On Thursday, Nick Sousanis will receive the 2016 Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize at the Paterno Library. Awarded annually and sponsored by Penn State’s University Libraries, the prize honors the best fiction or nonfiction graphic novel written and illustrated by a living American or Canadian artist. Thursday’s ceremony will bring Sousanis and his graphic novel, “Unflattening,” from San Francisco State University to State College, where he will share his thoughts on his own art and the medium in which he works.
“I was thrilled,” Sousanis said about learning that he was this year’s winner. “I taught three of the recent winners of the prize and I’ve taught many of the other winners and nominees as well, so it’s some company to be in.”
“Unflattening” was initially written and illustrated as Sousanis’ dissertation at Columbia University’s Teachers College two years ago. In a clear sign of the always-evolving times, Sousanis was the first person at the prestigious graduate school to write a thesis entirely in comic book form.
“I had the odd experience that before I’d even drawn a page for ‘Unflattening,’ word of me doing this dissertation in comics had gotten out and it had been written about in outlets like the Chronicle of Higher Education already, which meant there were a lot of eyes on it,” Sousanis said. “While I’d initially set out to do this work in comics because of my love of the form, I didn’t immediately recognize the political ramifications of what working this way meant. Once I did, I really became an active advocate for comics and alt-scholarship, which has only increased since it became a book.”
An academic and longtime lover of comics, Sousanis strongly believes that these illustrated panels possess the ability to educate in novel and exciting ways. “Unflattening” provides a breathtaking and insightful approach to learning that breaks away from the established educational norm while unlocking new ways of thinking.
“With ‘Unflattening,’ I had space to let things breathe and grow across the work,” Sousanis said. “It meant for me learning to find a rhythm between compact, densely arranged pages broken up with quieter, more open compositions. I learned a great deal in making ‘Unflattening,’ each page seemed to push me further on developing the next one, and I’m really eager to be fully into the next work and see where that takes me.”
“Unflattening” is now being read across the globe. Translated into numerous languages, Sousanis is delighted to know that his vision is having an effect on people everywhere.
“I knew from the outset that I could make work that could be read across all sorts of reading levels,” he said. “It has far surpassed my expectations and reached audiences I didn’t anticipate. It’s enabled me to have conversations with people around the world that I hadn’t imagined. After working alone on it day in and day out over several years, I feel quite fortunate to have it walk out into the world and have people connect with it as they have.”
At one time, the comic book and graphic novel had been dismissed with prejudice, tossed aside as dime store pulp with little to no redeeming value. However, within the past three decades or so this perception has changed, and this legitimate medium has rapidly gained the respect of mass audiences and critics alike.
“When I was a university student, comics were not a thing you studied or really did in school if you were pursuing intellectual paths,” Sousanis said. “But since then, they’ve been increasingly accepted in literary circles, and in educational settings across levels and subjects. Now, I work with teachers to find ways to use comics with their students. It’s amazing to see that change and that growth in the field — all the different sorts of comics that are being produced today, and by a far more diverse range of people than ever before. It’s an exciting time.”
Much of the work that Sousanis teaches and creates helps to significantly enhance a story’s narrative and makes challenging material approachable. The visuals are just as important to the reader as the text. Graphic novels are not simply “books with pictures,” and their potential to educate and entertain is limitless.
“I think that we will see comics and graphic novels infiltrate and be taken up in more and more fields,” Sousanis said. “I was invited to create a comic on climate change for the journal Nature last year in conjunction with the Paris Climate Conference. To my knowledge, they hadn’t done comics before, but here, they recognized that comics were perhaps the best way to present in a manageable way the mammoth amount and sheer complexity of information that talking about climate change requires. It helps change the way we communicate about serious issues.”
The Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize selection jury had representatives from various Penn State academic departments who use the graphic novel in their teaching and research, as well as representatives with graphic novel expertise from among Penn State’s alumni and students.
IF YOU GO
What: Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize ceremony; book signing to follow
When: 4-5 p.m. Thursday
Where: Foster Auditorium, University Park