Doctoral Dissertation As Graphic Novel

Comics artist and educator Nick Sousanis is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies at the University of Calgary. He received his doctorate in education at Columbia University in 2014, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comic book form. Titled Unflattening, it argues for the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning, and it is now a book from Harvard University Press. See his work at


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All panels Courtesy Harvard University Press

How did you get into comics?
My older brother was really into them and so he read them to me when I was a baby—“Batman” ended up being my first word. I always drew and made things as a kid, as all kids do, and I never stopped. I printed and sold my own superhero/parody comic Lockerman from junior high through high school (he makes an appearance in Unflattening in the chapter on imagination). In undergrad, I studied mathematics, while comics-making increasingly took a back seat—as it seemed to me comics weren’t the thing you did at school. But even then, I never stopped working on ideas—I did an independent study in philosophy where I developed a comic on pretty heavy philosophical questions (which unfortunately remains unfinished …). This pattern of comics in the background (though I was always reading them) persisted until my time in Detroit when I was writing about the arts. I was invited to be in a political art show around the 2004 election with only a few days notice. I turned back to comics, and the work I did there was really seminal for my way of working going forward. I pushed on ideas of visual and verbal metaphor as a way to talk about issues without alienating one side or another with specific terms that could be divisive. Shortly after this, I made a long-ish comic as the essay for an art exhibition I co-organized focusing on games and education. This piece—which delved into their history, what made a game a game, and sought to apply what could be learned from games as philosophy—was the primary portfolio piece I used when applying to the doctoral program at Columbia University’s Teachers College. This was the sort of work I wanted to do that was dense and filled with complex ideas, but also accessible and engaging for a broad audience.

Have you always had a scholarly bent?
Sure—I like to think about things, I like studying to make sense of things that spark my curiosity—and that has been present my whole life. I think at the same time, I like figuring out ways to explain difficult things—to myself and to others. I feel pretty fortunate to have parents who were both educators in the best sense of the word, who cultivated in me a confidence that there weren’t doors I couldn’t explore, that the world of learning stayed wide open to me so I could go deeply in many directions and continually follow my curiosity where it led. And I think that’s a privilege of support for learning that everyone should have. People are these amazing creative and capable creatures, and I feel if they have the support and the opportunity to be immersed in their own learning—they can go anywhere.


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What made you think that a comic strip dissertation was even possible?
The truth is, I didn’t know any better. I’d been out of school for a time since doing master’s degrees back in Detroit, and I was well aware of the smart sort of comics that had been coming out and were getting into classrooms. Things like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and works written by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, alongside various artists. With the work I’d been doing prior to coming back to school, it just seemed like a natural thing to do my work in comics form. I knew people would read it (or at least be more likely to) and it could be accessible in a way I felt was important. As much as I’ve always enjoyed what I encounter in and have taken from academia, I’ve felt a frustration that the ideas tended to stay within those walls. Comics could bridge that divide and let me work in a way that suited me best. It’s really not until I got into school, and moved forward on the work and had begun speaking on it at conferences, that the political implications of this thing I was doing fully dawned on me. I embraced that, and from there my work began to take a more self-reflective nature. It became very much—at least metaphorically—an argument for its existence and for other forms like it.

How did you propose the project?
I came in having done these educational comics and shared them with the advisers who ended up admitting me. I was upfront about my intention to work in comics, and they were intrigued and supportive from the start. So from the first classes I had, I made comics for my work (not all of my work, but a majority of it). In doing so from the beginning, I think I built my case for this way of working. Besides studying educational philosophy, I was immersed in studying comics, comics theory, and making comics—and on each of these fronts I was strengthening my case for the form’s legitimacy within academia. Along the way, my adviser Ruth Vinz invited me to do a chapter in her co-authored book on narrative research in comics form. This project and other comics I made like it served essentially as proofs of concept. By the time I was at proposal stage, there wasn’t a lot of convincing that had to be done, at least as far as my committee was concerned.


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How long did it take? And what hoops did you have to jump through to make it academic enough?
I was at Columbia from 2008 to 2014. I finished coursework in 2010, and with a nearly year-long interlude spent co-organizing a conference around creativity and play, ended up making the first sketch roadmap for the dissertation in the spring/summer of 2011 (this is reproduced at the back of the book). I made the final working sketch outline early in 2012, and shortly thereafter started drawing the first chapter. I defended and finished in the spring of 2014.

The hoops were surprisingly minor. I think the earlier pieces I made helped me learn better how to navigate those spaces, and provided a sense of trust for my committee that I could walk the tightrope between both concerns. I did have to observe the margins like any text-based dissertation—but other than that I was pretty free to work as I wanted. I could even have worked in color—but I stuck to working in black and white, partly because I prefer it, and also, because I print excerpts and give it away to anyone, it’s cheaper.

Tell me about the concept. What is your dissertation attempting to prove?
At its simplest, it’s saying through its form and content that we make sense of our world in means beyond purely textual, and so for our learning, our scholarship, we need to cultivate and embrace those other means to expand our understanding. I specifically focus on the visual and comics within that. The term “unflattening” itself originally came to me in thinking about how comics worked—the ways in which you could represent information in multidirectional, forking, parenthetical and layered ways. So not very flat despite the surface they are printed on. (The works of Chris Ware and Richard McGuire’s Here really demonstrate this.) As the ideas developed further, the term merged with my thinking on what’s going on in schools in terms of standardized testing and the narrow channels I see us being pushed through—and that certainly includes the dissertation’s 12pt font, double-spaced, 1.5 by 1 by 1 by 1 in margins as well. It’s not to say that there’s necessarily anything wrong with existing ways of doing things, but to ask why is this the only way, and what might we discover if we tried something different? There have been plenty of arguments for the importance of visual thinking over the years, but here I could make the case that the visual could be a viable form for serious inquiry by doing it.


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What was the most difficult part of the process in terms of scholarship and form?
I suppose it may have been the lack of models to follow. There weren’t comics quite like this and there certainly weren’t dissertation precedents that I could look to to borrow from. This meant figuring out various aspects of format, like how to handle citations in a way that didn’t disrupt the visual flow (we ultimately opted to put them in as endnotes, which is not uncommon in text-only pieces). Because I wanted this to be read across disciplines and inside and outside academia—I had to find ways to convey something that meant exactly what I meant but also was readable to people coming from likely very different experiences. To keep the images unburdened, I had to keep the text to a minimum. I think that constraint was a blessing though, as it forces you to edit, to be very precise in what words you use, and let your imagery do even more for you. I do wish I’d done an entirely wordless chapter—just to see if I could do it and still make something that would clearly be considered scholarship. That’s on my list of projects to try going forward. No matter how difficult the concept I was trying to get across, I never wanted the work to stray from being visually engaging. As the work progressed, I began to articulate my way of working as being driven equally by my aesthetic considerations and my research investigations. I couldn’t let one mode dominate the other or I felt the work would fall apart and certainly be unsatisfying to me. This meant reworking each composition in the sketch phase time and again, till it met both sets of criteria—only then I could start working on the actual page.

Was this the first time a dissertation of this kind was tried? And did you have to do any due diligence to prove to the Ph.D committee that it was?
It is difficult to prove firstness, as there certainly could be examples that just didn’t get much notice at the time. I did look into it as I was doing it—there was a dissertation with several brief interludes in comics form a few years prior. There definitely have been partial ones, including two done the same year I finished. (I’ve very recently come across one that may have been done entirely in comics from some years ago in France, where they do have a longer tradition of comics being used in broader contexts than in the United States.) It was extremely important to me that I do the dissertation entirely in comics as I felt if I needed a text component to explain or justify what I was doing then I was essentially saying comics weren’t up for the challenge. And I believe strongly that comics are more than up for such a task—and I’m quite certain that the work I created this way was stronger than what I would’ve done in text alone.


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Other than publishing the work, what would you say is the biggest triumph?
“Triumph” is such a grand-sounding word! I’m certainly pleased that it’s published and out in the world. I’m quite thrilled to have it already being taken up in a wide range of classrooms and see students using it as jumping-off points for their own explorations. I think I’m fortunate to have caught a time in history where there’s a great hunger for expanding the forms that scholarship can take, which happens to be occurring at the same time that comics are being introduced into more educational settings. (I taught a course specifically on comics and education while a student at Columbia.) This fortuitous timing has allowed me to be involved in conversations around rethinking what scholarship can be for the last several years that have helped me in my own thinking and further impressed upon me the importance to question what learning looks like. And now that the work is out, I think its existence—and the stamps of Columbia University and Harvard University Press—can perhaps help others seeking to make the case to push on their own boundaries. They can point to it as one example and say, “see, this is happening …”

How would you compare your work to other graphic histories, philosophies, novels, etc.?
From the comics-world perspective, I’m not sure it’s all that radically different, in the way that it is from within academia. I’ve mentioned things like McCloud and Spiegelman’s works, which both, in quite different ways, join great research with masterful presentation in comics. Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland springs to mind as a work that weaves together history, geography, literature, personal memoir and much more to engage its subject. Certainly Logicomix, Neurocomic, and work going on around graphic medicine come from somewhat similar places. I think where Unflattening and my approach to comics departs in some way from others is that it is more or less non-narrative. There is no avatar of me as narrator, there’s no story, no characters—at least not in the sense that we spend the length of the work with them. It’s an exploration of ideas and I’m greatly concerned with having the visual form embody them. It is a persistent challenge—as without a narrator, characters or story—I constantly have to invent ways to convey those ideas. I’m always searching for visual schemas and compositions that are the idea. It’s exciting for me to work that way, as it pushes me to go in directions with my research that I hadn’t anticipated. Each page, even though I have a sense of what I want to explore, I’m continually discovering where I am going.

Who influenced you most in doing this work?
Certainly I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Scott McCloud (who has been terrifically supportive of the project as well). Understanding Comics opened wide the possibilities for what comics could be and impacted me greatly. In terms of how I approach making comics, I deeply studied the works of Alan Moore—with particular interest in the way he uses image-text interaction and the intricate control of the use of space to convey meaning. The 9-11 tribute comic he did with artist Melinda Gebbie, “This is Information,” served as a pivotal inspiration in terms of its use of visual metaphors and its lack of a visible narrator. David Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass stands out for its brilliant use of visual metaphor as well. There are so many artists/authors I look at, am inspired by, and learn from: Chris Ware, Frank Quitely, the ultra-dense regular and shattered compositions of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns still stay with me. Lynda Barry’s wildly creative works that help people rediscover that they can draw resonates so strongly with me in my teaching and what I wanted to convey about the importance of working visually through the work.

In terms of weaving together ideas across disciplines, texts like EO Wilson’s Consilience, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, James Burke’s Connections, and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance all were probably playing in the background while I was thinking about this. I had the good fortune to work with legendary professor of aesthetic education Maxine Greene while at Columbia. In my first semester, I made a comic about her for the class she held in her living room—this started an ongoing conversation that lasted until her passing just a few weeks after my defense, also held in that living room. Maxine was this dynamo of energy, constantly asking questions and weaving ideas together from literature, philosophy and the arts—breathtaking to be in her presence even in her 90s! My daughter was born a few weeks before my defense, and my wife brought her to Maxine’s after that event. I will always recall the wide-eyed openness they both exhibited—at 3 weeks and 96 years! In my time in Detroit, I came to be the biographer of artist Charles McGee shortly before he turned 80 (he’s 90 now). In my first meeting with him, he reminded me of the incredible vitality Picasso (about the same age at the time) displayed in the 1956 documentary “The Mystery of Picasso.” The energy and constant questioning that exudes from people I’ve had the great privilege work with, like Maxine and Charles, speaks to the attitude for possibilities I want to convey in the work. How do we keep that openness of a three-week old, while gaining all the experience that comes with living in the world? Again, I’m so grateful for my parents, whose example of curiosity instilled a similar thirst in me that runs through all my work.



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