Teaching with Comics

I really enjoyed this webinar about teaching through nonfiction comics. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved comics as a medium for explanation — it’s right up there with documentaries for me.

I heart about the webinar through Scott McCloud’s Twitter feed. His book Understanding Comics was a huge influence on me as a young explainer, and it was interesting to hear about his process and philosophy on comics that teach. I wasn’t familiar with the other panelists, and it was a treat to see how they’ve tackled a wide range of subjects through comics.

Malaka Gharib has created some great comic explainers for NPR, the Nib, and others, such as this guide to coronavirus. She also wrote a graphic memoir of her experiences growing up as a child of immigrants in the United Stats.

Whit Taylor is a contributing editor at the Nib and has created nonfiction comics on public health, social science and other topics. I’m looking forward to her upcoming book, Harriet Tubman: Toward Freedom

Kriota Willberg has an extensive, varied background as an artist, educator, and massage therapist. Her book Draw Stronger is a guide to self care for cartoonists and other visual artists.

Veteran cartoonist R. Sikoryak — who’s primarily known for literary adaptations and satire comics — hosted the evening.

Even after decades of amazing work, explanatory comics feels like an excited frontier. There’s so much untapped potential.

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Zap! Bang! Pow! Comics Explain!*

Comic Book Cartography is the sort of thing I like, of course. Curator Half Man | Half Static has picked an enviable blog beat: cutaways, maps, diagrams, aerial views and other explanation staples from old comics.



I found this in a recent post from Khoi Vinn, who makes a great point related to this page specifically:


Looking at examples like the one above, a cut-away diagram of The Fantastic Four’s futuristic corporate headquarters, I defy anyone to argue that our current fascination with information graphics doesn’t originate, at least in part, from the kinds of schematic graphics like this that old comics routinely dealt in.

I’d go along with that. And like a good infographic popping in your RSS stream today, this stuff interrupted you, in a good way. You stopped and lingered. I need to go down to my basement archives for some evidence, but I think Mad Magazine deserves some credit/blame for the infographics glut, too. I’m thinking particularly of the two-page spreads showing a huge scene, with labels and such everywhere.

Here’s one more, which belong on the Explainist refrigerator:


(* for you non-comic-dorks, this was the title structure of nearly every mainstream article on comics between 1985 and 1995.)

comics education funny good explanations illustration

Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D

I love this elegant, clear, and funny explanation from University of Utah Assistant Professor Matt Might.

Every fall, I explain to a fresh batch of Ph.D. students what a Ph.D. is.

It’s hard to describe it in words.

So, I use pictures.


[via @catgrin]

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The Difference Between $165 million and $170 billion

xkcd is here to clear things up:

xkcd comic

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Comic Inking Explained

Illustrator and cartoonist Michael Cho posted this sharp three-page guide to inking, originally prepared for an art class.

Michael Cho Inking Guide

The simple words and pictures together make a tricky drawing skill perfectly clear, even to non-artists.

comics presentations Scott McCloud video

Scott McCloud TED Talk

Wow, turns out Scott McCloud is an explainist renaissance man. I’m a huge fan of his three explanatory comic books about comics, and now I see he delivers a heck of a presentation too.

This 17-minute talk is mostly a summary of key thoughts on comics, especially their future on the Web. I was already familiar with these ideas from McCloud’s books, but his presentation delivery style got me excited about them all over again. I really like the way he synchs his words with changes in his slides. The effect is similar to the continual seamless hand-off between words and pictures in comics. Very engaging.

comics Explainism Scott McCloud software

Scott McCloud Explains Google Chrome

I was very happy to see that Google hired Scott McCloud to help explain Chrome, their new Web browser, in comic form. McCloud’s Understanding Comics and two follow-up books are explaining and comics masterpieces. If you want something explained right, he is a very fine choice indeed.

However, the new comic ends up being uneven, in an interesting way. There are brilliant moments, but other sections are confusing and flat. The problems stem from the choice to have Google engineers, product managers, et al talk about how the product works and what their thinking has been as they developed it. According to McCloud the script actually came from the engineers:

I helped conduct interviews with about 20 engineers who worked on the project, then adapted what they said into comics form. Some paraphrasing, lots of condensation, and one or two late drop ins, but basically it was a very organic adaptation and I had a lot of latitude.

This approach seems to have led to a few problems:

1. There are too many speakers. I lost count of total talking heads, but McCloud says 20, and I see seven in the first seven panels alone. Each is introduced only with small text by their picture, listing name and occupation (e.g. “Been Goodger, Software Engineer”). Many are indistinguishable from each other, which largely defeats the purpose of having real people walk you through the product at all. If this were a documentary, you would expect to hear from a small number of key people, and you would expect to get a sense of how they related to the product. If this were an essay or press release, you would expect a small number of quotes and you would expect the writer to explain who each person is before quoting them. A nonfiction comic should go about this its own way, of course, but it’s still important to establish identity when you quote somebody.

2. Many of the speakers end up being poor explainers, at least to a general audience. For example, this panel is unnecessarily jargon-heavy, and there are no definitions provided:

Google Chrome comic panel

I wonder if McCloud considered putting himself in the comic, as in Understanding Comics and it’s follow-up books. He could be a non-techy advocate for the reader, helping the experts explain themselves by rephrasing their points and asking follow-up questions.

3. Pulling from the transcript makes the comic text-heavy and comics-light. McCloud’s books make full use of the comic form, keeping things lean and clear by hitting every concept with a perfectly balanced combination of essential words and pictures. Some sections of the Chrome comic do this very well, but others feel like an illustrated transcript. The art doesn’t have a chance to carry its share of the load.

All that being said, it’s fantastic that Google chose to explain Chrome this way. To me, the shortcomings are fascinating, because they show just how original an approach this is. There aren’t any tried-and-true standards on how to do such a thing, and I applaud McCloud and Google for charging ahead. I hope they do it again and push the form further.


[via Extraface]

comics history

Howard Zinn Does Comics

Drawn posted this video trailer for A People’s History of American Empire, a comic addendum to the classic anti-establishment history book, A People’s History of the United States.

Hooray for history via comics. As fascinating and exciting as history can be (it’s the study of everything interesting that ever happened, after all), I’ve never gotten along well with history textbooks. In fact, I used my 11th grade American history textbook as a sleep aid well into college. It rarely failed. For me, comics, documentaries and foul-mouthed HBO shows are the history delivery systems of choice.

So, I’m looking forward to reading this, especially given Zinn’s knack for enlivening history even without funny pictures. But I don’t know what to make of the trailer. Is Viggo Mortenstern trying to sound like the droning voice you hear in your head when reading something boring?

[via Drawn]