What Lucille Ball has to do with the dot-com bubble, or why 2001 was the beginning of the end for TV comedy.
I may have given away my TV set in 2004 and fully endorse Clay Shirky’s theory of cognitive surplus but, as a devoted Marshall McLuhan groupie, I’d be the last to renounce the medium as culturally inconsequential. Television, for all its ills and follies, still commands a remarkable portion of our collective conscience — and, it turns out, it has an implicit conscience of its own, as TV executive Lauren Zalaznick demonstrates in this eye-opening, stride-stopping TED talk, using GapMinder, the statistical visualization software made famous by TED rockstar Hans Rosling.
From the intricate balance of moral ambiguity and inspiration, humor and judgement, to the normative shifts scripted television can ignite, to the evolving ideals of motherhood, Zalaznick illustrates not only how history has shaped the medium, but also how the medium itself is shaping cultural history.
Moral ambiguity becomes the dominant meme in television from 1990 for the next twenty years.”
Seeing the world in six-panel strips, or what Allen Ginsberg has to do with the wonders of zygotes.
Who doesn’t love comic books? While infographics may be trendy today (and photography perennially sexy), there’s just something special about the work of the human hand. Good old-fashioned manual labor, literally, brings a unique richness to storytelling where words alone sometimes fall flat. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite graphic non-fiction, excluding Maus-style memoirs — perhaps another time — since narrowing down to ten picks was tough enough. These hybrid works combine the best elements of art, journalism, and scholarship to command our attention and gratify our curiosity.
The Beats invokes the immediacy of 1940s and 50s art, music, and writing; even better, it provides political context and introduced us to an entire panoply of artists whose contributions to the era are lesser known. From painting sessions in Jay DeFeo’s flat to strains of mental illness throughout the movement, The Beats is an invaluable addition to our picture of a charged moment in creative history.
How do you make 500,000 declassified documents yield up their stories? Edible Secrets: A Food Tour of Classified U.S. History pulls it off with a combination of stellar journalism and informative, witty illustration. Scholar Mia Partlow, graphic designer Michael Hoerger, and illustrator Nate Powell collaborated to create what started out as a serialized zine on the relationship between food and politics in America, and the highly confidential government coverups of these strange bedfellows’ intersection.
Upton Sinclair-style muckraking for our modern era, Edible Secrets covers the CIA’s milkshake assassination plot of Fidel Castro, popcorn mind-control schemes, and how a box of Jello led to two death sentences during the 1950s Communist red scare. Like a graphic interpretation of Wikileaks, the slim but delectable volume investigates the down-and-dirty ways in which the U.S. government altered history using the most common of comestibles.
Whether you’re an activist, foodie, or history buff, Edible Secrets is a fascinating and fun creation about acts of agriculture — something each one of us, consciously or not, commits every day.
A.D.: NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE
Cartoonist Josh Neufeld accomplishes the nearly impossible in his award-winning A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, namely, taking a subject as tragic and media-saturated as 2005′s Hurricane Katrina and making a page-turner out of its retelling and aftermath. Neufeld shows the story through five (real-life) New Orleans residents to whom we became completely attached, which is precisely the point. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge demonstrates what the comic medium does best — namely, completely immerse the reader-viewer in another world by engaging multiple cognitive functions — and offers a fascinating parallel to last week’s Hurricane Story.
Through the parallax narratives of Neufeld’s five characters, we came away with a fittingly complex perspective of the human experience of this news story.
THE 14TH DALAI LAMA
The history of modern Tibet gets told via one man’s life in The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography. Llhamo Döndrub was the two-year-old child of a peasant family in northeast Tibet when he was named the new spiritual leader of a people; traditional Japanese manga style and first-person perspective bring intimacy to the sweeping story that unfolds from that watershed moment. It’s easy to see why the Dalai Lama authorized this life story, an imminently human treatment of large-scale historical narrative. We live vicariously through Tibet’s takeover by communist China under Mao Zedong, and the Dalai Lama’s decision to live exiled in India in an effort to save his people’s culture.
If only all biology textbooks were as cool as The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA. The great news is that it’s never too late for continuing education, and The Stuff of Life‘s pictorial approach is much more fun — and conceptually sticky — than we remember science being in school. The book starts with the mind-boggling story of how an inchoate mass of chemical elements formed into life over five billion years ago, and then drills down to the cellular level before getting into applied genetics (even Dolly the Sheep makes an appearance). With the help of friendly black-and-white cartoon panels, A,T,C, and G molecules cohere into a narrative beyond alphabet soup and the double helix, and we’re proud to be able to explain the difference between phenotypes and polypeptides again.
SMARTERCOMICS BUSINESS BOOKS
A new series of books by SmarterComics is harnessing the human tendency toward what’s known as the pictorial superiority effect, and adapting popular business and strategy books by iconic thought-leaders into visually-driven narratives. Among the series so far: Wired editor Chris Anderson‘s The Long Tail, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, and the Sun Tzu classic The Art of War. Great graphics illustrate Anderson’s argument around the death of “common culture,” Hill’s endorsement of the practical power of positive thinking, and entrepreneur Robert Renteria‘s rise from gang violence to civic leadership.
Read our full review of the SmarterComics series here.
Lefèvre documented the group’s harrowing covert tour from Pakistan into a nation gripped by violence in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion. While a few of his 4,000-plus images were published upon his return to France, years passed before Lefèvre was approached by his friend, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, about collaborating on a book that would finally tell his remarkable story. The resulting effort, assembled by graphic designer Frédéric Lemercier, is a seamless tour de force of reportage.
The lovely Burma Chronicles is another fortuitous creative byproduct of Doctors Without Borders. Comic book artist Guy Delisle travels around the world with his wife Nadège, an MSF doctor, tours which previously resulted in two other gorgeous works of graphic nonfiction — Shenzen: A Travelogue from China, and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Delisle lives the atypical life of an NGO house husband-cum-cartoonist, alternating between inking panels and daily perambulations near Nobel Prize winner’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi‘s home, where the opposition figure was still under house arrest at the time he was in the country.
What makes Burma Chronicles so charming is its balance of quotidian domestic life and international affairs. Delisle’s growing knowledge of the country’s culture plays off the constant development of his infant son, lending the whole work (and the world) refreshing perspective.
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED
If anyone could make grammar fun, it’s Maira Kalman. An update of William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White‘s definitive reference text on composition and form, The Elements of Style Illustrated marries Kalman’s signature whimsy with the indispensable styleguide to create an instant classic. The original Elements of Style was first published in 1919 in-house at Cornell University for teaching use, and became canon after a 1959 reprint. We’re all for achieving “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English,” as White — who had studied under Strunk in college — described their collaboration; and the goal is made appropriately joyful in this new edition. In other words, we’d much rather be schooled in the basics of language usage by Kalman’s vibrant work than the old black-and-white Strunk & White.
A must-have for art lovers and the editorially exact alike, essays by White and fellow New Yorker contributor (and his stepson) Roger Angell put The Elements of Style Illustrated into historical context.
* * *
We hope you had as much fun as we did with this short survey of masterworks in a medium that doesn’t often get its due. Graphic nonfiction provides a clever solution to a perpetual problem — how to make audiences care about new or challenging material. These 10 books bring a childlike sense of wonder to their subjects, something that comes in part from the cross-disciplinary collaborations between artists, designers and writers that yielded the work in the first place. And they’re proof that you’re never too old to pick up a comic book.
Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.
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How the man who coined the global village became the first seer of cyberspace and digital empowerment.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, one of my great heroes and a Brain Pickingsrepeatoffender. Marshall McLuhan Speaks is a fantastic, beautifully designed site commemorating the centennial with a treasure trove of McLuhan video appearances and interviews. Chief among them is this excellent biographical segment by equally iconic writer Tom Wolfe from 1984, produced and directed by Marshall’s daughter, Stephanie McLuhan-Ortved. (With bonus points for the Woody Allen cameo in the beginning, where you might also recognize the origin of the title of Douglas Coupland’s must-read McLuhan almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!.)
Today, on the eve of the 21st century, with hot speculation about the coming digital civilization, in which all humanity will be wired up and online so that geographic locations and national boundaries, or so it’s predicted, will become irrelevant, McLuhan is very much in the center of the screen again, nearly two decades after his death, this time as the first seer of cyberspace.” ~ Tom Wolfe
Wolfe, of course, is best known in relation to McLuhan by way of his 1965 essay, “What If He’s Right?”. (“Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov… What if he is right?”)
For the ultimate lens on McLuhan’s thought and legacy, I can’t recommend Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! enough — a compelling celebration of what I consider to be McLuhan’s greatest talent: his penchant for pattern-recognition and cross-disciplinary dot-connecting.
Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.
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