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.

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