100 years ago last Friday, the passenger ship SS Eastland rolled over while tied to a dock in the Chicago River.
The Eastland was to take Western Electric employees and their families to a company picnic across Lake Michigan. Already a topheavy vessel, the ship was loaded with 2,500 passengers shifting around on deck. The ship rolled over, drowning passengers mere feet away from the dock.
844 people were killed, including 22 entire families.
Rick Tuma and Ryan Marx of the Chicago Tribune teamed up to present the story in graphic novel style, done digitally with parallax scrolling — inaccurately but admittedly better known as Snowfall-style web design.
While the page itself scrolls downward with the story, Rick’s drawings themselves are static. And beautifully rendered.
Rick writes in the presentation’s credits page:
Many of the details of the Eastland disaster have been lost to time. Accounts and news reports in the immediate aftermath of the event — many by this newspaper — were conflicting and, at times, not accurate.
From storyboarding to the final illustrations, I have made every effort to be as faithful as possible to what has been verified or reasonably believed to be true. The scale of everything I’ve drawn is estimated, and the visual depictions of most characters are not based on real people on the boat.
The illustrations are pencil on smooth Strathmore 2-ply bristol. Pencils ranged from 3B through 6B, but the 4B did most of the work. I love using pencil because it drops extra steps from the process — a very good thing when you have tight news deadlines — and makes it easier to retain the energy of initial sketches. Carefully boosting the contrast in Phototshop gives the drawings a brush and ink appearance.
Rick writes that he chose to keep the color palette for the project low key. He took a cue from the Chicago River itself, using only two blue-greens, two yellow-greens and one grey brown.
Choosing a limited palette gave me the freedom to maintain areas of clean white, something of which I am fond. Not every face needed color; buildings could be white and the sky light green.
Midway through the coloring stage, I started to believe the panels needed one more color to tie the illustrations together. Recalling initial brainstorming sessions where one proposal was to create a soft water-stained background, I knew what to do: ‘age’ the edges of the panels with yellow. Risking a somewhat cliche solution, we are very pleased with the results.
In addition, Rick was kind enough to answer a few questions for us:
Q. How long ago did you and Ryan begin working on this project?
A. Ryan and I began looking for a second narrative to develop soon after we published the Harsh Treatment graphic essay.
There were three major graphic components to the Tribune‘s enormous Harsh Treatment project:
1. In Her Words…
2. …Unsafe Haven, and…
3. …Fight and Flight.
Click on any of the links to see the pieces.
Harsh Treatment was a visual companion to hard hitting investigative reporting. With Eastland Disaster we were considering a enterprise project that might stand on its own.
Harsh Treatment wrapped up late November and Eastland Disaster was born early December 2014.
Q. How much time do you suppose you put into it?
A. Start to finish, seven months.
Anyone in news will realize that there’s no way we had the entire seven months to work exclusively on this new project! In fact, progress was so stop and start that Graphics editors Jonathon Berlin and Ryan Marx made the determination to dedicate June and July to exclusively working on Eastland.
Q. Did you write it first and then do the artwork (screenplay style)? Or did you develop the visuals and then write around them (Marvel comics style)?
A. Having learned a few things with the first narrative I broke the project into stages.
First stage was a no-brainer: research. As I gained greater knowledge of the event I began to move into the second stage: note-taking and doodling in a spiral bound 9″ x 12″ sketch book.
Stage three was my storyboard. Some false starts in the beginning, but I soon had a story.
I’m pretty sure that the story formed during my story board penciling. I can’t find a serious outline in my sketch book. Each panel led into the next until everything was said.
Q. Was this assigned to you, or did you pitch the idea? (And if you pitched it — was it hard to sell?)
A. I guess I’ve mostly answered this in number one.
Gathering a consensus to move forward required a good hard look at value for the time required. We discovered that the disaster was approaching its first centennial and found out that Metro and photo were planning coverage, so that helped.
Regardless, the project was a risk. Even after we began the enterprise, there was still concern over its value.
Q. What advice can you give a young artist who wants to try this at their own newspaper?
A. These require intense amounts of work! I would encourage the artist to be absolutely certain that she or he has chosen a topic that their skills can handle.
In my case, for example, I love to draw people. My excitement cools a bit when I have to draw machines and buildings. Someone else might struggle to make their people drawings look confident but totally score a win drawing machines and/or buildings. Choose a topic that plays to your strengths.
If you are going to make thirty, forty, or one hundreds illustrated panels you’d better attempt something you love.
Determine what this is going to look like. This can be choices like realistic drawings vs. loose styles. Black and white panels or color-added? How will it be published? Print or only online?
Ours began as online only, but we were asked to make a version for print. That required a ‘Reader’s Digest’ style, condensed version, removing half the panels.
In addition to retelling the basic story of what happened that day, Rick also spent some of his time focusing in on one family: The Aanstads. Here, mom has a premonition that something bad could happen onboard the ship.
As disaster strikes and the ship rolls over, Mom, Dad and their two little girls cling for life to a railing.
And there they stay until help comes.
Rick and Ryan also mention the oldest living survivor of the wreck…
…and go into detail about how, over the course of days, bodies were recovered from the Eastland and taken to a makeshift morgue.
Yes, that really happened. What’s more: The site of that morgue is now Harpo Studios: Oprah Winfrey’s TV production facility.
Rick wrote on the credits page:
I could not have anticipated how deeply this story has affected me. Sadness and sorrow frequently ambushed me during research and even as I was drawing. I rarely walk past the corner of Wacker Drive and Clark Street without being haunted by the tragedy and courage of the Eastland passengers.
A graduate of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Rick Tuma has worked for the Tribune since 1983.
A couple of years ago, Rick walked us through how he created wonderful business-page portraits on deadline.
A 2002 graduate of Lawrence University, Ryan Marx spent two-and-a-half years as presentation editor of the News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown, Ky., and then five-and-a-half years at the Times of Northwest Indiana in Munster — first as display editor and then as graphics editor.
He moved to the Tribune in 2010 as business graphics coordinator and was named assistant graphics editor in 2013.
Average daily circulation of the Chicago Tribune is 414,590.