Symbolia. First issue free. Subsequent individual issues $1.99. Annual subscription $11.99. Available as an iPad app or pdf; other devices to come. See web site for details.
Comics first gained respectability as art, then as storytelling, and more recently as comics journalism. Joe Sacco's celebrated Safe Area Goradze, for example, showed how comics journalism could deliver powerful portrait of life during wartime. Published in 2001, Safe Area Goradze was the product of a pre-ebook age, the sort of printed work that you might buy as a deluxe hardbound edition and display on a shelf. A decade later, comics journalists are increasingly giving up paper and going digital.
A new example of this new genre is Symbolia, a magazine that released its first issue this week. It's been generating a good deal of buzz, with write-ups in venues like the Columbia Journalism Review, Poynter, and Publisher's Weekly. I decided to check it out and discovered a creation that was fit for reviewing at Download the Universe. That's because three out of the five stories in the first edition are about science.
--In "Secret Species in the Congo," Audrey Quinn recounts some of the research of Melanie Stiassny, who studies African river fish. Stiassny discovered a way in which populations could become isolated in the rivers and evolve into separate species.
--"Sea Change" is the story of the Salton Sea, a giant body of water in California that's been dying from pollution. Susie Cagle explores how its decline affects humans and animals alike.
--"Live Long, Die Quick" profiles Zhao Liping, a microbiologist who is investigating how changing people's diet may be able to change the species of microbes in their bodies, and thereby help them lose weight.
All three pieces display some fresh thinking about how to tell a story about science. In "Secret Species," the written narrative is complemented with well-chosen excerpts from an interview with Stiassny. They work together to tell the story, rather than pulling it apart. Clean, deceptively simple artwork illustrate her work on allopatric speciation, the splitting of species through geographic isolation. (Textbook app developers, take note!)
There's animation in Symbolia, but it's thankfully relaxed rather than overwhelming. On one page of "Live Long, Die Quick," all the artwork is static, except for a big inset picture of bacteria, which slowly squirm with life. Interactive maps show you the geography of both the Salton Sea and your inner ecology. And the writing's good, too. The text of these pieces is tight, and it's also grounded in a solid understanding of the underlying science.
My only objection--and it's one that probably says more about me than Symbolia--is that I felt it all ended quickly. "Live Long, Die Quick," for example, is four screens of pictures and text. I suspect this is a conscious decision on the part of the Symbolia staff. Founding editor and publisher Erin Polgreen told CJR, “We’re trying to reach a younger demographic who might be intimidated by 5,000 words of text. 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.”
I actually don't think any members of that Venn Diagram would be scared off by bigger pieces--especially ones about science. Consider the works of Larry Gonick, for example. For over twenty yearshas been cranking out rich, delightful cartoon books on calculus, genetics, and other branches of science--as well as his 19-volume leviathan, The Cartoon History of the Universe.
This may be too much to ask of a fledgling publication trying to help define a fledgling genre. But it could be a goal to aspire to in issues to come.
Carl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including Evolution: Making Sense of Life.