Can comics inspire the next leap in the way we think about physics, philosophy, or even our everyday lives? That is the question at the heart of Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening, an extended graphic essay designed to unlock our doors of perception.
Sousanis’s premise incorporates history, science, and pictorial fables of his own devising in an attempt to achieve “a simultaneous engagement of multiple vantage points from which to engender new ways of seeing.” These come in many forms: two eyes combine to create stereoscopic vision; cartography reveals the curvature of the Earth; and constellations charted through the seasons lend credence to the idea that our galaxy is heliocentric. This grand scope is just the beginning of Sousanis’s argument, which locates itself in the intersection of word and image, and examines how these things combine in our minds to provoke new ideas.
Sousanis gets his title from a 19th-century allegorical fantasy called Flatland. In that story, a square, whose world consists of only two dimensions, accompanies a sphere on a journey of spatial awareness into the third dimension. Comics are oddly well-suited for narratives that explore multidimensional thinking – they present flat drawings that mimic events and objects in three dimensions; they are frozen images that create the illusion of linear time through a progression of panels. Sousanis explores these elements, demonstrating how we apprehend them as readers, and using them to reveal the constructed nature of consciousness itself.
It’s all terrifically ambitious, and sincere in its belief that comics can provide a parallax view to not just open our minds to innovation, but free us from the linear restrictions of what we call reality. Despite this relatively high-level thinking, the narrative speaks in a pop-philosophical voice that will be familiar to fans of The Matrix. This approach will tickle your fancy to the degree to which you enjoy engaging with these sorts of cerebral notions.
In sum, Unflattening is at once impenetrable in its complexity and perfectly accessible in the way it uses images to transmit its ideas. Or to put it another way: readers needn’t feel intimidated, since the book’s big ideas come safely wrapped in the putatively innocuous medium of comics.