Alumnus and author teaches comics at SFSU

Dr. Nick Sousanis, a Wayne State alumnus MIS and MA ’02, Eisner-winning comics author and professor in the Department of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University, was introduced to comics in his infancy.  

“My older brother read comics to me as a baby, so much so that ‘Batman’ ended up being my first word.”

A precursor of passions to come, he and a friend made up their own comics in elementary school. In junior high, Sousanis created “Lockerman,” a superhero whose adventures he chronicled through high school and who makes an appearance in his award-winning dissertation, called Unflattening, written entirely in comic form.

“I was into making comics all along,” he says, “but when I [first] came to university I wanted to do intellectual things and comics certainly weren’t seen as such, nor would I have perceived them that way.”

So, he earned a bachelor’s in mathematics at Western Michigan University. Then, drawn to Detroit in the infancy of its revitalization, he enrolled as a graduate student with every intention to continue studying mathematics while taking art classes for fun. In the end, he’d taken so many that he merged math and art to complete an interdisciplinary degree and wrote a thesis on creativity.

But it wasn’t until the end of his Wayne State education that he really delved into Detroit’s art community, thanks to his brother. A theater critic at the Oakland Press, he wanted an online repository for his reviews and asked Sousanis to write them.

“And, like many things your older brother asks you to do, I said yes and we were off.”

Founded in 2002, started as that online repository and steamrolled into a culture and arts magazine. As its co-founder and primary arts writer, Sousanis delved into the art scene and was quickly stunned by how much was going on.

“People working in the arts, often with arts spaces as little as a block from one another had no idea about each other!”

The gig opened up opportunities for him to curate and showcase his own art at local galleries, serve on the board of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, and even become artist Charles McGee’s personal biographer.

During it all, he was teaching public speaking and writing at Wayne State. “It made sense to have a terminal degree to do such things,” so years later he left Detroit for Columbia University's Teachers College to pursue a doctorate of education. There, he again incorporated art into his education and authored Unflattening, a comic that argues for the importance of visual thinking.

Comics have great literacy potential, he says. “Easier to read—not as many words and pictures to help you, but also more complex—where to read, when to read sound effects, how to connect these words to those pictures.” They “tackle complex subjects in a way that made them accessible to a broad audience.”

Seeing the potential in visual rhetoric, SFSU hired Sousanis in 2016. At the time, they weren’t looking for a “comics person,” but within the year, he had helped create a comics minor and he promises comics classes in other departments are coming.

For him, the best part of teaching is about helping students discover their potential.

“I think my work is motivated by a belief in the capacity and creativity of humans, but a concern that it is often not allowed to flourish. I don’t necessarily feel like I teach students all that much, but I do create a space for them to feel free to play, and they make these discoveries themselves.”

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