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Unflattening Unflattening Unflattening Unflattening

Unflattening back

Nick Sousanis


Page 45 Review by Jonathan

In our modern world, it often seems that the word in the king of communication, holding sway over images. We comics lovers know better of course, but what if images really do inform our understanding of pretty much anything just as much as words? It’s kind of obvious when you think about it, I mean IKEA have even taken it to a new level with entirely picture based instructions for assembling their furniture, thus doing away with the need for multiple language versions of the same text. I’m pretty sure that’s not the example Nick Sousanis had in mind when he embarked upon this epic undertaking, but it actually sums up his philosophy quite nicely.

Nick started submitting his university work for one particular class in the form of comics, which went down so well, he started doing it for other classes too, gradually persuading more and more lecturers and professors to let him do so. In the end he decided this was something he could do a PhD about, the use of image as an equal partner to the mighty word. In the form of a comic obviously.

So, thus began his investigation of the process of ‘seeing’ from the perspective of science, art, literature, philosophy and even mythology to examine its specific role in the psychological process of interpretation that goes on in our brains. It’s a process he calls unflattening as he shows how images can be used not just to illustrate text, but in all manner of ways of communicating information. Text is by its very nature linear but imagery however is pure connectivity. The word subtext springs to mind.

What follows is an extremely clever, engrossing and well constructed treatise... with pictures! He’s preaching to the converted with respect to us comic readers of course, but it’s another vital piece of work in helping ferment wider discussion about the validity of our beloved medium. That’s not his primary aim with this work, but it’s certainly a useful adjunct.

Nick would like to see us “challenge text” and I think he has some very interesting points to make about the use of imagery, or lack of it, in academic learning, particularly for children. You only have to look at EVOLUTION: THE STORY OF LIFE ON EARTH or THE STUFF OF LIFE: A GRAPHIC GUIDE TO GENETICS AND DNA to see how fun comics can make pretty dry subject matter. FEYNMAN contains a lot of pretty high-end physics explained incredibly eloquently in comic form which I found far more digestible than in my excruciatingly boring quantum theory lectures at Uni. Equally, I would argue CRECY taught me more about that battle than reading about it in history at school ever did.

Ultimately, this is an impressive, powerful, and absolutely convincing display of just how much understanding can be achieved through the additional use of imagery. And comics. Now we just need a generation of comic creators to work on producing nothing but text books!