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.
Cagle’s piece about California’s Salton Sea is far more data-heavy. She provides dense captions to her illustrations, such as: “For much of the last millenium, the Salton Sea was more than 20 times larger than it was today” or “After many years of modest growth, Salton City’s population nearly quadrupled between 2000 and 2010.” Her piece includes an annotated map of the region, a spread of the different species of birds found in California’s wetlands, and a line graph of Salton Sea’s salinity over time — the water will be inhospitable to sea life within the next five years. “The 2017 deadline doesn’t seem so close until you are seaside, breathing the thick, rotting air as a haze settles over hundreds of lunching pelicans,” Cagle writes in the final caption over a drawing of Salton’s shore. Cagle’s illustrations are subtler than a traditional cartoon. Her depiction of Salton is neither eerily utopic nor nightmarish. Her drawings capture what people of Salton City look like — their simple, colorful clothes have a low-pressure, vacation-community feel, but their worried expressions suggest otherwise. She relies on quotes to capture the superficial pleasures of affordable, seaside living and uses statistics to show that life there will not continue as is for much longer.
Cagle’s piece strikes an unusual balance of wonky and personal: the graphs are hand-drawn in black ink; the captions are informative but sincere. This aesthetic is common throughout the first issue. “Reading Symbolia digitally will already be a very technically novel experience, so we wanted to incorporate a more hand-crafted feel to make it more personal,” said Joyce Rice, Symbolia’s creative director. To create this handcrafted feel, Rice chose a background texture that mimicked newsprint, a blocky font for the headlines, and watercolor splashes.