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Thinking Visually

Posted on Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When Nick Sousanis (B.S. ’95, Mathematics) began formulating ideas for his doctoral dissertation, he knew he wanted to do something that would be a departure from the norm—he was determined to create his work in comic form.

Unflattening is an experiment in visual thinking. Nick Sousanis defies conventional forms of scholarly discourse to offer readers both a stunning work of graphic art and a serious inquiry into the ways humans construct knowledge.Read more about the book on the publisher’s website, Harvard University Press. 

The piece is entirely in comic book format and so far has won an American Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence in the Humanities and the Lynd Ward Prize for Best Graphic Novel of the Year. It has also been nominated for an Eisner Award (comics) for Best Scholarly/Academic Work, which will be announced in July.

After completing his undergraduate degree in mathematics, Sousanis, who had played tennis and been a Medallion Scholar at Western Michigan University, did not go directly to graduate school. Instead, he decided to play tennis internationally on what was then known as the Satellite Circuit. He eventually found his way to Detroit where he enrolled at Wayne State University, intending to prepare for a doctoral degree in mathematics and ending up creating his own degree in interdisciplinary studies, combining his two diverse interests of mathematics and art. In 2002, he completed a Master’s degree in both Mathematics and in Interdisciplinary studies (Mathematics and Art), respectively.

In 2004, Sousanis was running an art and cultural web magazine with his brother in Detroit when he was asked to contribute artwork as part of a political art show for the Presidential election. At that point, Sousanis had been creating comics for years and had amassed a body of unfinished works. He’d published his own character in high school, but the art form took a back seat during his graduate studies.

“It was always a side thing because comics didn’t have a very intellectual perception, but that's changing,” Sousanis said. In this case, he thought the format could be a beneficial way for anyone to listen and learn. In the end, he found that people were interested to consume information in this way. “Sometime after the political comics got me back into making comics, I made another work on art and games and education as the essay for an exhibition on games and art in Detroit. That showcased what I could do in terms of education, sharing complex thoughts in a sophisticated but accessible way in comics form.”

Several years later, Sousanis began a doctoral program at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. Based on his knowledge of previous comics, in addition to his own work, Sousanis never really thought creating a dissertation completely in comic form would be a big deal to some, so he was somewhat surprised when it did -- before he’d even begun drawing it. Because of that, Sousanis was able to open a conversation and gain feedback.

“I realized this was a political statement and made the work more directly an argument for itself. I became more self-conscious about why I was doing it,” Sousanis said. “My intent was just to make it, and I learned people were hungry to see something different. I want people to read it, teach it -- and for those who want something different -- to know this is out there.”

Sousanis says he thinks this was the right time in history for people to be open to comics as a way of visual thinking -- especially in the academy -- but he doesn’t claim the credit for getting it to this point. He was very aware of other works in comic form that came before his had already paved the way, such as Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics,” Art Spiegleman’s “Maus,” and Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” in addition to a large body of work produced on a literary, scientific, and educational level.

“I thought the argument had been won, so it didn’t seem like a big deal to me—I had very little resistance,” Sousanis said. The same can’t be said for everyone. “Even now, with more acceptance all over, there are still plenty of places who refuse to see comics as anything but childish material.”

Aside from the awards, “Unflattening,” has garnered attention from numerous magazines and blogs. It’s made several lists, in addition to increasing academic tolerance for comics. Most of all, Sousanis is glad people are actually reading it.

In the last year, he’s made comics for the Boston Globe and has collaborated on a piece for Nature around the Paris Climate talks, which can be viewed here. Aside from several other pieces in the works, Sousanis is beginning the follow up to “Unflattening.”

In the fall, Sousanis will leave his current position as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies at University of Calgary to start his new position as assistant professor in Humanities and Liberal Arts Studies at San Francisco State University.

For current students, Sousanis’ advice is simple, “We need to explore the things that interest us and follow them,” he said. “Follow what really piques your curiosity as much as you can.”

To see more of Sousanis' work, visit his website at spinweaveandcut.com.

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