CREDIT: Harvard University Press
by Guest Blogger Joseph Manuel Nieves
The first thing that struck me as I began to read Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening – the first doctoral dissertation in comics form accepted by Teacher’s College at Columbia University, and the first comic published by Harvard University Press – is that I’ve rarely read a comic that wasn’t a narrative. The only other examples I can think of are Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and its follow ups. Like those, Unflattening isn’t a story. It’s a monograph, the most beautiful academic essay I’ve ever seen, complete with cited sources and notes.
Sousanis’ main argument is that images, in conjunction with text, can help us understand the world around us in ways that are impossible for text to do on its own. Indeed, the format he’s chosen itself works to support the thesis. For Sousanis, it’s all about new perspectives. He uses a visual analogy of eyes working together to produce a stereoscopic view of our environment to demonstrate. Because of the space between them, each eye sees the world from a unique perspective, but only when used together are we able to perceive depth. It takes two different views operating in tandem to come to a new understanding about what’s being observed. And that’s just the beginning of the rabbit hole.
CREDIT: Harvard University Press
The second thing that strikes me is that, despite this not being a narrative, I can’t help but apply narratives to Sousanis’ stunning images. The book opens with illustrations of human figures moving along a complex system conveyor belts. It’s the assembly line from hell (maybe the DMV?), with signs hung reading “Stay in Line” and “Maintain Proper Distance”. Each figure stands uniformly submissive, with their heads and shoulders slumped. They look sad, and I immediately begin to wonder about them. Who are they? How did they get here? It’s a dramatic image. And the more I think about, the more in awe I am of what Sousanis has accomplished here. I’ve never read a scholarly work that elicited this kind of emotional response from me. To be clear, this is a truly intellectual volume, one which earned its author a PhD in education, but it’s also a very stirring work of art. How many PhDs can say that about their dissertations?
This emotional component adds another dimension to the reading, while simultaneously contributing to his argument. According to Sousanis, part of the reason the world became “flat” is that we’ve lost some of our sense of wonder. Our accumulation of knowledge has accelerated exponentially, leading to increasingly narrow fields of study as we strive to draw in all the edges of the map. We’ve answered most of the big questions, the ones that first stirred us to wonder. Now as we look further out, or more deeply in, we compartmentalize, closing ourselves off from other perspectives. Sousanis is suggesting that a more interdisciplinary discourse is needed in order to come to new understandings about, well, everything. It’s a call to action, that action being to wonder. Ah, but there’s, as Shakespeare wrote, the rub – wonder is both an action and a feeling, speculation and awe. Which is he asking of us? The text points us in one direction, the images move us in another, and the answer appears to be in a magical third space in between.
This is a fascinating achievement. I’m a firm believer in comics’ ability to illuminate the dark corners of the world, to inspire growth and change, the way that all great literature does. But I never imagine comic books functioning as anything other than a storytelling medium. I never consider their capacity to communicate in other ways. What are the limits of its applications? How much longer before we begin seeing the first textbooks in comic book form? Comic book souffle recipes? Legal contracts? Tax forms? I suppose the answer to that lies in our willingness to de-compartmentalize, and step away from our narrow – sometimes strongly-held – views, in order to gain a new perspective.
Unflattening is available online at the Harvard University Press website and Amazon. You can also check out samples of the art on Nick Sousanis’ blog.
Guest Blogger: Joseph Manuel Nieves: firstname.lastname@example.org
https://comicspectrum.com/Covering the full spectrum of comics culture
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In the meantime, an essay I made in comics form before the dissertation is now in print in the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy's special issue on Arts-Based Educational Research (Vol. 11, Iss. 2). The piece was originally created for my advisor Ruth Vinz's course Postmodern Textual Practices (and shared on my site here), and it examines the move from modernism to postmodernism as constructed from mashups of mythology and fairy tales alongside the philosophical and scientific through the methodology of DJ sampling. Alongside Mind the Gaps the Shape of Our Thoughts, and Learning Pathways, Threads proved instrumental in shaping my dissertation process - particularly in moving back and forth between whole page compositions and intense panel-construction. This piece also touches on my Spin/Weave/Cut from which my site takes its name (see more on the meaning behind that here). You can view the piece in the journal online here and for those without University journal access, the first 50 to click through this link, can download the PDF of the article for free here. Or you can just read it on my site here and now...
Due to the diversity of sources woven into this piece, I thought it would be fun and perhaps helpful to show my hand a bit by providing the equivalent to footnotes to some of the imagery and references. So if you're interested in looking behind the curtain, check it out below the comic itself. Wishing all a possibility-filled and expansive 2015. - Nick
What follows is not offered as explanation, but a key to some of the imagery referenced – if you’re so inclined to look behind the curtain. I advise reading only after you’ve read the comic.
Threads – the Key
Page 1: The opening line is my take on “once upon a time…” The image specifically references Lee Lawrie’s statue of Atlas at Lincoln Center. The “world” is partially a reference to the statue itself but also to Kepler’s sketch of the nested Platonic solids.
Panel 1: Greek myths are full of stories of locking away the primal, irrational, and chaotic in Tartarus (as with the Titans) or as this panel references – in the Labyrinth. I pull some of my thinking here from Michael Ayrton’s “Maze Maker,” a novel about the creative process, as told through the story of Daedalus, the builder of the labyrinth and father of Icarus. The Minotaur is seen less as a monster in its own right but as some primal aspect of ourselves necessary to keep down in order to seek a more rational life. Theseus follows Ariadne’s thread up into the light, and my text also alludes to Plato’s story of the cave and escaping to enlightenment (here, the radiating ball of string.)
P2-5: Ariadne’s thread becomes Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth, which in turn transforms into the Yellow Brick Road as a golden path toward truth and knowledge. This series of connections on threads served as the genesis for this piece.
P6: The text is a reference to Descartes’ separation of mind and body.
P7: Continental Drift Theory had a huge impact on how we think of the world and I sought to depict that here with images of earth as Pangae, Gondwana, and today’s configuration of the continents. (Also placing them as I did is also a reference to the way multiple earths are depicted in DC Comics’ “Crisis on Infinite Earths.”)
P8-11: “No fixed points in space” is a quote from Einstein picked up by Merce Cunningham as part of his approach to dance. Moving fast to keep in place is a nearly direct quote from Through the Looking Glass. The Cheshire Cat is joined with Schrodinger’s cat – and the idea of superposition. This would’ve been fun to explore more, and Alice’s cat playing with a ball of string almost made its way in (only the string stayed in back up at Panel 1.)
When the cord is cut, literally, I wanted to show our perspective falling like Alice down the Rabbit Hole. The fall not only references Alice’s fall, but the Great Fall text leads into Humpty Dumpty’s fall, which we’ll see the effects of on the next page.
Panel 1: Arriving on the scene to fix up Humpty Dumpty after his fall from the wall, are all the King’s Horse-Men. Having already decided to use hybrid creatures in the piece (a Spider-woman and a Mermaid), this compression of all the King’s horses and all the King’s men into one centaur worked well. Furthermore, I mashed this story with the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse, whose appearance here isn’t a fearful ending but something else altogether.
P2: Given the theme of threads that emerged early in creating this piece, Arachne was one of the few players I had in mind from the beginning. (Spiderman stayed out of it…) I saw Athena’s punishment as a gift instead, one of a number of reversals of perspective in the piece. “Fabric of relations” comes from Lyotard’s text on the Postmodern Condition. The image draws on Gustav Dore’s rendering of Arachne in Dante’s Purgatorio.
P3: We see the Three Fates, the Grey Women, or Moirae – maiden, matron, and crone. Those who spin, measure, and cut the thread that is our lives. Depending on where you read – their sight is ambiguous. Destiny or fate is often seen as blind, so while some accounts say that they share one eye between them, I went with the blind depiction here. (In subsequent pieces where I’ve incorporated them, I’ve gone with a different interpretation.)
P4: Rapunzel lets down her hair – a braid of DNA connecting us to our past, as postmodern methods cut up samples of past works to make new. The cycle of the moon also references the symbolism for the Three Fates – waxing, full, and waning, as the DNA becomes a coiled spiral, becomes waves – tides caused by the moon above. The text borrows heavily from Ayrton’s Maze Maker: “Life is not a circle but a helix.”
P5: Heraclitus’ words connect to the panel previous of past feeding present and the final panel on Chaos, as the Little Mermaid speaks to the merged creatures we’ve become, necessary for a world that’s constantly shifting.
P6: As this developed, it turned out for the most part I was working with stories featuring women – even when Theseus is depicted, it’s Ariadne that saves the day. Keeping with that, I brought in Pandora who definitely got a bad rap as patriarchal cultures took hold. Pandora’s name properly translated means “all-giving” and the “box” is actually a mis-translation for something more akin to a jar. I used the image of a jar and hoped by referencing “box” in the text that the connection was clear. I wanted to connect what’s in the jar/box back to things locked away in the Labyrinth, and in taking a different look at Pandora, take a different look at Chaos theory as well. And so what comes out is the fluid, nonlinear stuff that makes this world, and butterflies – symbols of metamorphosis and the butterfly effect – “a sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” Even the smallest of things can have an effect in a connected system. I think it’s a beautiful thought, and from the physics referenced by Alice to Chaos theory here, all of the narrative speaks to a world shrugging off a search for certainty and perhaps embracing complexity as complexity. And perhaps by undertaking this tapestry of ideas in visual form, it allows that complexity to stay present. (Thus you probably shouldn’t have read this.) – Nick