Recently, Pam, my former business partner and the woman who can quote
Einstein’s first groundbreaking scientific papers on demand, casually
referred to Herodotus while finishing a small pizza at lunch.
Herodotus-talk does not come up too often in the average Seattle day,
and I asked her how she had found reading that great historian—perhaps
the greatest historian in the history of historians.
“Easy,” she said, “and I also read Thucydides.”
“Easy?” My eyebrows went up. I did not recall those two being easy. I recall
bonking myself on the head to make the stuff go in when I was nineteen or
so. I recalled having forgotten everything until both came up again in
my thirties, at which time I sank under the weight of Darius
“They were in the Cartoon History of the Universe, by Larry Gonick,” she said.
couldn’t believe my ears. Here was a woman whose intellect I respect
telling me she had basically read the cartoon Cliffs-Notes to Herodotus
and Thucydides and was fine with that. I felt betrayed.
put them in context for me, and then I could go back and relish the
originals, knowing their place in the bigger story,” she said. I looked
down at my decaf, somber. And then the light I keep mentioning began to
First, let me clarify something. It is not that I have never
heard of the graphic novel nor of its techniques and uses in nonfiction
writing (the only way I got through Freud was by resorting to a comic
that explained all the ins and outs, as it were). Bible stories, I am
told, have been taught as comics for over 80 years, and Maus won the
Pulitzer Prize. No, it is the use of comics to overturn the pomposity of
our post-postmodern academic critical writing that dawned on me then.
The idea that comics could be a better way “in”—could clean up our
academic act. Because, really, in a graphic novel style, there is no
place to hide. You have an idea or you don’t. You have a point of view,
or not. You can’t hide in quoting and paraphrases, in rehashing and
churning whatever it was that mattered to your teachers. The critic is
exposed with all his brain cells hanging out. He can’t hide from the
reader the way any writer can in the luxury of the academic third
person. Narrative critical writing using the graphic devices of comics
could blow away our dependence on the relooping of critical threads left
over from good old 1968. And designers particularly could benefit: For
design history centers on made things, on tangible things, and that
gives us something to cartoon about. That sets the bar at a place where
real people can jump it.
As I was thinking all this over, it hit me
that I might already know someone who was getting close to using comics
as a critical tool in design. Jessica Eith, a senior at Cornish, had
lately taken to posting dead-accurate cartoons on Facebook about the
fraught relationships of designers at the Bauhaus. These were hilarious
to anyone who knew something of design history, and intriguing to anyone
who did not. I got in touch with her.
As it turned out, she had
decided to make the whole thing her thesis project, Start From Zero: The
Bauhaus and Design Today, which features a “generic designer” in
relationship with members of the Bauhaus. When I asked her about her
project, this is what she said:
“My thesis was originally born from
my annoyance that people think history is boring, and many adults’ worrying habit of not learning new things…The Bauhaus was a veritable
soap opera, what better to hold a cynical and jaded public’s attention?
And comics…are easily understood by most people, even those with
unreasonably short attention spans…I love storytelling, and comics
just seem like the most natural course to take for me. They have always
been on the same level as books and movies to me, never second best.
They are, after all, a marriage of the two.”
It’s time for design
criticism to kick its dependence on old-school cultural criticism talk.
Perhaps a good story and a point of view on that story are all we really
need. I hope for more of this kind of thing: If the choice were between
reading Jessica Eith or Weight Watchers magazine, you know I’d put down
the brochettes. CA