Review: Comics and Narration vs. 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.

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

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.”

And 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.

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, and Nathan Yau’s DataPoints: Visualization That Means Something was released on April 15 by Wiley.

Tim Peters

Tim Peters is a writer and graphic designer. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Guernica, Harper’s, and more.

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