(The Atavist, 2012)
I am a bit skeptical of the idea of reading a book on a screen. There, I said it. While I recognize technology’s role in society, affirm its disruptive power in the worlds of journalism and book publishing, and utilize it in most areas of my daily life (these words are being typed on a MacBook Air, I own a smartphone, I pay for wireless access at home), I still enjoy the feel and even the smell of the printed page. I have a hard time envisioning the potential independent bookstore of the future—filled with iPad reading stations and like—but let’s stick to the subject at hand. I was unsure of what The Atavist, the fledgling digital publishing platform that has provided a new platform and publishing model for journalists and authors, could possibly offer. Fortunately, I had a chance to pop my Atavist cherry with Stowaway, an engaging meld of investigative journalism and graphic illustration with just enough New Journalism panache to keep a reader interested.
Stowaway is the true story of Fanuel, an Ethiopian orphan whose trip across the world to get to America is rife with treacherous moments, troublesome characters, and all sorts of teachable vignettes; at its heart, Stowaway is a story of bravery, determination, and self-awareness in the face of adversity. As you scroll through Stowaway (on your tablet) or click away (on your laptop), there is curated music to guide you through various high and low moments, sound effects such as rushing water, video and audio clips, funky animated graphics and all sorts of useful statistical information to enrich the harrowing tale. In short, it’s a pleasure to read, even for someone not well versed in the world of Kindles and books on iPads. Given the timeliness of the subject matter—the lengths to which one young person will go to reach America—it should be a must read for politicians of every stripe.
Comic artist Josh Neufeld and investigative journalism Tori Marlan are the brains behind this hybrid literary experience; they’ve created something that could serve as the model for how long-form journalism is consumed in the future. Whether it’s the streets of Mexico City or a neighborhood in Ethiopia or at sea, Neufeld did the requisite research to help bring Fanuel’s story to life in diverse and telling ways on the screen.
The Atavist is a free app and users can pick and choose, then download (for a small fee) the stories they’re interested in reading. “Readers just have to buy the stories,” says Neufeld. “It’s equitable. It’s a viable new model for selling long-form nonfiction pieces that we have not seen before. I’m very excited about it.” Although this newfangled form might seem simple at first glance, it’s quite a multisensory experience.
Neufeld said that despite the many preconceived notions people sometimes have about comics, they can tell any kind of story, including those that are more serious or high-minded. Where exactly does Stowaway fit in the realm of journalism?
“By necessity, it’s a mixture of traditional journalism and creative nonfiction,” says Neufeld, reached by phone. “There were many instances in the book where we had to construct certain scenes to put the reader into that experience. We don’t make anything up and it was studiously fact-checked with the subject of the story. My contention is that it’s a hybrid of traditional journalism and art.” |
Long-form journalism will take many shapes in the coming years and decades, many of which have yet to even be imagined. The Atavist is part of that ongoing conversation; Stowaway is worth your time.