While there seemed to be fewer presentations on comics at SXSW this year, there were a number of notable presentations. Marvel chose SXSW to launch two new initiatives—Infinite Comics, a digital-only comics imprint and Marvel AR, an effort using augmented reality technology to add special content to Marvel print comics. In addition, Indie media consultant Erin Polgreen was awarded a $14,000 grant to launch a comics journalism publication on the iPad; Round Table Comics was on hand to promote its nonfiction comics; and Daniel Burwen, creator of the Operation Ajax digital graphic novel, gave a detailed presentation on designing comics for the iPad.

SXSW is a natural venue for comics and comics creators. The digiterati are often comics fans and comics creators have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of technology-driven self-publishing solutions as well as social media. So it should come as no surprise that comics panels and presentations are no stranger to SXSW. We were very impressed last year with the breadth and depth of comics content and presentations on the SXSW programming schedule. This year there seemed to be fewer panels but there was also a range of comics presentations from Marvel’s high profile launch event to, How Comics Journalism is Saving Your Media, a panel discussion focused on the use of comics as a journalistic medium, as well as high profile events featuring writer/film director/comics writer Josh Whedon; film drector/comics writer Kevin Smith as well as other events around the medium.

Full Disclosure: While I was on the ground in Austin, Texas, thanks to a unavoidable and irritating combination of scheduling conflicts, a farflung hotel and an overwhelmed SXSW shuttle system, I was forced to miss the Marvel presentation. I got my information about the presentation the old fashioned way, from the internet. In a savvy move by Marvel, the publishers used SXSW, a great platform for technology initiatives, to announce the two digital initiatives, rather than the San Diego Comic-Con, where comics press releases often go to die, overwhelmed by all the hype coming from the movie studios. Beginning in April with Avengers Vs. X-Men, Marvel will begin releasing digital editions of its print comics that will make use of special effects, panel transitions and other digital techniques that can only be done on a computing device like the iPad. The digital editions will cost 99 cents if the consumer has already purchased the print issue. And all of Marvel’s $3.99 comics will include a code to download a free digital copy of the issue.

Marvel is also using Augmented Reality technology to tie its print publishing side to its digital releases. Marvel is placing QR codes into its print comics that will allow consumers with smartphones using the Marvel AR app to unlock additional content in the print comics. Marvel AR will add additional art work, video, sound, interviews and much more, in attempt to add multimedia content to the print format. While it sounds like a great experiment, we’ll see if fans really want another layer of whizbang supplementary content grafted onto their comics.

Comics Journalism

“How Comics Journalism is Saving Your Media,” moderated by journalist and AlterNet.org editor Sarah Jaffe, offered an excellent panel and an overview of both the history and practice of using the comics medium for nonfiction and journalism specifically. Erin Polgreen, former managing director of the Media Consortium, a network of 50 indie news organizations, and now a media consultant and evangelist for comics journalism, announced that she has received a $14,000 grant from the Chicago-based Robert McCormick Foundation and J-Lab, to launch an iPad digital journal devoted to comics journalism. Polgreen told PW, the grant is part of the foundation’s New Media Women’s Entreprenuers Initiative and includes a $2000 matching grant.

The grant will be used to launch Symbolia: A Tablet Magazine of Illustrated Journalism, that will be subscription-based and will focus on “general interest stories and themes using multimedia, comics and journalism,” Polgreen said in a separate interview. The journal will be completely digital and she said that it will not focus on “breaking news, but on the longtail news.” Polgreen said she’s compiled a “database of creators, illustrators and writers, and editorial standards are going to key. I want to advance the field of comics journalism, it’s about practicing what I’ve been preaching.” Polgreen said she expects to have a preview issue of Symbolia ready by the Summer and plans to follow up with the launch a Kickstarter project to bring in more financial support for the journal. “People will get paid,” Polgreen emphasized, “journalists need to be paid and we’re looking at ways to offer a revenue share.” She said she’s also looking “media partnerships. We’re going to be an iPad app and we’re looking for ways to creatively syndicate our content and move it to different distribution channels.”

“I love tablet devices and comics,” Polgreen said, who has worked a media consultant for comics journalism. She said that she’s been interested “comics and journalism since I was 15,” and that in recent years she’s noticed the growing “trend of comics nonfiction storytelling on the web, but not much comics nonfiction has been optimized for the ipad. Why not bring something like Comixology’s guided-view to the news; it’s a way to get more people excited about comics and journalism.”

The panel also featured contributions by comics journalist Susie Cagle, known recently for the harassment she’s received from police while documenting the Occupy Oakland movement in her comics; Matt Bors, comics journalism editor for Cartoon Movement, an online platform for presenting editorial cartoons/comics and political satire and Ronald Wimberly, cartoonist and co-creator of Sentences, the notable graphic memoir of MC Grim, aka Percy Carey. The session looked at the popularity and utility of comics nonfiction, particularly its ability to provide accessible and entertaining nonfiction narratives and draw traffic to news sites: “it’s immersive, primed for sharing and readers stick with it,” said Polgreen during the session. The panel surveyed works by Joe Sacco, Art Speigelman, Marjane Satrapi and Ted Rall (who was in attendance at the event) as well as publications like Cartoon Movement, World War III, Smithmag. The Rumpus and Graphic Journos and others that make use of comics in a variety of nonfiction narratives from memoir to local reporting to infographics.

Bors, who created the drawings for David Axe’s War Is Borning (2010), discussed his newest projects with Cartoon Movement. He’s working on two impressive projects, Life in Haiti, a 75-page comics project to document life in Haiti since the devastating earthquake of 2011, written by a number of Haitian writers and illustrated by Chevelin Pierreo. Bors has worked on the ground in Haiti to help train Haitian journalist to work alongside comics illustrators. Cartoon Movement is also producing a 100 page comics work documenting the awful human rights abuses surrounding the Army of God in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010, based on the reporting of David Axe with drawings by Tim Hamilton. Bors said he was also working on a book collection of Cartoon Movement works.

Cagle offered recaps of her run-ins with the Oakland Police—she’s been arrested twice despite being a fully credentialed member of the press—and the panel also discussed the problems getting comics nonfiction published, despite the traffic and discussion comics can generate on web sites. Many news editors don’t understand the medium, or still refuse to take it seriously, but often, said Jaffe, sites like Alternet.org aren’t always setup to display comics effectively (although Alternet is redesigning its site and will be able to feature comics stories much better, she added). Cagle said she avoids calling herself a cartoonist at all—“I call myself an illustrated journalist,” she said—because of “the lack of respect for comics.”

But Bors ended on a positive note, “comics journalism is growing, not shrinking, comics drive traffic to sites and comics engage readers who share them like nuts. News sites need to think about the kind of engagement comics can offer.”

Round Table Comics

Both Corey Blake and David Cohen of Round Table Comics, which publishes a variety of comics based on licensed business book bestselles as well as comics adaptations of bestselling inspirational works, were on hand at SXSW doing some promotional work. Much as its done with other bestselling business/inspiration books such as the Long Tail by Chris Anderson and Robert Renteria’s Mi Barrio, Round Table has produced a graphic adaptation of Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh’s bestselling business memoir Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose, with illustrations by Rob Ten Pas and coloring by Mike Dimotta. The Round Table team was meeting up with Delivering Happiness, a movement organization founded to promote the life lessons found in Hsieh’s book, to promote the new graphic adaptation of Delivering Happiness. They gave out about 2000 copies of the DH graphic memoir and also handed out advance copies of The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, published this month.

Blake and Cohen are preparing to launch an iPad app for RTC and since their launch in 2010 they’ve published about 13 comics works in addition to their prose publishing. RTC has about 20 regular staffers, Blake called them “permanlancers” in addition to 4 full-time staff and 2 full-time illustrators. RTC had developed a process for creating its comics adaptations that takes a bout 4-5 months from beginning to end. “we have immersive interview experience to produce the books,” said Blake said, “we take a CEO and we let them see the best version of themselves and create an intimate connection to the reader.”

Interest in RTC comics have grown. Blake originally licensed the rights from the original hardcover publisher and he could pretty much do what he wanted. Now, he said, “publishers want more control.” They expect to release 5 or 6 books in 2012.

Comics on the iPad

There were also public interviews at SXSW with Josh Whedon and Kevin Smith, which we were unable to attend. But there was also an impressive presentation by Daniel Burwen, creative director of Cognito Comics, the creator of Operation Ajax, an innovative work of digital graphic nonfiction based on author Stephen Kinzer’s book on how the CIA overthrew the Iranian democratic government in 1953. In a presentation called, “Reinventing the Graphic Novel for the iPad,” Burwen offered a very detailed history of the making of Operation Ajax, and his own background as digital artist for videogames. He cited Brian Michale Bendis’ inventive 1999 crime/noir graphic novel Torso, as an inspiration, “Torso changed my ideas about what comics can be and what comics can do when you can experiment,” and cited the importance of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to the project.

Burwen discussed the difficulty of recreating the traditional pacing of print comics—often tied to end of page and page turns—in a digital work where there are no pages. It took him 3 years to complete Operation Ajax (not counting 2 years developing the script) with a team of about 60 people and the work manages to combine traditional comics storytelling with an array of digital effects.

Altogether SXSW 2012 offered several great comics panels and presentations, though the number of comics presentations were much reduced from last year. We can only hope that next year there will be many more.