07 March 2016

Review: Unflattening by Nick Sousanis

Acquired August 2015
Read January 2016
Unflattening by Nick Sousanis

At its core, I'm sympathetic to this book. It's about ways of seeing, something I think about a lot, and about how having many ways of seeing is better for us-- to use Sousanis's term, it "unflattens" us, a term he borrows from Flatland, which he refers to a lot. Sousanis communicates his ideas in comic book format, and part of the book advocates for the comic book itself as a means of unflattening, because of its combination of word and image.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't really add up to much. I imagine Sousanis meant to elaborate on this idea throughout the book, but instead it just feels like he repeats it again and again, never going deeply enough to really make it meaningful. There are a lot of metaphors for unflattening, but precious few examples of it in action, and I'm not sure his maps of how his wife varies her commute through New York City to work are really enough. The book seems to be making its case to someone who's never thought about any of these ideas before, but it's hard for me to imagine someone who'd never thought about these ideas before wanting to pick up the book. In essence, it's preaching to the choir. (In that regard, I felt like the book's optimum use might be as a textbook, which is where you can make someone read about a topic they have no fundamental interest in. It covers a lot of useful concepts pretty basically.)

Other times, it belabors or overstates its point, such as when it depicts all of society as trudging drones. Or puppets. Except for those enlightened few of us who read Unflattening, apparently (and modestly).

Sousanis's drawings are pretty good, and some of them are downright striking, but he doesn't always quite nail the grammar of comics: there are some pages where it's hard to figure out where your eyes should go. And his attempts to distill other people's complex ideas into single pages often over-compress; I had to reread the images he used in his synopsis of Flatland a lot before I got them, and I've read that book before!

Like a lot of weak books (because that's what this book it, not terrible, just weak) it reveals what worked well about other books in its failures: Sousanis narrates through nothing but caption boxes, which come across as vehicles for would-be profundity from on high. I definitely prefer Scott McCloud's self-deprecating, personal, on-panel narrator for the effect he creates. Reading McCloud feels like you're chatting with someone fun; Unflattening is being lectured at by someone overly serious.

I was pleased to see both Gene Kannenberg and Charles Hatfield cited/acknowledged, both comics scholars who received their Ph.D.s from my own institution, albeit before my time.

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