On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune published “Eastland Disaster,” a nonfiction illustrated narrative reconstructing a July 24, 1915 disaster that killed hundreds in Chicago. The project comes from graphics producers Rick Tuma and Ryan Marx. Via email, Tuma answered some questions about the project, the medium and what he discovered from 100-year-old newspapers.
To start, I saw this project was called a “nonfiction illustrated narrative.” I’ve also seen the terms graphic journalism and comics journalism. Is there any consensus on what we should call projects like this?
This is actually my second project. The first — “Harsh Treatment” — published late in 2014. As we were wrapping up, discussions were going on behind the scenes regarding what to call this style of journalism. In the end, leadership settled upon graphic essay.
The Eastland project was a different animal because it was historical. Not an essay, a recreation of an event — a story. I don’t think we are finished trying to determine how to label this, so we may chose something entirely different the next time.
Why did you approach the story this way?
My approach to the story evolved from thinking I knew what I was going to say, discovering I didn’t know what need to be said and research revealing what did. Of course, I realize this a normal process, but thinking you know something gets in the way of the truth, until you bust through.
I no longer recall what my original ideas were. Once I’d read “The Sinking of the Eastland” and “Eastland, Legacy of the Titanic” and trolled the main memorial websites, I had a clear idea of the event, the people and the ship. In a sketch book, I was playing with the pieces of the story, trimming away enough to illustrate.
What ingredients does a story need to work for you graphically?
The biggest ingredient needs to be: can I covert this into sequential illustrations? If the answer is “yes,” the next ingredient — at least for me — is, do I WANT to illustrate this? Will I enjoy creating the drawings? I greatly enjoy drawing people, but not so much buildings and machines. The Eastland photos available gave me pause but the story was compelling no matter how many ships and buildings I might draw.
Almost as important is an examination of how much time will I have? I’m a slow researcher so I knew that might be a hurdle. I would have almost seven months to work on this, mixed with daily and smaller enterprise assignments.
You told both a big and a small story with “Eastland Disaster,” including the event itself and what it meant to one family. How did you decide on the dual narratives?
The dual narrative happened because of editing. I found many great interviews of survivors. I created an outline covering major areas of the ship with personal stories. Ryan Marx (Web designer as well as my editor) felt this would be difficult to manage and suggested focusing on one family.
I organized the events into a timeline and used the Aanstads to add details. The only other person included in the timeline was Adam Weckler — the Chicago harbor master. I used him to carry the story up to the gangway and the Aanstads carried the story into the ship.
One of the things that struck me was all the detail in this project. How long did it take from start to finish?
It’s funny you should mention details. No matter how simple I think I’m going to make something it isn’t long before I’m thinking, “Oh, we need this to make it clearer. And this. Whoa, and this too!” I had really planned to be simple. Simple line drawings, simple colors — if any. That worked until I began story boarding and adding and adding. Ultimately I think it has what it needs to be a solid story, visually.
Ryan Marx and I conceived the project early in December of 2014. Having worked together on “Harsh Treatment” we wanted to try it again. My first sketch book notes and doodles are from early December. The book shows that story board work began towards the end of January and wrapped up in April 10. Final art was begun June 8. The last drawing was wrapped up around July 16 and coloring and prep for digital use went on during the time Ryan was building the Web package. That adds up to seven months. I worked exclusively on the project at the beginning of June.
This project also includes some photos of the Eastland disaster that were found in the Tribune basement. At what point in the project did those photos turn up, and what was it like to have them as a source?
The photos were discovered December 2014. When the photo editor converting the glass negatives to digital informed me of this treasure trove we had every intention of having them available as references. Life being what it is — that didn’t happen. I didn’t see the photos until they were in the photo galleries online. Was that a fail? Not really. I’d found enough references online and in books to be reasonably accurate.
But … the old Tribune photos revealed one false assumption of mine regarding smoking. I’d assumed that smokers were smoking, even on board the ship. I’d drawn two smokers standing upstairs as the Aanstads walked up the staircase to the next deck. The day before we published, I came upon a shot of that very area, near the stair case, in our old images. In a photo, nailed to a support post was a ‘No Smoking’ sign! I erased the cigars and the smoke.
OK last question. Among your original sources, you list two editions of the Chicago Daily Tribune. In digging through the archives, did anything stand out to you about the differences and similarities between journalism then and now?
Oh my, yes! Headlines that screamed wild totals of dead. Weeks later, on the pages reporting the imminent raising of the Eastland were speculation of large amounts of dead still to be found in the vessel. Various news reports sounded shrill and sensational. But, one thought followed me around every page I looked through: this was immediate, next day news to readers. Stories and events that were read without my hindsight of history. I felt like a time traveler.