Smash Pages Q&A: The Nib’s Eleri Harris on ‘Reported Missing’

The deputy editor of The Nib discusses her new project for the site, a long-form comic about Tasmania’s most controversial murder conviction.

Eleri Harris is the deputy editor of The Nib. The publication has emerged as one of the best and most important comics publishers in recent years — not just for its political cartoons but for long-form comics. Harris has a unique background, having worked as an editor and journalist before she went back to school and earned an MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Harris’ new project launches today on The Nib, which according to the site is about:

What’s it like to have your Mum charged with murder? In 2010, a yacht was found sinking on its moorings, Sarah’s step-father was missing and her Mum was charged with his murder. There was no body, no murder weapon, no witnesses and no motive. In The Nib’s first serialized work of comics journalism, Eleri Harris explores the emotional nightmare behind Tasmania’s most controversial murder conviction — releasing just one week before the Supreme Court appeal that could change everything.

I spoke with Harris about politics, editing, Australia, The Nib and this project.

How did you get into comics?

I was always curious about comics. My family had huge collections of gag strips like The Far Side lying around. Political cartoons are a big part of Australian media culture so they were always there. I was the right age for the manga boom and there was anime on TV, and I was interested in that. Australia has historically been a much poorer country than the United States. I didn’t know anybody who bought a Batman comic every week or every month when I was growing up. Spending that kind of money was just unheard of. I was mostly reading what I got out of the library. I always liked comics and read comics. My Mum is an artist and that impacted all the things I read and also the things I emulated. I always drew stuff when I was little but I didn’t start doing comics properly until I was at University studying journalism. In 2007 there was a really big election in Australia and I was working on a community youth radio program about the election. I did some illustrations for that podcast. I worked as a journalist for a number of years in political journalism. And then I wound up going to back to school to get an MFA in comics because I liked that more than the political reporting.

You went to the Center for Cartoon Studies and got an MFA. Why did you get an MFA? Was there something you wanted to learn?

When I found out about CCS I was working as a political reporter in Canberra, which is the nation’s capital. I was extremely disillusioned with political reporting and I wasn’t sure that this was what I really wanted to do. I’d previously had a job where I’d written a lot of political satire and I enjoyed that more. I also didn’t have any proper formal training in art. Because my Mum is an artist I didn’t want to be an artist when I was growing up. I hadn’t done a formal art class since I was twelve years old. Even though I was drawing all the time, I didn’t feel like I had enough understanding of it. I’m a dual US-Australian citizen. My father is American, and I’d always thought that I would like to go back and live in the United States. I found out about CCS accidentally. James Sturm had written a piece on Slate magazine about giving up the internet for six months, and his bio said he was one of the heads of CCS. I read the article through the Slate Twitter account and at the end was like, “There’s a school you can go to for comics? This is exactly what I want.”

Your MFA thesis was a collection of nonfiction comics. Was that your plan and interest when you started the program, to make nonfiction comics?

A friend had given me a copy of The Fixer by Joe Sacco in 2010. I’d never heard of Joe Sacco before that and I was fascinated by how he works and what he was doing. I don’t think I ever thought I could do editorial cartoons because I’m not funny enough. I still feel that way. Even though by this point in my life I’ve had editorial cartoons published in newspapers, I still feel unsure that I can actually do that. [laughs] Comics journalism I was like, I can definitely do that. I know how to write stories. I understand visual work. That is something accessible to me that I could do.

How did you end up working at The Nib?

Matt Bors was actually my thesis advisor at CCS, but my role at The Nib has very little to do with that. At CCS you do an internship and I had gotten an internship with Symbolia, which was an ipad magazine that was only nonfiction comics. I did a lot of different stuff for them in my internship. The fact that I had already had years of experience working as a reporter in the media, in multimedia platforms, was important to doing that kind of work. Erin [Polgreen] must have noticed because she recommended me to Matt Bors when he was looking for someone to be his assistant. He just called me up and asked me if I could do some of the stuff that I’d been doing for Erin for him at The Nib. That was 2014, a few months after he started The Nib.

What does your job entail at The Nib?

Within twelve months I was full time. Initially I was doing stuff like going through books that coming out to see if there was something that could be excerpted. Going through the archives of various webcomics and seeing if the artist would be interested in pitching. As The Nib evolved and changed, it became a lot more than that. Editing was always part of it, I guess because Matt was already pushing people to do longer form work. That was a big thing I started doing. You have to remember that I wasn’t coming to do this as someone who just had a background in comics. I’d worked in online publishing before so editing stuff was not crazy. One of my first jobs out of university was working as an editor at a publishing house. I’ve done that since I was 21. But my most valuable skills in terms of being able to edit comics came from studying comics. The stuff that I was taught by particularly Jason Lutes and Steve Bissette at CCS have stayed with me. A lot of their principles about how we read, where our eyes move on the page and following action sequences and that sort of thing and then general stuff like good layout design has really informed how I work as an editor.

You’re working on a long piece coming out. What is this story?

It’s going to come out in seven different parts over a week. It is the story of a woman called Sarah whose mum was convicted of murdering her step-father in 2010 and her mum is up for appeal in November. It’s a classic murder mystery story happening in Tasmania. I went to school with Sarah. She thinks her mom is innocent. Her mum was the first person convicted of murdering someone, in Tasmanian history, without there being a body with no murder weapon no motive – all on circumstantial evidence. A lot of people believe the trial was a farce. She was convicted by a jury. It’s a very complicated murder case. The story is basically asking the question, what’s it like to have your mum convicted of murder? It’s a sixty page piece – if pages have any meaning by the time I’ve played with the layout. It’s all in watercolor because I’m a crazy person and wanted to spend like five hours on each page.

Penciling and inking takes time but watercolors, that’s really time-consuming.

I don’t know why I’m doing this. I genuinely worry about my decision making. [laughs] I think it’s because I spend so much time on the computer. My day job involves reading other people’s work on a screen, that it’s nice to have the time to do something that’s just on paper.

Right after the election you did a piece for The Nib about feeling American and what that meant. You’re living here now and has that feeling manifested itself in your work?

Well the work I’ve been doing is focused on Australia so that’s kind of weird. Other countries pay attention to what’s happening in the United States. Particularly countries like Australia. Australia has a treaty with the United States called the ANZUS treaty, which requires Australia to go to war every time the United States goes to war. That’s the kind of relationship we have. Having Trump as President has huge implications for other countries like Australia that have those agreements. I think sometimes Americans are not as aware of that stuff as they should be. The Trump administration comes out with something every single day. The UN speech by the time you cover that there’s been twenty other crazy things that have happened. Things that would have destroyed other Presidencies have not destroyed his – which is also fascinating. I still feel like he is not representative of the things that I think are most important in this country and that I feel should be celebrated and protected.

How do you cover this administration because so much is happening all the time that in the time it takes someone to draw a cartoon, the news and people’s attention have moved on.

It’s an ongoing battle. Trying to get everything done properly. A lot of scheduling stuff happens with The Nib so we’re always talking about what we’ve done, whether we have time to do something on a particular issue that just happened. I used to be a radio producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is like NPR, and every day we had to assess the news and choose stories we would run and it’s not dissimilar to scheduling stuff for The Nib. Every day you assess the news climate and figure out what  you’re covering and what you’re not covering and what you can reasonably do in the time frame that you have. Sometimes you decide not to worry about it too much. When the Ted Cruz porno tweet thing happened, even though the news was going to pass very quickly, we were like, that is too funny. We got Nomi Kane to do a piece for us on that.

There’s so much happening all the time it’s difficult to figure out what are people going to care the most about or be interested in. The thing about political cartoons is there’s a lot of assumed knowledge. The reader needs to know at least the basic gist of what you’re talking about, otherwise it’s not funny. That can be problematic sometimes. That’s the real issue with finding or commissioning editorial cartoons. What’s going to function. We have a very solid rotating schedule of people who do work for us or syndicated people we publish like Jen Sorensen, Tom Tomorrow, and Matt Bors as well. We can pretty much rely on them to cover a lot of the more mainstream stuff that’s happened.

The Nib does a lot of great long-form pieces and then you have topical political cartoons. And you do pieces commenting on the news or illustrating statistics or looking at hate groups and their symbols. It’s a lot to balance.

I don’t know any other comics publication that has quite the same niche that we do. With a lot of the longer form comics, the goal is to try and explore areas that maybe aren’t getting as much attention as they deserve in the mainstream press, but also using the opportunity to have visuals describe things. Charis Jackson Barrios’ piece you were referencing before, about alt right symbols, that is something that is really well done with comics. It’s visual and explains things and is done in a way that is easy to digest and will make people remember so when they’re at a rally or watching media coverage of an event they have an understanding of what these particular people are standing for by the symbols that they’re using.

Especially now that you’ve finished this longer pieces, what do you want to do more of going forward?

One of my main tasks is editing the longer form stuff. That’s the largest part of my job. I love doing that. I also would like to continue doing longer pieces myself, but having nearly finished this massively long piece I would like to step away from doing pieces that are hugely long. I really like what I would consider mid-range length comics. The longest pieces we do are about 40 panels long. We speak in panel lengths because that makes more sense for the internet. People’s pages are always different anyway. The pieces that are 12-15 panels have been doing quite well and I’ve started to get a real appreciation for that length. Things that are shorter, punchier explainers or personal pieces. We encourage people to send us pieces that are memoir or personal essays. We publish a lot of work on personal subjects. A lot of people have issue-based autobio stories in them, distilling a simple message in a short space. I’d like to see more of that but I’m not sure it’s something I necessarily want to do myself. I’m more interested in doing history pieces. My undergraduate degree was in history and politics so I am always wanting to do more history based stuff.

You publish non-Americans and I’ve seen a lot of work from Kasia Babis, who’s Polish, and others recently. Hhow much are you looking outside the U.S. for other perspectives on what’s happening or different stories?

The goal is to publish a variety of perspectives, but we do have a primary focus on the U.S. audience. We get pitches where we go, that’s a really great story but nobody in America is going to care about it, so we don’t do it and that sucks. I have a lot of conversations with people about it because we are an American media outlet so we have to take that into consideration. I think it’s slightly irrelevant because that doesn’t matter with the internet, but we need a focus for the publication. We can’t be everything to everyone. You have to focus your energy on something. Someone like Kasia is able to make cartoons about things that are more universal in nature. Her recent cartoon is about not being American and how she saw Americans, but most of her cartoons you wouldn’t know where she’s from. It’s not relevant. What’s important is she has this very funny, punchy point to make. That’s what we’re really looking for. Is this person good?

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