"I think it’s my eighth or ninth time," says Tim Leong over the phone, as he packs for San Diego Comic-Con, the annual festival of all things fantasy. Leong, the Eisner Award-winning founder and editor of Comic Foundry magazine and former design director for Complex Magazine and Wired, was there to celebrate the publication his new book, which attempts to explain the world of comic books, as well as other fantasy literature and film, through the use of clean, lean, and colorful infographics.
In Super Graphic: A Visual Guide To The Comic Book Universe, Leong has lovingly assembled 200 pages worth of timelines, pie charts, bar graphs, and Venn diagrams deconstructing everything from classic super hero tropes to who dies and how on The Walking Dead.
Returning to the annual convention (affectionately nicknamed "Nerdi Gras" by Futurama voice actor Maurice LaMarche) closes a circle for the designer, who first realized the concept for Super Graphic two years ago on the convention floor at Comic-Con.
"It really came about," says Leong, "because I like infographics and I like comic books so I thought, hey, let’s put those two together. I used Comic-Con as my sort of first test run, in 2011. 'Comic book infographics’ is a good idea, in theory, but without an actual data set to work from, it’s really nothing. So I collected a bunch of data, made a lot of observations, and took a lot of notes. I also watched people and the different kinds of characters I saw in cosplay. I drew a family circle type thing around the convention floor where I mapped my path, detailing exactly where I went, and stuff like that. It was a lot of observational stuff, rather than a hard-core, deep-sea dive for data."
Leong also admits that, while infographics were "a super trendy thing" at the outset of this research, he was concerned that "the bubble might burst," by the time his book was published.
"I really thought I was going to miss the boat," he says with a sigh, "but thankfully infographics are still cool and I think they will be for quite a bit longer."
Among the graphic treats in the book are an explanation of the myriad parallel Earths in the history of comics, a Chris Ware Sadness scale, and a charting of the many pop culture references in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series. And you don’t have to be a comic book nerd to appreciate the colorful presentations data.
"That was kind of the point of it," says Leong. "Comics have this deep history, but they’re also filled with these incredibly obscure characters, meandering plot lines going over decades and decades of story, and it can all be incredibly confusing. So I wanted to kind of use infographics as a gateway to some of the more basic, and some of the more difficult, concepts, and as a tool for people to understand these things that they might not have been able to otherwise."
As a designer, Leong, who created all the charts in the book alone in his apartment, says that one of his hardest decisions was which kind of chart best suits the data on hand.
"Sometimes, I’ll think, Oh, this is obviously going to be a pie chart," says Leong. "But then, I do it up and it’s like, Hmm, I wonder if there’s something that works better? So, for better or worse I had to go through a bunch of iterations of things. One of the benefits of doing a complete book was I had to look at the whole, as opposed to just a one-off poster this week, and another one next week. So there’s no way you could do, like, just 50 pie charts over 200 pages! You really had to break it up and try to find new ways to tell some of the stories, so I took care to put in some variety. I didn’t want to turn off the reader by becoming monotonous."
Leong had some basic thresholds for proceeding with an infographic: "Is it actually interesting, can I get the data to work, and can I make it look good? If I couldn’t get those to work, then it was not worth doing."
One of the ways Leong keeps it moving is through the use of good old-fashioned comic relief, such as a Peanuts-themed, "Personal History Of Saying Good Grief."
"The Charlie Brown one," says Leong, "is a perfect example of just trying to break it up, visually. And there are a few of those 'data visualization’ things, where they’re a little bit more subjective, and not as data intensive, just to spice it up. Tone was a big thing as well, and I was always looking for ways to make it entertaining, and those were a great way to add some more intentional humor."
Another of his favorite pieces chronicles the various relationships, romantic and otherwise, of Batman (Bat Relationships: The World of The Caped Crusader). Leong says that the list was so long it had to be presented as a gatefold.
"It was very difficult to map," says Leong, "if only because Batman has such a long history. The first one I did was on a little notebook-size piece of paper, which I filled out in only a couple of minutes. Then I moved on to 8 ½ x 11 and sketched that one out and realized it was not going to work, either. Next, I moved on to 11 x 17, having to write in really small type just to fit everything on there. It was probably one of the more difficult ones to map, but it was also one of the more interesting ones for me."
While Leong (who admits to color-coding his comic books) says he knew a lot about the world of fantasy literature, he admits that committing to a whole book of analytical graphs gave him the perfect excuse to spend hours looking at vintage comics and digging online for digital copies of harder-to-find material.
"I really enjoyed finding out all these things that I didn’t know," laughs Leong. "It’s impossible to be an expert about everything in comics, and it wasn’t until I did the research that I’d realize I didn’t actually know anything about it at all about some of them. It was a great learning experience for me, and quite humbling."
Digital technology, databases, and the Internet, greatly assisted Leong in sourcing out obscure archival materials and locating out-of-print comics.
"It’s an amazing thing," says Leong. "It’s easier to track down a digital copy of a comic from the sixties than it would be to find the actual printed issue. And I was lucky that I had a couple of experts that I could bounce ideas around with, and ask, 'Is this wrong? Am I missing something here?' There are definitely people much smarter than me in comics and I absolutely respect them, so I had them proof some of my stuff."
The comic book superfan’s tendency toward trainspotting was a source of insomnia for Leong, who also admits it was hard enough to keep up with the timelines in some of the comic book stories even without a quirky tradition known as 'retcon’, or retroactive continuity, whereby comic book authors can retroactively change a character’s backstory.
"So what they said happened in an earlier issue," Leong explains, "suddenly isn’t what happened at all. Backstories get changed a lot, especially when you have characters that have been around for 50, 60, 70 years. Even between the time I wrote Super Graphic and the time it was published, things have changed so much, so it was impossible to make everyone happy. So we’ll see; if anything is wrong, we’ll fix it in the next edition."
In the end, infographics can be a very useful way to simplify and explain the complex and often murky waters of comic books. So does Leong have any plans to do the same for American history or daytime drama? While supportive of these ideas, Leong says he’s not moved to tackle them.
"I think it would be really interesting," says Leong, "but I don’t like doing work unless I’m really passionate about it, and I love comics so I don’t mind it being a time suck to work on something I love. And I really do feel it was absolutely worth the year of my life invested in making a book about comic infographics. Absolutely."