EDITOR’S NOTE: People frequently ask us how illustrated journalism gets made. It’s a complicated, fascinating process, especially when you factor on-the-ground reporting into the situation. Susie Cagle’s tremendous work covering California’s Salton Sea makes for an excellent how-to and case study. We’re so excited to share the story of how “Sea Change” was made with you! Please feel free to share widely.
The first thing I can tell you about this piece is that it did not turn out the way I expected it to.
I’ve wanted to write about the Salton Sea for many years. I was fascinated by the weird history and the piles of dead fish. I knew it would make a great comic, though initially I was totally unsure what form the narrative would take. There are so many stories at play: The environmental degradation; the housing bust; the housing boom!; the water wars. But as soon as Erin said Symbolia’s first theme was “How We Survive,” I knew this was the right story for the right publication at the right time.
A narrative is one thing; my real concern was if I could manage to report, write, draw and produce the piece so damn quickly.
At the end of June, I embarked on a whirlwind reporting trip to the sea. I was lucky enough to have my frequent partner-in-crime Max Allstadt and his navigating skills, steady camera hands, elementary Spanish and patient nature in tow. We put hundreds of miles on my crap little car, circumnavigating the sea and visiting the communities and people around it in about three days.
The reporting process
The Salton Sea area shuts down for the summer, with the “snowbirds” that make up a large portion of the local community—and economy—returning to warmer weather and family vacations in less glamorous locales across the country. This is smart of them, because the heat oh my god, the heat. The Imperial Valley, where the Salton Sea festers, is very hot year-round, and is especially excruciating from June to September, when much of the population clears out.
This is the thing about 115 degrees: It is so terrible oh my god you can barely even breathe. The physical discomfort and sheer sweat factor made it mostly impossible to sketch outside, which was really disappointing.
I always take photos and video for my work but prefer to also draw from life whenever possible. There’s a quality to those drawings that I can’t quite capture through other means. But all the drawings of outside scenes in the final piece were sourced purely from photos and video this time around. This was an inconvenience.
The only real disappointment of visiting in the summer was missing the local Salton Sea Museum, which closes for the season.
Max and I were also expecting a ghost town, but we found the opposite.
Our first stop was Desert Shores, a former resort community on the sea’s northwest seashore. We were expecting to start the trip off with some decay tourism: Condemned motels, swimming pools filled with tumbleweeds, beached boats.
We found all of those things, but we also found a community of people living their lives, surrounded by the husks of the Shores’ former glory. As we met more of the residents, the story became less about the place, and more about the people so deeply affected by the sea.
The drawing process
I think the drawings in “Sea Change” capture the feeling of the sea and its surroundings really well. I had some concerns when I started: Would people believe me about all those fish and all those bones? What about the absurdity of an office chair in the surf? The rows of unfinished houses?
I knew my art would convey the human aspects of the sea well, but I was worried it wouldn’t reflect absurdity. To be honest, I’m still not totally sure it did.
This story was originally supposed to be 12 pages, which quickly ballooned to 23. I could have drawn 100 more.
Here’s a little bit about how the process worked. First, I wrote out a vague outline for the narrative that formed over the course of reporting. Then I wrote a list of all the images, sounds, particular factual nuggets and quotes that I wanted to include, but that didn’t have a home in the outline yet. I stared at this list, then began to ruthlessly snip at it: Jan at community services made the cut, while the new, empty casino on the shoreline didn’t; yes on the empty houses, no on the empty restaurants.
Then I started to thumbnail the actual pages. (Secretly, I love my thumbnail drawings the best, every time. Sometimes I blow them up on the copier and then draw over them on tracing paper for my final versions.)
I worked out some of the basic visual problems in the thumbnails, and moved on to penciling the piece in full finished art, like this:
I like to sketch on graph paper sometimes. It helps to get proportions right, and then I can avoid using a ruler for panel lines, which is a pet peeve. (Straight lines, ew.)
For my final art, I used pencil on vellum, which is thick slick tracing paper. This is my favorite medium for finished drawings. Pen and ink actually make me pretty nervous, and even though I don’t erase my pencil lines on the vellum, there’s something about using a pencil that is uniquely comfortable, and I can see that comfort reflected in the confidence of the lines.
Everyone has their own best tool; it took me a few years to warm up to this one. This is also how I lettered all the text, which was inserted on a separate layer than the art so it could be easily edited.
Then, I scanned those drawings in and jacked up the contrast to make the pencil lines as black and inky as possible. Colors were done in Photoshop layers with some textured brushes. Audio was editing in (janky, low-rent) Garageband and layered in for the final product. Ta-da! Comics.