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Thierry Groensteen’s Comics and Narration vs. Nathan Yau’s DataPoints: Visualization That Means Something

Comics and infographics—two of the trendier, if not trendiest, ways to make visual art these days.

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Thierry Groensteen’s Comics and Narration vs. Nathan Yau’s DataPoints: Visualization That Means Something

Comics and infographics—two of the trendier, if not trendiest, ways to make visual art these days, a means to take either stories or data and turn them into something pretty. Two new books have come out that try to explain and unpack these forms of creativity. Theirry Groensteen’s Comics and Narration deals with the cartoons, and Nathan Yau’s DataPoints: Visualization That Means Something deals with the infographics. Unfortunately, both of these books are tedious and pedantic, albeit in different ways, and both of them fail to light up the material they deal with. The only redeeming factor here is when the authors just take a breath and actually let you look at the stuff they’ve been talking about, and in so doing introduce you to some artists and some projects you may not have heard of before.

Groensteen is a French-speaking comics theorist, born in Brussels, who’s been publishing criticism for over 20 years. The University Press of Mississippi has begun translating his books, starting with his System of Comics in 2007, and now this year with Comics and Narration. My only previous experience wading into the waters of theories about comics were Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, both of which are graphic novels in and of themselves and feature a cartoon version of McCloud poking his critical head into the frame. Both of those books were speedy, down to earth, visually dense, and philosophically insightful. (In my own case, McCloud’s books helped me finally realize what the difference was between cartoons and comics, namely that cartoons are a way of drawing, a way of taking a person or an animal or a building or whatever and simplifying it down to its geometrical and emotional essence, while comics are a way of linking together into a sequence a set of panels and the information those panels contain, which then means that comics don’t necessarily have to contain cartoons.)

Groensteen’s book, on the other hand, is plodding, fastidious, and visually impoverished, with only about 12 (black and white, sadly) pictures in its almost 200 pages, and it goes out of its way to hold its nose toward Scott McCloud on more than one occasion. Moreover, Groensteen’s prose is way too often pretentious, pompous, and opaque, and reeks of academic overexertion. For example:

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The horizontal vectorization that the strip, by its nature, promotes, is confounded here and, dialectically balanced, so to speak, by these small vertical syntagms that fit inside a tier of predetermined height, but which also constitute local infractions to the supposed linearity of the reading process.

Which is how Groensteen describes the frame structure of a cartoonist named Ceppi, none of whose comics are shown in the book, and which gave me the creeping feeling that Comics and Narration cares more about itself—about its own analysis and ideas and descriptions—than about the source material its in the critical service of (i.e., the goddamn comics). Moreover, the book is missing a through line. It’s a hodgepodge: a chapter about layout, a chapter about narration, a chapter about rhythm, etc. And one reference after another back to Groensteen’s earlier work Systèm de la Bande Dessinée, or as he likes to refer to it, Systèm 1. While Comics and Narration does mention some cartoonists I hadn’t heard of and am intrigued to check out (Fabrice Neaud, Dave McKean, and Jason), the overall effect the book caused in me was, “Jeez. I think I’d rather be reading some comics right now.”

~

DataPoints: Visualization That Means SomethingAnd now for the infographics. Nathan Yau is the founder and editor of FlowingData, a blog that’s pithy and pretty and that keeps you aggressively up to date on who’s doing what in the world of data visualization, infographics, and statistics. DataPoints: Visualization That Means Something is similarly eye-catching and sleek. It’s full-color and glossy and allows you to look at some really interesting data visualizations without having to stare at them on a computer, where one is besieged by the infinite temptation to click on a link and go look at something else. Some of these worthwhile infographics include Nicholas Felton’s Annual Report, Jessica Hagy’s satirical and lo-fi notecards from her Indexed blog, Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg’s Wind Map, Larry Gormley’s The History of Film, and Stephen Von Worley’s Crayola Color Chart 1903-2010.

When I first flipped through DataPoints, I assumed it would be one big compendium of other people’s work, like Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte or Visual Complexity by Manuel Lima, with a little curatorial commentary mixed in between. DataPoints, unfortunately, is actually a lightweight, a For Dummies-esque textbook mostly filled with graphs and charts made by Yau himself and which are supposed to explain how you too can do data visualization—which made me wonder how DataPoints in any way differs from Yau’s previous book, Visualize This: The Flowing Data Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics.

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The problem with this is that explaining how to make infographics is a lot like explaining how to write stories or play music or draw pictures. It just doesn’t do a whole lot of good to try and break down into a series of written steps how to do something that requires thought and taste and touch, and just as in Groensteen’s Comics and Narration, describing in prose what’s going on visually in an image is more often than not tiresome and extraneous and just a way of fluffing a chapter’s word count. As such, quite a lot of DataPoints involves reading on one page about a graphic that’s shown on another, and it induces the kind of weariness you get at an art museum when toggling your brain back and forth between the curator’s concepts that are printed on a placard and the actual art you came there to see.

If, instead of reading Yau’s prose, you just flip through the book, looking only at the pictures and reading only their captions, the book becomes surprisingly coherent and tight and succeeds in spite of itself. Which maybe proves that being a good curator (having good taste in other people’s work) and being a good writer (being able to explain and describe shit) only occasionally overlap, and that when it comes to books about visual art, probably more than a few books would benefit if their authors were willing to quiet down a little bit, or a lot, and to content themselves with pointing stoically and wisely at that which they want you look at.

Thierry Groensteen’s Comics and Narration was released on February 13 by University Press of Mississippi (to purchase it, click here), and Nathan Yau’s DataPoints: Visualization That Means Something was released on April 15 by Wiley (to purchase it, click here).

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Watch: The Long-Awaited Deadwood Movie Gets Teaser Trailer and Premiere Date

Welcome to fucking Deadwood!

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Deadwood
Photo: HBO

At long last, we’re finally going to see more of Deadwood. Very soon after the HBO series’s cancellation in 2006, creator David Milch announced that he agreed to produce a pair of two-hour films to tie up the loose ends left after the third season. It’s been a long road since, and after many false starts over the years, production on one standalone film started in fall 2018. And today we have a glorious teaser for the film, which releases on HBO on May 31. Below is the official description of the film:

The Deadwood film follows the indelible characters of the series, who are reunited after ten years to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. Former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.

And below is the teaser trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAcftIUE6MQ

Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO on May 31.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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