Author Tim Leong On How ‘Super Graphic’ Celebrates Comics’ Details [Interview]
Comics are a medium that combine words and pictures. Tim Leong, Author/editor/designer of the new book Super Graphic, out today, is taking the medium of books about comics in a whole new direction by presenting information in not necessarily a similar way, but one that preserves the spirit of combining words and pictures in such a way that tells a story. ComicsAlliance sat down with him for a while to talk about fitting the details into colorful charts, his love of infographics, and how a chart can have a tone.
ComicsAlliance: Tim, people who know who you are would likely know you have a pretty strong association with comics. In a lot of ways, ComicsAlliance owes its existence to your magazine, Comic Foundry. So I don't need to ask about your comics credibility or enthusiasm. But I would like to know how you became so obviously passionate about infographics.
Tim Leong: Well, I’ve been a magazine designer for the past ten years. First at Men’s Health, then Complex Magazine, and then at WIRED. In all of those jobs, the mission is to convey information through design, whether it be a short list, a Q and A, a long story, whatever. An infographic is another storytelling device and one I’ve used with varying amounts of frequency over the years. Working at WIRED certainly amplified my exposure to infographics and helped me hone my chart muscles. They’re great editorial tools that allow you to tell different types of stories that you couldn’t tell otherwise. Which doesn’t mean that everything should be an infographic, but rather when used properly, they can be pretty amazing.
CA: Not to stereotype anyone, but I feel like a good many comics fans would reject the idea of this book. Putting anything into a chart or graph is, by its nature, simplifying or at least collating it, and we're talking about people who tend to debate the smallest of continuity details at great length. People who love minutiae. What would you say to someone who accused you of oversimplifying comics in this book?
TL: I don’t think they’re reductive at all. The book is embracing all the love people put into comics. I not only used all of that effort as source material, but approached the project with that same obsessiveness, just in a different package. Details are what makes comics great and that is the kind of information this book celebrates. Super Graphic would not exist if it weren’t for those details and that minutiae. I respectfully reject that notion.
CA: The other thing about charts like this is they sort of mask the amount of research that actually goes into them, especially if they're visually appealing. If you had to estimate, how many hours would you say you put into researching all of these?
TL: I worked on this project for about a year. Several hundred hours of research, at least. I’m a designer by trade, so that part came relatively easy. It was the writing and research part that was the hardest by far and took at least three times longer than the design work.
CA: Anything in particular that turned out to just be a huge headache to research?
TL: Pretty much everything. Because even if it’s stuff you know by heart, you have to look it up. One particularly difficult part was an animal taxonomy of character names. Not only did I have to research years of obscure characters, but I had to truly understand the ins and outs and little specific details of the animal kingdom and all the different phylum, etc. I had to break it out in excruciating detail before I could figure out how to simplify it and make it something people could understand.
CA: I want to ask you about tone. It may seem weird to talk about the tone of an infographic, but it's there. And infographics, at least in my experience, tend to be a little snarky. I'm looking at one right now, this Venn diagram of superhero tropes, and it's immediately funny to me. The three tropes are "capes," "underwear the outside," and "tragically dead parents." Those being the three pillars cracks me up. I take it you went into this planning to be a little tongue-in-cheek, right?
TL: I think I had to be a little tongue-in-cheek. I think it’s pretty tough to keep a straight face when trying explain the idea of the multiverse to someone who has never picked up a comic before. Of course it’s a wee bit ridiculous. You have to be tongue-in-cheek with the delivery or the information is never going to get through. Using humor, hopefully, lowers the barrier for entry even further. The idea for the book was to be a gateway drug.
Also, I would challenge that infographics tend to be snarky. I’m assuming that most of the infographics you’re talking about are ones you saw online—these long, scrolling towers of information. What those are, and what this is are two totally different things. Those are not infographics. Those tend to be big lists of information. Infographics fuse information and design together in a dynamic, visual package.
CA: Your name is the sole author's name are the cover. Did you do all the design, or did you have some help?
TL: Yep, I did all of the design work. It was a long process, especially since I did most of it after I got home from a 10-hour day of design work. But once I was in a groove it went pretty smoothly. I did have to come up with a more simplistic design style that would let me scale my workload. There just wasn’t the time to design 200 charts with an overly complicated style, so I had to find something that would be graphic but also not a burden.
CA: Comics have such a long history and so many colorful characters that there's certainly a tendency among fans and critics to focus on the huge fictional worlds that have been created, but the people who created those worlds have colorful stories of their own. How much did you dive into real-life history here?
TL: A little, but not much. The creators are a huge, huge part of comics and they all deserve their day in the sun, but this wasn’t the venue for that. The goal here was to be a bit more broad. There’s some Stan and Jack stuff in there, but this focus was more on the comics and characters. Good idea for a volume two, though.
CA: What's next?
TL: Well, [former CA Editor] Laura Hudson and I are looking to do another issue of Comic Foundry this year. What that entails is still being decided, but I can promise it’s going to be the best one yet.