"Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe" demands a soft toilet seat and, I estimate, 17.4 hours of your time. That's a compliment. In fact, if you don't own a bathroom, build one immediately so you may luxuriate for obnoxiously long, undisturbed stretches with artist Tim Leong's self-described "love letter to the medium," an absorbing, wonderfully unnecessary pairing of inventive, beautiful designs with nerd-friendly comic-book statistics and insights.
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Leong, director of digital design at Wired magazine (and creator of Comic Foundry, an excellent, short-lived comic magazine), has a talent for both quantifying his universe in surprising ways and presenting the cold results with wry, self-deprecating warmth. Which is probably the only real option for a thoughtful guy to keep a straight face and still make a line graph of the friends and lovers in Archie Comics, spotlighting alliteration in the character's names (Jughead Jones, Fangs Fogerty). Or devise a "Chris Ware Sadness Scale," placing the Oak Park cartoonist's acclaimed graphic novels somewhere between "sad" and "soul-crushing depression."
Or — and American-studies programs should hand this one out with syllabuses — create a Venn diagram of superhero tropes that serves as both clear-eyed pop criticism and cultural history, its interlocking subjects, "Underwear on the Outside," "Cape" and "Tragically Dead Parents," converging at Superman and Batman.
Sounds insanely dorky, and yet the charm of so much literal-mindedness is how his book itself becomes a commentary on the joy and myopia of being an admirer of cartoonists and their creations. Indeed, even as I wondered how much actual research was in these graphics (answer: quite a lot), I came across a pie chart labeled "Reasons for the charts," which explained 20 percent are "to inform" and the rest are "to entertain."
That split is disingenuous: Leong's graphics are info-essays, and for every playful breakdown of the Gotham City police department utility bill (the budget mostly goes to the Bat Signal, naturally), there's an ideology matrix that attempts to pinpoint the political leanings of pop icons. (Who knew the Hulk was a libertarian?) A bar chart of how much leg Wonder Women has shown since her 1941 debut is a commentary on changing views on sexuality, just as a "Persepolis" fever chart, comparing the oppression in Marjane Satrapi's memoir of growing up in Iran with the author's rebelliousness, is a sharp editorial about tyranny and human nature.
Some of Leong's creations are so exhausting to pick apart that my brain flashed to early '90s Wired, which famously felt like a study in clever design climbing up its own posterior. But even the over-design here is charming, a recognition of how cluttered story lines get after a century of twists; Leong is honoring the single-minded genius of generations of cartoonists with single-minded genius. In a perfect world, his book would quantify the amount of time that you spend with it, but no one would want to see that number.
Christopher Borrelli is a Tribune features reporter.
"Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe"
By Tim Leong, Chronicle, 196 pages, $18.95Copyright © 2015, RedEye