Review: 'Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe' by Tim Leong

"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.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


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, $18.95

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • James McBride on 'The Good Lord Bird'

    James McBride on 'The Good Lord Bird'

    Interviewing James McBride, author of the best-selling memoir “The Color of Water” and “The Good Lord Bird,” the unexpectedly hilarious new novel about the 19th century abolitionist John Brown and his violent crusade to end slavery, is like sitting in with a great jazz band. In talking about writing...

  • 'Great team effort' by joggers saves man in Lake Michigan

    'Great team effort' by joggers saves man in Lake Michigan

    During an early morning jog along Lake Michigan with his wife and children Tuesday, John Corba spotted a man struggling in the water nearly 30 yards from the shore.

  • Grateful Dead drummer dishes dirt, drug dependency in new book

    Grateful Dead drummer dishes dirt, drug dependency in new book

    As a founding member of the Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzmann watched the world change from behind his drum kit, shoveling coal in the wildly tribal rhythm section as the Dead went from San Francisco underground curio to ground-breaking indie outfit, then progenitor of the improvisation-based rock...

  • Book comes out ahead of Grateful Dead farewell concerts in Chicago this weekend

    Book comes out ahead of Grateful Dead farewell concerts in Chicago this weekend

    The cliché that colors every good rock star story is “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll." For the Grateful Dead, the trailblazing rock band known for its improvisational style, revelatory live shows and dedicated fanbase, there was that and so much more.

  • 10 best movies of 2015 so far

    10 best movies of 2015 so far

    The year’s half over! How did that happen? No idea. With six months of a good year of movies in the books, let’s see how the Top 10 list is looking, with a quote from each respective review. Note: There are a few I’ve seen that I really like that haven’t yet opened in Chicago, and those aren’t...

  • If you make less than $50,440, proposal could increase overtime pay

    If you make less than $50,440, proposal could increase overtime pay

    Nearly 5 million more Americans would qualify for overtime pay under new rules proposed Tuesday by the Obama administration, a long-anticipated move expected to affect a broad swath of salaried employees from store managers to social workers to restaurant shift supervisors.

Comments
Loading