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.

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