A triptych featured in the interior of Unflattening, pictured above as a 3-page fold-out not included in the final book. Image from Nick Sousanis’ website.

Why You Should Draw Comics Even If You “Can’t Draw”

Nick Sousanis breaks down what it means to make concepts accessible — not simple — through comics.

Nick Sousanis has become well-known for his dissertation-turned-book Unflattening, published by Harvard University Press in 2015, which is the first dissertation to be completed in graphic novel form. Make no mistake: Just because Unflattening is easy on the eyes doesn’t mean the subject matter is instantly digestible or watered down; it still reads as a dissertation. The difference is, I’m betting you don’t hear from many people who read a dissertation for pure leisure, and hey! I had a great time.

But that’s just it. Sousanis has devoted his career as an artist and educator to breaking down barriers between academia and people who might disqualify themselves from the academic and comic-drawing worlds. In Unflattening, in the classroom, and when he hands out comics to strangers on the street, Sousanis makes a case for making comics, not just as a way to make ideas clearer (and often more nuanced) to others, but also as a means to make more sense of your own.

There are plenty of interviews out there that get into the meat of Sousanis’ dissertation, but The Queue was interested in getting to the bottom of how Sousanis relates to students and people who have never drawn a comic in their life, how Sousanis puts his money where his pen is, so to speak.

You can follow Nick Sousanis on Twitter and find syllabi and student work from his past courses on his website, where he has also compiled an extensive selection of comics resources for readers, artists, and educators alike.

The Queue: What has changed in both your artistic and teaching practices since you worked on Unflattening?

Nick Sousanis: I taught a comics class while I was a student at Columbia. It was a Comics for Educators class, and I, from the start, always intended to have making as a significant part of the class. But the second time I taught the class, the kind of texts that we might use hadn’t come in (my Scott McCloud book hadn’t arrived, and it was about three weeks into the class), so instead of setting up the class and making comics later, I did the whole making-comics thing from the start.

The third week or so, I caught myself starting to apologize to them: “I’m sorry we haven’t really learned anything yet.” Then I stopped myself. No, actually, we’ve been teaching ourselves so much about how comics work, how to think in the form, how it does its thing, and how much you already know about it because we’d been trying things. Since we’re visual creatures, we already know how to do so much of the stuff we don’t realize we do. I believed that before, but I think the evidence of it was really striking to me. That really got me to switch my class, flip it over, and make the drawing and comics-making the heart of it.

I think for myself, as a maker, my goal in doing Unflattening was to take complex things and make them accessible. Never simple. There’s nothing about my work that’s simple; I realize that. I believe very strongly about the kind of thinking that goes on in academia, but I also think it tends to stay put there. I thought comics was a way I could transmute it into broader audiences by getting rid of some of the vocabulary and giving people a way in, rather than barriers that kept them from doing so. That was my goal in making it, and I think it’s done that well.

The other thing that happened for me in the making [of Unflattening], which is a lot of what I talk about in my talks and classes, is that the very process of making it is a different way of thinking. It’s not like I wrote a text and added pictures to it. Some comics are made that way, and that’s not a bad thing, but the very act — all those sketches at the back of the book — that is my act of thinking. The nature of working visually changed how I think about and how I could think about things. I see that in myself, but I also see that in my students who come in as non-drawers, often, and with little or no experience. They, too, have the same kind of experience.

TQ: How do you go about conducting visual research? At what point when you’re tying a narrative together do you synthesize the writing and the drawing?

NS: There’s no neat answer. It probably depends on the page or the concept as much as anything.

Everything starts with something I’m curious about [and] that I have a particular feeling towards. Maybe I already know a particular thing or two about the subject and I know where to research, so that prompts sketches based on research, and notes obviously go side by side. Those notes probably prompt more sketches, and then as I get to an actual page, that’s when it changes.

When I get to an actual page, at that point I know a little bit more about what I want to cover, so I try to figure out what the idea feels like, and how I want the reader to experience it.

An example of [a concept] that’s not in the book, but was in a Boston Globe comic, is this: entropy is sort of a bound, linear thing, and I wanted to talk about moments when things go against that flow — they go back uphill. So I wondered, what does that feel like? Well, it feels like something linear, but I also wanted the way that you read it to move back up. There’s a lot of me thinking about how I want the reader to experience the movement and elements of the page. The larger issue is always, what’s the metaphor that will help me get this idea across? Finding the metaphor and trying to solve the problems of that page often prompts me to do more research.

TQ: It’s kind of like a feedback loop in that way.

NS: Exactly. It’s a feedback loop between sketches, notes, research, and the demands and constraints of a comic book page as a sort of metaphor.

I almost feel that if I just put those things out there and I pay attention to them, it’s a little less like the work’s coming from me, and more like I just have to pay attention to those forces and follow them where they take me. People compare it to improv, but it’s like extremely slow motion improv. But it is an act of trust. You can’t really force it, because otherwise you end up with bad art [laughs].

TQ: Could you be a little bit more specific about if you’ve noticed any trends among your students as they progress in a semester course, especially if they’re coming at it as a “non-drawer”?

NS: There’s a student’s work I share at the end of a lot of my talks in the last year or so. It’s on my website if you want to see what I’m talking about. She was a super shy student, you could maybe get her to say one thing each class, but really sharp. She never really had more than stick-figure abilities to draw. But she made these really smart and sensitive comics about things she was thinking about, and her final project was a 20-page comic very much about herself and her identity. It is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read. And it’s using minimal skill, something anybody off the street who could hold a pencil could do. She really understood things about how the form worked, how to use space in a comic, how to use image-text juxtaposition. This is a particularly outstanding example, but it’s an outstanding example that I think is interesting because she doesn’t come to it as a trained artist or somebody who’s ever going to make art in the ways that we traditionally categorize it.

I was so excited about that because people looked at my work and they believed my argument, [but] I’m somebody who obviously spent a lot of time learning how to draw. Whereas I think something like that says, “This is something everyone can do,” and it can teach them things about themselves and the ways they learn and the ways they express that everyone has access to, and everyone maybe should have skills in. We’re all made to learn to write in school, but once you’re about seven or so, you’re not made to draw, and it starts to be something for “art people” as opposed to everyone. I think that really does a disservice to people. It’s a very human thing, to want to make a mark and look at it and figure things out.

TQ: Can you think of a particular instance when a student has solved a visual problem or depicted a certain feeling/situation in a way that you might not have ever considered?

NS: There were a couple recent and really nontraditional comics. I have one masters student interested in graphic medicine, which is people using comics to deal with healthcare issues and things like that. She made a piece about the health issue she’s dealing with and what it feels like. Her goal was to make something that felt, that gave the reader that uncomfortable feeling that she experienced in her body, but somehow in the reading. She built this thing — built — which was about 20 squares of wood, where in the corner of each of them were all anchored to this spine. Let’s say it’s a stack of 20 squares all on this spine, and you can only see the top one at first. But then you turn them, and as you turn the squares it would reveal a new part of her story, so it’s not quite a comic book, it’s not flat, but at the same time it was this kind of disorienting way to reveal her story. Of course, on the squares she drew and wrote as if they were panels from the story.

The goal for me is: how can you think about things visually that talk about something important to you? Comics is one way to do it. In my visual communications class, a girl who taught dance had this idea to track the different ways people move. She got this enormous sheet of paper, and one at a time she coded these different dancers feet with paint and had them do twenty seconds of their dance, and then the next one went on in a different color. All of a sudden you have this permanent visual representation of the ways they move, which were all quite different. Which we know of course, but here she produced it into something very different that’s not a comic at all.

TQ: Let’s say the teacher becomes the student. If you could take a master class with anyone, who would it be?

NS: How about I go with two, and one of them I’ve kind of had. I’d go with Lynda Barry, who I’ve actually given a workshop to her and her students, which was intimidating and a lot of fun. I think I’m very much in a certain tradition of comics that’s influenced by McCloud and thinking about things like that. Lynda’s coming from such a different place, and it’s really useful for me and my students, like the one I mentioned before who made the comic about herself, to just let it come out in the motion of your hand, and sort of being in that space. I think it’s obvious from my comics, but I’m very much about designing and thinking and doing everything just-so, and I think there’s something that would be useful to me, and exciting.

The other one would be the French cartoonist Marc Antoine Mathieu. He’s sort of a surrealist. I got to meet him this year, so these are both people I sort of know. I feel like his philosophical comics, that are also about surrealism and fiction, do something that I’m trying to do in nonfiction comics and are (somewhat) much more straightforward, so I think there’s something I could learn about the form. His are a very formalist kind of comics.

TQ: Do you have a favorite film adaptation of a comic or series?

NS: Popeye. Robin Williams, Robert Altman film. Shelley Duval was born to play Olive Oil. It’s exactly like the comic. Very few other things are. Many things shouldn’t be made into films, but this one was a riot.

TQ: Someone comes to you saying they want to “get into comics.” They’ve never read any before, and are completely unfamiliar with the traditional superhero narratives. You can only recommend up to three comics. What do you choose?

NS: As much as I adore Watchmen, and probably would’ve taken my master class from Alan Moore if I’d been thinking, if you want to add one more, I would not put that on my list because I think people who aren’t versed in superhero comics don’t appreciate it, and shouldn’t. I’ll think of my wife because she doesn’t read comics. She read Fun Home [by Alison Bechdel], which really resonated with her. It’s very literate. Fun Home is great, and it’s very wordy, but if you’re coming for literate people in an educated sense, that’s a great one. Persepolis [by Marjane Satrapi] is also good in that regard as well, but I’m thinking of things everybody knows. I could pick non-canon things. I just read Thi Bui’s The Best I Could Do, and that was great, but I don’t know if that’s what I would pick.

I’ll give you the two that my wife read first: Fun Home, and Stitches by David Small, which is almost the same book in that it’s kind of a Midwestern story about a closeted parent and dealing with it in different ways. But they are dramatically different. Fun Home is the most text-heavy comic that you’re going to read, and Stitches is the most cinematic, almost wordless pages on the whole other end of the spectrum. Those two show off what comics can be, and anything in between.

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