Comics As Teaching: CARTOON INTRODUCTION TO ECONOMICS

Comics As Teaching: CARTOON ECONOMICS

Publisher Hill & Wang, a part of the MacMillain group, is carving out a niche for itself as the top publisher of comic book biographies and histories.  Beginning with Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, Hill & Wang has brought together cartoonists with insight and talent to tell the life stories of Ernesto Guevara and Leon Trotsky, and to explain the vagaries of the Vietnam War.

Their newest offering, The Cartoon Introduction to Economics vol. 1: Microeconomics, arrived in stores late January.

Assembling a team to explain economic theory and principle turned out to be a fairly easy task.  Economist Yoram Bauman, Ph.D., has already made a mark by presenting economics in unusual and entertaining circumstances.  He’s the world’s first (and only) stand-up economist, with <a href=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgB6mFmYEcM>a YouTube clip</a> that’s pulled in over 111,000 views.

Cartoonist Grady Klein has masterminded three well-received books in The Lost Colony series from First Second and has always wanted to discuss economics in a comic book.  Really.

We spoke with Yoram and Grady about their collaboration and the value of The Cartoon Introduction to Economics vol. 1: Microeconomics.

The first thing that Yoram Bauman offered is that his colleague Grady Klein is listed as the first author on the book, and Bauman contends that Klein earned the credit.  “The book couldn’t have been done without him.”

After teaching economics and finding a niche as a funnyman of money, Bauman says that comics became the next venture in his efforts to illuminate the subject in the most obvious manner: “Someone called me up and asked me if I’d like to be involved in a cartoon book about economics!”

Agreeing to the idea, Bauman found he quickly had to get up to speed with the storytelling possibilities and restrictions of the comics form.  He wasn’t what you’d call a comic book reader, after all.  Bauman explained, “I remember when I was growing up, you know Larry Gonick has all those books.  I had one that was called The Cartoon Guide to Genetics or something like that. (Newsarama Note: That is the name of the book.)  So I had things like that, but since then, I haven’t had a whole lot of experience.”

Working with Klein, however, Bauman quickly learned the ins and outs of the process.  “It was a really fun and time consuming collaboration.  Mostly what we did was, I would draft up each chapter.  I’d include suggestions like, here’s a kind of picture we can include here, and the dialogue or the narrator box.  I would just write that up in Microsoft Word and send it to Grady; he and I would go back and forth in Word for anywhere from four to a dozen drafts, I guess.  When we were comfortable with the outline, Grady would mock it up with whatever program he uses, and he’d send me a pdf.  Then we’d go back and forth with pdfs.

“Especially early on, there was a huge learning curve for me.  How do you put things into this particular form and what narrative structures work.  Just the idea that pages facing each other is a design element was amazing.  In a regular textbook, I don’t think anybody thinks about that.  Most of them, you don’t think about that at all.  You write what you want to write and it flows out on the page however it flows.  But we had to think about what’s on the left-hand page and what’s on the right-hand page, and how the spread will look.  The chapters are only, mostly, twelve pages, so you’d have to think about if you’re consistently ending on a left-handed page, and if you’re not, how do you work around that.

“So there were issues like that, and certainly the process of boiling it down to a cartoon book format instead of a normally wordy textbook was also a challenge.  But that was a little more familiar to me, because that’s also a challenge that comes with doing stand-up comedy.  You want to take your material and fit in a joke every ten seconds, something that people are going to laugh at.  It’s a similar kind of endeavor.”

As an economics books, The Cartoon Introduction to Economics has a lot things you’d expect, charts and graphs, but there are also a lot of characters and creative examples of theories within as well.

Bauman: “Most of it was born out of the collaboration with Grady.  I would guess that more of it was his than mine.  I think the one theme that we have running through the book is that there are three economists who help move the story along.  I don’t think that when we first mocked up the book that they were in there.  But once we started working on the book, it just organically came through that they would benefit the story.  We thought about having some of the characters from Chapter One just move through the book, but then we realized that it was going to be really complicated to take the rich man and the tree-hugging lady and have them appear elsewhere in the book.  We needed something that would be more flexible and provide structure throughout the book.

“The other characters, the pirates and the tree-huggers and all the other characters, some Grady dreamed up, some I dreamed up.”

As the collaboration bore on, Bauman found the process coming more easily to him, for the most part.  “With one exception,” he laughed.  “I think that when we had a chapter that made sense, I had it in my head, I thought here’s a story that will tell about elasticity or about supply and demand, I think we did move at a faster clip toward the end just because there was less going down dark alleys.  I learned from working with Grady about how the process works.

“The one exception was a chapter that we thought about putting in the book, but we wound up nixing because we just couldn’t figure out how to do it.  A chapter on sequential move games, it would’ve involved all kinds of complicated game tree diagrams.  And they didn’t work very well in the horizontal format, it was hard to squeeze enough onto a page. Even harder than that, it was hard enough to get a game tree that was both complicated enough to that it was intellectually interesting and simple enough that you could explain the story and make it relevant – to make it both relevant to the world and understandable to the reader in that particular format.  We went back and forth; I guess we’re on different coasts, so it would’ve been hard for us to come to blows, but we almost came to blows over that chapter. Finally, we killed it.”

In case anybody doubted Bauman’s credentials to teach economy, he answered a question about his academic background.  “I went through graduate school at the University of Washington and got my Ph.D. in 2003.  I’m an environmental economist and work a lot on using economics to protect the environment, using things like carbon taxes and cap and trade systems, which are in the news a lot lately with climate change,” he explained.  “That’s what I did my dissertation work on and was my motivation for going to graduate school.  I really liked the idea of using the tools of economics and capitalism, which are really powerful, to protect the environment and promote green technologies. Since finishing my Ph.D., I’ve had an eclectic selection of jobs: I worked for the department of public health here in Washington state; I taught at Whitman College up in Walla Walla, Wash.; along with consulting work.  The last couple years, I’ve been teaching at the University of Washington in the environmental studies program, so I’m their resident environmental economist, I suppose you’d say!

“I teach introduction to environmental economics.  I co-teach an interdisciplinary introduction to environmental studies class.  I teach there part time, and this is the second year that I’ve been teaching part time at a high school here in Seattle, which is really fun.  And I also teach part time at Bainbridge Graduate Institute, which offers an MBA in sustainable business and is located on Bainbridge Island near Seattle.  I do those things, a little consulting work, the writing, the comedy, and that’s my career at the moment.”

Teaching fall through summer and working the comedy circuit in the spring, Bauman’s now preparing for a “comedy/book tour.”

Of his comedy routine, he says, “It sort of started with economics.  When I was in graduate school, I wrote the parody that you see on YouTube.  I don’t know why; I guess I was just blowing off steam, because that’s what you do when you’re in graduate school and spending eighty hours a week thinking about whatever it is.  So I wrote that in my second or third year of graduate school, and people thought it was funny or stupid or whatever.  Eventually it got published in this humor journal called “The Annals of Improbable Research”.  They present the Ignoble Prize every year.  

“Then I didn’t think very much of it until 2004.  The Annals of Improbable Research people host a humor session at the AAAS meeting, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  2004 it just happened to be in Seattle, so it was a big deal.  As one very small part of it, they have this one hour humor session, and since I live in Seattle, they invited me to present my paper.  I had so much fun doing that – it was my first time doing stand-up – I was like, all right, I gotta start going down to open mike night.  I’m not sure what exactly was going through my head, except I was having fun with it and it was a really interesting medium to play with and explore, and I’ve always enjoyed making people laugh.  And I enjoy laughing myself.  So I went to open mike nights, and I learned pretty early on that I needed to develop some material that was not about economics.

“So I developed some material about the war in Iraq, which you can also see on my website, and some other generic funny stuff.  Somewhere in that process, I kept getting people who were interested in the economics humor and I realized that I had this niche in the comics world.  Then I went back to developing more economics material.  I put the video up on YouTube in 2007, and it’s been a fun ride very since.  I wouldn’t say that I’m famous, but I say that I’m niche famous.  In the very small segment of the world that consists of people who have Ph.D.s in economics, many of them know who I am, which continues to surprise and please me.”

The Cartoon Introduction to Economics is labeled vol. 1.  Bauman’s committed to exploring the possibilities of economics textbooks in comics form a little farther.  “We just signed a contract for vol. 2, which is going to be about macroeconomics,” he confirmed during the interview in early December.  “If you look at the last page of the book, it says that once you’ve finished studying microeconomics, there’s always macroeconomics.  And the economists are there saying, that’s what our next book is going to be about, as soon as we figure it out ourselves.  It’s a funny line, but there’s also a little bit of truth in it.  I’m not a macroeconomist.  I don’t wake up thinking about it; I wake up and think about climate change and microeconomics.  So it’s going to be a challenge.”

Bauman’s collaborator, Grady Klein, got involved with this book long before it was close to being a reality.  “I’ve been chatting with the publisher, Thomas LeBien, about this project for years,” he admitted.  “Economics has a weird reputation as the ‘dismal science,’ and an unfortunate history of being taught in a … let’s just say less than scintillating way. So it has seemed a natural fit for the graphic novel treatment—using cartoons and visuals to liven up the material.

“After I finished the first three books in the Lost Colony series, I wanted to try to do something really different for a while, and just then Thomas found Yoram. Perfect timing. The perfect collaborator. He’s a terrific teacher, fantastically funny, has a vision for a better way to teach economics … and to top it all off he lives in Seattle (I’m in N.J.) so we can’t kill each other when we make each other crazy!”

Despite Bauman’s unfamiliarity with the comics form, Klein enjoyed nearly every step of the working process.  “Producing the book together was a wonderfully organic process. Yoram would pull together a script, and we would talk about the script for a while. Then Yoram would write another script and we would talk about that for a while. Then I’d change something he wrote and he’d want to kill me. Then I’d pull together some layouts and we’d talk about the layouts for a while. Then I’d redo the layouts and we’d talk about them for a while. Then he’d change something in the layouts and I’d want to kill him. It was the perfect collaboration—we both wanted to kill each other but we couldn’t,” he said, laughing.

“Yoram came into this project with no experience writing for the graphic format, but he picked it up fantastically quickly. In particular, he has really good instincts about pacing and a comics appreciation for precise language. In a book of this sort, you can’t try to cram too much on a page, or too much into a chapter. You really need to nail each idea clearly and precisely, and make sure the reader can see what they’re supposed to learn.”

As Klein learned the economic side and Bauman the comics element, each managed to contribute extensively to the storytelling.  “I think that’s fair to say” that both contributed many of the colorful characters in the book.  “Once you start searching for which particular characters fit best with a particular scenario, you just need to lay them all out on the table and poke and prod them to find the best fit. Yoram and I would have brainstorming sessions where we’d wonder (in email correspondence) which character(s) would work best in each chapter. Then we’d chew on them for a while, throw away the bad ones and refine the good ones. An example is the pirates in the chapter on decision trees. In the first sketches, all the pirates had two heads. I figured the only thing that could be more fun than drawing pirates would be drawing two-headed zombie pirates. Thankfully, Yoram objected and we half-beheaded them, because that would have just been confounding to readers.”

Working with a creative partner on a fact-based project like The Cartoon Introduction to Economics differed from Klein’s narrative-based work on The Lost Colony.  Asked about the difference in the two creative processes, he expanded: “One way to answer that question is to say that I really enjoy collaborating, and my friendship with my collaborator is, for me personally, one of the most important things about any project. In the case of the Economics book and in the case of the Lost Colony, I’ve been very fortunate in this regard. My collaborators have been magnificent people. While working with Yoram on the econ book, we’d share the material every week or so, checking in with Thomas after several months of work. While working with Mark Siegel (my editor for The Lost Colony series) we’d share the material about every month or 6 weeks.

“The other way to answer the question is in terms what’s driving the project.  In the case of the econ book, it’s obviously information driven. First you figure out precisely which idea you want to get across, and then you build the characters and gags around that. Each scenario should be simple and direct, and you don’t need to worry about whether your readers care personally about the characters. In fiction it’s obviously different, the plight of the characters is the most important thing. My own experience writing The Lost Colony bears that out — there are lots and lots of ideas imbedded in The Lost Colony stories, but the characters (and their experiences and feelings) always need to come first. I’ve gotten better at pulling that off the more I’ve worked on them.”

And, yes, Klein says he wanted to work on an economics comic book long before this particular project manifested.  “I never got to take an econ class on the subject, but I have read some about it; in particular I remember a fun book called The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner, which was kind of a biography of economics thinkers through the ages. If you enjoy reading about dead men of European extraction it’s a good read. I also read some Adam Smith in college at The University of Chicago, where you can’t help but absorb at least a little economics.  But it’s always been a topic of interest, as it should be for everybody. Everybody who has a credit card ought to be interested in economics!”

When the interviewer admitted to difficulty understanding the ins and outs of the chapter on margins (though the rest was very clear, I quickly add), Klein offered the following: “There is some very difficult material in the book and I’m proud of the fact that we succeeded in making it fun and accessible. Margins are tough, but so are elasticities and pareto efficiency and simultaneous move games, etc. etc. Luckily, the book is really about pirates and spaghetti and torturers and Neanderthals, so when you’re learning the tough stuff you hardly notice.”

Klein, like Bauman, remains committed to the possibilities of economic comic books.  “Yep, I’m starting work on that next year,” he confirms of The Cartoon Introduction to Economics vol. 2.

Consistently busy, Klein currently balances a few other projects.  “At the moment I’ve got several other things on my plate,” he said.  “The Lost Colony scripts are always percolating, and I’m writing some other stories which could make it to the storyboard stage. But one of the challenging things about the graphic novel format is that it takes ages to finish things, so I’m also doing some shorter-format stuff. Collaborating with the band QQQ on an animated storyline for projection while they perform; collaborating with the composer Dan Trueman on some music book movie things for the web (starring BIG Z and the bird!). And as always I’m striving to make some good art. At the moment I’m enjoying feeling inspired by the woodcuts of Tom Killion and the marvelous cartoon figures and sculptures created by the pre-Inca Moche civilization in Peru. That, and helping to raise two boys.”

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