or early 20’s – who end up being sentenced to life in prison for murder, usually over some trivial matter – a fight over a girlfriend, an insult to their manhood, or in Red Dog’s case, a petty robbery, that went awry,” Ferrick wrote in his blog.

But he was less interested in the crimes than in the life passages of these prisoners as they go from being macho young men playing basketball and lifting weights, to middle-aged inmates to prison elders.  “How does that shape their behavior?” Ferrick asked.

Ferrick reached out to Bill DiMascio, head of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, who gave Ferrick the names of three lifers to profile.  DiMascio visits these prisoners and is known to ask:  How much punishment is enough?

As with any story, it got more complicated as Ferrick dove into the records and found a moment in 1992 when Fennell might have gotten parole for being an accomplice, and not the actual do-er. So he returned to interview Fennell some more.

Illustrator Jacob accompanied Ferrick for the first interview at Graterford, a two-and-a-half-hour session.  “I think Jacob did a wonderful job.  He captured Red Dog’s look.”

And the report succeeded in its goal: to tell a story in a new narrative way.


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