Comics and Popular Science: An Interview with Clifford V. Johnson (Part Two)

In your Preface, “Space and time and the relationships between things are at the heart of how comics work: Images (sometimes contained in panels, but not necessarily) arranged in sequence encourage the reader to infer a narrative that involves the sense of time passing, of movement, and so forth. In this sense, fundamentally, comics are physics! Put this way, upon reflection it is stunning that this graphic form has not been used more to talk about physics, and to communicate what’s going on in the fascinating world of physics research.”  What are some of the ways you are taping this insight in your visual storytelling across the book?



I use it in some fairly obvious ways in some places, like just having characters moving from frame to frame while actually discussing the whole business of movement. In other cases, I get to do much more subtle things with the form. For example, at one point in a conversation two people are discussing ideas from contemporary research about what might happen to space and time inside a black hole. Without going into detail with me just say that space and time can get rather jumbled up inside – maybe even lose their meaning entirely. So one of the ways I show this is by messing with the order in which you conventionally read the comic frames as you are watching the discussion delve into the black hole. I'm deliberately playing there, deliberately inviting confusion in the interior of the black hole in a way intrinsic to the comic form itself.



In other places I have characters talk about the breakdown of space and time entirely, as might happen at the birth of the universe. There, as they talk about this, I completely dissolve the panels containing the characters and the backgrounds. Frankly, I wish that I had realised this connection between subject and form earlier in writing the book. I would have played with it a lot more than I actually do in this book. I almost want to immediately start work on a second volume of dialogues and cast many more contemporary ideas from physics in this form. If I don't do it, I hope others may try.


One of the real strengths of this work is your focus on particularized locations for the exchanges. Many dialogic texts in the past have been abstracted from any specific physical space, but your drawings are rich in architectural and geographic information. Why? What do these locations, such as Los Angeles’ Angels Flight, contribute to our experience of your work?


Thank you for noticing this! Yes. This is all about being able to show - because I chose this graphic form - that science takes place out there in the world. Everywhere there are people present, science, and conversations about science can take place. It's not just with the experts and it's not just to be left in labs and research centres. From pragmatic perspective, I also have the feeling that readers can get drawn into the book by wondering who and where these people are. I hope they might have fun recognising details of places that may be familiar. The richness you so kindly pointed out is also my weakness by the way. I obsess over details in my drawing. Is one of the reasons why it took me seven years to finish this thing. One of the other reasons is that I was teaching myself more or less from scratch how to draw at the required standard, and how to draw for this medium. It will take a lot more time than I had to also learn the kind of distillation and economy that a true master has. Perhaps I will one day.


Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe has been widely cited as an example of what it might mean to do science through comics.  You adopt a very different approach. Can you say more about the pedagogical choices you made in how to present this material?


I have a confession to make. I've never read that book, although I know of its existence, and of course I have a lot of respect for it. I’ve glanced at some pages from it online and so I know enough about it to put in that class of wonderful books out there about science which are essentially illustrated lectures. I did not want to write an illustrated lecture about physics. Obviously, by being a physics professor writing/drawing about physics,  I am still trying to illustrate physics ideas, but I want to get away from the tone (which is not to everyone’s taste) of an expert coming out of the ivory tower and giving the public the benefit of their wisdom. I felt that having the reader eavesdrop on dialogues about science gets the ideas across any different way. And that’s even if some of the people in the dialogues are scientist themselves, as is the case. They're not talking directly at you, and I think that makes a difference. I don't know why. That's probably for my colleagues in the psychology department to tell you.


Often, documentary or instructional comics -- Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics comes to mind -- are monologues in which the author represents themselves on the page lecturing us, albeit in a playful way, about the content. Why did you chose to communicate more through character interactions with accompanying notes?


McCloud’s book is wonderful. I spoken a bit about the choice to avoid lecturing and use character interactions already, but let me say a bit more about the notes. The great thing about conversations is that they are imperfect. I know that sounds a bit odd, but I like that imperfection. In representing conversations on the page then, I get to visit lots of topics, because conversations seldom stay exactly on track. And that ends up allowing me to show the connectedness of science ideas. You can go off in one direction or another. Inevitably there for that means that, unlike a carefully prepared lecture, a conversation won't stay on topic and is less likely to go very deeply into one particular topic. Instead there are notes at the end of each chapter where I list books for further reading on some of the topics that popped up on the conversation. So the dialogues end up being an invitation to, or maybe a tasting menu of, various ideas. And then the reader can dive in more deeply by getting some of the many wonderful books that other writers and scientists have written.


Nick Sousanis, creator of Unflattening, has suggested that thinking through comics about his subject matter fundamentally changed his understanding of his topic. Is the same true for you? What did you learn doing physics through comics?


That book is fascinating, by the way. I finally got to reading it this Fall, and I can see that we’d have a lot of ideas to discuss if we met. I hope to meet Nick one day. (I feel bad that I did not cite his work in my book, but it appeared too late, and in any case my notes are mostly pointers to physics texts. I stumbled on it in a bookstore when I was just at the end of finishing the writing and layout of the dialogues, and about to embark on final art. I had to stay away from it, like I did all books at that time so that I could just focus on the coming year of finding time to frantically complete over 200 hundred pages of final art.)


But to your question. I would love to give some spicy story in answer to this question where at the end I point to some scientific paper I published that owes its insights to my investigations of comics. Maybe I will one day. But I cannot right now because it did not happen. Nevertheless, I am quite sure that my research is helped, overall, by my work on this book. Many scientists will tell you that the process of finding good ways to explain even the most basic concepts feeds positively into their research. It encourages clarity of thought. Also, sometimes, tackling a research problem is a dialogue with yourself or with your collaborators. You are reviewing what you've already done, sometimes explaining it back to yourself to glimpse a pattern or a theme. So, trying to explain concepts about relativity or the nature of time to non-experts (as I do in the book) can be useful. Also trying to explain a character’s principled  position on some controversial scientific issue, as I do in the book, helps me clarify my own position. I hope that goes some way to answering your question.