If Erin Polgreen’s life were a comic book, her origin story would start like this: As a teenager, Polgreen, a 30-year-old Chicago-based editor, was fascinated by journalism and comic books. Her first job was at a comic book store, and later she worked for The Media Consortium, which may sound a bit like the Justice League of Superheroes, but is actually a network of journalism organizations. While there, she was asked to track trends in journalism, an industry that has lately been beset by one super villain after another in the form of declining ad dollars, shrinking circulations, and changing reader habits that threaten the world Polgreen loves.
About a year ago, Polgreen got an iPad and was flipping between at an app version of a Wonder Woman comic and Once, a now-defunct tablet magazine, when she had what she describes as an "electrifying moment": Comics and journalism on the iPad. "This is amazing!" She thought. "There’s potential here!"
Out of that eureka moment grew Symbolia, the newly-launched "tablet magazine of illustrated journalism," Polgreen developed with Joyce Rice, her creative director. Funded by a $34,000 International Women’s Media Foundation grant, Symbolia will publish illustrated non-fiction stories with multimedia elements and ample "easter eggs" to enlighten and entertain readers every other month. Subscriptions are $11.99 for the year with single issues going for $2.99 in the Apple App Store. (Android and Kindle Fire editions are in the works and a non-tablet is also available.)
The first issue opens with a note from Polgreen, who explains her magazine as follows: "We’re making the news into art." The issue contains several stories told in a variety of visual styles, including a historical and present-day overview of California’s Salton Sea written and illustrated by Susie Cagle, a collaboration between writer Lauren Sommer and illustrator Andy Warner about a Chinese microbiologist who used himself as a guinea pig for an experimental microbe-friendly diet, and a striking black and white story about journalists in Iraq written and illustrated Sarah Glidden.
"We look for stories that have global resonance so that they’re timely but not necessarily time sensitive," Polgreen told Co.Create. "Bringing fine art into the non-fiction space can be very powerful for audiences."
Much of Symbolia’s uniqueness comes from its hand-drawn look. Even though it’s read on a sleek, touchscreen tablet, it feels handmade. As Polgreen explains, "From the beginning I wanted to hark back to old pulps or zine culture… So many sort of 'future of media’ applications or news sites are designed like a bachelor’s apartment: Sterile, stainless steel, brushed chrome." Not so Symbolia: It’s impossible not to feel the hands of the illustrators on every screen, the idiosyncratic choices of real, live people in every piece published.
That begins with the animated cover of fish in the Salton Sea’s briny depths by Susie Cagle, which Rice, Symbolia’s creative director, calls her favorite element. "Her execution was beautiful."
Cagle, a 28-year-old Oakland-based journalist and illustrator, has covered topics like medical marijuana and Occupy Oakland through reporting and illustrations since graduating from Columbia Journalism School. For Symbolia, she spent three "whirlwind" days in the struggling towns on the banks of the Salton Sea, an environmentally blighted lake in Southeastern California that has stood for decades as a symbol of dashed hopes and bad stewardship. While there, Cagle conducted audio and video interviews which she then turned into illustrations that capture the feeling of the parched, desolate area in a way that writing alone might not have. "To me, I don’t find it strange telling a true story in comics," Cagle says. "It’s always been a given to me."
Cagle sees Symbolia as part of a larger journalistic movement that combines the rigors of reporting with the expressiveness of comics. "All kinds of media companies are realizing this stuff is great and popular and makes them look different," she said. "What I’m personally passionate about is breaking into traditional media and making them realize it’s important."
For Polgreen, the most important thing she sees Symbolia doing is creating an "emotional relationship" with readers. "I envision our audience as journalists and comic nerds," she said. "I really picture Symbolia as a fantastic couch read. I see them curling up with a cocktail and reading it."