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.”
Erin Polgreen, the founding editor and publisher of Symbolia, doesn’t make comics. She just happens to love them. “When I was 13 or 14, I used to keep quarters in a pinch jar to buy comics with,” Polgreen said. She is the former managing director of the Media Consortium and a consultant on audience engagement. “She had been talking a lot about graphic journalism over the years and knows more about it than anyone,” said Glidden. “She’s kind of our cheerleader.” In 2011, Polgreen founded the website Graphic Ladies, a kind of group calling card for women in comics. She has organized graphic journalism panels for South by Southwest and the Online News Association.
“I knew for awhile I wanted to do something with comics and then I got my first iPad and had this light-bulb moment — comics look great on an iPad,” said Polgreen. She was able to start Symbolia through grants from the McCormick’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs Initiative and the International Women’s Media Foundation. The grants have allowed her to hire fact checkers and compensate her contributors. (The pay range for a piece is between $200 and $800; rights revert back to the “creator” —Polgreen’s preferred term — two months after publication.) Polgreen has said that at least 50 percent of contributors for each issue will be women. “The lack of women is an ongoing issue in both the journo and comics world, and this is a way to address it,” said Polgreen. She often orchestrates collaborations between illustrators and journalists.
While graphic journalism is a nascent field, Polgreen believes that its audience is already out there. “We’re trying to reach a younger demographic who might be intimidated by 5,000 words of text,” she said. “If you think about our ideal audience like a Venn diagram, I envision it as a mix of obsessive readers of comic books, technophiles, and journalists.”
Not all of the pieces in Symbolia are straight-journalism. Glidden’s piece about Sulaymaniyah, Iraq’s comparatively peaceful northernmost region, is more of a road diary than an article. Glidden visits Freedom Park, with its Ferris wheel and roller-skating rink, and draws teenagers pulling flips off the ramps. In 1988, Sadam Hussein’s cousin ordered a poison gas attack in Halabja, a city in Sulaymaniyah. Glidden replicates a mural composed of 8,830 shards of glass — one for each person killed during the gassing. The comic, with its ominous grayscale palette, underscores the fact that peace in Sulaymaniyah is as fragile as ever.