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Comics have entered the classroom, and educators have taken notice.

Traditionally viewed in academia as less than, comics had been relegated to the realm of entertainment. Now, however, academics have begun to understand that comics enable a presentation of information in different ways than traditional academic texts allow. Comics are bridging the gap between the public and the academic, and deconstructing complex ideas for general consumption.

The rise of comics within the classroom and the academic realm has inspired discussions on the construction of comics as multimodal texts, the validity of comic arguments, and the challenges this imposes on the traditional academic power structure.

In creative presentations of dissertations, two academics have explored the concepts of the rise and the power within and behind a comic book. Aaron Scott Humphrey wrote the comic/dissertation, Multimodal Authoring and Authority in Educational Comics: Introducing Derrida and Foucault for Beginners, in which he explores the collaborative nature of comic construction, and the struggle for voice and authority that arises within a multiple person creation. Nick Sousanis presented his dissertation in the comic, Unflattening, which he discussed in an interview with Steve Dahlberg and Mary Alice Long on BlogTalkRadio, “Artist Nick Sousanis on the Power of Visuals (& Comics) on Learning & Creativity.” Sousanis’ work explores the challenge comics provide the academic structure, opening content to a broader audience by breaking down complex arguments with visual aids.

Multimodal compositions have grown in number with the rise of technology. But utilizing multiple modes in creating a text of sorts is not confined to a computer. By looking at comics, we can examine multimodal compositions that have been constructed with layers of meaning, enabling visuals and handwriting to express ideas that are closed to a traditionally typed academic paper. It is a way of integrating thoughts and presenting them with a “focus on readability,” using “metaphorical language and visuals to engage people” (Sousanis).

At the heart of Humphrey’s dissertation is authorial voice. Within a written text the voice is apparent through word choice, sentence structure, and organization. However, what happens to that voice when a second of third person becomes involved? How do an author and an artist and/or a designer, when working together, impact the voice and the authority within the text? How do the words and the pictures work together or against each other? And what does that do for, or take away from, the text, and the readers’ experience with the text? This is the basic struggle within all collaboration as people attempt to balance their parts with others, or try to usurp control of the final product altogether. Humphrey provides examples of comics where collaboration works well and examples where there is an obvious power struggle. He exposes that an authorial power struggle exists, but that some are better at balancing it than others. This exhibition shows that when its working it strengthens the text through a cohesive presentation of the argument, and when the conflict is apparent it weakens the argument because it distracts and leaves the reader in unease, unsure as to which elements hold the key to understanding the presented concepts.

What it not addressed is how this struggle in creation ultimately affects the reader’s experience and understanding of the text? Rather than contribute to the spread of ideas, could a comic full of struggles conflate the argument and confuse the reader? Or worse, could it turn a new comic reader off, losing the chance to engage the reader in multifaceted ideas?

In Unflattening, Nick Sousanis explores the potential of a comic to help spread compound ideas to a more viewers outside of academia. By presenting complex ideas in a nontraditional way, comics enable a broader audience to participate with the material, expanding educational possibilities. With the aid of visuals and conscious choice of language, comics create potential. Comics enable the deconstruction of a complex idea that is “not dumbing down an argument but letting the audience come up to the argument” (Sousanis). By breaking with the traditional mode of presentation—the typed paper—comics challenge the academic power structure, open doors, and expand possibility.

While I agree that the potential is there and comics could be extremely powerful in regards to information distribution, I wonder how they can be better circulated and dispersed within society in order to achieve their full potential? There is a stigma attached to comics, an assumption that they frivolous or nerdy. While the embracement of academia will contribute to the breaking of this stigma, I wonder how much it will help and what could be done to improve comics’ reputation within the general population, so that they can be used as effective information disseminators?

Regardless of the main ideas in both Humphrey’s and Sousanis’ dissertations, they both challenged the traditional educational presentation of a wordy, academic term-specific presentation of a thorough research project. Each was able to control the authorial voice through handwriting, and expand the layers of meaning in their texts by using visuals and controlling the layout. Humphrey in particular has a very noticeable voice as he drew himself on the bottom of several pages with personal comments. Sousanis sought to create meaning with what was presented as well as what wasn’t presented, using white space to convey meaning and emphasis.

Effective and incredibly interesting, the works of Humphrey and Sousanis contribute to the discussion of multimodal texts and the contribution of presentation to arguments. As Humphrey says on page 20 of Multimodal Authoring and Authority in Educational Comics: Introducing Derrida and Foucault for Beginners, “Comics can show us new ways of thinking about language and power.” I think the real understanding of this has just begun, and as comics are utilized more and more within academia, we will understand more and more how they challenge and change what we have known thus far.

 

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Educational Comic from Comic Relief on Pinterest.

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Sources:

“Artist Nick Sousanis on the Power of Visuals (& Comics) on Learning & Creativity.” Interview by Steve Dahlberg and Mary Alice Long. BlogTalkRadio. BlogTalkRadio, June 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

Humphrey, Aaron Scott. “Multimodal Authoring and Authority in Educational Comics: Introducing Derrida and Foucault for Beginners.” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly. Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, 4 Sept. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

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