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Review: Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

It's been an odd couple of weeks for freebie books here at Casa Comics Bulletin, as a series of graphic novels have showed up that all kind of coalesce around a theme: educational comics. And they've been a fascinating collection of material -- as each one explores either history or its designated topic from its own unique angle. Each book is didactic and provides a detailed look at the topic that it explores, whether that topic is early American history, the melancholies of young Abe Lincoln, a specific historical event… or the topic of today's book, the history of philosophical thought.

How do you take the history of philosophic thought -- from Plato and Aristotle all the way up to George Carlin -- and produce an engaging and intriguing graphic novel from that subject matter?

That seems kind of impossible, right? Philosophy is abstract and extremely complex, thoroughly dry and often pedantic, a slog for anyone other than those who already have a deep interest in the subject.

Or is it?

After all, comics do well with abstract ideas. Creators can do anything they want in a two-dimensional space, so why not explore something as interesting and deeply important as philosophy in graphic novel form? We've seen interesting and often charming comics pieces exploring almost any abstract subject, so why not philosophy? Especially if the creator isn't some sort of boring and over-starched expert in the field, but just a normal woman, just like you and me, looking to learn about something that she cares deeply about?

Why not indeed, thought cartoonist Margreet de Heer. De Heer is just a regular person, a skilled professional cartoonist from Amsterdam who became interested in exploring the history of philosophy and her philosophical beliefs in the pages of the graphic novel. And surprise, surprise! That layman in the field of philosophy delivers an interesting -- and even charming -- "discovery in comics", as her subtitle states.

What really makes this book work is that de Heer approaches the subject matter with a fun, light, almost improvisatory style. She's not tied to one method but smartly uses intelligent page layouts and a charmingly cartoony style to bring her subject matter to life and render topics more relatable than they might otherwise be.

For instance, look at this cute page where Margreet and her husband Yiri engage in the Socratic Method. The conversation starts with Margreet stressed out about a moment of annoying craziness in her life, but through use of the Socratic Method, continued focused questioning about the basis of the complaint, the pair are able to get at the real reasons for Margreet's frustration. This is, of course, a bit of a shallow exploration of the Socratic Method, but of course that's part of the point: this book is all about making the dauntingly complex world of philosophical thought much less abstract and relatable.

Or look at that charmingly dirty scene that describes Augustine's evolution of thought from Manichaeism to free will and human responsibility for actions. Augustine's evolution of thought has been described many times, but I'm not sure how often it's been shown as a more humorously sexy image than any images Howard Chaykin delivered in all of Black Kiss II.

Again and again, de Heer makes choices that bring the reader closer to the ideas that she is expressing in her book. Again and again, she uses the power of the comics page -- and her very conversational approach to the material -- to make it thoroughly relatable and -- really, seriously, no lie -- actually fun while not skimping on the important material that any budding philosopher needs to know. De Heer spends four pages exploring Plato's allegory of the cave, which is a necessity for a book like this.

But she also spends a long section at the end of the book exploring other philosophers who have influenced the lives of her friends and loved ones -- including the beliefs of the noted philosopher George Carlin.

In doing so, de Heer makes the wonderful point that any and all of us can have our own personal philosophies based on the ideas expressed by any figure in the world- whether a high-minded man like Nietzsche or Descartes or simply a guy who's looking to be as good a dad as he can possibly be for his kids.

Yeah, any philosophy book that includes both sex and shit has to be a bit different from most books about this subject. This is a perfect intro to the complex and weighty topic of philosophy -- Margreet de Heer delivers a surprisingly fun and really intriguing look into an area in life that many of us consider occasionally but end up taking for granted. As Socrates said, "an unexamined life is not worth living", and this book is a great framework for you to begin considering your own philosophies in your particular world.


For more information on this book, visit Margreet de Heer's website.


Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him at jason.sacks@comicsbulletin.com or friend him on Facebook.

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