This past summer, AWA’s Upshot Studios, in collaboration with NBC News, launched a web-comic series called COVID Chronicles, about the worldwide toll being taken by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. All seven of the episodes published so far can be found at this link, in the NBC News Think pages.
COVID Chronicles are being scripted by Ethan Sacks and drawn by Dalibor Talajić. Last week, I caught up with both Sacks and Talajić (disclosure: I’m personally acquainted with Dalibor), who agreed to answer a few questions about the series. First up is writer Ethan Sacks.
EB: I suppose the first question is less of a question, but I was just wondering about the background for COVID Chronicles. What inspired you to tell these stories?
ES: Before I transitioned to comic writing, I was a journalist with 20 years of experience at the New York Daily news newspaper. COVID Chronicles is the brainchild of Axel Alonso, who recruited me to Marvel three years ago to write Old Man Hawkeye. I owe him much of my comic career, and I owe him for this special opportunity. He reached me out to me in the early days of the pandemic, determined to use the medium of comics to chronicle the people surviving in the middle of this global crisis. Axel was looking for a journalist with experience writing for comics — and the Venn Diagram is very, very small. Also he had the foresight to bring in Dalibor, who has the perfect sense of emotional realism to capture these very personal stories.
EB: COVID Chronicles are, as stated at the beginning of each episode, true stories. How did you go about collecting them?
ES: I approached this project the way I would reporting out articles, and that is by doing a lot of research. The first two scripts I wrote centered on friends of mine – Kerry Burke, my former colleague at the News, and Raj Waghmare, the Toronto-area ER doctor who was my college roommate. Why them? Because I knew they were on the frontlines with heart-rending stories and I knew they would give me the hours of access for personal interviews I needed as well as the personal photos that Dalibor could use as reference. Once I had those stories done, I had examples I could share when I approached strangers. From there, the others are a mix of people I found on social media or in news reports from around the world. In the case of Doctors Without Borders, the ninth installment, I just approached the charity directly as I figured they would have heroic doctors dealing with COVID in refugee camps. They did. Honesty, I found at least another five or six subjects I would have loved to profile, but the series was and is intended as a 10-parter.
EB: Why did you decide to have these stories conveyed as web comics?
ES: Basically, it was a product of having to get this series up and running while so much was shut down during the lockdown stage of the pandemic. These stories needed to be told as quickly as possible because this is happening right now, and when the opportunity surfaced to tell them on a massive national platform like NBC News, it made sense to do this as online comics.
EB: Are you planning on more projects like this one, meaning web-comics specifically, in the future? Also, are you possibly considering a more expansive version of these COVID stories, i.e., in something like a full graphic novel format?
ES: There are all sorts of ideas being bandied around behind closed doors, none of which I am at liberty to talk about right now. But I can say this, I think this project has proved that non-fiction comics are a powerful way to tell journalistic stories and that there will be more to come!
EB: Dalibor, how did you get tapped for this project – was it due to your previous work on a similar project – Madaya Mom?
DT: I think so, yes. The main name behind both projects is Axel Alonso. When I was called to do Madaya Mom, he was editor-in-chief at Marvel. In Madaya Mom, I proved myself as something of a naturalistic artist. It seems that my proclivity for world-building makes me inevitable for these documentary-type projects that need to be brought to life and relatable to readers.
So… When Axel moved to AWA we continued our collaboration. At first I was put on Hotell, a horror anthology book. But then the pandemic hit. And – I guess as everywhere in the world – people are split in how they understand the situation. The stories of the nurses, the doctors, the everyday people, needed to be told. The rest is – as they say…
EB: What’s your preference: working on web comics like this, or the standard monthly comic book? Is one or the other more challenging, or all the same to you?
DT: It’s different. I prefer the monthly comics, Because I have a whole page, a whole sheet of paper to do with as I please. Web comics provide much less graphic freedom, but they give different joys. They require you to think in a time-frame. Readers scroll the images, discovering them gradually. So, for instance, you can hide an important part of the image at the bottom, so it can surprise the reader as he or she scrolls down.
It’s not the same. It’s a different set of both challenges and rewards.
EB: How did the collaboration with Sacks function? Did he provide you with full scripts (including rough descriptions of what the images should look like), or did he just give you the dialogue and maybe some reference photos?
DT: He gave me quite a few reference photos. Even though this is a comic book, it is nonetheless in the service of journalism. The stories are true and need to be authentic. Ethan insisted on that, which is totally fine. So when the story required it, he gave me elaborate descriptions accompanied by references. But he left me a lot of freedom.
EB: On the topic of COVID-19, the pandemic has really taken a toll on the comics industry, esp. in the US. Given that you’ve been doing a great deal of work for that market, has the situation impacted you as well?
DT: Fortunately no. As pandemic hit we went to COVID Chronicles almost right away and that lasted all the way to the reopening. The title is still being published. So I am very grateful for being so lucky.
So there you have it. I want to thank both Ethan and Dalibor once again for taking the time to respond to my questions, and I urge everyone reading this to check out COVID Chronicles at the link provided up top (and right here as well, in case you’re too lazy to scroll back up). Also, since Dalibor and I talked about Madaya Mom, which was a similar project and involved similar cooperation between a news organization (ABC News) and a comics publisher (Marvel), I should mention that it’s still up and can be found at this link: Madaya Mom.