You’ve always wanted to know how the Punisher makes decisions, haven’t you? Or when exactly comic books got so damn expensive? Well, then, take a look at the gloriously helpful information design in this beautiful new book about superheroes.
Think about all the stuff you know about comics universes. The creators who’ve worked on long-running series, the costume changes, the this-guy’s-a-clone-of-the-other-guy, the alternate secret identities, the fake deaths… that’s a lot of damn data floating around in your head. And when it rushes out of your mouth during heated conversations, all excited and super-powered, those built-up years of trivia are not always pretty. But a new book takes the cape-wearing obsession of millions and makes it handsome like never before.
Super Graphic is the work of writer/designer Tim Leong, who’s helped shape the look of Wired and Complex. He’s also a lifelong comics reader who created the now defunct Comics Foundry Magazine periodical. Super Graphic combines Leong’s two passions—making things look good and sequential storytelling—into a gorgeous package. From a three-page foldout with all the relationships of the Batman family to a comparison of Green Arrow and Hawkeye’s gadget-filled quivers, the charts, graphics and trivia in Super Graphic cover all sorts of crazy minutiae. I e-mailed with Leong about the book and we talked about why comics readers love to duel with knowledge and the joy of seeing a Sentinel’s insides.
Leong: Well, I was working for Wired Magazine at the time. I'd worked with infographics previously, but Wired took that to a whole other level. And I'd been wanting to do something else in the comics world. Previously I ran a comics magazine called Comic Foundry that lasted in some form or another for five years, but folded before I got to Wired. Infographics seemed like a possible conduit for that, but it wasn't until the 2011 Comic-Con that I really got a sense of what was possible. While there, I took a bunch of notes and observations and when I got back home I made some basic charts to see what was possible. And it stuck.
Leong: I certainly wouldn't want to speak for everyone, but for me at least, I think it was a way to get a little life control. Especially as a kid that wasn't good at sports. What else was there? Here was something that instantly gave you common ground with other people. I was hooked. And I have a bit of an obsessive personality. So maybe the question isn't "why do superhero fans put such a high value on trivia and minutiae," but why are there so many obsessive people that are superhero fans?
But also, to quote my high school journalism teacher: "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well." Even if "it" is comic book knowledge.
Kotaku: What sources did you tap into to do your research?
Leong: All sorts of stuff. The Marvel Universe trading cards were great. The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle. The Marvel Encyclopedia. The Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman Encyclopedias. All the comics and graphic novels on my shelf.
Leong: You know, I knew a little about Stan Lee's career before he hit it big with the Fantastic Four, Hulk, X-Men, etc., but I didn't know the full extent. He was prolific—in romance and western comics. Not that there's one single bit wrong with that, it's just not how you think of Stan. Especially when you consider he wrote something like five times as many issues of Millie The Model than he did X-Men. Sean Howe's book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, really sheds some interesting light here as well.
Kotaku: With things like trading card power ratings or almanac entries, which of the Big Two (Marvel or DC) did you find to be more consistent?
Leong: Marvel, definitely had more consistent information. That is mostly because Marvel also has a greater wealth of information. Because of the cards and the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, there was a lot of data out there.
Leong: What do you have against Tintin? Tintin was a character I didn't read as a kid, and had only a little exposure to later in life. Which is why he (and Herge) was so fun to research. That was the best part of this book—being able to research amazing books that you still haven't read, even after being a reader your whole life. That's the amazing thing about comics. But with Tintin, there are so many pages devoted to it because 1) I wanted to share this newfound knowledge 2) because it's such a historical and important comic, there's just so much more information about it out there. That is the major reason why there might be more or less of a certain comic in the book—it really depended on how accessible the information was.
Kotaku: What did you learn from an information design perspective?
Leong: The biggest takeaway was focusing on telling the story correctly. Whether it's calculating the radius accurately, making sure everything is proportional, or labeling each axis, the most important design aspect was to make sure all the charts made sense. I obviously wanted to make sure the charts looked as visually striking as possible, but it'd be all for naught if they didn't make sense editorially. I know it sounds simple, but it's really not the case when you look at a lot of the popular data visualizations online. A lot are great, but a lot don't make any sense. Clever and clear, that was the goal.
Kotaku: A high percentage of your Tumblr is dedicated to Eliot R. Brown, the engineering artist beloved by comics readers for his schematic drawings that showed how superhero weapons and paraphernalia worked. I remember how Brown’s work opened up a whole other layer of imagination for me when it came to thinking about superheroes. Did it have a similar effect on you?
Leong: It did, on several levels. It really made me think more about the comics—that those silly superhero stories you were reading were part of something bigger. That the had tremendous forethought and planning. That might not have been the actual case, but it certainly had that effect with those cutaway drawings and explanations for every little thing. It also really made me appreciate it from an artistic standpoint. The detail is just incredible. Something similar that struck me in my childhood was this book I had of blueprints and schematics of the TNG-era USS Enterprise. Also amazing.
Kotaku: Are comics more enjoyable or less with all this quantification?
Leong: I think more they're more enjoyable. Working on the book made me really pay more attention to the details. So when I see the minutiae in comics I really appreciate it the effort. Of course, when that detail isn't there you notice that as well. But overall it's definitely lead to a great appreciation of the craft and the people that make comics.
Leong: I had four+ short boxes of random single issues before I moved. I picked up the boxes and they still had the same packing tape I'd put on them three years ago, and I realized there was no way they were all that important. (To be clear, I have many o long boxes stashed in my parents' house, much to their chagrin.) And sure enough, as I started to go through them, I knew right away I had zero interest in re-reading or keeping many of them. But as I went through them I definitely got incredibly nostalgic about a bunch of them. NO WAY AM I GETTING RID OF MY RUN OF EX MACHINA. I also found an issue of Powers that Michael Avon Oeming autographed for my good friend Laura Hudson, that I am somehow in possession of. Oops. In the end, I wound up keeping just two short boxes of comics. It was sad until I put up a post on Craigslist for free comics. I got a bunch of responses right away and they were all super-enthused. I was happy to give them away to people that were so enthusiastic about the medium. That was pretty amazing. One guy though e-mailed just a few minutes too late and I'd already given away all the singles, but he was so pumped and excited about comics. I felt really bad so I offered to give him an arm-full of graphic novels that I was looking to unload. His response: "No thanks, I only like comics." Um.
Kotaku:What video game statistics would you like to see obsessively, stylishly represented in the way that Super Graphic does?
Leong: Wow, what an amazing question. Orange vs. Blue portals used? Quantifying how gross each death is in Limbo? Number of Goombas that appear in each Mario game?