Online journalism in comic book-form coming in to its own

Before the advent of photography, illustrations were a common form of journalism. In the iPad and internet age, art and journalism are again joining forces.

A Symbolia story on stomach microbes designed for the iPad and other tablets, rich with clickable links and told in comic book-form by Lauren Sommer and Andy Warner, with interactives by Joyce Rice. Courtesy Symbolia
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Erin Polgreen is having a baby, though not of the human variety. “I feel like I’m at eight months, it’s July, I’m hot and my ankles are swollen,” the 30-year-old media consultant said during an interview earlier this month at a Chicago cafe. “I really want this thing to be in the world so I can start learning from it.”

The learning begins late next month when Symbolia, a tablet-based magazine of illustrated journalism, comes to life after months of gestation. Longevity questions linger, but as news outlets attempt to engage an increasingly fickle audience, reporting laid out in comic book-style panels has begun to gain popularity among American editors, readers and media professionals.

Polgreen, who lives in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighbourhood, runs what may be the world’s first periodical of illustrated journalism. Just down the street, a reporter and illustrator launched their own imprint, Illustrated Press, with a volume of comics reportage last month. And a few hours away at the University of Michigan, Josh Neufeld is serving a prestigious year-long fellowship, one of the first illustrated journalists to be so honoured.

“For so long I was doing my own thing in isolation,” says Neufeld, whose bestselling 2009 non-fiction work, AD: New Orleans After the Deluge, is on the summer reading list for several major universities. “Now there’s so much acceptance of comics as a legitimate form of expression.”

Illustrated journalism comes naturally to our species; the first humans drew graphic depictions of their life and times on cave walls. Aeons later, British publishers often illustrated the day's events with images. A vogue for sensationalist news and murder pamphlets – filled with woodcut depictions of disasters and accused criminals – gripped Great Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. And by the mid-19th century the Weekly Chronicle and The Illustrated London News were depicting many events primarily with drawings.

With the arrival of photography, newspapers moved away from the hand-drawn image, though the editorial cartoon remained popular. In the late 19th and early 20th century, comic strips began to appear in North American dailies and quickly gained a vast readership. These led to comic books, which used many of the same storytelling devices and relayed the exploits of fictional superheroes like Superman and Spider-Man.

In the late 1960s, Joe Kubert, a comics artist, collaborated with the journalist Robin Moore on a comic strip rooted in the latter’s time spent training with US special forces and covering the Vietnam War. Published in the Chicago Tribune and in syndication, Tales of the Green Beret was among the earliest examples of contemporary comics journalism.

Decades later, Joe Sacco dispatched powerful, finely reported comics from conflict zones all over the world. Palestine, his 2001 book with a foreword from Edward Said, is visceral, almost cinematic, and widely regarded as a landmark for the genre. Still going strong, Sacco put out two new books this June: a collection called, simply, Journalism, and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a look at post-Occupy America.

In the months since, comics journalism has been everywhere: the liberal website ran a three-part comics journalism series on education; The Tampa Bay Times ran a two-page graphics spread of what it dubbed the "Greatest Night in Baseball"; and online magazine The Atavist published its first work of comics journalism, written by Chicago journalist Tori Marlan and illustrated by Neufeld.

Though among the leaders in his field, Neufeld admits that when he started his Knight-Wallace Fellowship, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in September, he had some doubts. “One thing I was worried about was if the other journalists would look at me as a fraud or a joke,” he says, referring to the other fellows. “But that hasn’t been the case.”

American officials don’t seem to doubt his legitimacy either. In late 2009, Neufeld was contacted by the US State Department and invited on a diplomatic visit to Myanmar the following March. Months later he joined another trip, stopping this time in Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. “My handlers were always very clear that they had no designs on controlling what I said or who I talked to,” says Neufeld. “But they definitely did do that in Bahrain.”

Neufeld still met two 20-year-old Bahraini comic artists, Sara and Mohammed. Returning home, he stayed in touch with them and, as protests roiled Manama last year, he watched Mohammed side with the opposition and Sara with the government.Neufeld created an illustrated story about his Bahraini friends, which ran on in December.

Now Bahrain’s so-called Pearl Movement is the focus of his fellowship. He’s taking courses on the Quran and on US foreign policy in the Middle East and considering a return to the Middle East next year. Matt Bors edited Neufeld’s Bahrain story in his post as comics journalism editor at Cartoon Movement and is not surprised by the medium’s rise.

“I think that graphics and comics are more widely read and shared in the social networking world that the internet has become,” he says. “Also, outlets are looking for content that’s engaging, and are finding that people like this stuff. I think it’s at kind of a tipping point now, where it’s taken more seriously and not just a novelty.” Darryl Holliday’s tipping point arrived last summer while he was an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times. The 26-year-old read a small blurb in the paper about weddings at the county jail. “I wanted to cover it but I didn’t think it would make a good print story,” says Holliday, who then thought of his friend Erik Nelson Rodriguez, an illustrator. “I love comics, so I asked Erik and we did it.”

Their story, Wedlock: Love and Marriage in the Cook County Jail, ran a year ago in a local online publication. Inspired by the positive response, Holliday and Rodriguez launched their own publishing house. Its first book, The Illustrated Press: Chicago, came out last month. The slim volume showcases a handful of stories by the duo, including a deeply personal narrative of a South Side neighbourhood, an insightful chat with two recent college grads about tuition loan debt, and a story about a wedding at the Cook County jail.

The seriousness of their stories underscore the potential heft of this medium – an important shift for a form that has long been associated with flimsy, fictional comic strips. That association raises another issue: the question of accuracy.

Polgreen has been an editor and mentored media outlets for years, yet has never drawn a comic, created an app or reported the news herself. She sees Symbolia as a chance to expand her skills, test her wisdom and legitimise a new form. “The opportunity to put all of the advice that I had been giving other organisations into play was so enticing and terrifying,” she says.

She aims to ensure the veracity of Symbolia stories by requiring each contributor to submit audio files of interviews and contact information for sources. She expects to attract eyeballs with the hottest technology and the trendiest format. “The tablet marketplace is one of the only emerging marketplaces where users expect to pay,” says Polgreen. “Comics offer this incredibly unique opportunity, it shares like wildfire, on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and engages readers in a way that doesn’t happen with text or audio alone.”

That engagement potential helped Polgreen win US$34,000 (Dh124,885) in grants from the International Women’s Media Foundation and from J-Lab at American University to start her publication. To fill the first issue she posted an online call for story ideas and received 80 pitches. She accepted articles on psychedelic rock in Zambia and a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, among others.

The standout is Susie Cagle’s story on the plight of southern California’s Salton Sea. Two dozen vibrant, colourful pages distil a complex subject with a roller-coaster history into a compelling narrative with vivid characters and a cloudy future.

Symbolia’s overall feel, for which Polgreen credits her creative director Joyce Rice, is comfortable and old school, with watercolours and a thick font. Upon its release, the magazine will be available on iPad, the Web and PDF. Each issue has a theme, with the first focused on a fitting topic: How We Survive. For media outlets new and old, sustaining operations beyond the next news cycle is a constant concern. Holliday and Rodriguez, for example, funded Illustrated Press via a small grant and the crowd-funding website Kickstarter.

“This work can’t be funded just by advertisements and subscriptions,” says Holliday. This month, Bors launched a Kickstarter proposal to attract funding to publish a collection of his editorial cartoons. He believes the next big hurdle for comics journalists is gaining broader acceptance within the industry. “Every outlet has staffers that are writers, but you don’t have that with cartoonists,” he points out.

That may be changing. Early this month, Grist, a smart environmental news publication, hired Cagle as a full-time staff writer and illustrator. She’s expected to illustrate the day’s events as often as possible.

Over at Symbolia, Polgreen pays her contributors a modest rate and hopes to offer them profit-sharing down the line.

Yet she realises the iPad is no panacea. One of her favourite digital magazines, a much-lauded photojournalism monthly called Once, recently shut down after a year in business.

Polgreen envisions the news of the future as richer and more appealing, and believes illustrated journalism and technology are the best way forward. But about the secret to sustainability or how long it might take to get there, she's less sure. "I don't know the answer to these questions, but like any entrepreneur, I believe in my vision," she says. "I'm trying to be smart with the money I've got to give myself a really long runway."

David Lepeska is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, Financial Times and Monocle, and previously served as The National's Qatar correspondent. He lives in Chicago.