- Unflattening by Nick Sousanis
by Nick Sousanis. Harvard University Press.
2015. $22.95 paper. 208pages.
It’s been five years since I wrote “The State of Comics Scholarship: Comics Studies and Disciplinarity” for International Journal of Comic Art.1 At the time, comics studies was barely a blip on most people’s scholarly radar. Only two scholarly journals had been in print for more than a year: International Journal of Comic Art—affectionately referred to by those few in the know as IJoCA—and the open-access journal ImageTexT. Only one university press published work on comics: the University Press of Mississippi. Virtually no faculty lines existed, or courses in comics studies, and for those brave enough or foolish enough to nevertheless pursue work on comics, there was little institutional support or recognition to be had. Not surprisingly, very few English-language dissertations focusing on comics were undertaken (an average of slightly [End Page 168] fewer than fourteen a year between 2001 and 2010).2 Indeed, in my doctoral program in English and cinema studies in the mid-2000s, doing graduate work on comics was simply a nonstarter.
Five years later, it’s remarkable how much has changed. A plethora of newly established journals devoted to comics has sprung up (Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, European Comic Art, Studies in Comics, and Journal of Comics and Culture, to name a few), while some of the leading non-comics-studies journals, including Cinema Journal, PMLA, and Critical Inquiry, now publish work in this subject area. University presses are competing for manuscripts on comics, and new comics scholarship book series have launched at the University of Texas and Rutgers. Although faculty positions explicitly demarcated as “comics studies” remain rare, hiring and tenure committees are increasingly accepting (sometimes even welcoming) of scholars who work on the medium. Comics studies courses—at all levels—are everywhere. And the comics studies dissertation is now, for many graduate students, a real option.
Despite these shifts in visibility and opportunity, however, in another respect comics studies has barely changed at all: as a scholarly field it largely remains in what I called in 2011 a “proto-disciplinary arrangement.”3 Scholars are scattered across disciplines—and even academic divisions—that too rarely communicate. The Modern Language Association wing of comics scholars, for example, barely interacts with the International Communication Association wing. And much of the scholarship itself, as Philip Troutman observed back in 2010, still rarely takes up disciplinary questions or explicitly situates itself within larger scholarly conversations, even among other comics scholars.4 There are, of course, exceptions, but comics scholarship continues to proceed more or less atomistically, focused exclusively on its object, the comics text. As a result, there is little that can be identified, metadiscursively, as comics studies in the strong scholarly sense. Or, as Jean-Paul Gabilliet put it nearly ten years ago, “it is impossible . . . to affirm that a strong intellectual field has been erected that constitutes, in a concrete way, ‘comic studies’ as a field of knowledge within normal scholastic and academic institutional frameworks.”5
A paradigmatic example of this curious state of comics studies—marching forward at a phenomenal rate while also remaining static and inchoate—can be found with Nick Sousanis’s recent monograph, Unflattening.6 Published in 2015 by Harvard University Press, Sousanis’s book utilizes the form of the graphic novel to explore an array of conceptual issues pertaining to processes of perception and knowledge construction. Almost universally lauded by the mainstream press, the book is a visually stunning and mostly unprecedented expansion of comics studies as a field and—perhaps even more radically—a methodology. For this reason, the book has been awarded a bevy [End Page 169] of honors and prizes, including the 2016 American Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence and Penn State’s 2015 Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize. In recent months the book has also been nominated for a prestigious 2016 Eisner Award for Best Academic/Scholarly Work pertaining to comics.
That a work of comics studies—and an unusual work, at that—should be so universally lauded is in itself telling of how far...