Symbolia invents new visual language for comics journalism

Dec. 10, 2012 | 1:19 p.m.
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Symbolia is an iPad magazine that uses comics and illustration to present journalism. The magazine launched Monday. (Symbolia)

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The first issue of the new iPad magazine Symbolia includes a story about a rock 'n' roll movement in Zambia in the 1970s. (Symbolia)

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The new iPad magazine Symbolia uses comics and illustration to present journalism. (Symbolia)

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The first issue of the new iPad magazine Symbolia includes a story about the microbes inside the human body. (Symbolia)

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The first issue of the new iPad magazine Symbolia includes a story about the deteriorating condition of the Salton Sea, a lake along the San Andreas Fault in the Coachella Valley. (Symbolia)

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The new iPad magazine Symbolia uses comics and illustration to present journalism. (Symbolia)

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Illustrations of Symbolia's cofounders Erin Polgreen, left, and Joyce Rice. (Symbolia)

America’s first magazine exclusively for comics journalism is made of pixels, not ink.

Symbolia, a magazine for the iPad, launched on Monday. The stories inside the first issue (theme: “How We Survive”) are fully reported and fact-checked works of nonfiction, the publication’s founders say – but are told not through words, but images.

The first issue contains stories on a rock ‘n’ roll movement in Zambia in the 1970s, the microbes inside the human body and the deteriorating condition of the Salton Sea, a lake along the San Andreas Fault in the Coachella Valley – presented through a combination of comic strips, water colors and diagrams.

Symbolia’s founders chose comics because sketches can go where cameras cannot, they said in an explanatory comic. Art is often easier to understand than text. And the magazine will strengthen the bond between the words of journalism and comics, which have begun to get closer.

Symbolia has two hard-and-fast rules: Women will create half the content in every issue. And all contributors will be paid for their work.

“Cool things on the Internet are expected to be free,” co-founder Erin Polgreen said in an interview. “Quality products cost.”

Polgreen worked in journalism for nearly a decade before launching Symbolia. Her resume includes a stint at Media Consortium, where she helped news organizations integrate new types of content – much of it digital – into their newsrooms.

Illustrations of Symbolia's cofounders Erin Polgreen, left, and Joyce Rice. (Symbolia)

Illustrations of Symbolia’s cofounders Erin Polgreen, left, and Joyce Rice. (Symbolia)

Polgreen and her co-founder Joyce Rice hope Symbolia will appeal to journalists, technology geeks and comic book fans. Many Web-only comics make money through a combination of advertising and merchandise revenue, Polgreen said, and offer their work across a variety of platforms.

“If we can capture even a quarter of that community, Symbolia will thrive,” Polgreen said.

To become profitable, Symbolia needs a base of 3,000 yearly subscribers, each paying $11.99. (Individual issues cost $2.99.) They are also considering membership and merchandising opportunities.

Supporting work done by women was one of Symbolia’s founding principles, Polgreen said. An annual survey conducted by VIDA, an advocacy group for women in publishing, found that most mainstream magazines had about 75% of their content written by men.  That number is even higher in the comics industry, Polgreen said.

(Symbolia)

(Symbolia)

An avid comic book fan herself, she objected to the work released from some mainstream comic book labels, targeted specifically toward female readers. Some comics felt “like ‘Sex and the City for superheroes.”

“Work like that – it’s not fun,” Polgreen said. “It feels like tokenism. There’s a lot of institutional stagnation that needs to end.”

The magazine has a staff of two, and depends on freelancers. A $20,000 grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation and $14,000 more from the McCormick’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs Initiative allowed them to pay freelancers and hire fact-checkers.

Ethics at the magazine are the same as in any written medium, Polgreen said. Every work of journalism is a product of the reporter’s background, experiences and point of view. Those personal qualities in each piece, though, are “less apparent in text than in images.”

“There’s a feeling that our work is not necessarily truthful, and that’s something we have to fight against,” Polgreen said. “This just adds a layer of emotional transparency.”

– Laura J. Nelson
@Laura_Nelson

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