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Comic Relief
Techniques from the graphic novel that could make life better for academic readers

by Natalia Ilyin

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.

I 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.

“Gonick 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 break.

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 Ilyin
Natalia Ilyin ( is a designer, writer and teacher whose current research explores the history of the design of persuasion and the construction of the social Self. She has served as director of programs for AIGA New York and has taught at Yale, Cooper Union, Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Washington. A professor at Cornish College of Fine Arts and one of the founding faculty of Vermont College of the Arts, she also co-directs a refugee relief program that supports community-identified initiatives on the Thai-Burmese border.