Comic Boom - Comics in Education

Comic Boom - Comics in Education with author and professor Nick Sousanis

May 16, 2024 Lucy Starbuck Braidley/Nick Sousanis Season 5 Episode 1
Comic Boom - Comics in Education with author and professor Nick Sousanis
Comic Boom - Comics in Education
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Comic Boom - Comics in Education
Comic Boom - Comics in Education with author and professor Nick Sousanis
May 16, 2024 Season 5 Episode 1
Lucy Starbuck Braidley/Nick Sousanis

In this episode Lucy chats to professor and author Nick Sousanis.

Nick Sousanis is an Eisner-winning comics author and an associate professor of Humanities & Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University, where he started and runs a Comics Studies program. He received his doctorate in education at Teachers College, 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 was published by Harvard University Press in 2015. Unflattening received the 2016 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE Award) in Humanities, the Lynd Ward Prize for best Graphic Novel of 2015, and was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Scholarly/Academic work.

Connect with Nick:
https://spinweaveandcut.com
X:
@nsousanis

Nick's recommendation for young readers:
K Gets in Trouble by Gary Clement

Nick's recommendation for older readers:
Toussaint Louverture: The Only Successful Slave Revolt in History by C.L.R James

Lucy's Recommendation (an upcoming guest!):
Young Hag by Isabel Greenberg

This episode is sponsored by ALCS, The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society.  Check out their range of copyright education tools, resources and planning  - including those highlighted on the show by following this link.

Producer and Host: @Lucy_Braidley
Contact: comicboompodcast@gmail.com
Music by
John_Sib from Pixabay

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode Lucy chats to professor and author Nick Sousanis.

Nick Sousanis is an Eisner-winning comics author and an associate professor of Humanities & Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University, where he started and runs a Comics Studies program. He received his doctorate in education at Teachers College, 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 was published by Harvard University Press in 2015. Unflattening received the 2016 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE Award) in Humanities, the Lynd Ward Prize for best Graphic Novel of 2015, and was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Scholarly/Academic work.

Connect with Nick:
https://spinweaveandcut.com
X:
@nsousanis

Nick's recommendation for young readers:
K Gets in Trouble by Gary Clement

Nick's recommendation for older readers:
Toussaint Louverture: The Only Successful Slave Revolt in History by C.L.R James

Lucy's Recommendation (an upcoming guest!):
Young Hag by Isabel Greenberg

This episode is sponsored by ALCS, The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society.  Check out their range of copyright education tools, resources and planning  - including those highlighted on the show by following this link.

Producer and Host: @Lucy_Braidley
Contact: comicboompodcast@gmail.com
Music by
John_Sib from Pixabay

Hello, and welcome to comic boom, the comics and education podcast. If you're interested in hearing more about the crossover between comics and education, then this is the podcast for you. My name is Lucy Starbuck Braidley, and each week I'll be joined by a fellow educator, an academic, a librarian, or a creator of comics to discuss their journey into comics and hopefully to provide some inspirations, influence your practice and shine the light along the way on some titles that you can bring into your libraries. Your classrooms and hopefully onto your bookshelves at home too. This episode of comic, boom is sponsored by ALCS the authors licensing and collecting society. That's right guys. We have got a sponsor. It's hugely exciting for me as it means that I have some contribution this season towards the cost of researching recording, editing, promoting, and publishing the podcast, which has previously been all costs. I've covered myself. So it's really secured the podcast future and a huge thanks. Go out to ALCS for seeing the value in what I'm doing in this podcast and putting their support behind it. You will find out a little bit more. the end sections of each podcast about ALCS and I'm just going to be highlighting. Towards the end of each show, some of their resources, which you might find useful in your classroom. To kickstart season five of the podcast. We have a guest have admired for a long time, so much, in fact that I've put off inviting him onto the podcast that whole time. You may remember Helen Jones and I discussing his work in her episode. It is of course, Nick Sousanis. Nick is an Eisner winning comics, author, and associate professor in liberal studies at San Francisco state university, where he started and runs an interdisciplinary comic studies program. He is the author of Unflattening, originally his doctoral dissertation, which he wrote and drew entirely in comics form. Published by Harvard university press in 2015 and Unflattening received the 2016 American publishers association, humanities award for scholarly excellence. And the 2016 Lynd Ward prize, for best graphic novel. So your Sousanis's comics have appeared in nature. The Boston globe, Columbia magazine and MIT technology review. He has also got an incredibly rich resource of a website www dot spin, weave andcut.com. You'll find all of those details in the show notes, but the website in particular, huge resource first starting to explore the role that comics can have in education and finding some really insightful blogs activities. Exercises downloads and some really rich comics on the topic on that as well. So definitely recommended. But now this is actually quite a bumper length episode to kick off the season. Because once Nick and I started, we could not stop. Absolutely loved talking to him. I'm very much look forward to talking to him again. At some point in the future is such a thoughtful practitioner and someone that's really entrenched in use of comics, but you can tell, I think from the conversation that it is a journey, it's something that is alive, exploratory practice for him. It's not something that is kind of drawn all the conclusions on it, and there's putting his feet. I'm just sort of churning out the same information lecture after lecture. He's definitely developing and growing his practice as he learns from, from what he does he's a very interesting person. I hope you find this episode as interesting as I did. Here's what Nick had to say.

Lucy SB:

Hello, Nick. Welcome to Comic Boom.

Nick Sousanis:

Hi, thanks for having me.

Lucy SB:

You are very welcome and very excited to have you on the show. Your work has been recommended by previous guests and we've discussed it in an earlier episode. So it's brilliant to have you on. To start off, can you tell us a bit about your journey as a comics reader? Where did that all start for you?

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, it started really young. Um, I have a much older brother, who read comics to me, with me, um, when I was a baby. So, Batman ends up being my first word. Um, something I've managed to somewhat accidentally replicate with both of my kids now. Um, it's an easy word to say. So, I was interested in them very young. I think it helped, uh, you know, learning to read at a really young age. and I just kept being into them. And then I think I also, you know, was one of the kids who could draw things that look like things at a young age. So I just kept doing that. So I was into them as a reader and into them as a maker from, you know, as long as, as long as I can, you know, before I can remember I was into them.

Lucy SB:

I think it's really interesting this is one of the questions that I ask people as kind of a, always a first question on the podcast, and so often, there is, family, or there's someone that's almost passed on the Bug down through generations, or it's a sibling, or it's a friend at school. They're always, it's this kind, there seems to be this relational aspect to passing on of comics. Is that something that you've noticed when you've talked to other people about it?

Nick Sousanis:

I mean, that's interesting. I mean, certainly that is, you know, I get students who otherwise might not have been comics readers, but they had a parent that had a stash of them or something like that. I don't know. I mean, own case was just because we had them around and I read them and then we kept buying them. I don't think my mom was, my mom wasn't against them, but not really a particular reader of them, but my dad, my dad read them too. not, and had grown up, you know, as a, as a little kid with things like Shazam and things like that. So, I think it was just around and part of what we did and we tune into them really quickly.

Lucy SB:

Yeah, what was it, do you think, that Helped you sustain that interest I'm sure there's people who kind of dip in dip in and out of reading comics Or they had them around but It's not something that then becomes a real focus of their their life or their reading habits long term What do you think it is that's helped you to have that sustained interest?

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, that, that's a great question. I don't know that I'm going to be able to answer it. I think I liked them. I liked the stories. I think there's probably something about the sort of moral of of, you know, the superhero thing, which I'm I still read superhero comics, but I'm much less interested in them now. But I think there's there's something to the. Not so much the power fantasy, but in the like doing the right thing Despite being difficult that I I like and I'm often kind of disgusted with modern superhero comics because they mostly seem about torture and things I mean not tort, but they just seem so heavy and and the sort of sense of Just doing good things doesn't always seem to be part of them, which I understand it's the real world, but that's not what we're necessarily reading superhero comics

Lucy SB:

Yeah that that escapism element

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, the escapism, but also being just and being, you know, whatever, they're child, childlike things, but they're still, I like that about it, and I, I, you know, there's also the, the serial nature of those particular kinds of comics, um, that, you know, you, you, you, you enter this world and you have history of, the different adventures they have and how they connect when my, my daughter, my older kid was, was little, we started reading my little pony comics, which I had not, we've never really saw the show, but the comics were quite well made both for me as like a teacher, I use elements of them in my teaching, but they also had this sort of ongoing. Larger narrative, um, that we could keep track of and get to know the characters and pieced it together. It was really interesting to be part of their world. And they, and I think that is one of the strengths of. I mean, you know, that's why people watch soap operas, I assume, too. But, one of the strengths is you enter this fictional world and you're part of those characters lives and you're interested to see how they're doing, what they're up to, what struggles they're having, what successes they're having. So I think I like that. And then, obviously, I liked, as somebody who began to like drawing very early and kept at it, you know, the visual aspect of it. Really appealed to me. I mean, I like certain kinds of drawing and, and, that always stayed with me, even when some of the other interests have lapsed, I'm always interested in, in the visual dynamic of the page.

Lucy SB:

What sort of things were you, you said you, you were interested in superheroes, but you maybe moved away from that a little bit now with your reading preferences. So what kind of things did you, Interest, you know, in terms of your reading habits. Yeah,

Nick Sousanis:

Oh boy. So, I mean, I still read those cause you know, it's that serial nature. Uh, so I read a little bit of that, but I, this is where I like turned to my bookshelf to look. I mean, I read a lot of things that relate to my class. So I, you know, which try to find things that are formally interesting. Cause that's a lot, how I approach my work. I read things like memoir comics, which didn't exist when I was reading, I mean, you know, I mean, if I think about what I read as a kid, like, that's just all I had access to. There were other kinds of comics, but I never saw them. Um, I wasn't near any of the sort of specialty shops that would have had some alternative or, or any of that kind of thing. but today, I mean, today it's, it's unreal what's possible both for myself, for my teaching and for my kids reading. I mean, I read it, I do more of my own personal reading with my kids because that's what I have time for. And there's just so many good kids comics, you know, from fantasy that is well told, things like Hilda, which, which I just think is brilliant cartooning was a brilliant show too.

Lucy SB:

I love Hilda.

Nick Sousanis:

To things like when stars are scattered, which is, you know, dealing with a really, really difficult subject. And yet, you know, I, I could read it with a, I don't know if she was seven or eight when we read it. and she'll read it again on her own. So I think it's just such an exciting time for comics to go from, you know, I liked the stuff I read, it was fun, but, but now you can read about all different kinds of people and in different kinds of contexts and in many different ways of storytelling too, that we're not. They're not quite the, you know, the more straightforward narratives and straightforward drawing styles that, um, that were the only thing available at some point, which those are things I still like, but now there's so many, so many other options that it's just, it's just really an exciting time to be part of comics, I think.

Lucy SB:

Yeah, I completely agree. And I think that sometimes, when there's hesitance around, having comics available for children in school libraries, for example, or using them in the classroom, a lot of that comes from just not understanding that change that has happened over the, over the years and the breadth that's now available and, and the range that can, can be made. Catered to so many different tastes. So yeah, it's that kind of part of the mission of this podcast is to try and kind of spread the word about some of those different titles, um, as well. Although largely preaching to the converted, but, but it all helps. Um,

Nick Sousanis:

It all helps. Right. But it's, but it is a thing. I mean, you know, I always told my students who got in trouble for, well, for drawing in class, but also. We got in trouble for reading or bringing comics to school and, and, you know, those things persist every time you think, well, we're done winning, you know, we're done with that. There's still, there's still plenty of pockets of it where they're like, well, when are you going to read real books?

Lucy SB:

for

Nick Sousanis:

it, it comes from this very narrow thing. And I even get it with my work. They're like, Oh, you, you know, you did your dissertation in comics. Like, who's your superhero? What's the characters? And I'm like, well, um, no superhero. And there's really no story. And, um, and I just have to show them because there's no, you

Lucy SB:

to conceptualize.

Nick Sousanis:

if that's your perception. I mean, even people who are into, who are like, Oh, I like that kind of thing. They still don't get that comics can be more things. Um, and even my students who come, who are like, yeah, I want to learn more about comics because I really like this and this, they leave thinking about things like graphic medicine and how they can tell personal narratives or health narratives, or. You know, think about poetry and comics, things that just never occurred to them going in. but coming out, they see them as this, this really complex communication vehicle for all kinds of things that, that just never, never would have occurred to them. and, and probably, you know, wouldn't have occurred to me. Like I, I would have said, these are, you know, this is a place to tell action and fun stories. And, I, I don't think about them in the same way anymore.

Lucy SB:

Yeah, that's really interesting. And then one of the things that came up actually a few episodes ago when I talked to academic, from here in England, from Birmingham, Kevin Hoffin, and he is studying for PhD and looking at comics pedagogy, and he was talking about. different strands, different ways that comics can be used in education. And one of the things that he was referencing some research around comics, being, It's something that's a theme that's recurring in your work as well around comics being a way of actually not just a way to document our thoughts, but actually that the process of creating comics and drawing and working with image and text can help us to kind of think through things in new ways. But I think that's something that we haven't really, really dug into on the podcast. And I just wonder if you can. explain that kind of idea for listeners and maybe help us unpack it a little bit.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, I mean, I don't know that I can explain it, but, uh, I definitely can address it. Um, I mean, so in my case, I was a comics maker, and so when I came back to do, you know, when I decided to do my dissertation in comics, my, my main thought was that I was going to make things accessible. That I was going to make big ideas in academia accessible. Not easy. Um, I don't think anybody would describe comics I make as easy reading. and not lighter or like, you know, but, but, uh, you know, the, the, the use of images and stuff would, would, I could transcend some of the limitations of vocabulary and language that would keep people out of ordinary scholarship. so that, that, that's how I approached it. But I think in, in doing it, in the process of making it, what I really came to see is how much. the, the very act of making comics, for me at least, was a different way of thinking. It allowed me to ask questions and get at my own thinking and get at the way I did research in ways that I just wouldn't have done, if I was writing text. And I wouldn't have done, too. I mean, this is sort of important in my process. It just doesn't apply to everybody. that, you know, I, I don't, I don't write a script or a description of the thing and then add pictures to it. Um, I, uh, mine comes out of these big sketch maps where I'm like, well, here's ideas I have, here's drawings I have that are all kind of one thing. And then that prompts me to, all right, well, I need to know more about this. So I'm reading about more stuff and that prompts more ideas for how to compose, and more ideas for what words need to be included. And, and they're, they're always pushing each other back and forth. Um, you know, the words are, are suggesting things to the picture. The pictures are suggesting what words I can use. Uh, the constraints that I've had, you know, uh, you know, whether it's, I just finished a chapter a while ago, uh, using only circular compositions. So, like, I have to solve problems in a different way than if I'd solve problems using only rectangles, or some other, some other format, which leads me in different directions. So, again, I mean, I have a lot of answers to this. I think it's just comics are not as simple as we've attached pictures to words that that the ways words and pictures interact the way the space interacts, changes how you read. and changes how you can think with it. And, and one example I like to give with, with slides, I, I, I have a page of, uh, uh, an un flattening about, the transformative power of stories. It's, and it's using, uh, Shazad, uh, or the Arabian night stories, and it's, so, it's a, it's a series of zooms from one. One image that has a zoom in of the next image and so on and and in doing that page like like if it's one Of the few things I knew kind of early on That I would like to play with that and it was very late in the book, but it was early on in my notes But in the middle of the page, I wanted to make this point that that by stories, I'm talking about stories here, by stories, I didn't just mean, the fanciful or the fantastic, but I think meant things like science as well. And, uh, And then if I'd been writing, I could have said that sentence and like put a period. And if I'd been illustrating, I could have put that sentence, the period and a picture of Einstein. but in this case, I had all these constraints of design and, and image relations that said, well, all right, I have to zoom from here to here. And I've set these images in the, in, in the time that the Arabian Nights tales were written down. so now I, I need something that fits into all those, these things I'm juggling. you know, what's, what's going on in science in that time period, in that part of the world? And that. Pushes me to do a whole bunch of research, which pushes me to discover that, well, this, man named Althussi is doing this work in, astronomy, the, to figure out how the planets are moving, that 300 years later gets picked up by Copernicus, and I've got this page about Copernicus, and all of a sudden, all these ideas, like, flow together, but they only flow together because I'm working in visuals from the start. There's, there's nothing about my outline or about the ideas in general that says, Hey, you should go research a bit of obscure, uh, astronomical calculations coming from the Arab world in the 1300s, but the drawings say you need to solve this. And you need to figure out how to make this drawing work or this page composition work. and I, you know, so, that's the thing I see is like when I learned to trust that, which is often very slow. it takes me in directions that I'm always surprised by. And that's maybe sort of an extreme example, but, but I think it's, always the case for me. And I think it's always. Um, you know, my students don't necessarily do research on that level, but whether they come in as drawers or whether they come in as not drawers, and I get, you know, pretty, I get a lot of both, that they change how they think no matter what their skills are, and often the ones that are unskilled change it even more because they're more open to it than the skilled ones might be.

Lucy SB:

mm.

Nick Sousanis:

that when they come to understand the form, they find all these. Really profound ways to, to ask their questions and to, to perform their thinking.

Lucy SB:

It sounds like your process is quite, It's quite non linear that you're, the whole project as a whole is kind of evolving at the same time, and then you, just sort of wrangle it back in at the end because the act of reading a book is necessarily, is quite linear, isn't it? We sort of start at the beginning and we work our way through, but you're creating it in a way that seems to be kind of holistic, is there a tension there? like

Nick Sousanis:

tension of slowness. Uh, there's a, I mean, uh, like I'll, it's hard. I mean, I've made too many books, so, um, it's hard to really answer that question for the length of it, but. There's like, you know, I've got an idea and then there's a lot of sketches and a lot of sketches and words and some early research that says, all right, now I kind of know things and then there's more to say, all right, well, this is the general, you know, this is how the ideas are going to break down. They're going to be in this chunk and this chunk and this chunk. But then when I get to the chapters, I got to do that again. Like what is, and then this, the new work I've really pushed myself. the unflattening has sort of an, somewhat an accident, but, uh, as I was drawing it, my wife would walk by and she'd say, Oh, I've never seen a page composition. Like, you know, I haven't seen you do one like that before. And then she'd walk by again and she'd say the same thing. And somewhere in there. I was like, you know what? I'm not going to have any of that repeat. There's going to be no pages that have the same design on them, which, was happening by accident to begin with, but

Lucy SB:

glutton for punishment there, you like to give yourself your, the constraints.

Nick Sousanis:

Oh yeah. I, I, yeah, it's been, and then from teaching, uh, we did a, I do in my advanced making course, I do a thing on, on, um, just on how to use grids, regular grids, and, and then I was like, well, what if we use hexagons or circles? And so I've done some. You know, digging with help from, from, uh, social media to find some good examples of all these things. So I collect them for my class and for myself, and then in the new work, I've thought, well, what if each chapter has something that sort of visually holds it together? which has been both interesting and painful experience. but so, so when I get to the chapter plan, then like, you know, I know the sort of general thing the chapter is going to cover. Now it's, it's a new round of research to, to really dive in and figure out, you know, what is this about? What, what are the ideas I've got to cover? and then how do they fit in this, whatever, whatever formal, if there is one, how do they fit together in the thing? And when I finished that, then I get down to the, you know, then there'll be like a thumbnail of the chapter. but then each individual page will have a new version of that, you know, a new round of research. Maybe stuff I've already read, but because this is life is taking so slow, um, it might be, I have to remind myself of it, or it might just be, there's more when I actually get, when I actually get to the detail level, I realize I didn't know as much about it as I thought, like I had a general idea, but now I need to understand it in a, in a much denser way. And so that will change the drawing, right? It'll change how the pieces fit together and what do I include and how I say it. And even, I mean, this is a really interesting thing, I think. And I see if I, it's easier to say with pictures, but, if you have, I don't understand the idea I want to write down, like, and it has a certain, like this goes first and this comes second, but the way that the picture composed has to be. In an opposite way, because of how the parts interact, you then have to find a way to say the same thing, but in a different sequence. So there's this back and forth push and pull between trying to figure out, you know, it really shapes how you, at least me, it really shapes how I write. By, by all these compositional choices. I, I find it fascinating. I, it's, it is for me, it's very slow, but it always leads me to places that surprise me. and like, you know, how did I think of that? And I think the truth is it's not, I didn't think of it by like sitting in my chair and having big ideas. I thought of it by making drawings and looking at them and interacting and iterating them, and seeing where they took me.

Lucy SB:

Yeah, it's that phrase trust the process, isn't it? It's like, you just gotta start and do, keep doing the work and knowing that it will lead you somewhere. I wanted to talk a little bit about unflattening, specifically and I always hesitate before I tell people what their own books are about. So the way my interpretation that it's talking about education, and the opening sequences and sort of depicting a journey through education and, an education system. that kind of narrows our worldview that we go off into different paths. There's about one of the binaries that we might be kind of funnelled off into, is this kind of arts and sciences division. But it seems like you've kind of transcended that. Was that, was that your experience of education? It was definitely my experience of education and I was very much down the art path. Um, uh, to the point where I, I just kind of realized, cause I'm going to talk about a little bit later. I know that you I've got sort of a maths background and I, I, I don't, I'm so far down the art pathway that I don't really even know what people do when they do maths at university. Like, I don't have no concept what that even means. I went to art college so I didn't even, you know, I didn't even have any friends from university who were doing anything other than arts type subjects. Um, It, it's a mystery to me. yeah. So I'm, I'm interested in how you're bridging those worlds.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, I mean, so one, I'd say that wasn't, you know, the, the, the sort of nightmare scape I open with, was not my experience. mine was quite positive. I witnessed that, my parents are both educators. My dad's a physics teacher and was a coach and He, he's the kind of teacher you, you want. He's the teacher that you want to have to get you excited about the world.

Lucy SB:

and inspiring.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, inspiring, but, but very much like, this is why it's exciting, and here's how you find your way into it, and how we learn alongside the, you know, like physics, like we could tell you the formulas, right? Here's the formulas, learn it, and solve this problem. Or you could say, well, this is the stuff Galileo was wrestling with, or whatever. here's how he started to figure out, let's solve these things ourselves and you sort of follow that and then it becomes yours, right? It becomes yours rather than handed to you. so he, he's coming from that. My mom is in environmental studies. She's a naturalist and taught environmental studies at elementary school. So I had both of them as well. and so they're both, you know, very curious and concerned with the world and so those things really shaped me for sure, but also when I would see, you know, the sort of narrowness of school. like, it didn't impact me, like, it didn't, it didn't like squelch me, but I witnessed it. and in truth, like, when you asked about going into arts, art stuff, I really did not like art class. Um, I, I liked making it, and I was always known as the kid who drew, and you know, I do, did the drawings for things, but I also, There was just sort of this narrowness often in art classes about, well, this is, you know, we're going to do a thing this way. And we, there's never enough time, I think, in little kid art, which I like that better, but it was just never like, I'm really into this. I want to make it for a long time. And it'd be like, you know, you got to stop and that's it. We got to move on to the next thing. So. That there was some, I never took art in like high school or college. But yeah, so, so my experience was positive, but I would witness this other thing and, and, and certainly, you know, my, my undergrad degree is in mathematics. I mostly had positive experiences, but I think it made me sad along the way. Like, you know, this is cool stuff. We all, this is like part of being human, right? Part of being human is understanding mathematics. Part of being human is understanding arts, uh, you know, how to make things. And part of being human too is, you know, I played sports. Like I, I was a. I played a lot of sports, but then I continued on and was a, as a college tennis player. And then I say I'm a bottom level pro tennis player, but what it really means is that I tried to play on that level. That doesn't mean I was successful at it. and then I, I taught tennis all the way through doctoral school to make a living. so to me, it seemed like that's, you know, humans are bodies, humans are thinkers, humans are expressers, like that's us. That's us. And it really watching things that happen to people who are like, Oh, well, you know, I'm, I can't do math. I'm not a math person, or I can't do, I'm not, I'm not creative. And I just don't believe it. Right. I don't believe it. I mean, obviously people lean directions, but I think so much of it is, you know, so much of it is early experiences, whether it's in your home or whether it's in your school, or whether it's just part of culture that says, you know, we have these kind of people and those kind of people and I, I, I think it's, it's limiting us and it's artificial. and like I said, I had one really bad, I had one really bad math class at the end of, of like the senior year and I kind of, I really got how it must feel to be in, uh, You know, like, it just, he, he was not explaining things, he was careless, and it was a miserable experience, and, um, but I really could see, uh, well, how it must feel to a lot of people who were dropped into a math class, weren't that comfortable with it to begin with, but then were in a place where the person wasn't bringing them into the conversation, but was expecting them to somehow know it anyway. So, so I, again, the thing isn't about my experience. Um, it's about witnessing something that I thought was really unhealthy and it makes me sad. I mean, I think a lot of the work is motivated by, by a real strong belief in the, the complexity and capability of humans, and then how sometimes that feels like it's squandered because we've been told that we can only be, you know, we can only do this much. yeah, I don't know. I'll stop there.

Lucy SB:

it's making me think so much, um, just in terms of reading and, we look a lot about self perception as a reader and how important it is for children. and adults to have that kind of self perception that they are a reader and the kind of the, the motivation, the access, the habit, all of the different things that form that self perception. And I guess it's the same for all of those things that you're talking about. It's the same for, you know, self perception of, you know, being a mathematician or self perception of, uh, yeah, as being somebody that can participate or has a, has a place to participate in sports. And, um, the, the value of kind of role models. And, the wider culture supporting access and things like that is so important. It's complicated.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah. complicated, yes.

Lucy SB:

Let's just end there, it's complicated. Like at the end of

Nick Sousanis:

It's complicated. There we go.

Lucy SB:

I'm really interested to hear about, you know, we've heard, we've had hints about your, your journey, but I'm really interested to know how you came to have the kind of role that you have now and how that evolved. Can you tell us a little bit about your career trajectory, I guess?

Nick Sousanis:

sure. Uh, let's see. I, um, I, yeah, I mean, undergrad, I, I did make comics, like I kept doing it, but they were just kind of on the side.

Lucy SB:

Did you self publish those? Did you just, were you handing them out to friends or?

Nick Sousanis:

mean, I, I didn't finish them. I had, I had a lot of unfinished projects and I had a philosophy independent study that I designed this very complicated comic about the butterfly effect and, uh, uh, I don't know, the movie Sliding Doors kind of took a bunch of the ideas that I had in it, so, I don't know, not really, but just the general concept, so, I never finished it, so I have a bunch of unfinished stuff, like in high school and junior high, I had, you know, I published quite a bit of my Lockerman series, um, but they were quick and I had access to a copier, so, But so there's a lot of unfinished stuff. And then I spent a few years on the tennis tour and then stopped. And then I ended up doing a master's in mathematics and art around the creative process. And then also I have a fine arts degree. I have Fine Arts degree in painting, which is kind of curious cause I'm a lousy painter.

Lucy SB:

I

Nick Sousanis:

uh, but then my, my. I am, uh, I mean, you know, I, I guess it's relative, but, my, my older brother and said, let's start a magazine about art in Detroit, about arts and culture in Detroit. And he had been a theater writer for a while. And so I said, okay. Um, and then I became very obsessed with documenting what was going on in the art community in Detroit for six years. And. Um, kind of ended up running this magazine solo for that time in writing. I must've written about at least three reviews, not counting editorials and editing other people's stuff, um, or interviews and things, every week for six years, so I got very close to that community and became very much a champion of that community. Um, it was very difficult to leave. and then my wife to be said, do you want to come to New York where she was? And I said, sure. And I figured I was at that point I taught some courses on public speaking and a little bit on writing, but mostly public speaking, which I just loved, you know, so I saw, I mean, this is kind of relevant, you know, my parents are teachers and while I hadn't done many things that looked like teaching in a classroom, I taught tennis, And I ran this arts magazine and I really saw the educational side of it as my, my goal. Um, I'm a little less interested in sort of art history and more interested in why this, you know, Might be of interest to you, you know, how you can find your own way into this art and maybe you want to make it, or maybe you want to at least understand how it applies to you. So I kept, seeing how all this stuff I was doing really made sense in education. And then in, uh, 2004, I was asked to be in a political art show, uh, around the president, U. S. presidential election, and I didn't have many days left, to do it. And so I was like, well, I can make a comic. And I made this. Very Scott McCloud like comic, about, uh, security, and, and, you know, it was four pages, and I was quite, I was quite pleased with it, and then they, they had a second show after the election, which was much harder, and I wanted to do something, you know, as much as I love McLeod's work, I thought he's done it. I don't want to make work that looks like that with me and my T shirt and stuff. So, I took a different influence, Alan Miller and Melinda Gebbi's, This Is Information. It's, uh, It was in the 9 11 tribute anthology comic, and, the sort of use of visual and verbal metaphor to, to make more of an essay. And that, that really like triggered something for me. And I made this comic about voting called the show of hands and every panel is about hands. so so that, that sparked me coming back to comics. And then shortly after that, we put on an exhibition of games and art. And, uh, I, my buddy said, why don't you make the essay as a comic? And I'm like, all right. So I did this somewhat long form comic on the history of games, how games work, and then sort of applied it to the philosophy of life. and it's those things when, when my wife said, I think you should, you should come to New York. I said, well, I'm doing all this stuff that looks like education. And I really like being in the classroom, but being an adjunct is a, Is it not a job? It's a, I mean, it's a job, but it, you can't survive on it. So why not get my doctorate while I'm at it? So I sort of stumbled into teachers college at Columbia and said, Hey, this is the kind of stuff I want to make. And this is what it looks like if you'll have me. And, um, they, for whatever reason said, yes. so I, Started being a doctoral student in education there, um, kind of quite naively about lots of these things. And, and initially coming in, I knew I was going to do my work in comics, but I did not know that that was a big deal. I just assumed from, you know, from Maus to Understanding Comics to Persepolis, all things that were out at that point, that that argument was long won, but, but it hadn't been in academia. so as I, I began working on this, I realized that part of my, work had to be an argument for its own existence. and really become an argument for the existence of, of itself, but things like it that could be comics, but could be in other multimodal forms. And for whatever reason, I think I just hit the right moment in history. There was interest in comics and interested in sort of multimodal and digital scholarship. That it really, it got a lot of attention before I'd even started making, I mean, I'd made other things, but I hadn't made that yet or even started making it. so which, which really led to me becoming a proselytizer for comics as belonging in the academy, both as scholarship and as, as reading and as all those other things. Despite the work being well known, still not a lot of job prospects because it's a, there's just no, there's no place for somebody who does that we haven't, there's interest in hearing about it, but not a, you know, that's just not a job posting. So that was a, I ended up doing a last minute postdoc at the University of Calgary under the comic scholar. Bart Beatty and, After that, I ended up at San Francisco State. I was a job in visual rhetoric and I, seemed close enough to something I might do that I said, sure, I'll, I'll apply here and just see what happens and, and. They ended up being interested. I got the job. And, um, shortly after that, my chair, uh, it's a very unusual situation, I think, uh, or uncommon, cause I think most universities wouldn't have been quite so open to this said, why don't you, you know, uh, create comics classes? And I was like, okay, great. And then as soon as we launched them, she said, why don't you go ahead and write a minor? so within a year, we, we launched this comic studies minor. Which leapfrogged a whole bunch of places that had had comics classes for, you know, You know, 10 and 10 and 20 years. but mostly just because I happen to have an administrator who is like, yeah, you should do this. Students like it. This is what you do. Why don't we, you know, she recognized that this was an area that that had a lot of. Interest in it and and I just ran with it. So we've had this minor, ever since. and it continues to grow and we've grown new things to it. Students just keep flocking to it and and keep teaching me new things.

Lucy SB:

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your students and how you approach, I'm, can you correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm, I'm imagining students coming from all different disciplines. and some of them might be, quite far along in terms of their understanding of comics or their knowledge of comics and others, it might be something that just piques their interest and they're just seeing what will happen. What's your starting point then, when you've got a group with, you know, kind of these diverse backgrounds and diverse starting points themselves, how do you introduce them, to comics and, and I'm wondering if you see that different response across the different kind of groups, I guess.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, that's a great question. and, and it's one, I mean, it's interesting. We were talking about arts and maths and art school before, and I think I was, I was quite resistant. Not that a lot of opportunities were there, but to ending up in an art school, not, not because I don't like it, not because I just, but I really liked the idea of having all kinds of students to having math students and science students and, and writing students, just whatever. so that we could get their perspectives and also, you know, thinking of some of the stuff I said about human capability before helping them find their own way in. I mean, my early classes, but even before I came there were almost exclusively non drawers. which was really interesting and that really helped me, like, figure out how I wanted to approach it. Now, you know, the more the program's there, I definitely get more, you know, people who've said, you know, they see this opportunity to do a thing they already like, which, which is new. But I approach it, like, in, I, I, for my very first time teaching when I was still a student at Columbia, um, I, I came up with an activity that said, It's on my website called Grids and Gestures, which, which gets people in about seven minutes to think about the shape of the experiences across a single day. And they organize them in some sort of panel esque structure and, and they use various mark making rather than, than representational drawing to indicate what's happening or how they felt throughout the day.

Lucy SB:

Mm.

Nick Sousanis:

And I really like to start there because one, it gives the non drawers like an in, like Two, it shows them how much they know about drawing, even if they don't draw. Three, they start thinking about space on a comics page in ways that, you know, that reveal a lot, that a lot of understanding long before you study any theory or anything about it. and then I think, so that's true for the non drawers, but I think for the drawers who like, you know, they're just ready to like do this thing and they're going to do their five panels or whatever, and just drop the things in there. it starts to push them a little bit, outside of that, preconceived notion of it. And then all the activities we do, I, now that we're back in the classroom again, I returned to that, but we do a lot of collaboration, not in terms of like do a project together, but fast things where one person draws and then it goes to the next person in there. Sort of, they don't have much time, which is a constraint that helps, you know, they don't have much time. They don't have to come up with it themselves. They have to keep responding and they get to see everybody's work and sort of imitate it if you have to like continue their story. so that pushes them all. And then I'm, I'm very, you know, I do a lot of making in these classes, either writing class or very quick activities that they can do at home. and and then we have, they have to post all of it. Which means they get to see everyone's work. So it's not for me so much, but it's for them to, to learn from each other and see how, you know, this really skilled drawer did this thing and this really not skilled drawer, I have this guy in class who he was in my intro class and I sort of twisted his arm to come back and take the advanced one. And he just would go on about how he doesn't draw and doesn't know what he's doing in here. But he would make the most interesting sort of compositions. And he was very like very neat and tidy and, but, but curious about how he lays out things. And we did an activity where. some student just relayed a story from her life, and, and they had to very quickly come up with thumbnails for it, um, and, uh, everybody did, did some pretty good takes, and you could see sort of cinematic differences with most of theirs, and then there was this guy, and he had, I, it's hard, he had, like, left most of the page, you know, there's a lot of empty space as these little tiny panels moved through the page, and then it had a, doesn't matter, but it had footprints from the, the character in the story that, That were sort of symbolic moving through some of that empty space, but like he just, you know, it's just so different and so fascinating. and he doesn't, he doesn't come from a world of illustration. I don't, I don't even remember what his background is, but, you know, so now you're in a classroom where you can watch what he's doing and maybe that sparked some other ideas for you. And I think that's the best part about classes is, is they have a chance, you know, I put them through some. Some paces. Here's a, here's a constraint, make this, you know, respond to how you came to school, how you ended up here, do it in three panels and also do it in two pages, tell us, you know, and it might not be the same story. You interpret it how you want. So they come with their two versions and then another 30 or 40 students come with their two versions. And now we have all this material that we can say, Oh, wow. you know, what can we learn from all this and what can we be inspired and steal from and. and then also if you, you know, you can turn it back to saying, well, here's what I did now we can look at some examples from like professional work and see how See how the thing you're doing ties into that. And that it becomes a really generative process. And I think having the non drawers in the room, I think I think really enriches the class cause they bring, I don't know, I'll say one last thing and I, uh, I had a mathematician, a master's in mathematics in class. A few classes a couple of years ago, and she really wasn't a drawer, but, but she would bring all these really conceptual things and then try to tackle them on the page and just fascinating. And she ended up becoming pretty solid at drawing along the way, because we kept doing these things and she was looking at people around her and all the activities we did. But, but at the same time, she was teaching us so much about how to use the page that just probably wouldn't have occurred to most of us. So, it's really enriching, I think, having those different, different skill sets and different, uh, disciplines that everybody's coming from is, is really a positive thing.

Lucy SB:

Yeah. It sounds really exciting. I think one of the, um, just personal reflection, one, we were talking before we hit record about sort of my background and I was saying that it's, it's sort of more since I've, Left the classroom. I've had more time to kind of really investigate and get really interested But one of the frustrations of that is then I don't Have a class to go back and try things with and I get all these ideas and these things I want to do I can't, can't scratch that itch Um It's, yeah, it's, it's difficult. But do you think that you, that, you know, you're talking about your students experiences, but I imagine that you also get, that's a real source of inspiration for you and your own work as well.

Nick Sousanis:

Oh, absolutely. it, it, you know, certainly a ton of unflattening came from thinking of things that I wanted to explain to students, you know, so a lot of the pages about comics came from like, well, here's the idea. How can I. How can I articulate that in comics to them? So, so a lot of those stuff came from that. A lot of the things I want to teach about, which I'm pushed to teach about because of what they bring to it, end up in the work, and then the work helps me think about things I want to share with them, and then it goes back, and then, you know, I mentioned this constraint stuff about circles and hexagons, you know, it's just like stuff I thought, well, you know, what, what can we do with this in class? and then I'm like, well, maybe I should try it with my work. So there's definitely lots of feedback, in both directions there. I think the, the hardest thing for me is I always want, I do a lot of very quick activities with them where like, you know, you draw for two minutes, everybody does the panel for two minutes and they pass and then you continue. And there's some kind of, you know, there's some kind of constraint on it so that there's, There's coherence to it. and some lesson they're taking from it, but, uh, I always want to join in, and a few times I try, but I can't, I can't really pay attention to the class very well when I'm doing that, but I watch at how facile they become, and how quick they are at solving problems, and I'm, I'm super envious, because I, I'm not so quick at solving problems, um. And I, I want to join in, and maybe someday I'll just do it and get over it. But, uh, anyway, it's, it's fun to watch how well they thrive.

Lucy SB:

I wanted to talk a little bit about academia. clear themes for me in your work around kind of the importance of play and creativity and also lots of things we've been discussing today, imagination, and those seem very far away from words that we usually associate with academia, academic writing, that kind of rigor, of academia, and I know some one of the things again, we will have these kind of debates around terms like creative writing, is that an appropriate term, what people understand as creative writing, does that really encapsulate what we mean when we're talking about writing, and I just wondered what your thoughts were around, Is there a kind of restriction around academic writing being perceived to being quite dry versus creative writing? How do those kind of link for you? I don't know if that's really a question. I've just rambled a bit.

Nick Sousanis:

Oh, there's all, I, I started in my head responding to the first thing about play, um, which maybe I'll, I'll start, if you don't mind,

Lucy SB:

Yeah, go for it. Break it, break, break my question down into sensible chunks.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, yeah. I think it's a funny thing. I'll give you an example. Um, the first time, no, not the first, one of the first times I taught my comics class while I was still a student. I mean, we had some textbooks, we not textbooks, but like McLeod's book and, and things like that, that we use and they came for whatever reason, the bookstore got them really late. And so we, you know, we did, I always was doing making activities with my students, but, but usually after we'd done stuff. And so here I was like, well, you know, let's do the making first. And I'm already a tennis pro, so I should have, I should know these things, but it's still, uh, well, you'll see. Um, so we had a couple of weeks where we're just, we're making these things and we're trying out activities. And, um, at some point I start to apologize to them. Well, you know, I'm like, I'm sorry, we didn't really learn. And then I stopped myself. And like, they learned an enormous amount. They learned so much by the act of making, by the act of playing, about how to do things and about, you know, they're very analytical. They're doing all this stuff, but they're doing it through the act of making. But we're so conditioned to think, You've got to have read this stuff. And then, you know, there's a, there's a great book called, uh, uh, uh, Mathematician's Lament, which is about how math is not taught well, and, and students don't like it, uh, as a result, or don't think they can do it. And it opens, uh, it's got a preface, or, I don't know, the opening chapter is, uh, is about a musician's nightmare, and how the musician, like, Well, in school, you learn what notes are, and then as you get farther advanced, you learn how to put the notes together, and then maybe if you make it to doctoral school, you get to play. notes. You get to play music, right? And that's great. You say that out loud and you're like, well, that's crazy. That's not how you learn music. Um, but it is kind of when you learn mathematics, right? Like mathematics, you don't actually get to play a lot until at the end. you know, when you've like done all this other stuff. and I think it's, it's true often in our subjects and that when we do play, we dismiss it as, you know, Well, that was just our fun activity. Um, but like I mentioned this activity, I asked the students to say, tell me how you got here. And they can interpret it, like how they ended up at a university, their, how they ended up in life, whatever, or the literal, like, how did I get to class this day and do it in three panels. And also do it in two pages, however many panels you want to break that into. And so, they've got to make decisions about the three panels. What do I include? And they've got to make decisions about the two pages. Are they the same story, but just different, you know, different amount of panels? Are they totally different stories, which often they are? and then, you know, so they're playing, right? They're, but then they've learned something about pacing. They've learned something about space They've learned a lot, you know, and, and, you know, so, so we can take that and then sure, I can talk to them about something about time in comics or spatial thing or braiding or whatever. I can, I can give them some of those theories and we can look at more pages, but that very act of making it makes all that other stuff real and says, Oh yeah, I see that how I'm doing that thing in my work. and then they own it too. I mean, they, cause they, I mean, they made it right, but they own it. They own the theory in ways that they don't necessarily or at all own it. If you're, you've stopped at, at reading about it, which I'm not, I mean, sometimes I think I may overstate these things and I'm not, I like reading theory. I like reading word books. Um, but I, I think without the act of play, Without that, that thing where I caught myself that, you know, a long time ago saying, Oh, you know, sorry, we didn't learn anything. No, I, I was quite wrong. We're learning an enormous amount. And, you know, as parents, like we know, our small humans, learn an enormous amount about how they roll around on the floor, how they pick things up, how they reenact things. and and I, you know, somewhere we say that's no longer how it's done. And, uh, that's a horrible mistake. I understand, you know, it's, it's easier, it's easier to instruct than have the sort of unwieldiness of play.

Lucy SB:

Yeah, it's made, that's made me, I don't know what this, whether this is something that happens in the school system in America, but definitely in the UK, due to kind of framework, quality assurance, Ofsted inspections that schools go through and are graded on, um, one of the things that quite a lot of schools do is, Each, at the start of each lesson, the children kind of stick in what the learning intention is for that lesson. And quite often, I felt, as a teacher, I don't really want to tell them this at the start. I know what I want. I know what I'm, I know what I'm kind of aiming for. But also, that I want there to be this possibility that we learn something that I wasn't thinking about. expecting. but it's that it just felt like the act of sticking that learning intention at the start was then restricted because the Children knew what it was, what the outcome was supposed to be. And I understand the argument for that. But I also think there's an argument Against as well.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, absolutely. And I love how you framed it. Like Learn something you didn't expect. And I think, you know, I think that should be true in our classroom. And it should be true in our, I mean, it's definitely, like I said before, true in my making, like, I don't expect that this is going to happen. and, you know, when you're done, it might look like, all right, well, I guess you knew where you were headed, but in reality, you don't. Or at least, in reality, I never do, and I think classrooms should look like that. There's obviously, you know, it can't be willy nilly. Um, there are places, there are directions you need to go, there are things, but that doesn't, how you get there, And how students own it, um, is a very different thing. We have a long ways to go on that.

Lucy SB:

Mm.

Nick Sousanis:

It's complicated. I think that's what you said.

Lucy SB:

That's good. I can be the tagline for this episode of the podcast. Um, so actually that links really nicely to the, to the next thing I was going to ask you. That at the end of unflattening, you kind of end on the assertion that there's always more to discover and you've sort of hinted about current projects and things that you're, we're working on at the moment. And so I wanted to ask. What have you discovered since, I mean, not everything, obviously, I'm sure you've discovered lots of things, but what, what kind of, in terms of, you know, where is your, the focus of your thoughts and, um, you know, the work that you're doing now, where have you moved on to since Unflattening?

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah. I mean, that's a great question. I think, you know, unflattening was very much an argument about, you know, how school could look different on how, scholarship could look different and specifically how comic books could look different. You know, could and should be legitimate form of scholarship, and here's why, but in talking about it and in teaching, you know, coming back to one of the first questions, it was so much about a different way of thinking. so, you know, when I speak about it or do workshops around it, um, and again, all my classes, it's, it's like, how do we. How do we find these other ways of thinking that bring more of ourselves into the picture? and so the, the newer work um, which is very slow, very slow, um, is gonna address that more directly. Um, you know, it's sort of hinted at in this one with part of a chapter and, and like I said, I talk about it a lot, but it's not actually in there. Um, so to talk about how much thinking can come in our mark making and in our bodies, and it's, it's really interesting to me. The first year of starting to think about it. I read a lot, read a lot. I read a lot and, and I had, I made it rough notes and I really understood all the ideas I wanted to cover, but it just felt. Uh, really flat. It felt like I'd made a textbook. It didn't feel like mine at all. and I was really stuck for a while. And the book is so much about, and I know this, it's supposed to be about how thinking doesn't come from sitting and putting your hand under your chin and, and, and, and, And waiting for ideas to come. It comes from moving and from moving your hand and moving your drawing pencil and whatever. And yet I kept trying to think myself to solutions. And it was really a very memorable moment where I was like, all right, what am I doing here? And I got out my giant sheets of newsprint, which is how all my outline stuff has happened. And I just started making marks. And there were things around my room that figured thoughts and I've been immersed in this for a while. And all of a sudden this whole like opening sequence came to mind, in the sketches, that made it mine, and made it, you know, put these ideas in, in, in, this really exciting thing. It really just caught me off guard. It seemed kind of obvious once it was done, but in, it didn't exist until this moment that I started making the marks and it's, you know, it's the thing. Yeah. Here I am both working on and I should know better because it's what I'm working on, but I still that lesson to, to, to trust as going back to earlier thing to trust the process to actually get in there and draw and see what happens rather than trying to push through a research solution. I still had to learn it the hard way. even though I, you know, like, if you asked me, I could tell you this, but but for myself, I just couldn't I couldn't push past that. So, I think, you know, coming back to a lot of the earlier questions, this is true for me and my end product is going to be a comic. I think it's true for all of us and thinking about our bodies and thinking about mark making, you know, the reason everybody should make comics is not necessarily because everyone needs to publish finished, nice comics, but because it's a great way. To think in, in spatial ways, and in visual ways, and in these other nonlinear ways that, that maybe really help you get at something, that, that maybe at the end of the day, you've translated back into some, you know, more linear form, but that will help you get there. Um, and I, I think that's true. I think that's true of comics makers, but it's true of everyone. As this really profound way to generate, uh, ideas and, and, and generate understanding of your own thinking,

Lucy SB:

yeah, super fascinating. I feel like this is going to be one of those conversations where, like, over the next fortnight, weeks, months, I'm going to be thinking of things that I wish I'd asked you, so I'm probably going to pest you with emails.

Nick Sousanis:

that sounds good. It's a treat. We can do it again.

Lucy SB:

Yeah, that'd be great. I was going to ask you about accessibility for comics, with blind readers, I know you've been, working in collaboration with, an organization looking at how comics can be made accessible for blind readers. And I went to, um, a kind of online symposium. And it was, it was amazing because it seemed, Things were being, again, it was that kind of experimentation, that air of discovering, something new and things were kind of being explored, readers were feeding back what it was like, their experience, whether they felt that it was accessible or whether it had that kind of essence of comic about the kind of solutions that were being proposed. And it was fascinating to just sit and listen to those conversations happen. But it did feel like there wasn't really a solution yet. so I'm wondering what some of your key learnings have been in that space.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah. this project sort of emerged by accident. Like I, I was aware, you know, I'm here, I'm trying to make comics accessible. But, but even while I was doing it, I realized that by doing it visually, I was excluding people, completely. and, and then because of my metaphor was all about the vision, I was kind of doubling down on that. but I didn't have any solution to it. And periodically, I would just save anytime I'd see something about comics for blind readers, I would save it and just Put it on my website and remember it. And then in my university, I had a colleague who has worked in that. So we would, I would ask her periodically, like, is this a good idea? Or is this a sighted person's idea of what is good for a blind person? And usually they're the latter.

Lucy SB:

Mm.

Nick Sousanis:

then I had a student do her master's thesis as a comic, and we had to make it ADA compliant. And I thought, well, this is an opportunity, not like a problem, but an opportunity. and so we got a small bit of grant money, which we used to host a conversation just to explore some ideas, which I put on social media and we ended up with like 800 people showing up for it. And, and two things. One, realize that there was a lot of interest and a lot of need for this, and that no one was really doing it. And two, that what I was hoping is that I would find some best practices, and that I would make my work that way, and my students work, and I would follow best practices going forward. And what I really learned is that there's no such thing, that there's no one size fits all for this at all. There's people who want, you know, who've been blind from birth and they want sort of the meaning, but they don't necessarily want some of the, details. whereas somebody who lost their sight later might really want to know what, you know, Batman's cape looks like and, and how the page works and a lot of other things. And some people are, are skilled in sort of tactile things and some aren't. So there's this, this big continuum of our spectrum of possibilities. And the most recent thing we did, is we had a couple events. We had a design competition to design accessible comics. And then just in the midst of it, we, we, we'd made this comic. My colleague and I had made a comic for a MIT technology review on the challenge of making accessible comics accessible. Which we also made an audio version, uh, at the same time. but in the midst of doing that, it sparked this idea like, well, you know, maybe I should look at my own work and just see what's possible. And we had an, an audio description team. We, we asked them what they thought was possible and they just started trying it. saying no, no, we were not quite there yet, but they just started trying it. and, and that, that raised a lot of questions. Like, would anybody care to read this? Would anybody want to hear it? and then I, so we tried ourselves are two different versions. One where I, I sort of. Described it at great depth. Um, like what is it from the artist's point of view? Like what, what, what matters on the page? What are all the elements here? And, uh, my colleague took more of a, like, I can maybe ignore what's on the page and just get at the meaning of it. and and we had this discussion two weeks ago with this panel of blind experts or experts in accessibility, and it was really interesting. I mean, they, they opened up what, you know, they were, they were much more, I thought I was going to exhaust them with how much I'd given them. Um, which I think somewhat I did, but also they were really intrigued by it. And they were really intrigued by, um, the, the piece that sort of, Got into the ideas, but didn't necessarily deal with the visuals. And they really, what came out of it is how much that the reader wants control over it. Like how much, like, can I zoom in a little deeper, zoom in a little deeper versus, which we can do visually. Right. You can look closer more, but, uh, So it really, I mean, when we just debriefed with them again, in a conversation this week, and, uh, you know, they suggested what you really need is a, is a new medium that has, cause I had made a tactile thing for one of my pages too, so they could feel where I was talking. It didn't really have much detail, but it, but it sort of let them move around the page in the way that I was describing. And, you know, so what's interesting, you're like, and I think back to Scott McLeod's got a sentence in understanding comics about how the visual is doing all the other modes, right? Like sound and talking and, and like, it's doing all those things. And so I think to reproduce comics in a way that's meaningful and engaging, you kind of got to use a whole bunch of, you know, all the other modes to do what the visual is doing

Lucy SB:

Yeah. Yeah.

Nick Sousanis:

um, which, which is daunting. It's really daunting. I mean, I think we should just be doing this, right? Like, kids who want to know what's going on in Spider Man should just have access to, to the narrative of Spider Man. It just should be done. Like, the industry should just get on it. Um, to get at work that's a little more challenging, it's, it's hard.

Lucy SB:

Yeah. Yeah. It's fascinating.

Nick Sousanis:

but it, but it really, you know, you're taking a, uh, a spatially arranged medium that you read at your own pace and it has all these nonlinear juxtapositions and you're trying to jam it into a, if it's audio description, into a time based medium, it's, it's, it's really hard. And it presents, you know, it makes you really aware of. Of what you've done on the page and, and, and just, just how complex comics are, or, or, as we say today, it's complicated.

Lucy SB:

because it is, yeah, exactly. There's the, the, obviously there's a sequence, but there's also the kind of simultaneousness of it as well, when you look at that page.

Nick Sousanis:

Right.

Lucy SB:

Oof, it's hard.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah. So, so it's, I mean, even like just reading the simplest comic, like when do you read the sound effect? If you read it out loud to your kid, like, does the sound effect come before this? Does it come, you know, when you're looking at it, you don't have to think about it. You just feel the sound effect. Right. But, but when do I say it? Um, It's, it's really hard and it's, and all comics are complicated in that way, which is, which is awesome. I mean, I, I think in, in this conversation, we thought, you know, film description is actually easier because film is time based and, um, you know, there's the sound and there's all this other stuff that's already doing it. So you're just adding descriptions so they know the characters are doing what. But, but comics which seem, you know, in their flatness and staticness seem like they're just kind of a lame medium, right? They just sit there flat on the page. but I think the opposite is true. They're really, they really have so much potential for, for communication in really sophisticated ways. Um, yeah, it's complicated.

Lucy SB:

we are moving to the end of the podcast now and just at the end, I'd like to have a little moment where guests can pick out some key takeaways. Maybe it's complicated might be the one, but that might kind of influence. Listener's teaching practice, there's a mix of different, you know, librarians, teachers, um, academics, also comics creators that listen in to the podcast. few, pointers on things maybe to leave people pondering as, as they finish listening.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, um, that's a big question for me. I, I mean I think comics are really cool. I think they're really cool. And I, I, you know, I, with students, I'm like, you know, if you, if you leave this after we've like looked at some that do some really unusual things, I'm like, if you leave this experience and all you know, all you've left with is that comics are a really cool and strange way to do things. That's, that's pretty good. Um, which defies your expectations. You know, if you think, oh, this is a light. This is going to be the light version of this or that. Like, no, I mean, it can be right. But you know, he can read idiot's guides to anything too. Word books can be, can be just as light. So I think understanding how much comics offer us. Um, and, and, and not only offer us, I guess, in, in the sort of ways we've been talking about with juxtaposition and layering and things like that, but also offer different ways of making meaning on the page, which means are different ways of skills. So we've talked already about the skills, my students, you know, the diversity of skills they come with, but also. That comics welcomes all of those. Like you get people who are lush illustrators and do all this incredible detail work, but also, you know, the stick figure cartoonists or the ones who really don't even use pictures. And, And, maybe this is not a key takeaway anymore, but, I do a thing where we do a pictureless comics with, you can use the panel composition, captions, sound effects, word balloons, whatever, but you don't draw Stuff in it. Um, and it's a fun activity. It gets

Lucy SB:

cool.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah, it's a lot of fun and it's a simple one just because it doesn't take as long as some of the other ones. but I, I had a student a few years ago who was, she's, she really was great in the class, but she didn't want to draw. She did not like, like, she was very self conscious about it and convinced she was no good at it. And she ended up doing her final as a pictureless comic. I think I encouraged her to say, yeah, go for it. And it was brilliant. And, and, and, And incredibly powerful. It was about a personal domestic abuse situation and it stopped our class cold and it, you know, I don't, I don't know, maybe 16 pages of just, just with no, no, there's a tiny drawing on the very last panel on the last page. But it, you know, she understood the form. She understood the ways that she could play with it. And she used the skills she had very effectively. She wasn't trying, you know, she tried to draw the comic like one of the like drawers in class. She would have made kind of a lame comic, probably like the, just cause she would have been trying and falling short, but instead she took, she found her way, she found her way of doing it. and when she found her way, she made this thing that was, That was really profound and, and, you know, something I think everybody would want to read. and I think we all, you know, I think comics are that for us. If you really start to think about comics in ways that comics are this flexible medium that allow all kinds of skills, I think people can find their own way in and and their own way to really make meaning. In ways that will surprise them. I think will always surprise you once you get past, can I draw a nose? That looks really nice. Yeah, How's that for a takeaway?

Lucy SB:

that's amazing. Thank you. That's really, really good. Um, I, um, Ah, I feel like, yeah, I wanna push myself a bit more. I'm try and actually de I've put my, I've put my comics making down for a while. I don't know, like do you, do you do, like, I feel like I've, I've, I've got kind of, well, I know you said you've got half finished project projects. I've got half finished things and I've just kind of put them down and

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah.

Lucy SB:

Yeah. I need to pick them back up again

Nick Sousanis:

And trust it.. Just make them and see what happens.

Lucy SB:

So our final point, on the podcast, if we were to add one comic or book about comics to our to be read piles tomorrow, what would you recommend we read?

Nick Sousanis:

Oh boy. I so I'm terrible at this question. so Unflattening has been recommended, was recommended by Helen Jones in a previous episode. Thank you.

Lucy SB:

Yeah, she's a massive fan. She's really cool, uh, doing PhD research in, uh, to, um, children, Making their own comics. It's really cool. so yeah, what would you recommend that we read? Could just be something you've enjoyed reading recently.

Nick Sousanis:

Well, this week my daughter and I read K, I think it's called K Gets in Trouble. Sort of, it's a young reader, uh, comic that you figure out super quickly is Kafka stories, but, but for children. which I just absolutely loved. I mean, sort of whimsical drawings and horrible, horrible humans, um, to this poor boy. But, but yet there's still. Weirdly hopeful despite that which is that's where they stray from Kafka. I just I just loved it so that's a younger reader one. Gosh, I have so many things how do I pick one? I'm looking at books on my shelf and there's so much. I, I, I just don't know how to tell you one. but there's a lot of, I haven't read this yet, but I'm really intrigued by it. There's an adaptation of CLR James Toussaint. It's a story of the only successful slave revolt in history. And I looked at a little bit in my class and so it's my nonfiction class. So it's a, it's a history book retelling of a play. He uses the form really well. Um, closest thing that was on my shelf. So I'll quit on that cause

Lucy SB:

Yeah, that sounds

Nick Sousanis:

to stuff. Um, I'll make you a list of 20 things. That'll be easier. Um,

Lucy SB:

me a list of 20 things. Please do. Please do make me a list of 20 things. I would love that.

Nick Sousanis:

All right. Okay, that sounds better.

Lucy SB:

Thank you so much for spending time with me today for talking about your work. It's been so interesting. And yeah, as I say, I think i'll probably Um come knocking on your inbox in the future to ask you questions as they occur to me Um, but it's been absolutely it's been really Thought provoking for me, so thank you.

Nick Sousanis:

Yeah. Likewise. Thank you so much.

There you have it. Thank you so much to Nick for setting my brain. On fire. Fire really. I'm thinking about all. All of the possibilities. I've yet to explore and comics I'm particularly fascinated by that aspect of it. Accessibility. And that complexity of meeting the nuanced needs of different blind users. Not everyone coming from the same perspective people wanting different things. Really, really interesting about how to provide. Accessibility in a way that suits the individual. I'm going to make. recommendation this episode to go along with Nick's recommendation. And I thought it'd be nice to give you a heads up to some of the people coming onto the podcast a little later in the series. Maybe you can get ahead. You can read the books. As well four, you listened to that interview. So I'm currently reading Isabel Greenberg's graphic, novel, young hag, which came out this year. I'm really familiar with Isabel's work and I knew I would like this, but I absolutely love it. I'm in enthralled with the story. I've been laughing out loud. the use of color is phenomenal. It's something I think for key stage three and up, but just a really great story entrenched in Arthurian legend. and very, very witty, highly recommended. It's got me very excited to interview Isabel in a few weeks time. And that episode will be coming out at some point over the summer. So there's plenty of time to get hold of some of Isabelle's work. And have a little read ahead, if you would like to. Thanks to. ALCS for sponsoring today's episode. As you know, we often have writers on comic boom. speaking about their work and ALCS is a non-for-profit organization supporting it's 120,000 plus members to collect money for all of the secondary uses of their work. Things like photocopies of their work, digital reproductions even use an education. And they also produce some fantastic resources to support educators, to explore topics like copyright and plagiarism in the classroom, which I think is always really interesting thing to be able to bring in. You know, when, when there's complaints around the person next to them copying. And obviously as young people get older, it becomes even more prescient, especially in this age of AI is something we need to build awareness of. So if in the next few weeks I'll be highlighting a few of their resources that might be worth checking out and building into your practice. That's it from me this week, this season I've switched up to make the episodes fortnightly, just to give me a little bit more time to edit and prepare them. So Comic Boom will be back in two weeks time, do not try and tune into a episode next week. It will be in two weeks time. And that episode will be worth waiting for, because there'll be an interview featuring James Turner. Uh, regular contributor to the Phoenix magazine creator of Star Cat. And he talks to me just prior to the release of his new graphic novel. Toby and the Pixies, based on. The, I hate Pixies serialized comics from the Phoenix. Very very funny person, really enjoyed talking to him. So that episode is coming in two weeks time until then you can follow me on Twitter on at Lucy underscore Braidley, and you can follow the podcast on Instagram at comic underscore boom underscore podcast. You've been listening to Comic Boom, which is produced and hosted by me, Lucy Starbuck, Braidley-. Thanks for listening.