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Comic book by postdoctoral scholar makes rounds at Paris climate talks

Nick Sousanis, Eyes High fellow, emerges as a star in the world of comic book scholarship


Postdoctoral comic book scholar Nick Sousanis' comic appeared in a scientific journal which is being distributed at the UN climate talks in Paris. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

By Heath McCoy 

From a young age, comic book artist, educator and scholar Nick Sousanis has been keenly aware of environmental concerns.

Growing up in Michigan, his mother taught environmental studies to elementary school children and those teachings stuck with Sousanis throughout his life. Among his goals as an Eyes High postdoctoral fellow in comics studies at the University of Calgary, Sousanis planned to create comics that dealt with environmental issues.

In a year of monumental achievements for the artist-scholar, he rose to that challenge and emerged as a true star in the world of comic book scholarship.

Nine-page comic distributed to delegates at UN Climate Change Conference

Last November, alongside respected science journalist Richard Monastersky, Sousanis co-authored a nine-page comic published in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature.

The piece, entitled "The Fragile Framework: Can Nations Unite to Save Earth’s Climate?", is a powerful, multi-faceted work that covers the science of climate change, the effects of a warming climate and the fraught history of the United Nations’ efforts to contain the growing crisis.

The project is a rare feat, certainly Nature’s first foray into presenting serious scientific journalism in comic form. Its publication was timed in conjunction with the annual UN Climate Change Conference, held last month in Paris. The Fragile Framework was printed as a standalone piece with the intention of distribution among delegates at the conference.

“I’ve wanted to do a comic on environmental issues for a long time, so when I got the call from Nature in September, it was very exciting,” says Sousanis. “It was also terrifying because the deadline was less than two months away.”

He adds, “I could have just done an environmental comic for my blog. But I knew this had a better chance of making a real impact.”

Thesis in comic book form presents complex ideas in accessible ways 

There’s little doubt that Sousanis landed the Nature commission as a result of the smashing critical success of his book Unflattening, published earlier this year by Harvard University Press.

That rich, ambitious work began to take shape as Sousanis’s doctoral dissertation while he was studying education at Columbia University.

“I wanted to do my thesis in comics form, because I saw their educational value,” he says. “I set out to present complex ideas in a way that was also accessible.”

Ultimately, Unflattening became a vast metaphor for education, with the idea that visuals could be used as effective tools for teaching and learning.

“It’s about how text and images have been rigidly separated in western culture,” he explains. “As it’s typically viewed, scholarship is undertaken in text, while art is something you put up on the wall. It’s often undervalued as being merely pretty or decorative or illustrative. But visual thinking is an important way by which we make sense of the world.”

Previous book considered one of the top graphic novels of year

With its breathtakingly detailed art and heady intellectual focus, arguing for the value of both words and images in Western thought, Unflatteningwas a sensation among art critics and comic book scholars alike.

It was recently named in the Independent (U.K.) as one of the top graphic novels of the year. Since the book’s release, Sousanis has been invited to speak in Berlin, New York City and at such institutions as Harvard University and the University of Notre Dame. The pages of Unflattening are also currently on exhibit in a gallery in Moscow.

“You sit in your room and work on this project for a couple of years, and you never expect it to appear in such settings,” says Sousanis. “I definitely never expected it to be on exhibit, and now it has been, in Moscow, in the Netherlands. To see people blow it up and put it up on the walls a world away, it’s flattering. And very gratifying.”