Doctoral dissertation in graphic novel form

Columbia University awarded a doctorate in education to Nick Sousanis for Unflattening, a graphic novel about the relationship between words and pictures in literature.

It was published by Harvard University Press and got a starred review in Publishers Weekly the journal Comics Grid wrote that it demonstrated "the viability of a comic book as doctoral scholarship in its own right, rather than a separate work requiring some accompanying critical paratext."

The primacy of words over images has deep roots in Western culture. But what if the two are inextricably linked, equal partners in meaning-making? Written and drawn entirely as comics, Unflattening is an experiment in visual thinking. Nick Sousanis defies conventional forms of scholarly discourse to offer readers both a stunning work of graphic art and a serious inquiry into the ways humans construct knowledge.

Unflattening is an insurrection against the fixed viewpoint. Weaving together diverse ways of seeing drawn from science, philosophy, art, literature, and mythology, it uses the collage-like capacity of comics to show that perception is always an active process of incorporating and reevaluating different vantage points. While its vibrant, constantly morphing images occasionally serve as illustrations of text, they more often connect in nonlinear fashion to other visual references throughout the book. They become allusions, allegories, and motifs, pitting realism against abstraction and making us aware that more meets the eye than is presented on the page.

In its graphic innovations and restless shape-shifting, Unflattening is meant to counteract the type of narrow, rigid thinking that Sousanis calls “flatness.” Just as the two-dimensional inhabitants of Edwin A. Abbott’s novella Flatland could not fathom the concept of “upwards,” Sousanis says, we are often unable to see past the boundaries of our current frame of mind. Fusing words and images to produce new forms of knowledge, Unflattening teaches us how to access modes of understanding beyond what we normally apprehend. – Unflattening is available from Harvard University Press.

Unflattening [Nick Sousanis/Harvard University Press]

Excerpt [PDF]

Unflattening [Nick Sousanis/Spin Weave Cut]


Notable Replies

  1. I was expecting Batman & Robin...

  2. Excellent to see Scott McCloud has a worthy heir and these art forms are getting their due respect.

  3. Awesome! I know a dude whose dissertation in rhetoric is a rap album. I'm loving these interesting ideas about what a dissertation should look like...

  4. d_r says:

    I had trouble getting my dissertation approved because someone in the Graduate Office didn't like the shape of some of the letters in the font I used. Times have obviously changed.

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