Comic Books Earn an Ivy League Ph.D.

Page from "Unflattening" by Nick Sousanis
Credit: Nick Sousanis (Harvard University Press)
Credit: Harvard University Press

In 2015, comic book acedemia experienced a watershed moment even if many mainstream fans and publishers were generally unaware of what was unfolding. A doctoral candidate at Columbia University Teacher's College named Nick Sousanis successfully defended his dissertation. What makes this personal milestone so important is that this dissertation is the very first completed entirely in comic book form.

Up until this point, there were academic who wrote comic-centric dissertations, which are typically book-length texts that focus on both breadth and depth of research while introducing original ideas and concepts to their respective fields of study. And while these less conventional topics are not the norm amongst most Ph.D. students, they have grown more popular in recent years with the continued intermingling of popular culture and education in general. For example, it is not uncommon to peruse through a local Barnes & Noble and find books discussing superheroes and philosophy or feminist readings of character like Wonder Woman, and many of these often started off as doctoral dissertations. But one quick glance through these books makes it clear that although they are about comic books, they are not comic books themselves.

That is where Sousanis’ Unflattening changed the game.

Newsarama: Nick, can you talk a little bit about how you discovered comic books, how this project came together, and why you chose to write your dissertation in comic books form versus the more traditional text-centric approach?

Nick Sousanis: Ha – thanks, and sure. I grew up reading comics, and thanks to my older brother, whoread them to me as a baby, Batman ended up being my first word. I drew comics from early on and kept that up. Starting in junior high and running through my senior year in high school, I put out a superhero/semi-parody comic called “Lockerman” (who makes a cameo reappearance in Unflattening). In college, comics-making drifted into the background as I felt I was there to focus on more serious subjects. But I did keep making them on the side – including a sadly unfinished comic on philosophy for an independent study. Post-undergrad, I adapted a short story into comics, a parable really, about Superman written by my brother, an amazing writer – and that is one of the few works I finished for a long stretch.

It was not until my time writing about the arts in Detroit that I happened to return to making comics in earnest. Prompted by an invitation to participate in a political art show, I made two four-page comics around the 2004 election. I approached the pieces with an emphasis on visual and verbal metaphors – with no narrative or recurring characters – and this really set the tone for all my comics-making going forward.

Shortly after, I made a comic for an exhibition on games and art that delved into the history and rules behind games, and applied this understanding to thinking about our lives. In this piece, I saw the great potential for education and how I could bridge more scholarly material in an approachable way for a broader audience – without dumbing it down. And in returning to this way of working I’d somewhat suppressed for an extended period – both drawing and writing I could bring my whole self to the work. It was this piece that I used when I came to Columbia to say this is the sort of thing I can do and intend to do.

Credit: Nick Sousanis (Harvard University Press)

Nrama: So, even in your earlier days, it seems there was an interest in pushing the boundaries of what scholarship could be?

Sousanis: As far as making a broader statement about comics and challenging scholarship – that wasn’t my intent from the outset. The truth is, because of my background in comics as a reader exposed to all sorts of smart works that had been coming out since Maus, Watchmen, Understanding Comics, Persepolis, and many more, and my own experience as a maker – I simply assumed why not do it in comics? I didn’t really consider how radical this was within the academy. It’s really only as I got into the process and had early (excited) responses to the work that I realized what this meant within the academic institution as it was, and to me, this meant that it had to be in part an argument for its own existence. It became a very conscious political act, and I saw part of my purpose as championing comics and alternative scholarship more broadly within the academy.

Nrama: Unflattening was originally your doctoral dissertation, which you completed at Columbia Teacher’s College, and this is the first known dissertation completed entirely in comic book form.

Now, this is a pretty significant milestone for the medium, no? What sort of doors do you think will open for comic books? Do you find this helps further legitimize comic books when a prestigious institution, such as Columbia University, endorses research of this sort?

Sousanis: I think we’re already seeing this happen. There have been comics accepted for academic journals, other partial comics dissertations, a great rise of work on comics and medicine within the academy, and I think these things will only continue going forward. Certainly the fact that I happened to do this at Columbia University and it was published by Harvard University Press helps give it a stamp of legitimacy that other people or institutions interested in going with such an approach can point to and say – “See? This has been done.” And I’ve already heard of that happening – one program that’s been teaching Unflattening, which altered its definition of what scholarly work could look like. One hopes it casts a small ripple and emboldens others to make their own leaps, and perhaps it will also make some contribution to the larger issue of just what learning can look like.

It’s funny – I was a comics maker, and I didn’t think I could study comics as serious scholarship, and yet sometime later, I’m not only making such work, I’ve been teaching it to teachers who then make and use comics with their students. So since the comics of 1986, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in 1993, and the spread of works from Fun Home to Persepolis and so much more – there has been a sea change of what can be done, and while that has many corners left to reach – I think they are within reach.

Nrama: You published Unflattening through Harvard University Press – a very conventional choice for an academic publisher but a rather unexpected choice for a comic book.

Can you tell us why you chose to go with Harvard University Press versus other possible venues?

Sousanis: The truth here is that they found me. They weren’t on my radar. But while I was somewhere near the midpoint of finishing it, I was contacted by Sharmila Sen from Harvard University Press, who would become my wonderful editor on the project. She’d heard about the work from some early interviews and had followed my blog for a while, and saw something in the excerpts I’d shared beyond its novelty, and what it meant about thinking in visual ways. The initial conversation we had really resonated with me and I felt strongly that she was the person I wanted to work with. I was extremely fortunate to have a fair amount of interest in acquiring it, but I was certainly cognizant of the fact as discussed above, institutions like Columbia and Harvard carried a certain amount of weight – and I did want it to be something others could use to make their own arguments.

Whether this is the first comics dissertation or not, I wanted to make sure I was the last person who had to argue to be allowed to do it this way.

Credit: Nick Sousanis (Harvard University Press)

Nrama: How has the response been from more traditional comic book distributors? Have you been able to make many inroads with more mainstream comics readers and retailers?

Sousanis: This is a tricky thing. In North America at least, it’s my understanding that comics shops order through a single distributor. Harvard is not listed in this catalog – and while I might wish it were otherwise, I am the only comics or comics-related work from the press, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense for them to do that. I know of several comics shops that do carry it and I’m quite pleased with that, but that takes a retailer who is already aware of Unflattening. As a person who frequents comics shops, I’d certainly love to see it in my local shop, and I’m hopeful that that will happen more broadly at some point.

But even while I was making it, I felt I was somewhat making a comic for non-comics readers. This has meant that many academics, who have never thought of themselves as comics readers, have taken to it. I’m excited not just that they’re reading my work, but that this is opening their world to all sorts of comics out there. Along these lines, I really like how diversely Unflattening has been shelved and the various categories it’s been reviewed under – everything from philosophy to fiction to education to science to the overly broad heading graphic novels.

Nrama: You mention your book can even be found in the Mueseum of Modern Art’s book shop but not necessarily Midtown Comics. Can you talk about what some of the pros and cons are to being distributed outside of mainstream comics? How can interested comic retailers get Unflattening in their shops?

Sousanis: Right, it’s been sighted at various museum stores, which is an unexpected spot to find comics, and that’s very cool! And I love the idea that this can be stumbled upon by someone who happens to pick it up and has no idea that behind the cover is a comic book! Spreading comics to new audiences has been a big push of my work in doing comics in academia. But on account of the single distributor situation that comics shops go through, it’s difficult for a comics shop who doesn’t stray from the catalogue to find out about it. There are shops that do carry it (thank you!) - but they made the effort to order from a different place than the rest of their comics order.

Besides my own nostalgia for wanting to be in these places I frequent most Wednesdays, because the work very much deals with comics as a form in and of themselves, I do think it’s a good fit, and I think over time it will find its way there one way or another. 

Nrama: Although Unflattening contains some fairly heady, theoretical content, do you think this is a book that a general comic book-reading audience would enjoy? Does it have a place on the same shelf as the current “Big Two” trade paperbacks?

Sousanis: As I said above, for me, the kid who went and still goes to comics shops, I’d like to see it there alongside Batman and Superman (and I’ve geeked out when it’s been listed on some best of the year thus far lists alongside such books!). And I like the idea of someone who goes to such a comic shop discovering a different way to use the medium to share ideas. But I recognize, in the same way that because Bone and From Hell are both listed as graphic novels, they get shelved together at Barnes & Noble (and they definitely aren’t intended for the same audience), that this is a longstanding problem with comics more generally. To some, just because there are pictures in them, they assume that it is kids’ material. Comics, like books, can be anything. At the same time, I’ve been really pleased and surprised to have people send me pictures of their young children reading Unflattening – and they may not get the same thing out of it that a college undergraduate gets or a teacher, but they can get at it – and that’s pretty cool and not something I expected at all!  

Credit: Nick Sousanis (Harvard University Press)

Nrama: Looking at Unflattening, it’s certainly not a lightweight book as you deal with some fairly complex ideas here. If I had to sum it up in one idea though, it appears you’re most concerned with making the argument against myopic perception. There’s one part, early on, where you make comparison between our eyes and true perception, where our sense of reality shifts from one eye to the next. It’s only through opening both eyes and synthesizing both views that we can move closer to a truer sense of what lies before us.

What was your primary concern motivating the pen in your hand as you both wrote and drew Unflattening?

Sousanis: I’m going to take issue with one word in here, Forrest [Laughs] – “true” perception. My argument is intended to prompt movement beyond the myopic to more expanded sorts of perception. I’m not sure we can ever make a solid claim to truth. There’s always more to understand. But that said, yes, exactly – I was deeply interested in perception on a lot of levels: literal perception and the ways in which we see serving as a metaphor for how we think. If a single mode/discipline can be powerful but leave you blind outside its field of view – how can we expand our understanding when we come from multiple vantage points at once? And this includes the ways in which using both visual verbal modes, in the way that comics allow, can offer expanded possibilities for communication. Unflattening doesn’t seek to provide answers, but I am seeking to prompt readers to examine their own thinking, and perhaps open ways that they can expand it, that they can incorporate other modes and start to look at things in ways they hadn’t prior.

You mention “both wrote and drew” in the question, and I think that that is particularly salient as these processes went hand-in-hand for me in generating my work. There was no script that I then drew pictures for, it was all one piece from the start. And that is very much a part of my concept – in coming from modes of image and text at the same time we open up new ways of thinking. This was certainly the case for me as I went in directions I know that I wouldn’t have working in text alone.

Nrama: Although the book focuses on the theoretical, as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but feel this book lent itself to a very progressive reading in terms of the need to take a more holistic view of the world around us in order to eschew the world of the flatlanders and gain a greater understanding of the world. How intentional was this (if at all)?

Sousanis: Very much so. My own background is this apparently eclectic thing – studying mathematics, making and writing about art, competing on the tennis circuit and coaching. I’ve struggled with being fit into any single box or label. Humans are these vastly diverse, complex, creative creatures capable of so much – and yet, I think we narrow our possibilities by building artificial boxes around what we can and cannot be. The act of writing and drawing that is comics, in some ways represents the interdisciplinary, holistic possibilities – we necessarily are working across domains.

Nrama: Your critique of the current state of education came across pretty clear as well in the first chapter. In what ways do you see your work helping to address this issue?

Sousanis: That first chapter offers a dream - or rather a nightmare - of what’s going on in education motivated by a deep concern about where we are headed. Sometimes I worry that what I drew was too heavy – but I also witness in sharing the work with teachers that they nod all too knowingly. I think the purpose of education is to help us become more who we are even as we help foster the skills and social responsibilities people need to function within society. It’s not an easy thing to do at large scale – but I think we have to start by thinking about how complex and diverse people innately are, and do less of trying to fit them within a system because it is easier to create rubrics and mark bubble tests than deal with them as individuals. While testing companies are making ever-greater profits, I think young teachers and their students are under increasing pressure to perform/conform to standards dreamed up by people disconnected from the real situation.

None of it addresses the larger problems with education – which are what’s going on with society at large, such as the disparity of wealth (which tracks quite directly with test scores). I didn’t want to simplify it by saying education as a system is all bad (And you’ll note, the words “education,” “schools,” or teachers never appears anywhere – nor does “discipline” among others. The decision to leave out what I felt were loaded, or in other cases, overly technical terms was quite deliberate, and by leaving the language and imagery in the metaphorical, I wanted to provide access to a broad swath of people to find their own way into the work, rather than having that determined by me.) But I think we really need to look hard at what learning is and question what it can look like.

As I said above, I set out to do something that helped prompt questions, not provide pat answers. Comics are a part of this – and the increasing inclusion of comics in educational settings represents a growing recognition that other modes are possible.

Nrama: I also understand your book is being used in a variety of different classes. Can you tell us how it’s being used and where? 

Sousanis: Sure. It’s been pretty exciting for me to see it so quickly put into classroom situations and taken up in such a diverse range of courses, subjects, and levels from everything from graduate courses in education to college Global Literature to high school philosophy to arts-based research to comics studies. I sought to create something that crossed disciplinary boundaries in such a way that it could be read and understood regardless of your particular background - and I’m really gratified to see this happening. Among educators who’ve incorporated it into their courses is Professor Steven Berg of Schoolcraft College in Michigan - who set up a wiki around it for his students and as a way to collaborate with other classes who are using the book:

What’s particularly cool in his approach and many of the others that I’m aware of, is not so much that they are studying the book as a cold object, but that they are using it as a springboard for their own explorations and projects. That to me is the most exciting thing about having the book out in the world - is where people go with it. The “ing” in “Unflattening" is essential as it’s meant to prompt questions not provide final answers. 

Nrama: Shifting gears a bit and looking more at the form of the comic book, you really demonstrate a wide array of aesthetic approaches from traditional cartoonish pictures and traditional comic book grid layouts to some far more experimental, impressionistic renderings of your ideas, which break borders and challenge readers to conventional approach to reading a comic.

In many regards, form reinforces content in your work. Can you talk about some of the creative choices you made to convey your notions about the concept of “unflattening”?

Sousanis: I very much am interested in the ideas being embodied in the form rather than illustrating the text with pictures. It’s all one piece, how words dance with the imagery and how I orchestrate the reader’s movement through the page. I think of it more as trying to create an architectural experience than a strict sequence of image to image to image. So although I frequently make extremely detailed pages that take a lot of time to draw, the majority of my time per page is actually spent on developing the composition. I keep playing with elements on the page to have them connect and take shape in a way that conveys the idea. This play with the form really shapes what it is I end up saying on the page. Furthermore, fairly early on, my wife would come by where I was drawing and comment: I haven’t seen a composition like that before. As I heard her say this with each page, I decided going forward that no page would have the same compositional structure. And I think this is true!

Nrama: Then, later in the book, there is one page that breaks almost entirely from comic books form and is straight text. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have found this jarring. Was this something intentional or did it just happen as you were working through the project?

Sousanis: Ha – yeah, I find it jarring too! It was very much intentional – I always had in mind to have a page (possibly a few) that would look like dissertations are supposed to look to provide that contrast, and then the page turn would open this new world. I thought it would be at the beginning or early on, but as things came together in my sketch-notes, this page moved more to the middle, which created that sense of shock on the page turn, rather than leaving Kansas for Oz as it might’ve felt had it been at the beginning. The page itself discusses the historical bias against images as thinking and the preference for words going back to Plato and Descartes – so it is very much intended to turn and directly address the reader about what I’m doing.

In the dissertation version, it is the only place where the office of doctoral studies (the people who check margins, formatting, citations, etc upon hand in of your dissertation) suggested a correction concerning the stand-alone drawing on the page amidst all the double-spaced text labeled “fig. 1”. I was instructed to include a “list of figures” page at the beginning of my dissertation that referenced this page and the single figure on it! It’s quite a riot actually – in a document of over 130 drawn comics pages, I have this anaemic listing of just one drawing. In asking me to do this, they actually helped amplify the very point I was making on the page far better than I had intended! (The book version doesn’t have the list of figures at front, but it is referred to in the endnote regarding that page.)

Nrama: [Laughs] Having experienced the pains of having a dissertation proofed by the office of graduate studies at my alma mater, that does make the point in a pretty humorous way!

Shifting gears a bit, here, can you speak a bit to your artistic influences?

Sousanis: Obviously in terms of what you can do with comics, Scott McCloud’sUnderstanding Comics really opened doors for me and he has been a tremendous inspiration for all he’s done for comics. I was heavily influenced by Alan Moore and his collaborators’ works – perhaps particularly the 9/11 tribute short comic “This Is Information” drawn by Melinda Gebbie. This piece is all about conveying ideas – but without a visible narrator or characters or even a story – it purely used the interaction of visual and verbal metaphors to great effect.

As a doctoral student, I actually took up Moore as my research “mentor” and studied just about everything he did and that certainly informs my thoughts on form. I know that in my early comics making days back with Lockerman, the appearance of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight blew up my thinking on composition and even his approach to cropping and that is still evident in my page design today. I love looking at Frank Quitely’s pages, as I find so much inspiration from every little choice he makes about panel construction. Similarly for JH Williams III – who also has the chameleon-like ability to shift styles from panel to panel. Chris Ware’s architectural compositions have had a big impact as has David Aja’s brilliant use of the page. Since I currently work digitally, it may not be as apparent, but in my formative days, I was quite moved by the brushwork of Goseki Kojima in Lone Wolf & Cub.

Outside of comics, it’s likely apparent I’m a fan of M.C. Escher’s work as both drawer and mathematician – the complexity of forms he produced really resonates with my own thinking. I could go on, I always look at new works by Marcos Martin, Javier Pulido, and so many more past and present that I consciously or unconsciously draw on in my work. I have a pretty strong recall for drawings I’ve seen – so I can think of instances where I was thinking, I need to do a panel movement here like Gene Colan would do in Batman or some such. It all finds its way in at some point.

Nrama: With Unflattening finished, you recently moved to Alberta, Canada to take up a position working alongside Professor Bart Beaty on some new, cutting-edge comic book research. Can you share a little bit about your present work?

Sousanis: Well, my primary work here is to make more comics (!) and theorize on their workings and potential uses. I’ve started on some of these projects and more will appear soon. In regards to the “What Were Comics” project with Professor Beaty, I’m the junior sidekick alongside Bart and Dr. Benjamin Woo on this ambitious undertaking they’ve dreamed up. In a nutshell, “What Were Comics” will sample 2% of every comic book produced in the United States from 1934 to 2014. By looking at everything from publishing specifics to printing particulars to issues of representation to theoretical concerns around page composition, they will generate a massive data set from which to draw a more comprehensive picture of how comics have evolved. In most scholarship (perhaps with a notable exception of Beaty’s recent 12 Cent Archie), people tend to look at the exemplars of the field. Here is a chance to really get a sample of everything that was coming out.

Just in trying to set up the parameters for the coding team, we’ve already run into a lot of interesting surprises.  And some unexpected challenges – even in something as seemingly simple as setting up categories for the organization of a comics page – i.e. tiers, grids, etc. – you find as soon as you settle on one determination, pages in any randomly chosen book that defy it and you have no idea how to classify it. To me (and my role in this project will be on the theory side of things), this shows how expansive comics can be and just how wildly inventive each comics artist is in solving issues of composition. In addition to the new narrative that comes out of the project, I think the data will be an extremely useful source for other scholars looking at the history of comics.

Nrama: Apart from your research in Alberta, what’s next for you? Will we see more from you in comics scholarship or are you looking to publish in mainstream comics as well?

Sousanis: Ha – while I was in the midst of doing Unflattening, I joked with my other academic comics-making pal Jarod Roselló that I’d go back to doing superhero comics after this was done. I do think that would be a lot of fun – and if the chance to do something small as a one-off ever presented itself, I’d probably leap tall buildings for it!

But as far as my plans go – I really intend to keep pushing the boundaries on what can be addressed in comics form and where comics can show up – and I think that that’s everywhere. I’m deeply interested in making work that is both accessible and yet complex, comics that are as artistic as they are scholarly. I want to make comics that bring more readers into the conversation and also make them see their own possibilities in working in comics. I’ll do this through my own work (and one early example of this is in my Boston Globe piece), as well as in my teaching, and through an editorial project – overseeing a section on scholarly comics in the forthcoming journal Ideograph. It is a really exciting time for comics on so many fronts and I’m thrilled to be a part of that conversation!

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