Geeking Out About the Comics Medium With Unflattening’s Nick Sousanis (Part Four)

One of my favorite passages in Unflattening is on the bottom of p.40 where you try to convey through images alone the information dogs gather from their environment via their sense of smell. This is a classic problem — how to communicate one sense through forms of representation that operate on an entirely different level. Can you walk us through your thinking process as you tackled this problem?


Whereas I see the trunk, perhaps tracks around it – the dog encounters the tree and “sees” through his highly nuanced sense of smell, everything that passed upon this spot in the last week or so. The dog has access to layers of experience, we could say higher dimensions, in this regard, that we don’t. I may not be able to draw smell, but I can visually represent the concept of layering. I thought of an exploded view of overlapping panels – again, fitting more space into it than is there – and that they would all emanate from the trunk of the tree using curvy balloon tails – which I think can be read as meaning smell or back in time (cue “Wayne’s World”!). Definitely their curviness indicates something different than straight tails would. That cue, along with the fact that each picture has some bit of the trunk in it make it clear that these animals he is smelling all were at this same spot but at earlier times – and not all at once.

The most avant-garde or independent comics producers sooner or later find ways to insert superheroes into their work if for no other reason to create a contrast with what their comics are doing differently. In your case, you include your adolescent superhero character, Lockerman. What role does this figure play in your argument? Is it legal to produce a comic in the United States that does not have a superhero lurking in it somewhere?

Ha – that’s a great observation! I certainly didn’t feel any compulsion to put in a superhero, and they don’t show up in my other comics. (Though having said that, Superman changing in a phone booth is also in this chapter, and if not for space issues, Batman would’ve shown up as well on the page with da Vinci’s flying man, after which Bob Kane is said to have modeled the caped crusader.) I wouldn’t hide it either – I grew up with and still read superhero comics (and still tend to observe a Wednesday comics shop ritual), even if that’s not the kind of work I make or teach now.



Lockerman is in there for the same reason I included a number of personal stories along the way – my dog, my wife’s commute, my shoe troubles – to ground the theoretical in something more visceral. Here, I was very much thinking about the idea of curiosity as an opening, a kind of threshold. This sent me to the stories I’d read that feature a prevalence of doorways of some sort – Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and my brother’s stories about the mysteries inside our kitchen cupboard.

Thinking on all these spaces for imagination made me think of my own creation, and how his ability to use doorways to move through space/time had its roots in all of these stories – which hadn’t occurred to me when I was originally drawing his adventures. These pages are followed by a reference to Hermes – the messenger who presided over boundaries – and that so fit all this talk of crossing disciplines, of image-text, of imagination. I think we turn to our familiar mythologies for support – both cultural and personal – and that’s primarily what drives me here.

If text and image work together here to expand what we can think and say, does the logic follow that a form which included other senses — which was tactile or haptic, which used sound, which conveyed taste or smell — would further expand the human capacity for thought. Or do we reach a limit point? In other words, what is the value of setting limits on what channels of communication we use? Are their virtues in constraint or economy as values in writing? Scott McCloud, for example, has posed critiques of motion-comics as a form which loses much of what makes comics distinctive as a medium. Would you agree with that critique or is multimedia (in all of its permutations) the logical extension of the argument you are making here?

I think including other senses definitely would expand how we can think – and that speaks to the point of the inclusion of my dog. We need to encourage those other modes of sense-making as part of what learning looks like.

That said, I’m sure we can, perhaps not take this too far, but reach a limit point in how we put them together. It’s why Ang Lee’s Hulk experiment where he played with multiple screens ala comics all at once didn’t work. You don’t know where to look and can’t keep up with it all.

Motion comics fail on a different front – they are bad at being animations and lack the simultaneous experience that comics offer – all the artifice that we can ignore in the forms it straddles become impossible not to see and it doesn’t work. I know McCloud talks about the potential of GIF comics, and I agree – pretty neat works from Boulet and Lilli Carré offer great examples. And I think with the GIF, while the separate images per panel move – their cyclical nature allows them to function much like the static nature of a traditional comic. We can move at our own pace, we can read back up the page and aren’t lockstep in time as in animation.

Chris Ware talks about the relationship between comics and memory – how both are collections of frozen fragments. But the GIF may be even closer – say we remember a smile, not as static, but the action of it. GIF comics provide a vector without crashing through the architectural nature so essential to how comics do what they do.

As far as constraints more generally, I’m a big believer in how rules can generate creative possibilities. I think about Bernard Suits’s treatise on games in The Grasshopper, where he calls them “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” It’s within them where all the excitement happens. If I can serve from anywhere I want on the tennis court, rather than staying behind the baseline – the game breaks down, the dynamic of competition is disrupted. The best games find the right balance between the madness of Alice’s Caucus Race (or perhaps a more contemporary example, ‘Calvin-Ball’) and being stuck in too much red tape.

The space of a comics page is such a constraint, as are things like font size – to ensure it’s readable, means having to find ways to say more with less. I really enjoy this game I see myself playing with the constraint of the page – how to make meaning, how to ensure things flow – all these factors come together and result in the unexpected.

Will Eisner, who was very interested in juxtaposition between sequential images, was also very interested in what he called “the shape of the page.” That is, he spoke about the ways that the moment readers turn the page, they begin to form a picture of the new set of images based on their over-all pattern. His best work often used the gestalt of the page (as well as the particulars of individual images) to convey his meanings. What relationship might we posit between the “shape of the page” and what you are calling here “the shape of our thoughts?”



I think I’m very much talking about the same thing as Eisner. The idea of “the shape of our thoughts” came from an earlier piece done for an academic journal (parts of which I reworked for the third chapter that carries the same name).


In that piece I was thinking of my own penchant for speaking in parentheticals and connected that to my grandmother’s stories that always seemed to have more detours than destination. It occurred to me how well her stories might have been represented in the sort of comics that Chris Ware makes – with the sort of tangential directions they go.



My compositions were already quite varied before this, but I think the experience of making this piece that directly reflected on comics, made me much more conscious about how much I could convey at the level of composition. When people ask me how long it takes to make a page – they’re usually responding to the complexity of the drawing. But the truth is, it’s figuring out how to orchestrate the elements and the movement/shape of the whole that I spend the most time with – continually trying to find a shape that best captures the feeling of the idea at hand. Original version of same comic.

Today’s textbooks, as Gunther Kress has suggested, are often multimodal, reflecting the idea that different kids learn best through different kinds of sensory inputs. Yet, the textbook mixes words and images in a different way than comics do and still often depends on the primacy of the text. So, what do you see as the advantages of the strategies for combining words and images in comics over the ways they are combined in a textbook which makes an extensive use of charts, graphs, images, maps, and illustrations to communicate its meaning?

This overlaps somewhat with the debate about the relationship between picture books and comics. Are they the same thing, related, does it matter? In the case of textbooks, it’s clear that the visuals are being used to support the text and aid in comprehension – they are illustrations. The text could stand on its own with the illustrations removed altogether. So the pictures are additive.

But I think in comics, the effect is multiplicative – text speaks to image, image influences text and meaning is compounded. And you most certainly could not remove the images and retain the meaning. The interplay is key and as is the text becoming a visual element (and this is something less present in picture books – though not exclusively).

It was important to me to make a work that wasn’t simply illustrating what I wrote in text. The artwork, the image-text interaction is the work period. I think as comics take hold in more places – and perhaps become a more commonplace skill/literacy, we’ll see more imaginative use of them as textbooks – not to simplify the text, but to really make something that can stand on their own and get at ideas as richly, if not more so, than what came before.

You’ve discussed in interviews your goal not to include a persona representing the writer and not tell an extended story or include a stable story world. What does this suggest about the pull within comics towards storytelling and away from more associative or essayistic forms of presentation?



Let me start by briefly mentioning some additional influences. David Mazzucchelli’s comic adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, which came out around the same time as Understanding Comics, had a big effect on me. Rich with symbolic representation, he employed all sorts of things that even though it was ultimately a narrative, brought out what visuals could do besides depicting characters doing stuff. Brilliant.

Sometime later, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s short comic “This is Information,” part of a comics 9/11 tribute anthology, really opened new pathways for me. It was all visual metaphors intertwined with verbal metaphors. As no doubt a play on its title, here was information sans characters or narrative.


My full-on return to comics-making came with two political comics I made for a two-part art exhibition before and after the 2004 election. My first one has the certainly McCloud-influenced author avatar of myself narrating the story. For the second one, I dropped that entirely in favor of visual and verbal metaphors and that approach has stayed with me since.

In my non-comics writing, I lean towards being an essayist. In doing similar things in comics, I didn’t really think about it as a departure from comics as primarily a storytelling forum, it just continued the way I was working with a different set of tools at my disposal. But I do see that now.

Not only is Unflattening an academic comic, it is also a non-narrative comic – which is perhaps more atypical than the former, especially with so many comics coming out of an explanatory sort. (Though I had one great review of it in which the author did draw a narrative thread together, following one of the sleepwalking characters through various stages of transformation ending up as a newborn at the end ala 2001. I really liked that interpretation, even if I didn’t mean it at all!) I really can’t say why this hasn’t been explored more before, though perhaps as you said about Eisenstein, it is more difficult to do. But I think this is an important avenue to pursue in comics – one that I firmly believe they’re particularly well-suited for and hope that my work helps foster further explorations.

Nick Sousanis received his doctorate at Columbia University, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comics form. Titled Unflattening, it is now a book from Harvard University Press. He’s presented on his work and the importance of visual thinking in education at such institutions as Stanford, Princeton, UCLA, and Microsoft Research, along with keynote addresses for the Visitors Studies Association’s and the International Visual Literacy Association. He has taught courses on comics as powerful communication tools at Columbia, Parsons, and now at the University of Calgary, where he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies.

Nick’s website:


Geeking Out About the Comics Medium with Unflattening’s Nick Sousanis (Part Three)

People who do not read comics with any frequency ask me for advice on the best way to read them. My usual advice is left to right, top to bottom. But in your case, you have consciously set out to design at least some pages which can be read in multiple directions at once. I take it this has to do with your argument that text and images capture (encourage?) different modes of thought. So what advice do you give readers about the choices they make in how to read those images?

As we think about how the reader moves through the page, there is the typical pattern, left-right, row by row from top to bottom not unlike how text unfolds. Because the ideas didn’t necessarily move like that, I wanted to move the reading in a multitude of directions: at times sliding backwards, occasionally upwards (very difficult), sometimes snaking, hopscotching about, and in a few cases, where I wanted it not to matter which way you read – and that mirrored the idea at hand.

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The organization of the text elements was as crucial a decision as the layout of the images. If the reading was intended to be different from the expected, I had to be very precise about each element to ensure the reader went in the way I wanted and didn’t get confused. I used the text boxes a bit like pinball bumpers to carom the reader in the right direction. As for the instances where there wasn’t a single right direction – I feel this in some sense destabilizes predictability in the same that changing drawing styles and radically different compositions does. But I think our thoughts do this, and I think our creative process works in this way and can be cultivated by trying to similarly break form.

You write, “Perhaps, in comics, this amphibious language of juxtapositions and fragments — we have such a form. A means to capture and convey our thoughts, in all their tangled complexity.” Janet Murray has made a similar argument (in Hamlet on the Holodeck) about the potentials of interactive and nonlinear digital media. She is often asked what are the new ideas we need to express which do not fit within the limits of traditional text. How do you answer that question?

I think it’s hard to say what new ideas can be expressed until we start doing it. New tools to organize our thinking seems to me not only to be a new vehicle to communicate them but a way to better understand ourselves. I’m certainly biased toward the form, but I find that organizing ideas in comics continually facilitates new connections – it’s made me think in new ways and go in directions (with the research) I wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s powerful. Comics may appear static and flat, but I think that conceals just how much can be going on within a single page – a way to contain that ‘tangled complexity’ – that I think we are still only beginning to explore.

I am intrigued by your metaphor of comics as an “amphibious” medium — “text immersed in image, pictures anchored by words.” Barthes and others have written a lot about how text, especially captions, can anchor the meaning of images, but I’d love to hear you say more about what happens when text gets “immersed in image.”

That “anchoring” is a direct reference to Barthes, and (in the way I was describing above) “immersed” came about by responding to the image itself. It’s not a one-directional relationship in comics – words and images affect each other, for the reader and the maker. Here, I’m keeping the reader adrift through the image by the placement of the words – they’ve become an essential visual element, which is quite unlike magazines and art museum labels, where words and pictures are kept quite separate. We have leave one domain to go to the other. While I do a lot with the placement of text to orchestrate specific reading flow, I had also wanted to do more with letterforms and the expressive nature of fonts themselves – and how drawing words brings a whole other dimension to the means for expression.

Let’s discuss some of the repeated visual motifs — shoes and feet, spirals and circles, the cat’s cradle, etc. — which occur many times across the book. To what degree are you using these repeated patterns to create links between ideas that operate primarily if not entirely on the visual level?

I’ve heard comics scholar Kent Worcester describe print comics as having “flippability” – that is we can flip back and forth across the book and quickly find passages because images stay with us so strongly. David Mazzucchelli uses this to great effect in Asterios Polyp, where scattered throughout the book he depicts the main character’s living room five different times. Same room, same angle, same panel size – only the contents in the room have changed in the periods of the character’s life portrayed.





I think even if we might not consciously recognize that it’s happening, we still feel it – and as we become more aware of it, his decision to do this prompts the reader to flip back and forth – and likely notice similar instances (like his inclusion of a tiny image of an airplane in the background of all the dream sequences…). Comics let us play with that visual recall without ever having to explicitly announce it.

In the case of the feet, I knew I was going to something about my shoe problem from the very start of the project (though not the larger crowdsourcing project I ended up doing), so it was important to seed the idea at the outset. There’s a pun with the word “tracks” in the first chapter with a baby up on its feet for a first time. Perseus’s winged sandals show up in the interlude following, and more instances spring up from there, so by the time it’s front and center, the significance of feet/shoes should be, umm, kicking around in reader’s heads by then.

Much like learning a new word and then hearing it three times the next day, I’ve found something strange happens when I have in mind some thematic symbol to incorporate throughout – it starts to proliferate and rear its head in places I didn’t expect. In an earlier work, I made a page that uses rabbits as the theme for each panel. Prompted by seeing a t-shirt with the Trix rabbit, led me to the White Rabbit, and all of a sudden I started seeing rabbits everywhere.

So in some sense, I feel like these motifs take on a bit of a life of their own. In the case of the unflattening symbol – the stylized side-view of an open eye – it’s hinted at in my very first sketch for the project (reproduced in the back of the book), where I paralleled the opening of a door with the opening of the eye – this doorway to the world. It first shows up in the book as I diagrammed Eratosthenes’s measurement of the earth – and that ended up being the place where I defined “unflattening,” in words at least, and so it made sense for it to reappear at other points where I was more directly addressing the concept.

I started noticing other drawings I made that could be transformed into this ‘eye’: the profile view of me drawing at my desk in the fourth chapter, the open door in the fifth, Artemis and her bow, even the side view of a person looking at their own reflection. I feel like each instance of this visual can’t help but draw you back to the others – consciously or not, and that starts to ravel the whole work together – linking it all in rhizomatic fashion.

So now not only are images affecting other images upon any single page, they are starting to speak to one another across the entire book! We take in so much about our world visually that we’re not even aware of, and we can employ this in comics to compound meaning. It’s possible some of this never gets caught by a reader, and that’s okay. But maybe on a second pass it does – and then they’re reading it with different eyes, encountering it from a changed perspective – which is the point.

Nick Sousanis received his doctorate at Columbia University, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comics form. Titled Unflattening, it is now a book from Harvard University Press. He’s presented on his work and the importance of visual thinking in education at such institutions as Stanford, Princeton, UCLA, and Microsoft Research, along with keynote addresses for the Visitors Studies Association’s and the International Visual Literacy Association. He has taught courses on comics as powerful communication tools at Columbia, Parsons, and now at the University of Calgary, where he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies.

Nick’s website:


Geeking Out About the Comics Medium with Unflattening’s Nick Sousanis (Part Two)

Given the book’s emphasis on getting us to reflect on seeing (and other sensory perceptions) as part of the thinking process, I wondered about your choice to publish the book in black and white rather than in color. Does restricting the color palette force us to more actively work to fill in the blanks? Or would color have added another whole dimension to your argument?

Hmmm… My choice was primarily based on economics. Since I print and give away copies of my work all the time, color printing would break me! Also, I think I’m more comfortable working in black and white. It is possible that working in black and white makes it seem more dignified – frequently the pages feel like woodcuts or etchings, and that may align it more with artistic traditions and proto-comics like Frans Masereel or Lynd Ward than the four-colored newsprint Ben-Day dots so negatively associated with comics. Though none of that was my intent.

That said – there were places I really wanted color and it would have helped me! Simple things like the two page sequence (p. 36-7) where I show the green glasses given to Dorothy and co. when they enter the Emerald City (in the book version).



That sequence continues as white light is split by a prism into the spectrum and spot color for it all would’ve been great. My page discussing multimodality (p. 65) would’ve been an entirely different concept had I been working in color.




Not having color forced me to invent more complicated analogies. I juxtaposed typewriter keys with an orchestra pit and all the different sounds that can emanate from it – all mapped to expressive fonts and symbols (emanata) we might use in comics.


When I give talks on comics and discuss their multimodal strengths, I always share a page from David Mazzucchelli’s beautiful Asterios Polyp. There he plays with color, artistic style, fonts, and balloon style to great effect. So I can imagine color both enhancing existing pages I did and then radically changing pages based on having a different means of working available to me from the ground up. And certainly given the Oz allusions, it might’ve been fun, if somewhat predictable, to go from the grey opening chapter to increasingly Technicolor pages moving forward.

Sergei Eisenstein once boasted that he could present the arguments of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital via a silent, montage film (but he never actually did so). This claim came to mind for me on several levels as I worked through your book: first, it reminded me that most comic books for instructive purposes focus on concrete elements which can be depicted easily, where-as you have sought ways here to communicate a much more abstract argument (much more like Das Kapital than like the themes that Eisenstein actually did depict through his work.

Second, you do not seek to communicate these ideas through images alone; rather, the work depends on the complex interweaving of words and images (a point you raise many times).

And third, many people have argued that while in a broad sense any idea can be communicated through any medium, there are some constraints and affordances which make some ideas easier to express than others. There are places here where it seems you purposefully set out to do nonfiction comics the hard way, pushing against what the medium did easily, to see where the affordances might break down. Responses?

On the list of things I wish I’d tried/had space/time for – an entirely wordless chapter is near the top, and it is something I intend to do in a forthcoming project. But as far as doing things the hard way – ha! – yeah, I suppose that’s true.

Long before I’d come to the doctoral program, I’d abandoned having a visible narrator to carry my discussion. Using one comes with certain advantages – you always have something to draw! But I felt there was much more to be explored with comics – and making use of the range the medium offers. I think that a visible narrator can often serve as a simple placeholder for the text – and so it becomes a way of making words more easily digestible, more approachable – all of which are certainly good things – but it doesn’t necessarily add something to the words.

I wanted to make comics that present ideas as complex as we form them within our bodies – with all the layers, the uncertainty, etc. I never start with text or a script and then come up with pictures for it. I begin with an idea I want to convey, a question I have, and then try images and text that help me get at it.

The hardest thing here is I never know what I’m going to draw – there is nothing to fall back on. Some ideas suggest images right away and some go through many, many iterations before I arrive at a suitable arrangement of visuals (the initial concept for that aforementioned page on multimodality was of an omelet and all the ingredients mixed into it! I think it would have been productive, but it kept not working for various reasons).



And what’s also key here is that I don’t know what I’m going to say until the whole comes together. For instance, on the page with the tightrope walker/cats cradle (p. 91) – I ended up calling imagination “both binding agent and action” spanning “gaps in perception” – and that was because the visuals suggested that text (a cats cradle binds even as it serves as an active bridge between moments), which ended up being just the right way to talk about what I was doing around imagination.

It is hard, this not knowing what you’re going to do, but it’s exciting. It’s generative. The pages that finally emerge out of the sketching/thinking process so often come as a surprise to me – I really relish that!

Throughout Unflattening, there were the shifts in representational style throughout and often on the same page — between naturalistic and iconic/stylized images, between concrete and abstract images, between representational and diagrams and maps, between idiosyncratic and shared cultural symbols, and in some cases, between a full page of text and pages much more centered on images. To what degree are these shifts part of your strategy for getting people to think about how and what they are seeing?

Yes, the shifts are entirely intended to do just that! As the central core of this book is seeing from multiple perspectives – literally drawing from multiple perspectives was key throughout. The extreme cases of this were when I altered drawing styles entirely from panel to panel on the faucet and rose pages. What does that mean for me as the maker to draw differently? And how does that affect the reader?

The page of all text is meant to come across as jarring, and reinforce my point. The first chapter is the most consistent in style – dense, almost etched-linework, clearly laborious and involved drawing. I wanted to ensure a possibly skeptical academic audience that I could indeed draw and it’s further designed to be pretty straightforward compositionally for someone with even the most limited experience reading comics.

From there I could, as with the concept itself, start to open things up, and play with more conceptual approaches. Early on, as word of my work was getting out, there was some understandable misconception that it was entirely on comics. It is very much an argument for its own existence and for that of things like it, but only a small part of it is explicitly about comics. However, the whole thing is intended to be a demonstration about what comics can do – so I was very conscious of wanting to highlight the diversity of ways comics can organize and present ideas – in style and composition.

As I said above, the creation of each page begins with an idea, guided by this question – what does the idea feel like? Perhaps even more so than the style of drawing, I want the composition, the reader’s movement to be part of the meaning, and I think in that regard I’m thinking about the connection between comics and architecture, and maybe even comics and dance – how do you move through it, how does it move you?

So each page has an aesthetic style (or range) and a particular flow that feels appropriate to convey the idea. My thoughts to greatly vary my compositions were reinforced early on by a comment from my wife, where she kept looking at pages over my shoulder and saying ‘I’ve never seen a page like that before.’ And so I made a point of not having any compositions repeat in the book!

It’s important to me that comics aren’t simply what we put in the panels (which is why “guided view” comics apps don’t make a lot of sense to me in terms of how I work), but the assembled whole of visual elements. So sometimes I do lean more towards information design because that’s how the idea takes shape. I’m quite interested to study more of information visualization, and see how I can bring that back to comics (in my current course, I have several information visualization students, and I’m excited to learn from them). I think there is much to be gained for comics artists to see what’s going on in these related forms as a way of expanding what comics can be. Why not use every tool at our disposal? And why not make scholarship that is beautiful?

Nick Sousanis received his doctorate at Columbia University, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comics form. Titled Unflattening, it is now a book from Harvard University Press. He’s presented on his work and the importance of visual thinking in education at such institutions as Stanford, Princeton, UCLA, and Microsoft Research, along with keynote addresses for the Visitors Studies Association’s and the International Visual Literacy Association. He has taught courses on comics as powerful communication tools at Columbia, Parsons, and now at the University of Calgary, where he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies.

Nick’s website:

Geeking Out About The Comics Medium with Unflattening’s Nick Sousanis (Part One)

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About a year ago, I was asked by the Harvard University Press to be a peer-reviewer for a remarkable book — Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening. I had heard rumors that a PhD candidate had written his dissertation entirely in the comics form and I was intrigued to see what the finished product looked like, perhaps skeptical that it could be good on both levels — good scholarship and more importantly, good comics. So, I was unprepared by what I was sent — this was not simply good comics, whatever that might mean, but transformative comics, comics that stretched the medium in all different directions, comics which made us think about comics were in new ways. On one level, it reminded me of my experience first reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, but it also got me thinking about those comics artists whose expressive use of the medium taught us to rethink what comics are implicitly if not explicitly — Chris Ware, Will Eisner, David Mazzuchelli, David Mack, Richard McGuire, Art Spigelman, etc.

So this is what I ended up writing (and after several more reads, I stand by it):

“An important book, Unflattening is consistently innovative, using abstraction alongside realism, using framing and the (dis)organization of the page to represent different modes of thought. The words and images speak for themselves and succeed on their own terms. I couldn’t stop reading it.”

So, when the book appeared, I reached out to its author and asked Sousanis if he would subject himself to an interview. Again, he has surpassed my expectations. What follows is a four part interview where the two of us really geek out about comics as a medium and about its unfulfilled potentials. He has interesting things to say about specific pages in Unflattening, but beyond that, we take up what comics may do to expand human perceptions and thoughts (yeah, heady, thinky stuff!) and beyond that, about the potentials and limits of multi sensory expression. Fastening your seat belts, dear reader, for a bumpy ride. And as Nick noted, he ended up putting almost as many words on the page here as appears in the book itself. What follows is not just for comics fans, though, but for anyone who is interesting in exploring how media work.

You write, “a changed approach is precisely the goal for the journey ahead: to discover new ways of seeing, to open spaces for possibilities, and to find ‘fresh methods’ for animating and awakening.” To what degree are these goals you are setting for comics as a medium? To what degree are these goals you are setting for academic writing more generally?

As with most things in the book, my intention was two- or more-fold. The choice to work with metaphorical language and imagery let me address something at once specific but leave it open to other interpretations. Here, I definitely wanted to make the claim that changed approaches for academic work and institutional approaches to learning were possible and necessary. That the visual, among other things, had a place in being a part of what thinking looks like and that by embracing such methods, we might arrive at a changed place in how we do our thinking. I do, of course, taking up comics specifically at some point. And so, I think in this way, the work itself is very much setting out to reframe the perception of comics. Even if we had known comics can handle serious stories for a long time now, I wanted to say with this work – comics can handle anything in any domain.

Your opening critique of life lived within confined and preset grids can be as much a critique of many contemporary comics as it is an analogy for the limits of human expression and experience more generally. Clearly, your work has been inspired by Scott McCloud’s call for us to think of comics as a more generalized mode of expression which can convey a variety of ideas and concepts, not simply a limit number of genres and formats. So, in what ways did McCloud’s Understanding Comics pave the way for a project like this one?

While I hadn’t intended for that talk of boxes to directly reference comics, I appreciate the irony of discussing moving outside of boxes even as I work in a form that tends to be defined by organizing within boxes! J (Though I have in the past made comics that played with the concept of boxes using the literal nature of comics panels to make that point.)



Understanding Comics certainly had and continues to have a significant impact on me, as has McCloud’s inspiration as a champion of the form more generally. I think you’re exactly right, it pointed out that comics could tackle all kinds of subjects and not be limited to narrative genres, and really it showed both how much thought went into making comics and how much thinking could be conveyed through them. That inspired me, and certainly emboldened my own explorations. And Understanding Comics is an obvious thing to point to as precedent when making the argument for my own work – as I hope Unflattening might be for scholar-artists to come.

You’ve said in a number of interviews that you wanted to use Unflattening to help broaden the circuits through which academic ideas travel, so that these conversations were able to reach people who would not otherwise encounter scholarly or philosophical works. What is it about comics which seems to open up those possibilities and based on what you’ve observed so far about your book’s reception, have you found a general reading public ready to think of these levels? Does this link your book to other contemporary projects, such as work to convert ideas about film analysis into videos that circulate on YouTube?

Certainly comics offer the appearance of approachability. Pictures are inviting and the prevailing attitude around comics are that they’re easy. I see this as a means to subvert expectations – you pick up one of my comics assuming it will be simple and light, and yet because of how much information can be conveyed through images, through page composition, and through the interaction between image and text, they can be deceptively complex. While the title “Unflattening” must seem like it came about as a reference to Flatland or Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, works I do draw on heavily, it actually came to me as a way to describe what comics could do, and how they could fit more density of information than seems possible in a small space and offer an expansive dimension for communicating ideas. It was only as I got deeper into my work that the notion of unflattening merged with the broader philosophical concerns I was after. The inclusion of Flatland at all was almost an afterthought, because I figured given the title I should do something with it, and then it ended up becoming a central metaphor!

In addition to blogging my work as I went, all through my doctoral program, I printed up and gave away excerpts of it to anyone I encountered long enough to have a conversation about what I do. People read it. And they got it. And that has continued. I’m thinking I couldn’t have done the same thing with a more traditionally formatted scholarly article! (The looks I would’ve gotten handing out a typed paper with APA formatting on it…)

But again, that doesn’t mean any of this was simplified. I made a conscious choice early on to not use domain specific terms or what felt like loaded language, and keep the work deeply in the realm of metaphor. This to me was a way to make it more accessible while maintaining depth of content. It was not about dumbing down but providing a means for readers to come up and find their own way into the work. And again, I’ve seen that happen.

And now that the book is out, I’ve had the curious experience of having people tweet me pictures of their children – one as young as six – reading it! That caught me by surprise. I expected it to be read by advanced high school readers and upward (and along with college and graduate courses, it is already being used in high school situations). But I think this speaks to the ways that we can read images – even when the words aren’t yet in our vocabulary.

I have seen my work listed alongside the “dance your dissertation” and other such phenomenon of academia made fun or easy. I like these – anything that communicates the ideas to broader audiences seems positive to me. But it was central to me that the work be the work – not some watered down version of the real thing. If the means of communication are truly up to the task – as I was certain that comics were – then it’s essential to let them stand on their own.

Nick Sousanis received his doctorate at Columbia University, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comics form. Titled Unflattening, it is now a book from Harvard University Press. He’s presented on his work and the importance of visual thinking in education at such institutions as Stanford, Princeton, UCLA, and Microsoft Research, along with keynote addresses for the Visitors Studies Association’s and the International Visual Literacy Association. He has taught courses on comics as powerful communication tools at Columbia, Parsons, and now at the University of Calgary, where he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies.

Nick’s website:

My Talk at the Godrej India Culture Lab



What follows are some selections from my travel diary describing the major talk I gave at the Godrej India Culture Lab, the most significant address I gave during my time in India. This was a total head rush experience, as is reflected by the somewhat giddy and a bit braggy tone of this narrative.

Parmesh is working up the crowd, personally welcoming everyone who arrives. The 250 seat auditorium is starting to overflow the seats. People are sitting on the stairs, standing in back, even sitting on the floor directly in front of the stage. U.S. fire marshals would have shut much of this down, but in the end, I am told that some 400 people turned up for the talk.



Parmesh has been pumping it everywhere we’ve been; it’s gotten a significant amount of media coverage, and the people turned out. There’s a whole group of students from Sophia who were the ones I went rice planting with. There are a number of individuals who have hosted us at various stops along the way. There’s a former MIT student who came down to tell me how The Film Experience had changed her life. There are some nervous fan girls who are afraid to ask me to autograph battered copies of Textual Poachers. A number of people have shown up wearing superhero-themed clothes: everything from Batgirl themed T-shirts to plush minions dangling from their purses.



Parmesh is wearing hand crafted leather Bat-ears; several women are wearing traditional tunics – one with Hulks, another with Bam, Pow, Zowie, prints.


It’s clear that my talk is giving the crowd permission to geek out. Parmesh introduces me, pouring on the hype. No pressure there.… And then I bound on stage, shouting out “Hello Mumbai” in my best rock star impersonation, and the crowd goes wild.


They could not have been more engaged or enthusiastic; they laugh at the jokes; they clap at multiple points during the presentation; they are taking notes, and they are with me every step of the way through a talk that was a bit longer than the one hour promised. Then, we get another hour of questions from the playful (“what super-powers would I like?”) to the thoughtful (questions about inequalities of access and participation, about freedom of expression and net neutrality, about Twitter mobs, about how we develop standards of excellence for digital expression or norms of behavior within online communities).


And then, the talk ends, and for the next two hours, people are crowding around me, wanting Selfies, wanting autographs (one person has brought a copy of Convergence Culture that I had signed in 2006 and he wants me to sign it again), asking me questions. There are students and academics, some of whom have driven half-way across the country to be there. There were novelists, playwrights, artists, fashion designers, filmmakers, recording artists, game designers, brand executives, transmedia producers, activists, journalists…. Here I am with the group of Sophia students.


Overwhelmingly, they are young (more than 50 percent of the population of India is under 30) but some of the most enthusiastic supporters in the crowd are “of a certain age.” There was such eagerness in their eyes to engage more deeply with these ideas, and many said I gave them a framework to articulate things they have been trying to say for a long time.

When we get back to the room, I lay awake for a while reading through the social media response –  several hundred tweets  and they are being retweeted and retweeted. I slip off to sleep and wake up again at 4 a.m. and another 50 or so tweets went out while I was sleeping. I lay awake for a while, adrenaline pumping through my body, and then doze back off. This morning there’s another 50 or so tweets or retweets popping up and there’s no signs of it slowing down just yet.

So here’s the video of the event released by the Godrej India Culture Lab.


Transplanting Rice in Rural India

Early in the trip, we paid a visit to Sophia Polytechnique, which runs the Social Communications Media program, considered to be one of India’s best communication and journalism programs. Sophia has historically been an all-women school, but has started to branch out in recent years to include more male students. The school had been founded in the 1970s with the goal of empowering and training women to enter the professional realm. They run a professional program for journalists, which runs 10 months, 2 semesters, and includes 10 courses – roughly the pace of the Journalism masters program we offer at USC. The program places a strong emphasis on experiential learning (learning by doing) and doing work out in the community with the goal of developing strong social commitments and civic engagement in their students.

One of the things they do early on in the term is to take their mostly urban students out into the country side where they get to muck about in rice paddies transplanting rice. It turned out that they were going to be doing one of these field trips a few days later and  I decided to join them for the experience. They shared with us a range of their student projects, many of which deal with issues of rural and migrant labor and problems of urban poverty. What follows is my diary entry for this day of the trip.

Early rise today – I am being picked up at 6:45 a.m. for our trip to the Kamshet rice fields with Sophia students and faculty. By the time I get to the bus stop, it’s clear I’ve started to corrupt my own field work, since word is getting around town that I am interested in Superheroes, so a number of the students are turning up wearing t-shirts with Spider-Man or Super-Man or Captain America. I later learn that they had been assigned to read the Fusion article about Superman and Immigration politics, and I get asked questions about it throughout the day.


My favorite shirt of the day mashed up Iron Man and the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones – I want that shirt!



The students are excited about the trip. Most of them grew up in urban areas and many have never been to a farm before, let alone worked with rice. Some of the faculty say their fathers are a bit ashamed that their daughters are going to work in the field for class or caste reasons. We are visiting a farm which belongs to Dinesh Balsaver, the father-in-law of Sunitha Chitrapu, the head teacher for this expedition, an alum of the Comm program at University of Indiana-Bloomington. She jokes that she has a PhD from America but her father-in-law is still making her work in the rice fields. Her father in law bought the farm land when he was in his 20s but only really started to work the land after he retired in his 60s. He spent his life selling chemical fertilizers, but he is now an outspoken advocate of organic farming processes (as we will hear later in the day). He is now in his 80s. The students have been full of anxieties about what might be lurking in the water – creepy crawlies, leaches – but I am happy to report that we confronted no such hazards.

The bus drivers are having a grand old time honking their horns back and forth amongst the truckers and other bus drivers they pass along the road. I am told this is a ritual to keep them all awake during long cross-country drives. But at one point, they all perform a song on their horns, which was pretty masterful, actually. At one point, a group of policemen try to pull the buss over. Sunitha suggests that they are going to try to shake us down for some bribes before they will let us pass. Much to her astonishment, the driver gives the cop one of these characteristic head woggles (which I read as something close to an eye roll) and then drives off without bothering to stop. The cops do not pursue us – as an American cop almost certainly would have.

On the return trip, the professors are more emboldened. One of the toll stops we encounter was supposed to be shut down on June 1. There had been a protest against the toll because it was illegally close to the others; the protestors vandalized the station. The government chastised them for the violence but agreed to shut down the toll by June 1. But it is clearly in operation. When one of the professors asks the toll booth operator about the situation, he waves us on through without charging, but then continues to collect money from all of the other vehicles in line behind us. But it’s a bad idea to do this for a bus full of journalism students, since they plan to write a follow up story.

We stop for breakfast at a kind of massive truck stop with many small shops and eateries. Except for the scale on which it is operating, it reminds me very much of similar roadside stops you could see along the road in the U.S.. For example, there are stands selling ice cream, popcorn, and especially dried fruit and various nut products. On the return trip, we pick up what is essentially peanut brittle to bring back to Cynthia.

From here, we are going higher into the Western Ghats mountains, which are breathtaking: not like the rounded hills of the Blue Ridge or the jagged and arid peaks of the West Coast chains. They do remind me of the images I have seen of the Himalayas but not nearly as high. They are lush right now. I am told that the monsoon season turn hills that are brown most of the year into something really lush with plant life, and that all of the cars we are seeing are driving north to enjoy the waterfalls which are formed from the rains. We do see some really beautiful ones from the bus. We also spot a few monkeys sitting along the side of the road watching the cars drive past. Every so often we see what seems like a massive apartment complex in the middle of nowhere. These are for people who drive up from the city for a country experience but expect to live precisely as they live back home. I’ve certain seen this tendency in the North Georgia mountains but never to such a literal degree.


As we get closer to the farm, we start to see a shift in attire – the men are now mostly wearing white, from the creased cap on the top of their heads down through their pressed jackets and creased pants, and riding motorcycles, because at a certain point, the bus is no longer able to make the turns on the winding country roads. The students walk, but the father-in-law insists on taking me by car out of respect for my age. (I was told by the way that when we had met the Sophia principal, she had been astonished that I knew so much about digital media because, “well, you know, he’s a gentleman of a certain age.”) You can imagine how well this privilege goes down with me, but I take it all in good humor. What are you going to do!

Since we arrive by car, we arrive a good deal earlier than the others, so I am taken on a tour of the farm. First, we visit a little three room school house.



All of the walls are covered by texts of various kinds, including elaborate charts of the alphabets and numbering system (with numbers identified in English, Hindi, and Marathi (the language of this region). There is a picture of Gandhi hanging over the blackboard. And there’s a television in the corner from which they receive educational broadcasts from the state. There are three rooms – one for preschool, one for the younger students, one for the older.


Outside the top two grades there are pictures and accounts of national leaders, including Nehru (another Prime Minister) and Ambedkar (the leader of the untouchables and author of the constitution, the subject of the graphic novel).


Outside the preschool classroom there are a series of cartoon characters. There are two that are clearly intended to resemble Mickey Mouse, one in western garb, one a bit more distorted in Indian clothing. And then there is a tall lanky fellow with a dog-like face and a tall cap who may or may not have been intended as Goofy. It is really hard to judge in this context since the localization process has been more extensive here.

Zhumber, the head laborer – a woman (more about her in a moment) – shows me her house. It is much more spacious than those we visited yesterday in the slums (and we are told that her son has gotten a high paying job in the city so this is not typical of a laborer’s house in the country). She has a massive salt water aquarium. I am most interested in her shrine – the television set is right in the middle, in a place of privilege, in an area set aside for the worship of her gods. We are also go out back to a shed where she has a massive black water buffalo which is used for farm labor.

By this time, we are all assembling, so I go with the others out to the rice fields, and we are given a lesson in how to transplant the rice. Apparently, rice grows better if it is uprooted and replanted during the growth cycle, so we are each handled several bundles of rice plants with dangling roots. Our job is to wade out into the water and press a cluster of three rice plants down into the mucky soil, pressing down with our fingers, not the roots. The water is actually warm since it is fairly shallow and thus gathers heat from the sun. The bottom of the river has some pebbles but is mostly oozy mud mixed with cow dug and compost veggie matter. The area where we are doing the planting is not quite solid so that the dirt spreads easily around your fingers.

We are moving out in shifts and each of us has about twenty minutes to experience the planting process under the supervision of the head laborer.



Zhumber is extremely dark skinned and withered, she walks barefoot at all times, and she wears very traditional pants that are swaddled around the back so as to avoid getting into the water. She lays down the plants machine-gun fast, even as we are still struggling to understand and repeat the process. I am sure she could have done everything the whole class did in roughly the same amount of time but she is very patient and smiling. I am told that she is the one who oversees all of the other laborers on the farm.



The teachers are urging the students to sing traditional farm labor songs, but none of them seem to know any, so one suggests they sing songs from Lagaan.


While we are working in the paddies, a male farm laborer comes up with a plow, which he surfs on top of, pulled behind two buffalo, as he is processing the field. Traditionally, men do the plowing and women do the planting. After our turn in the paddies, we go off to the pump where we wash our feet, hands, and legs of the mud, and then we walk down to the banks of the Indrayani river when we wait on a dam for the others to complete their tasks. As we are standing there, a woman and her daughter below are washing their clothes in the river and beating them out on the rocks.


After the time in the field, we go back to the school house where we are served cups of hot Chai and some pastry-like cookies, given a packet of the locally produced rice, and Dinesh Balsaver lectures us about the virtues of organic farming of rice. He explains basically that you pay a little more in the store, but that this process is much better for India, which has produced enormous poverty because it has done such damage to the soil over time, both because of the hot sun and the use of chemicals and salt-based water. These kinds of traditional farming methods are gradually restoring the quality of the land and making it possible to produce more crops and as a result, they are bringing more jobs to Indian farmers. The pitch for organic foods in the U.S. are very much pitched towards the health of the consumer, but this is about the health of the land and of the nation.


Digital Culture in Dharavi

One of the many fascinating people that Parmesh Shahani, our host from the Godrej India Culture Lab, introduced to us was Dina Mehta, who is a trained ethnographer who works for corporate clients here in India and around the world. In the course of conversation, she asked whether we would like to visit one of India’s slums. There has been a rise in slum tourism in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire, which interests me very little, but she and her team of ethnographers maintain ongoing relationships in this community, and she offers to set up some interviews for us so we can develop a better understanding of how people live there and especially how they relate to media, old and new.  The photographs used here are a mixture of those taken by Cynthia Jenkins and by Shubhangi Athalye, a member of Mehta’s team. What follows are my field notes from my experiences that day.

Today, we met Dena Mehta at her apartment, since she was taking us out into the field to do some ethnographic work in Dharavi, which she describes as Asia’s biggest slum. Along the way, Dena points out to us the Chawls, which are old tentament structures which were established in the mid-century to house workers at the local textile mills. Each of the buildings are 4-5 stories tall and have 10-20 apartments per floor: each apartment is one room for sleeping and then shared public areas and bathrooms. The Chawls are the focus of some nostalgia here as they have come to stand for a particular communal lifestyle, but they are vanishing rapidly as gentrification hits these areas (see my earlier discussion of the ways that the Mills are being repurposed for corporate office space, etc.)

We are met on the outskirts of the slum by an elected representative from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) , which is currently the ruling party of India and is known to be very right-wing, Hindu nationalists, but also deeply rooted in the poorest urban areas of the country. Narendra Modi, India’s current head of state, came from this party and he rose to power in part on the basis of his promise to bring more toilets to India, which John Oliver did some comic riffs on, but having visited here, it is no joke. Sanitation is one of the biggest challenges facing this community. Individual quarters do not have toilets; people tend to go to public facilities to wash or do other things, which can be some blocks away from where they live, and are massively crowded. They may also go in buckets which get dumped, along with the trash, in the open sewer which runs along the outskirts. The streets of Mumbai are densely populated and chaotic, but that was just a dress rehearsal for what we encountered here.



We are told that something like 1.2 million people live in this tightly packed area of the city, many of them stacked on top of each other, and that this area has become a kind of refuge camp for migrants from other regions, with the result that they are dealing with enormous cultural and linguistic diversity. Even to our still uninformed eyes, it is not hard to spot real differences in dress and speech. As we are arriving, a group of Muslim men are kneeling on blankets beside the road as they begin their prayer, and we hear the sounds of the prayer in the background for much of our first round of conversations here. We pass many women wearing Burkas. But we also encounter brightly dressed women in Saris passing alongside them in the streets.


The area is a maze of narrow, winding streets, and we walk along one of them to discover a colony of potters, whose family have been making clay pots for generations.


The women are sitting on the ground, slapping and pounding the clay and starting to shape it. A few buildings down we see the clay pots sitting in coals as a kind of kiln.




20150704_134949We spoke with one local family inside their home, and learn that they have been able to gradually improve their quality of life thanks to loans from a local support system: different groups, based on their unions, their religions, and their ethnicity pool money for mutual support and they are able to take out low interest loans. The political leader also tells us that families can get government loans but that this program is still not very well understood.

These large Indian families live in households which on average are 180 square feet, though the politician claims that their goal is to increase this to 279 feet in the coming few years. These homes, as we observed, mostly consist of an entry area, a sitting room where people work by day and all of the family members sleep at night, and sometimes, a separate kitchen. In some cases, the space is split between a shop downstairs and a living quarters upstairs, which is reached by climbing up a rather steep ladder. We were able to visit in three different homes during the day – in each, the furnishing are sparse, with people sleeping on mats on the floor, and perhaps a few seats, but all of the homes we visited had television sets. We were told that their daily life is structured, in part, around water: water runs through the pipes from 4-7 A.M., which is when they do their housework and also store water for the rest of the day in jugs or bottles for further use.



As we walk down the street, it is clear that most of these people are involved in either some form of craft or are shopkeepers. There are many stalls along the way selling fresh fruits and veggies. We are also told that much of the illicit goods that circulate in Bombay come from this area – including bootleg copies of dvds and CDs, but also, for example, knock-off Gucci bags, but even knockoff versions of simple household items, for example Life Buoy soap or brand name crackers.

The politician works the neighborhood like an old Ward politico in the states: he stops along the way to talk to his constituents by name, and they all seem to know him. He has a degree in Print-Making from an arts school, but his child was born with Autistic and so he went back to learn special education and now works part of each day at the local schools. But he spends 4-5 hours a day walking through the neighborhood to resolve disputes and help connect people to government services. We are told that he is also involved with RSS which he described as an organization which “looks after our Indian culture,” but which others described to us as borderline fascist. He told us that the police simply can not handle all of the problems of this area so they have created a diverse counsel of senior citizens who are called upon to work through conflicts on a local level and not involve the cops unless it is totally necessary. As we are talking standing on a street corner, I am watching over his shoulder as more and more people start to gather around us, some staring openly, some coyly trying to pay attention to something else, many glaring at us, and all trying to figure out why this white guy is taking so many notes. Just as I am afraid we are about to get completely mobbed, there are horns blaring, and the politician realizes we are blocking the street and we move along.


As we are standing there, a Muslim man, Shaikh Fakhrul Islam, approaches us.



He is a local doctor and social worker but more interestingly, he is a journalist who runs a news organization, C24 news. The group engages citizen journalists all over the ghetto who send him photographs and reports via What’sAPP, which is a kind of social media platform.



He and a few other writers consolidate the information into news reports which go out over their website and their Facebook page. He is able to use the site to advocate on behalf of his community. He specifically mentioned that he has women come to him and say “I can not fight my own battle. Will you help me fight my battle,” and he stands up against domestic abuse and rape culture in this community. He also has been able to focus attention on local problems and get faster government response – for example, flooding caused by the monsoon. As we leave, he turns to us and says “remember me in your prayers.” The politician takes a more skeptical view of the whole operation. He believes that the doctor is a decent fellow and well meaning, but he wonders where the money is coming from to support the operation and what interests he may be serving.


We travel to another section of this community and are met by Adrana, an adolescent girl, who is wearing what seems to be clearly her very best dress, her younger cousin also in a festive dress tagging along behind her, and she shows us the way back to her family home. We climb a rather steep ladder up to their living quarters, and find her mother and father, a sister-in-law and her husband, another girl, and two more boys waiting for us, (adding to the five members of our ethnographic expedition) in what is a one room home.


The father is a tailor and he has shoved his sewing machine into the corner to make room for the guests. We focus our attention on Adrana, who has agreed to the interview, but we end up engaging with the whole family, including the younger sibling, who periodically ask us such questions as “What gods do you worship?” or “What is in America?” and we do our best to answer. From the shrine in the corner, this is clearly a Hindi home. Adrana is in 12th Grade and goes to a local commerce college; she was accepted into a credit-bearing educational institution based on her test scores but her family could not afford to send her to a college which charged for tuition. She is studying economics and she tells us she hopes to go on and get a PhD and then become the CEO of a company. Everything she tells us places a strong emphasis on her studies, and it is clear she is smart and ambitious.

Much of this and the other interviews are in local languages, which Dena’s team is helping to translate for us but every so often she breaks out into English. My thought was that she wanted us to know she could speak the language and she does so beautifully: she said that she is taught in English but that her friends and family do not speak it outside the classroom. Dena later suggested that she spoke in English when she did not want her mother to understand what she was saying. So, for example, she told us at one point that boys did “bad things” on the net but girls did not, so I asked what “bad things,” and after some evasion, she finally says “blue movies.”

She said she would have preferred to go to the Credit-bearing school, because they did not require her to dress in traditional Indian clothes, and she would prefer to dress in western clothes, such as jeans or shorts. She gets up, she said, at 5:56 every morning, helps her mother with the housework and bathes, then goes to school at around 7 and returns around 4 pm. We had learned from the politico earlier that the local schools run on shifts because they cannot seat all of the students from this community at the same time. She says with some pride that she is becoming a good cook just like her mother.

We talked a lot about her media consumption. She points with pride to the flat screen television on the wall, but also says that the set is brand-new, replacing one that gave out a year or so back: it still has packaging around it that lists its price, etc. Asked about what she watched on television, she identified only Hindi-language Indian-made shows, most of them dramas about high school and college life. Her younger brother announced that he especially liked WWE wrestling. When asked what movies she likes, she again identifies Hindi stars and films, with a strong emphasis on those which involve dance. She specifically mentioned wanting to see Disney’s Any Body Can Dance 2 (or ABCD as it is called). She said that she liked to do Bollywood dance but they could not afford lessons, so she practiced along to the music videos she saw on television.

She has internet access primarily at her Uncle’s house, who lives nearby and is an accountant, so he needs to have a computer at home. For the most part, she accesses the web through her mobile phone, which she about a year and received for her birthday from her father. She says she uses it to access Facebook: “All my friends use Facebook so she needs to use it.” She also likes to download images of actors and actresses, which she uses as her profile picture, since she is told that it would be dangerous for her as a young woman to publish her picture on the web. She also likes to collect quotes, words of inspiration and wisdom from famous people, which she exchanges with her friends and uses to model her life.

She also uses her phone to download songs and exchange them via Bluetooth with her friends. Dena told us that they pass the phones around with all of the members of the family so there is essentially no privacy about what they download, and she mentioned gathering around the computer at her Uncle’s house with four or five other female relatives, all working on Facebook at once. When asked what she looks up, she used as an example “who invented the selfie stick” and said she was especially interested in science facts and discoveries.

I tried to get a sense of her model of the civic by asking how she would deal with a problem in her community. She said first she would bring the problem to her mother and father, to her high school friends or to the tutor she works with (who seems to play an important mentor role on all aspects of her life). At school, if you brought a problem to the principal, they would yell at the students and then fix the problem. In the neighborhood, she would rely on the council of elders or if needed, a local representative like our initial guide. She also described how her circle of friends, from different backgrounds in the community, worked together to insure they all did well in school, helping weaker students, learning from stronger students.

She seemed very interested in the fact that I am author and wanted to know if I was going to write about her in one of my books: she loves to read and it turns out that she mostly likes one writer who does thick stories about college life in India. She asks for my autograph and wants to take her picture with me, and she follows us down the street as we leave, still asking us about America.


We drove to another location, past some Quonset Huts which had been left here by the British during World War II. They are semi-circular buildings with corregated metal roofs (or in some cases, now, with blue plastic tarps stretched over gaping holes in the roof).


We walked past a group of young men gathered around a game board and we were told that they were playing Carrom. It is played on a flat game board with pockets on the four corners. It is something close to pool except that it is played with flat game pieces of varied sizes which you slide across the board. So at the start, the smaller pieces are all on the center, and the goal is to use the bigger pieces to push them into the pockets. The game seemed to involved 5-6 players, though I could not tell how many of these were just watching and waiting their turns.


We are here to visit Nitesh, a young man 3-4 years older than Adrana. He lives with his father and his elder brother in this house; his elder sister is married and lives elsewhere; his grandparents live in the adjacent house. For several generations, they have lived in this area. He works in an office where he collects and documents checks for local workers. We ask whether he likes to work there, and he says “It’s OK. It’s What I do.” He works 9-6 six days a week with Sundays off and commutes via train which gets him home around 7 pm. Later, we asked him about his aspirations. He wants to own a Royal Enfield motor bike; but for now, he is saving money.

He plans to get married when he has saved enough. He tells us “nowadays everyone is doing love marriages” but his mother comes from the village and she will expect him to accept an arranged marriage and “I will need to listen to her.” We ask what he wants to do in the future and he has no professional goals: “they pay me well and I don’t want to leave. “ So, he imagines working in this job for as long as they will have him, but he does acknowledge the job is “Pakau” which is slang for boring. He says he would like to marry a woman who has a job: men used to resent working women, but now they need the extra income.

We ask him about his engagement with media and he shows us his phone, which he uses to maintain contact with his friend and help organize local cultural festivals (his role in the local community) but also to download music and engage in social media. He has little interest in Facebook but prefers What’s Up, which allows him to participate in groups. As he listed what kind, he mentions sharing “non-veg” content with his friends, and it turns out he is referring to a group called “All About Sex.” Asked what kinds of videos he likes, he says he likes to warch videos of people playing Carroom or Cricket; he’s a big sports fan and also cites games on television among his favorite and, oh yes, the WWE. Asked about Indian wrestlers in the WWE, he says “nice to see our people but they do not perform as well as the American wrestlers.” He said the WWE performances have inspired him to go to the local gym and work out.

Asked if he had ever produced video, he mentions a project he did with his friends when a boy their age died of malaria: a tribute video which set a series of dissolves of photographs with the boy and his friends to a somber pop song, and he shows us the video on his phone.

On television, he likes sports and dance competition reality series. He says his mother likes to watch serials, but he doesn’t even know their names, even though he is in the same room as she views them. He doesn’t watch Bollywood songs on the web but downloads clips directly onto his phone and trades them with his friends. He specifically mentions liking the songs from the ABCD movies, but he deletes songs when he gets bored and nothing stays on his phone for long. He says that the people he knows who own computers are educated: they acquire these skills by working in offices – typists, for example – and they end up doing projects more because they want to improve their skills than because they want to express themselves.

Asked about how he would deal with problems, he mentioned again the elders committees which arbitrates disputes. When they need action, they pick up the phone and call local officials, who they all know personally. He said they respond more quickly when more people call so they go around beginning friends to call in reports about problems. He would not use social media because it is less direct than calling the officials directly on his mobile phone.

I mentioned that he helps to organize local festivals, and he mentioned two festivals in particular. The first is the festival of Ganesh, which is coming up soon. The other night we saw inside a warehouse as we were driving by: it was full of giant statues of the elephant-faced helper god, Ganesh, which looked to be made of paper mache. In this festivals, people all over the city take these statues into their homes, feed and care for them, and then they bring them to sea and watch them float away.

He also talked about the Festival of Krishna. Krishna was said to have an appetite for butter so his mother would put the butter put high up in the trees to keep it away from his reach. During the festival, they hang pots with candy and coins in very high places and festival goers form human pyramids, sometimes 8-9 bodies high, to get the pot down.

As we are leaving, I noticed something over the door to his house, next to the tiles depicting Hindu gods. There are several dried peppers, a chunk of lemon, and a block of coal, which I am told are used to keep the “bad eye” away.



India: My First Impressions


The following extracts from my travel journal describe the process of discovery and enculturation that occurred when I first arrived in Mumbai. These incidents occurred over roughly the first week of our stay. I have also included here some random street photography taken by Cynthia Jenkins or myself to capture some aspects of life here where seeing is better than reading.

We arrived here two days ago. The first day was, as always after such a long flight, spent in a state of utter stupor and I recall very little of it. I could not hold my eyes open and ended up sleeping for many hours. I do retain some blurry impressions of the drive from the airport. Everyone had warned me that Mumbai was an intense and overwhelming city, and after so much mythologizing, I had built up a certain degree of anxiety about what I would encounter here. The ride from the airport covered me in both directions – yes, it was intense and overwhelming but it was also oddly comforting because I did not encounter any deep culture shock or confusion, given my previous experiences in cities like Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok, and San Paulo. I am still not sure I want to try crossing a street without locals to guide me, but I at least can take in the scope and frenzy of the activity here. And I think I know how to read much of what I am encountering – even if I am relying more on Bollywood movies to process things than might be ideal. And every so often, we encounter signs that are all too familiar – not just Starbucks or Subway, but even Krispy Kreme doughnuts (my personal favorite going back to my Atlanta childhood).

We are staying at a guest house on the Godrej campus — very nice quarters, definitely a cut above most hotels where I stay. We’ve struggled with some cultural confusion here. We couldn’t figure out how to get hot water into the shower. We took a cold shower the first day but by the second, we were able to communicate with the housekeeper here the issue, and he showed us a switch on the wall in the bedroom which turned on the hot water heater in the bathroom. But, of course, why didn’t I think of that! I am having corn flakes for breakfast most mornings, but was surprised to find that they warm my milk, which makes it a very different dish….

I had a fairly restless night as I continued to adjust to jet lag, and so I was able to listen to the sounds of Mumbai (or at least the sounds of Vikhroli, the neighborhood where Godrij’s headquarters are located) as the city came to life. I could not help but think about the prelude which A. R. Rahman wrote for Bombay Dreams, which I was lucky enough to have seen in London’s West End some years ago.

In this case, the first sounds that really penetrated my sleep was the very faint sound of chanting coming from a nearby mosque. India is at this point a country dominated by its Hindu populations but I have been struck by how pervasive and visible the Moslem minority is here. Second, there was the sound of another wave of rain. We are in the monsoon season and so rain, mostly light, but very persistent, has been a constant since we came here, with only a few rare pockets of sunshine. The rhythm of the rain is constantly shifting. We’ve seen very few moments when the skies opened up and torrent rains fell down, which was more or less what I anticipated from a Monsoon, and many more moments where there was a drizzle or mist or simply a slow pitter-patter of rain on the roof. And then, as the sunlight begins to take hold, you start to hear the crows. There are massive flocks of them here on the campus, and there are times when it feels like we are in a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds. I don’t know what I expected Mumbai to sound like, but the cawing of crows was not it! But they are loud and raucous and they make sure people hear them for miles around….

We saw so many cultural references to Crows running across Indian media and popular culture once we started to look for them. But Ritesh Mehta, one of my USC students, with whom we corresponded often during the trip, shared this segment from one of his Bollywood favorites.


We spent much of yesterday in Parel, which I understand was an old industrial section of the city – basically an area associated with Mills. Parts of the area has gone through a process of gentrification, so that the old mills have been converted into all kinds of office and residential spaces, preserving just enough of the industrial feel to give atmosphere, and representing some of the most expensive real estate in the city. On the other hand, the housing where the factory workers once lived has remained low income housing, and the offspring of those factory workers still live there. As a consequence, one encounters some of the deep contradictions of how class operates in Mumbai in this community. The working class sections have sprawling low-scale buildings, small shops and stalls, a great deal of visual clutter, and a frenzy of activity. We drove through a maze of winding alleyways to get to the places we were scheduled to visit. I was struck by the informality and intimacy of social interactions we observed through the windows of our car – lots of people walking around arm in arm, many people sitting around barefoot, shop keepers bartering over their wares. There is a density of life here, to be sure, but without romanticizing what I was seeing, there was also a sense of a vibrant public culture that I do not always see traveling through urban areas. I am not sure I can convey what street life is like here – beyond the people, there are many cycles (both motor-bikes and human-powered), there are big red public buses, there are trucks which have individualized, hand-painted, and brightly colored patterns all over them, and there are auto rickshaws which are used as taxis to navigate the narrow, winding streets.

I have been in other places around the world which are known for their dense populations – Shanghai and Tokyo come to mind – but somehow they seemed much more ordered to me, masses of people moving in patterns and flows along the streets, but the streets of Mumbai strike me as more chaotic, with people all moving along their own individual trajectories, and with much more social interactions between them. Certainly we saw some of that street culture when a decade or so ago, Cynthia and I were taken to the tenement communities in Beijing, but the streets of Tokyo have such a sense of everyone in their proper lane, everyone moving towards predestinations, that feel very different from what I have observed here so far….

I spotted a telling display on our drive today. We were once again fascinated with the street life we saw through the windows of our car. In a very low income section of the city, I saw a woman hawking what were either placemats or wall hangings, that were hanging on a clothes line against a wall. About half of the images being sold came from Hindu mythology and the other half were images of Disney Princesses, so you had an image of Sita hanging right next to an image of Cinderella. As we’ve been told many times since we’ve been here, everything is negotiable. And what gets absorbed from outside India gets incorporated into Indian culture in very distinctive ways. One person I spoke with shared a classic summation: “Everything you have ever heard about India is almost certainly true but so is it’s opposite.”,,,

We ended up visiting a ritzy shopping mall in the heart of the city, and as we were wandering around, we found our way into a British toy store. I loved the fact that there were various hands-on demonstrations of various toys and games, such as you see in old movies, but rarely encounter any more in American stores. And then, there he was, right in the center of the store — Captain America. My first reflect was one of revulsion — a sense of American cultural imperialism taking over the world, and of all of the icons of American popular culture, this one at this moment seemed the most American. But, at the same time, I had seen very few Americans, very few westerners in my time in Mumbai, compared to almost any other city in the world I have visited before. Is the monsoon season keeping everyone away or is it always this way? And there’s suddenly a wave of the familiarity and comfort you get when you encounter a total stranger, but someone from your country or home town, when you are traveling overseas? And so I ran up to him and did the rabbit ear thing for a photograph — a sign which somehow expresses familiarity and disrespect in one gesture. And it was only then that I noticed the massive Mumbai bus, with the crazy teddy bear behind the wheel, about to run us both over, which somehow sums up my impressions of the traffic flows here. This ended up being the perfect image of my entry into India and one I used in many of my talks here to talk about the ways we adopt popular culture to our own expressive purposes.



We tried to grab a quick bite to eat before plunging into the traffic again to head to our next stop. Parmesh decided to take us to get fast food and we had that Pulp Fiction kind of moment where you find that things that on the surface look just like home have odd little cultural twists as fast food chains localize to the tastes of the host country. So, first, we stumbled on a scene that would have made a world class photograph but would have been too awkward to consider taking. There was a park bench in front of MacDonalds. On one edge of the bench was a mature, stately Hindi woman in a sari and on the other edge was a Muslim woman wearing a full black Burka. In between the two women was a statue of Ronald McDonald with his arms stretched out so that they ran along the full back of the bench.  The effect was to see the clown, effectively, putting the move on both of these women. The image worked on so many levels to capture some of the contradictions we felt eating fast food in India.


For a long time, American fast food companies did not really know how to open hamburger chains in a country where there is a strong taboo against eating beef, but gradually they have adopted their menu, so that you can get a wide range of burgers made from various veggie substitutes, and BK is unique in offering a Mutton Burger for those who want to eat meat. The burgers give a good approximation in appearance to our Whoppers, but let’s just say it was not to my taste. Of course not – it’s been adapted to the tastes of Indian customers. But a big part of the pleasure of fast food chains is that the food tastes like home.  Another interesting detail: Mickie D delivers here…

We were driving through South Bomaby, along the waterfront, on the way to our first meeting. The traffic bogs down and a woman in a dingy Sari comes out to the car, clutching a toddler in her arms, and tapping on our windows begging for money. We have been told repeatedly that it can be dangerous to give in to such requests, so we are trying to develop thick skins and harder hearts. As I look up through the front of the car, trying to avoid her gaze, we see a horde of other mothers, all similarly dressed, all also carrying their babies in their arms, descending on cars all around us. This helped me to put the issue into perspective.





We paid a visit on a Sunday afternoon to Mount Mary Cathedral, a large Catholic church, in the heart of Bandra.


When we got out of the car, the first thing we encountered were a series of make-shift shops where people could buy wax offerings. I have seen such places outside, say, Notre Dame in Paris, where you could buy candles, and you can indeed buy candles here: not simply white as in Paris but in a range of bright colors. I ended up purchasing a few purple candles to use to pay my respect. But the candles are just the starting point: you can buy wax figurines that represent the things people have come there to pray for, so for those praying for the sick, there are, for example, wax hospitals or clinics but also various organs and body parts. For those who want to do better in their studies, there are schools and textbooks. For those who want to travel, there are wax versions of Indian passports. For those who want success, there are wax versions of piles of Rupees. And for those with relatives in America, there are wax Statue of Liberty figures.

We carried the candles with us into the cathedral, which was huge, and full of people at prayer underneath massive ceiling fans. The walls of the church are decorated with paintings depicting scenes from the New Testament, although the figures are brown and in some cases, wearing traditional Indian clothing (perhaps the counterpart of all of the European-style art we’ve come to associate with some of these same incidents). But, there was no place in the church to light the candles. To do this, we have to cross the street to a huge staircase: we were told that people climb and count the steps to represent the stations of the Cross.


On top, outside, there was a kind of BBQ grill, where you put the candles into leaping flames, and watched them melt. Climbing back down the stairs, we passed by another series of shops. Here, there were all kinds of crucifixes, rosary beads, and depictions of Christ and the Virgin Mary.


But, again, there was something unexpected and a bit confusing: they were also selling in the mix some necklaces depicting the ensignas of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man. I could not figure out what they might have to do with the church rituals!


We drove around the city a bit more: Parmesh and the D’Silvas showed me the home of some of the largest Bollywood stars. There were a large crowd of people waiting outside the home of Shah Rukh Khan, sometimes called “King Khan” or “the King of Bollywood” because of his rags to riches personal story. He has appeared in more than 80 movies. I found this highlights real on YouTube.

The crowds were gathering, waiting patiently, in hopes that he would stick his head out and say a few words. I have heard much about the devotion of Bollywood fans and the reverential attitudes they have to certain stars. I have been told that in South India, there are temples dedicated to the memory of certain stars who have become emblematic of national/regional pride and spiritual devotion.



What If Batman Was From Chennai? And Other Stories

One of the strands of my research I was sharing during this trip to India focused on the various political and civic uses of the superhero amongst young American activists. You can get a taste of this work from this video produced by Fusion to showcase the ways Superman has become an icon for the DREAMer movement. This work caught the imagination of many people I met in India and so everywhere I went people were bringing me examples of Indian appropriations and remixes of superhero stories. I will be sharing many such examples in future posts.


One of my favorite examples are a series of YouTube videos, produced by a group called Culture Machine, which deal with what would happen if certain iconic cultural figures such as Batman and the Avengers, had been born in Chennai, a city in South India.

America’s Bruce Wayne watched as his mother and father were brutally killed before his very eyes, and this is what made him into the Batman. But, his Indian counterpart has a much more troubling relationship with his father, whom he can never please, and more generally, with the social expectations of adult society. Everything is pulled down to Earth in this spoof video and we can debate what it means that the Indian superhero gets depicted in such an anti-heroic manner (not just here but across a range of different media incarnations). And the romance between Batman and the Catwoman takes on a life of its own, which gets developed even further in a sequel which got released more recently.

This other video shifts the focus onto the Marvel superheroes. Here, the Avengers are “heroes for hire,” desperately marketing themselves for more mundane jobs, where no one expects to be invaded by aliens or over-run by super-criminals.

One did not have to look hard to spot other superheroes lurking in the heart of India’s cities. My wife captured this image as we were walking through a ship-breaking yard in Mazagoan (on the outskirts of Mumbai).




We were able to visit Culture Machine’s headquarters in Mumbai, where I was able to get a deeper sense of their strategies as a producer of highly spreadable media content. The following is taken from my travel diary.



Culture Machine, a new media company, set up shop in a old sari warehouse a few years ago, and has enjoyed such tremendous success that the staff now grossly overwhelms its capacity. All of the rooms are crammed with people, who feel like they are stacked on top of each other. The company is moving to a new headquarters in just a few more weeks much to everyone’s relief. We had read an article in Forbes India about our host Sameer Pitalwalla, who was identified as one of their 30 under 30 industry leaders. He is the former director of the interactive division of Disney India. He partnered with Venkat Prasad, a UCLA alum, and former Google Analytics engineer, to start Culture Machine, a company that now represents and helps to craft many of the country’s top YouTube stars.

Pitalwalla and Prasad took us through their perspective on how to design content which plays well to Youtube audiences in India. Their strategy rests on three kinds of content – Heroes, Hubs, and Hygiene. So, Heroic content would be unique and distinctive content designed to “smack you in the face” and create buzz; what we might call spreadable content which helps put a particular character or personality on the map. You can’t produce this kind of high impact content on a regular basis, so you have to develop content which keeps people coming back to the Hub on a regular basis, so this is a more serialized form of production. And finally when people come to the site, they want to find lots of content there so to fill out a channel they have an automated process which produces low impact, low cost, predictable content.

To help them develop this steady flow of content, they have developed an incredible analytics tool – probably the best big data platform for this purposes I have seen – which collects data around personalities, brands, genres, themes, etc., around the world, from both Facebook and Youtube, and allows them to predict the cycle of any given topic, so that they can rapidly produce and release content to feed rising trends, while back off from trends they see has reached its peak. They have production facilities right there, so they can transform insights into content at high speed. Here are some examples of the kinds of work which Culture Machine has been producing.

One highly successful series, Epified, involves an ongoing exploration of themes from classical Indian mythology. Here, for example, is a video which helps to explain the Polytheistic system of Hindu religion for those of us who come from a more Monotheistic background.

And here’s a video which shows how the discussion of these classical stories can shed light on more contemporary debates.

The Epify videos are adopted from the work of Devdutt Pattaniak, who turns out to be a really fascinating figure. He’s billed on his book jackets as “India’s best-selling mythographer.” He started out life as a pharmacist, but he fell deep for his country’s classical traditions and began to write and talk about them more and more. He ended up styling himself as the “Chief Belief Officer” for a consulting firm: he basically works with Indian and American companies that do business in India to help them think through the rituals and mythological significance of their address to the Indian audience. At a time when the national government has embraced a particularly reactionary version of Hindu mythology, he has presented a progressive alternative, which he claims recovers the original meanings of these classical texts (debatable no doubt, but he seems pretty convinced). You can get a sense of his approach, if you are interested, from this TED talk he did some years ago.

I was able to meet with Pattaniak later in my trip. Early on, there is a certain amount of jockeying for position as he probed to see how many westerner traps I fell into and I work hard to side step them. We end up having a great discussion which ranges from Joseph Campbell to fan fiction. He was especially interested in the folkloric dimensions of fandom, a topic he had not considered before, but he got almost immediately the way fandom becomes a space for exploring multiple lives which the characters might have led. We have some debate about the ways fandom is and is not a religion and whether this might mean something different in an Indian context than it does in an American. Fair enough. He argues most American companies are especially paralyzed by religious difference while Indians live with religious contrasts all of the time. And yes, we have managed to encounter most of the world’s great religions co-existing side by side here and often working together for common survival, but we’ve also heard brutal reports of genocide directed against one or another sect here and signs that the most repressive aspects of some of these religions still exert a powerful impact on the day to day lives of people.

Here’s an example of the kind of  video Culture Machine produced for a corporate client, in this case, the manufacture of home appliances, which adopted a “respect for women” theme. It is a brilliant example of an advertisement which follows many of our principles for Spreadable content.

Finally, the company is very much involved in producing video segments around music and especially fashion and cosmetics. We met one of the top stars in this space, Elton Fernandez, as he was starting to shoot a segment in their studios. He said that he had gotten complaints because his videos often used models that people did not think looked like the average Indian woman, so he had invited his housemaid into the studio and was going to give her a make-over for the cameras. Here’s his YouTube channel.

We talked with the CEOs and then they brought me into the central space in the office, where all of the company’s employees, or at least those on ground for the day, gathered around for a question and answer session which centered around issues of transmedia, world-building, and spreadability. The young creative workers seemed to have an enormous awareness of U.S. based developments in popular culture and new media.

We had some discussions of what transmedia might mean in the Indian context. I had suggested that we could think about Bollywood as a system that supports transmedia performance, with musical numbers being the segment that extended outward from the film, through music videos, song tapes, lip sincs, and dance classes, all of which help to heighten awareness of a new release and build up the careers of certain performers. The Culture Machine folks talked about the elaborate traditional mythology of India – these vast interlocking story cycles that were constructed in classical times and have fueled entertainment production ever since. The stories of the Hindu gods and goddesses have been drawn into all forms of artistic production. There are full on adaptations of some of the classical epics, but individual characters can spin off and be the basis for their own more focused narratives. Both have happened in recent years in Indian television. And they compared the recent cycle to the strategies Marvel has used to launch the Avengers movies.

So, this is world-building on a large scale that spans much of the country’s history. And they noted that many more contemporary and original drama series also relied heavily on stock types and conflicts that implicitly or explicitly reference moments from those epics, so these stories still provide the template for much of their drama. But because of this rich and still strong tradition, they argued the country had been slower to develop original IP that might do what Marvel’s universe did. They were very interested in what that might look and we talked a lot about what it might mean to create such a new mythology through YouTube videos rather than big screen or television stories. A second challenge they identified had to do with the Indian consumer’s expectation of larger-than-life entertainment, whether it was these epic stories of Gods and Goddesses (the mythological genre proper) or the kinds of genre-mixing and glamour-driven stories we associate with Bollywood. They said that this expectation had created some challenges in rolling out YouTube content, since YouTube in the states is associated with a DIY “Broadcast Yourself” trend, where-as even reality television in India depends less on “ordinary people” and more on minor celebrities already partially known to audiences before they turn on the first episode.

All India Bakchod: Changing India…One Gag at a Time

The  following excerpt from my travel diary describes a meeting I had with Vijay Nair, the CEO of Only Much Louder, and Rohan Joshi, one of the key performers from the comedy troupe, All India Bakchod, which occurred early in my time in Mumbai and informed my understanding of how digital media and popular culture were working together to change political discourse in the country.

We were taken to the headquarters for Only Much Louder, former industrial space which is being adopted to the needs of a creative company, while preserving at least some elements of its old atmosphere. The company’s director and founder Vijay Nair told us the story of how his company was helping to transform Indian popular culture. Nair had started out while still in high school managing some local bands – mostly rock and heavy metal. He said at that time most bands in India were doing cover versions of western rock performers, but he began identifying artists who were trying to develop and perform original material, especially in college campuses, and he sought ways to support their efforts. His promotions were very much aided by the emergence of the internet which allowed artists and fans alike to learn more about performers who might previously have been known locally but would not have been able to develop a national following. The web supported communication across scenes, and he began to provide these artists with management to help give them the business support they needed. Gradually, the company also began organizing concerts and music festivals, became a production facility to help them make music videos, and became its own record label.

He had what struck me as a very enlightened attitude towards copyright. He said that there was a long history in India of the retailers being very slow to pay the labels for the records they sold (if they paid at all) so the revenue from record sales could never constitute the primary income stream for his artists. As a consequence, they embraced the web, giving away much of the music for free and trusting their fans to help publicize and distribute it, counting on live event revenue and sponsorships, rather than retail sales, to sustain them. He said, “piracy was the best thing to happen. Our fans took over our distribution.”

Along the way, he also observed a shift from performers doing rock only in English to more artists performing in Hindi and other local languages, which also helped to differentiate alternative artists from the commercial mainstream. In 2010, they started hosting music festivals which now travel city to city, exposing audiences to new and established bands, and further building up the music scenes.

But around this same time, the company started to branch out to work with comedy and Youtube stars. He described the dramatic growth of comedy performances in India, with his stars going from small venues to large concert halls in a matter of two years time. Much of the energy here, he suggested, came through the platform which Youtube gave to these comedians. He gave me some sense of the comedy traditions of his country, which were highly localized until the rise of the web. He talked about local theaters cultivating a troupe of comic poets who would do satirical verse about contemporary developments, but who would be so grounded in local references, vernacular languages, etc., that they would be almost incomprehensible outside of their local community. There were strong traditions of comedy grounded in imitation and mimicry with a strong focus on parodying regional and caste differences. He referenced the introduction of a comedy competition, the Great India Laugh Challenge, which gave some of these local performers a chance to compete for more national visibility.

But he felt that YouTube has had an enormous transformative impact on the audience for comedy, creating a new generation of personalities who had followings across the country. Most of the audience, he said, still comes from the top ten cities in India – very urban based, not yet penetrating the small towns, but definitely having an impact on youth culture.

Comedy still is heavily gendered as a male profession, but there were some emerging female performers, and he said that Youtube was also having an impact in terms of Indian audiences accessing U.S. based female comics, such as Sara Silverman, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, etc., which is exposing people to the idea that women might have their own distinctive comic contributions to make to the culture. Much of the stand-up comedy was modeled on British and American performers, so it was done in English, though he is seeing a rise in performances in Hindi and other regional languages, following the pattern of localization he had previously observed with rock bands.

The comedians are performing at some risk, because free speech is inconsistently defined, and there can be legal consequences for jokes that ruffled the feathers of powerful people or which make fun of religious beliefs in particular. Yet, despite or perhaps because of this, comedians were playing important political roles in India, speaking about issues that are not being discussed within mainstream media, and becoming a force in shaping how young people in particular think about the political process.


Around that time, we were joined by Rohan Joshi, who is part of All India Backchod, a group which has been at the center of much of the debates around comedy in India. Parmesh had shared with me an interesting article which used their fights with censorship to illustrate the shifting limits on what comedy could or could not address in their country. And the article led me to a feature length documentary,I Am Offended, which centers around the struggles of comedians in India to deal with both formal and informal forms of censorship, an issue which has also drawn increased interest here in the United States.

AIB had done a “roast” of several Bollywood stars, one of the first public examples of this well-established genre of comedy performances in India, and the response from the public had been enormous, reaching many million viewers via YouTube, but then they got complaints from the government about some of the material included, especially some of the comments about sexuality and religion, and they were forced to take the videos down from their own Youtube channel though it continues to informally circulate through many more dispersed networks. It is hard to remove something from circulation once it has gained a life online.

The Roast of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh… by AlllndiaBakchod

I had been warned we would be meeting Rohan so I checked out some of their videos online yesterday morning. Many of them are in Hindi without subtitles, so I was not able to fully comprehend the comedy, but here’s a link to a video depicting what an Indian version of Mario Brothers would look like, which was visually oriented and thus largely comprehensible to me (even if some of the local references fly over my head).

Rohan noted that within India, he reached an audience much bigger than any comic reaches in America or the UK, so he asked why he would want or need to “globalize” his address: he felt his success came in articulating an Indian perspective on world events. AIB has been fearless at tackling controversial political issues. One of their first videos to really get on people’s radar, “It’s Your Fault,” dealt with rape culture in India and had women repeating some of the absurd statements made about rape by various Indian public figures (male and female).

AIB also played an important role in reshaping the debate in India around Net Neutrality, an issue which, as in the United States, got almost no media coverage. The government was very quietly calling for public comment on the issue and they were inspired by John Oliver to produce their own comedy video explaining the issue to the Indian public and encouraging them to weigh in.

And the group has continued to rally support and educate supporters at each twist and turn of this complex regulatory process. Here, for example, is a more recent video which further elaborates on the various ways that Indian telcomms had sought to misinform the public about what net neutrality meant. What a bunch of pineapples!

Rohan noted that their net neutrality  videos were produced in English, albeit in simple English that could be understood by those with limited comprehension of the language, because they wanted it to be seen across the nation. They said that they moved between English and Hindi as the dominant language for their work depending on what felt most organic to a particular project, and that it was not uncommon for Indian comics, much as in everyday life, to code switch sometimes in the same sentence. Ultimately, they were able to get 1.2 million people to send in their responses to the government in support of net neutrality and thus helping to shape the policy that emerged.

Both Vijay and Rohan described a vision where they would help to create an alternative media channel, largely crowd-funded, in order to get around commercial constraints on free speech and which would help to mobilize young people of all classes to get involved more directly in reforming the political system. Crowdfunding was a new model in India, with Kickstarter only tapping the top few percent of the population. A major obstacle was that the use of credit cards was still not widespread in the country, where cash based exchanges are the norm, but they were seeing e-commerce sites allowing more people to place faith in credit card exchanges online, which they felt would pave the way for more widespread interest in the crowdsourcing of entertainment content. For now, their content production is mostly supported by brands and by the revenues from live performances, which is why the kind of management they provide is so vital to these rising artists.

Around this time, Parmesh pushed me to share with them some of our recent work, and I talked a bit about Civic Imagination, the Harry Potter Alliance, The Nerdfighters, and the use of the superhero motif in various immigration rights struggles, all of which interested them greatly. We got into an interesting set of exchanges about what might be the Indian counterparts for these efforts, and they identified two projects in Indian politics which were using the superhero motif in particular. Rohan shared the example of a particular political figure, Arvinnd Kejriwal, who suffered from Ashma and who tended to wear rather unfashionable mufflers around his neck, which had made him an object of ridicule from the political opposition. His supporters turned this around by dubbing him “muffler man” and creating a series of videos which used superhero imagery to suggest the muffler was the source of his super powers.

Our discussion shifted more generally to the political culture of India, which they saw as characterized by a certain degree of cynicism, but within limits. They said the basic deal was that all politicians were corrupt, so the public wanted them to “eat” from the public trough but “get shit done,” and the outrage was directed at incompetence far more than corruption. They also said that political engagement was very much class-based in India but in a somewhat counter-intuitive way. The upper classes did not vote because they did not want to be associated with the corruption of the political class, where-as much of the politics was directed towards the common classes, which really cast the deciding votes in most cases. They argued that recent campaigns, though, were using social media and even transmedia tactics in ways that were reaching the attention of young people from the upper-classes and pulling them into the political process. The result was not necessarily a more progressive politics but was changing the political style, including the rise of a generation of “cool” or “hip” young political figures who were themselves using comedy or willing to engage with comedians in getting their messages out to the world. Needless to say, I found this entire discussion VERY interesting.

Through my engagement with Indian students via the LOUD tour, I came away by the end of my trip with an even stronger sense of how important AIB had become at merging the worlds of comedy and politics. Most of the audience seemed to recognize AIB and knew about their videos, and for many of them, AIB played much the same role that the Daily Show performed in U.S. undergraduate culture. AIB, like the Daily Show, consistently calls attention to the foibles of the mass media and especially of the news media, as might be suggested by this video, “The Great India Media Circus.”

The proliferation of screens in the talk television segment seems particularly target at Arnab Goswami, a conservative talk show host, more or less in the same vein, as Bill O’Reilly, but pushed to the Nth degree. Here, you can see what has become perhaps the most famous segment on Arnab’s program, where he talks through and hectors a guest who dares to challenge his presentation of the facts. Arnab’s “Never, Ever, Ever…” has become emblematic of the voice of mass media in India, and would generate easy laughs when I referenced it during my talks.

Ironically, I had a chance to have a brief conversation with Arnab, during a conference hosted by Twitter in Mumbai, and I found him to be charming, soft-spoken, and thoughtful off-camera. Remixing Arnad is a popular pass-time in India and I incorporated this example in many of my talks as I traveled across the country — a way to illustrate the collision between old and new media that is helping to shape political discourse around the world.

As we were leaving India, AIB released a new video,”Unoffended,” featuring Arnab, and speculating what would happen to mass media if the world decided to be reasonable rather than shouting at each other. This adds yet another layer to my argument about the interface between AIB/Remix Culture and Arnab/Mass Media.