Try this experiment: Go to the shelves of your nearest chain bookstore or academic library – either will work – and browse the literature section. Flip through a bunch of books; you don’t have to read any mystery novels or critical editions of “Anna Karenina.”
In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Just take a quick look at what’s inside. Then head over to the science section and do the same thing. E.O. Wilson’s “The Ants” or the latest issue of “Nature” – again, don’t read.
Just look for pictures.
You don’t need to do this in real life to know which books have them. Scientists communicate using words and pictures.
Both. They always have, and I would bet they always will. So what could be more natural than using comics to explain science? Words and pictures working together to tell a story or communicate an idea is so natural and powerful that the fact that it’s not done more often is more notable than that it’s done at all.
Philippe Squarzoni throws his hat and heart into the science comics ring with “Climate Changed,” an ambitious effort at combining the story of his personal education about global warming with the science he learned.
I admired many things about the book. Squarzoni draws beautifully, and even though many images are taken directly from photographs, they retain a lively, animated feel. “Climate Changed” looks at many – I’m tempted to say all, but to keep the book from being twice as long I’m sure he had to leave a few stones unturned – aspects of our impact on the planet, and it etched a convincing, grim picture onto my mind. And the book goes to great lengths to fulfill the promise of its subtitle – “A personal journey through the science.” It is personal, almost achingly so.
I’m not sure it achieves its goals, though, or that it uses the comics medium to its best advantage. The story is slight, too many of the images are static, too many of his visual references were obscure to me, and the data too often get the short end of the graphical stick.
With regards to that data, “Climate Changed” presents many graphs – 47, by my count. Most appear to be there only to add visual interest, though; they tease but do not convey information. They could, if the axes were labeled clearly, but two-thirds of the time they weren’t. I found that frustrating.
Hundreds of torsos
Again, I suspect the graphs are there mostly for visual interest. Unfortunately, the book needs even more of that, since 20 to 30 percent of the book is talking heads – static (and dull) images of characters doing nothing more than lecturing the reader. This is a lot for comics.
Hundreds of torsos and faces livened up with only the occasional hand gesture do not use the power inherent to graphic novels – the interaction of words and images – to propel a narrative or make a complex point. This is difficult to avoid in books where the driving force is theory, but I saw many missed opportunities to show instead of tell. As an artist friend once said, in comics you should “never, ever waste the pictures.”
Perhaps Squarzoni thought it critical to demonstrate that he interviewed experts, and that depicting those experts exactly as he encountered them made their arguments more credible. I don’t know, but I do sympathize. It’s difficult to draw compelling images from an interview, and where can you go, visually, when we’ve all already seen more stranded polar bears and devastating hurricanes than we ever wanted to?
Pushing the characters
And when the results of all the science and best efforts of such experts is inaction on a global scale, it’s difficult to find a through line – something that pushes a character forward through the story. Squarzoni makes a game attempt at adding one via the framing device he chooses, which depicts his interactions with his partner Camille – a trip to the mountains, a walk at night, a dinner at home. But it’s not enough. The scenes are isolated and never resolve.
This resonates with the nature of his messages: that there are no easy answers, that the story of climate change isn’t finished, and that he is unsettled by our prospects and we should share his discomfort. Leaving readers unsettled by the book itself is risky, though, and I don’t think his risk pays off. I came to “Climate Changed” already convinced by the science, but confounding my expectation for a story made the book a difficult reading experience.
Squarzoni does make his point on a metatextual level, and the last 16 pages of the book are effective, jarring, and great comics. What we see and hear reinforce and contradict each other as the tension – I’m tempted to say clash – between his idealism and the reality of his actions plays out.
Sticks the landing
He transforms his comics-self into an everyman, and in doing so his real-self sticks the landing. The rest of the book is occasionally just as effective, but in his effort to compress thousands of pages of reading and tens of hours of interviews into a single volume, Squarzoni creates a book that felt both too long (the talking heads!) and too short: What happened to his dog, Mirabelle? What happened on the ski trip? What was the significance of all those movies he references, especially the ones I’ve never seen and didn’t recognize?
“Climate Changed” is worth reading. I didn’t think it was great comics, nor did I find it persuasive enough to do anything but reinforce pre-existing beliefs. But it’s thoughtful and sincere, and I think – I hope – this book will inspire the great and persuasive graphic novel that we need, the one that will help us slow, then stop, and eventually, finally, someday turn this thing around.
Source: The Daily Climate. Reproduced with permission.