In the first issue of Symbolia, a publication that launches on the iPad today, you’ll find a dispatch from Iraqi Kurdistan, a profile of a Zambian psychedelic rock band, and an article about environmental devastation in California’s Salton Sea.
All of these stories are told with comics. There are strip-style comics, like the ones you devoured growing up (or perhaps more recently), as well as exquisite watercolors, digital illustrations, and informative diagrams. Symbolia’s first issue, “How We Survive,” combines the rugged hand-drawn texture of a 90’s zine with the investigative vigor and left-leaning politics of Mother Jones. But unlike other vehicles of longform journalism, Symbolia has embraced digital technology from its beginning. It will eventually be available on all tablet devices, but it will never be in print. The digital format isn’t just an afterthought, as it is for many new prose publications. It is crucial to Symbolia’s method of telling stories. The pieces are often accompanied by ambient sounds, spot animations, and other interactive elements.
Symbolia is the first U.S. publication dedicated exclusively to “comics journalism.” While serious graphic novels — like Maus or Persepolis — have proven that comics can handle difficult subjects, serious nonfiction comics are still rare. Perhaps the best-known graphic journalist is Joe Sacco, who has reported from Bosnia and Palestine and published his work in Harper’s and The Guardian. “It’s a small field because it hasn’t been around in its current incarnation for too long. Give it some time. Let some of these cartoonists build on their work,” said Sacco.
Most graphic journalists, including Sacco, have a similar career trajectory: they graduated from a traditional journalism school into a bad job market and fell back on their drawing skills. “I was trying to think of something that could really shine on the web,” said Susie Cagle, a Symbolia contributor who studied magazine journalism as a graduate student at Columbia. Cagle, who gained a following last spring for her spot illustrations of Occupy Oakland. Cagle says that the reporting process for a cartoon is, more or less, the same as it is for an in-depth article. “I take a lot of video on my phone because I prefer drawing from moving images to still images,” said Cagle. “But I do a lot of audio recording either way.” But the editing process is quite different — or ought to be. “With comics, the editing has to happen much earlier in the process,” said Cagle. “I’ll submit my initial thumbnail as an outline, but it’s hard to take changes after that.” Cagle said that this can be hard to communicate to editors accustomed to overhauling a written draft and receiving a revision within a few days — or even hours.
At The New Yorker, all cartoons are fact-checked. If a Shetland pony lacks the requisite shaggy mane, a fact checker will instruct the artist to draw until the mare’s hair is appropriately thick. This isn’t something most readers are aware of. (I happen to be a fact checker at The New Yorker.) There’s no visual language of cartoons that communicates realism — a bubble isn’t necessarily equivalent to quotation marks. “There’s still a hurdle to get over with many editors in explaining that this work is true and accurate,” said Matt Bors, who is the comics journalism editor at Cartoon Movement, a website for both fiction and nonfiction cartoons.
Bors, Sacco, and other comics journalists insist that drawing is an ideal medium for serious nonfiction, even if editors are still reluctant. “Photos have great power, but photos of horrible things can be almost unbearable. Drawings have a built in filter,” said Sacco. “When I was in Afghanistan and Haiti I would ask people if I could interview and draw them, and once someone grasped what I was doing, they were very at ease with being in a comic. If you put a camera in someone’s face they are going to behave in a different way than if you simply sit there and talk to them while sketching,” said Bors. “A prose piece about Iraqi refugees would be to depressing for my friends to read, but something drawn will make them take a look,” said Sarah Glidden, a Symbolia contributor. “It’s like a good trick.”