Conducted by Pedro Moura
Ever since Unflattening was published it has triggered much discussion. Nick Sousanis’ book, a result of his PhD dissertation in comics form, is one of those projects that deserves less an epidermal response in the form of love-hate than an actual, deep engagement with a critical reading an assessment of its structural and ideological feats. This is an interview conducted via email (March 2016).
Pedro Moura: Could you explain succinctly the origin of this book, especially where it relates to your academic endeavors? And how much was this project’s original idea (before even being a project) changed until its final form (the published book, but also the final PhD)?
Nick Sousanis: I came to the doctoral program as a comics maker. Through the work I’d been doing prior, I’d recognized the potential for comics to be a powerful means for educating. In comics I could tackle difficult, complex subject matter and present it in accessible fashion, but not by dumbing it down. Rather I could create things more sophisticated through the use of images, the affordances of image-text resonance, visual and verbal metaphor and much more. Because I was more immersed in what was going on in comics than academia at that point, it didn’t occur to me that this was all that big of a deal. Maus, Understanding Comics, Persepolis, etc. were widely accepted at that point, so I thought that battle was over. In academia – I learned – it wasn’t. (And despite further victories, it probably still isn’t…) Which isn’t to say I had significant resistance from my committee, only that in realizing the political implications of what I was doing, the work ended up serving as a response to that – a meta-argument for its own existence that pointed to how comics could handle the most complex of subject matters, and ultimately makes a broader statement of the need to bring in the visual (and other modes) into how we teach as it seeks to question what learning can look like. It essentially evolved organically through my thinking on these issues. The published book is more or less indistinguishable from the dissertation version I submitted (and blogged much of along the way). There are copy edits throughout, some changes in the drawings in a few spots for clarity and sometime because I had the time and could go back and rework elements I wasn’t completely satisfied. But that’s about it.
PM: Did you decide at the onset that comics would be the best vehicle to develop your project, or was it something that developed from your research?
NS: I guess that was answered above. I always wanted to do the work in comics, but as I said, as the argument evolved it became more self-reflective on the form itself, perhaps further justifying using it.
PM: What was the process for getting this book published by Harvard University Press? (I’m really curious)? Where there significant changes, discussions with editors, trouble with publicists, and so on?
NS: Harvard found me actually. My editor Sharmila Sen had been following my blog for about a year apparently (after the initial article on me came out in the Chronicle in spring of 2012), and reached out to me in the summer of 2013 when I was somewhere around the midway point. We had this amazing phone conversation that revealed to me how much she deeply understood what I was up to beyond its novelty and how important this was for a university press to take a risk and publish things that challenged what scholarship could be.
In terms of changes – after it was submitted as a dissertation, Sharmila and I had an intense two-day session with the completed version where we went through panel by panel, every word, every drawing – and mostly made text changes, as I said above, but she pointed out some spots where the drawings felt unclear, and we did end up cutting out two pages that felt extraneous. (And I agree – they worked for a dissertation, but were less necessary for a book version.) I’m not sure everyone at the press initially understood what this was in the same way that Sharmila did.
PM: Can we say that the purpose of the book is to defend the use of images (especially drawing and comics-associated techniques, from sequence to page composition, text materiality and visualization, and so on) as an extra track to further the expression of thought?
NS: A large part of its purpose is to argue for the importance of drawing/images not as decoration or illustration, but as the thinking itself or as essential to thinking. It’s not all about comics (that’s actually a small part of the work) – though the different ways I was using the form the whole time were trying to demonstrate the capacity of comics to convey ideas. Also, I’d take issue here with the phrase “extra track.” An interwoven track perhaps, or an integral track – but not extra. It’s like the question I ask in the book about “which view is true” when looking through one eye at a time. One isn’t the main one and the other the extra – you need both working together to get perspective. And that’s true here – the images are integral, not added on.
PM: It is apparent that comics were chosen because of their history in conjugating verbal and visual modalities. In particular, your book seems to be interested in images as devices for knowledge-creation, particularly because traditional hierarchies overvalue text in detriment of images in their ability to communicate complex ideas, while comics, as has been pointed out by several authors, and has it is alluded in your work, formally subvert these hierarchies by subsuming text to image and articulating images as text. However, your work resorts to visual metaphors and surrealist vocabulary to illustrate ideas that are often already evident in the verbal component of the work. What would you say were the most significant challenges in assessing the contribution of text and image to your research, as vehicles of knowledge production and communication, particularly when addressing abstract concepts? What would you say were its successes and failures?
NS: Comics were chosen because I make comics. That I’m using comics to push back against logo-centric biases, is a defense of the form by someone who believes in it strongly, as well as the broader argument of how we learn/think through visual means – something so often discounted. I’m not sure I’m the one to assess the work’s successes and failures in terms of how images and text worked together in it. I don’t see the images as illustrating the text, actually. Demonstrating perhaps, but really I’m always seeking to embody the ideas, in what the images do, how the pages move, and how the text contributes to the images.
As far as challenges go – hmmm – perhaps the biggest one is how to find ways to make the images and the composition do the work and not fall back on text. I don’t use a visible narrator as an explanatory device and thus don’t have a consistent visual to turn to draw throughout. This means I’m continually having to invent what the visual emphasis of each page will be, how the reading experience is structured, finding the right metaphors to take up the ideas. (This challenge is something I really enjoy, even as it regularly confounds me.) I think one interesting thing that
has emerged, which I did set out to do, is that because the words remain in metaphorical language, different readers take what I’ve said to mean quite different things, and read things into it through the images that I’m not aware of, nor have I intended. I like that about it, and it’s one of the many things I meant by titling it “unflattening,” but it still catches me off guard at times.
PM: In the so-called mediasphere of today, we live in a very heavy milieu where text is indeed one amongst many available media. To play with Henry Jenkins’s titles, we live in an age of spreadable, convergence media. So how “new” in usage, in this particular context, is this “old media” of comics?
NS: On one hand, of course, comics aren’t new at all. The American example of Richard Outcault’s the Yellow Kid precedes cinema. And we can look much earlier at Rodolphe Töppfer for something that clearly resembles comics as we know them. And of course, as scholars from Scott McCloud to David Kunzle to Lancelot Hogben and more have tried to show – comics-like things have been with us far longer. I like to think of comics as an extension of a lineage of making sense of our world visually that has been with us as long as we’ve been human. So in some sense, I see them as a way to re-cultivate a kind of literacy that shaped who we are and that we all start out with as children. Comics to me are a way to get at rekindling that, to get everyone to see ways in which they can express themselves and do their thinking visually…
PM: I am familiar with what one could call “essay comics” (with the likes of P. Squarzoni, L. Rifas, and a few others). But there are differences between the discourses of reportage, interviews, and popularization. Academic essay-writing demands a different sort of argumentation and, more often than not, a heavier critical apparatus than popularization of a theme, or reportage, where quite often the personal perspective is an important factor. How can comics, as form, language, art or even culture, be molded in order to convey the same kind of discourse? On the one hand, I feel that you really need words to quote, explain the quote use, integrate it or deconstruct it in your own thought, re-process data, and so on, in a way that images (by this I mean all of the comics-related structures) cannot do, but on the other hand, as you say, we must rethink the ways we can do and process things.
NS: The question about quoting is an interesting one. I felt particularly compelled to do it in the second chapter, which if this work resembles a traditional dissertation in any way, is somewhat equivalent to my lit review. I think the citing not only gives credit where it’s due – which is imperative, but also gives readers less familiar with those mentioned, a way in to that person’s work and a reason to seek them out. I always hope to characterize the work I’m referencing well enough that it’s both accurate and compelling to learn more for the uninitiated. But it’s tricky – I don’t want the heaviness of a block quote to weigh down my page, so that means cutting away just the right amount while still capturing it fairly. I find the whole constraint of comics rather liberating in that way – the tightness of space forces me to make difficult choices, and only keep what’s absolutely essential. There are other places in the book where this adherence to what someone else said is not so foregrounded – we can look to the back to see what works influenced the ideas I put down on the page through image and text, but that’s just backstory. What happens on the page is the idea, and at that point it’s much more mine, than me sharing another’s.
PM: To be a little more precise about a point from the last question: Unflattening is not a work of popularization (of science or philosophy), but an actual expression of a thinking process. As you say, in comics images are not used as an illustration for an idea already conveyed by the text. Let’s play a little fantasy here: would you like to see more authors from several disciplines actively engaging with comics as a serious medium choice? Or at least integrate it even if partially in their work? Or seeking collaborations with comic artists (as it happened with you in the Nature article)?
NS: Yes! Response to my work the last several years has given me a great opportunity to talk about the work and champion comics to all sorts of audiences. And I’ve really seen myself as an advocate for what comics can do, their potential to take on all kinds of subjects and complexity, and why we need to see more of it. In my teaching and public engagements, I do want to show people how much they already know about drawing and find ways to make comics in their own way. And I think part of this advocacy has been to educate people on thinking about different ways in which we can use comics – not merely to simplify, but as you say, to be a different way to express the thinking process. I was really fortunate that Nature reached out to me, and I intend to continue to do such works, bringing comics into various fields where they’ve never gone before.
PM: I agree completely with you that “a rose is as sweet by any other name”, when you refer to comics’ many monikers across nations… And also that we do come across what one may call classist attitudes (“I don’t read comics, I prefer graphic novels”). Moreover, there are many outstanding experiences within the medium of comics that have pushed the proverbial envelope quite often, although most have remained untranslated and somewhat obscure to a larger audience. Wouldn’t be important to not play Unflattening against conventional comics or popular titles such as McCloud’s, but preferably integrate it within a wider history of experimental comics (bring around names such as Martin Vaughn-James, Warren Craghead III, some Edmond Baudoin, Peter Blegvad, the Belgian Amok or La Cinquième Couche labels’ output, abstract comics, the few examples of essayistic comics, and whatnot…)?
NS: Hmmm, I don’t think I’ve played Unflattening against conventional comics at all – especially not the ones you cite. As I say on that page, I do prefer to call them “comics,” and I think my work very much fits in the comics tradition from Batman to McCloud to Vaughn-James. There are some things that I do that are perhaps unique to me (lack of direct narrative and recurring characters) which should be the case with every author at some level, but I see it as a comic that happens to be presented in a different forum. A Duchamp-ian urinal perhaps!
PM: Was your choice of drawing style (almost a neutral, industrial tone, lots of crosshatching, combination of figurative, naturalistic drawing and schemas, symbols, diagrams and free-floating structures) thought out from the get-go, or did you though of other possibilities? How important is this formal track to the meaning-making power of Unflattening?
NS: The first chapter is very intentionally heavily rendered – I really wanted to hit the skeptical (academic) reader in the face both with the subject matter, but perhaps more so with the drawing. By doing these very dense, representational drawings, convince such an audience that I knew how to draw. That way, as I started to break more conventions of form and drawing, they’d already be on board. As I explored different ideas, I wanted the stylistic approach to mirror the subject. That said, I’m not sure I did as much delving into abstraction and other types of drawing styles than I’d originally intended. I think even as I explored more expressive compositions as the book moves along, I still tend to fall back into drawing the way I draw. It’s one thing I really want to explore going forward – I spent so much time on this designing and researching, I didn’t do a lot of drawing outside of the actual pages – and that makes it difficult to grow in your work.
PM: It was wonderful to revisit Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland through your reading. The most interesting point in that novella, in my view, is the fact that the protagonist, A. Square, not only does expand his view as he goes even further in his rationale than his master, A. Sphere. How would you like to have Unflattening read? As a personal memoir of your own conceptual journey? A book that people can freely access to rethink about using comics (or a comics-related discipline) as a tool for thought and expression? An actual textbook to be chosen by teachers? A book that simply opens the eyes of as many A. Squares may come across it?
NS: Ha! All of the above! Seriously, I think you hit everything there. Sure, in some ways it’s an argument for my own interdisciplinary and apparently not so conventional background; it is an argument for comics; a text teachers can use to think about education; and a work I hope people take up to reconsider their own thinking. The diversity of classrooms and other sites it’s already shown up in I think is reflective of that goal, and exceeded my expectations (though not my hopes). And to your point about the student going further than the master – I really like that. The title ending in “ing” is very intentional. I cringe when it is written as “unflattened” (more so than when it is autocorrected to “unflattering”), because that suggests something finished, something that has all the answers. Who am I to know anything?! It’s more like, here are a lot of questions I have, a lot of ideas I wanted to explore, and this is my best attempt at this point in time to make sense of them. That’s it. That it can help someone else explore their own thinking and ask more questions, that’s a fantastic thing – and I’m thrilled with responses to it, where people have begun to run with it in their own way…
PM: I understand, of course, that you have dealt with the primary sources you mention, but I couldn’t help noticing that many of the themes (and even tropes) you broach have been, let’s say, used by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison in their respective oeuvres (the Mandelbrot set in Big Numbers, Koch’s snowflake in From Hell, Abbott’s Flatland storyline and implications in several of the titles, multidimensionality in Animal Man, The Invisibles, The Filth, and so on). Were these or other comic sources that deal with these subjects through fiction and fantasy influential in any way?
NS: Hmmm. Alan Moore is definitely an enormous influence in terms of form and structure, word-image interaction, and his expression of the philosophical. Morrison too, to a somewhat lesser extent (I’ve read almost everything of Moore’s and only a medium fraction of Morrison). I’m aware of the Koch snowflake in From Hell – though my page on that doesn’t reference it at all. I did my undergraduate thesis in mathematics on fractals – so that’s long been an interest of mine and something that surfaces frequently in work I make. Knowing about that page and how well he and Eddie Campbell did it, pushed me to think about finding quite different solutions. So in this case, I was more interested in not doing something like they had done – though of course, the snowflake is the snowflake, so that much is going to be consistent however you use it. I have the two issues of Big Numbers – but had forgotten anything about Mandelbrot in there – so now I’ll have to dig that up! I have read Animal Man at some point, but in terms of the multidimensional stuff, I’m referencing Abbott and science readings on the subject – not really thinking on Morrison’s work there at all. There are visual references in there to other comics – my recollection of a classic Batman cover (and interior splash page) triggered an early page (11) that’s a single profile view of a head filled with boxes. There’s a reference to all the worlds colliding from DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths in the chapter on imagination, on the same page that Superman changing in a phone booth appears (96). Oh, and that chapter itself – the fifth – is called “the Fifth dimension” a reference to the imagination that I picked up from a Grant Morrison-penned Batman comic that was in turn referencing the Twilight Zone. So I guess there is a Morrison reference in there after all! There are also some nods to his frequent artistic collaborator Frank Quitely through some of my compositions, which are mentioned in the endnotes.
PM: What was your input in the final, material project – book format, binding, cover choice, and so on?
NS: The cover was my editor’s suggestion and my doing. She thought what was going on with all the feet in the final chapter might be pretty striking, and said “how about a vortex of feet?” I sketched out some versions that took advantage of the wraparound cover with French flaps (also her idea). I made the artwork and the design team and I came up with the final look for where the title went, use of color, etc. Binding, etc. was all on them. I had some say in pushing for paper that would make the blacks as black as I wanted them. I had wanted pull out pages for the three triptychs in the book, which would’ve been cool and how they were intended to be experienced, but apparently those aren’t cost effective. Something for next time! Unflattening was created as a dissertation first, and in that form, you could only print on a single side of a piece of paper. I did design some double-page spreads and the three triptychs, but because I didn’t know for sure it would be a book, I didn’t completely plan out the verso-recto alignment as I might’ve had its final form been figured out in advance. In fact, months after all of it was submitted, and only hours before it was being sent to the printer, I created one single additional page to get the verso-recto alignment correct in a chapter. It was a crazy intense finale, but well worth it, as the chapter would’ve felt misaligned to me. I’m excited to do the next project knowing what the possibilities for it are from the start. I think that will allow for much greater intentionality about the overall design and how that speaks to its conveying its content.
Note: my thanks to Nick Sousanis, for his kindness and availability, as well as to Hugo Almeida, who helped me in organizing this interview as well as to think about Unflattening.
Be sure to check out Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening, as well as some of the other works mentioned in this interview: