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Mapping Comics: A concept model

July 7, 2010

Better illustrations, better examples. This is one of the tenets of the second edition. I’m spending at least half my effort on creating more artwork for this revision of Communicating Design. Each chapter will have a central example that illustrates different points throughout the discussion.

I’ve been wrestling with the illustrations for the chapter on concept models for a couple months. If I’m honest with myself, it’s been more than a year, even before I started working on a second edition. Creating a concept model to describe comics books is a bit of a windmill for this Dan Quixote, and I’ve been tinkering with it for a while.

Mapping Comics • click to download PDF

I love comics and their underlying relationships are infinitely more complex than meets the eye. The complex business relationships, the varying breeds of readers, and the esoteric plot lines make for a rich (if not daunting) domain to describe visually. I’ve finally landing on something that’s good enough to be a vehicle for illustrating the chapter.

A few major revelations since starting the modeling process:

  • Initially I left the reader/collector out of the model, probably because I was so focused on the structure of comics and as an avid reader, I am so close to the domain. Someone in one of my workshops pointed this out to me.
  • Early versions of the model used lots of binary choices: a concept is either this or that. To strip out some of the visual noise, I created a device that simplified these dichotomies. The ovals (vs. circles) were born out of this device, to keep the concepts compact and easily nested.
  • The model lacked a key focal point. I struggled to give comics a single, unifying, Glass-style backbone. In moving the concepts around, I identified this nice dichotomy between the consumption of comics and the business of comics. While perhaps not the most crucial relationships, they to establish a nice framework for the diagram using the most familiar issues. This approach yielded the fat arrows surrounding the model.

Using large arrows inside the model

  • Those arrows became a useful device for highlighting two interior relationships. Authors, artists, readers, and collectors are real, tangible concepts, and their circles got lost amidst the other ones. As the only real people in the model, they help readers to relate to the diagram. Story is also an important concept–it’s familiar and comic books are a storytelling medium. Early versions of the model did not connect the people with the stories. Creating this set of relationships in the center of the visualization gives it a stronger anchor, and a meaningful starting point.

While this is 90% an academic exercise, it’s been a useful mini-project to help refine my thoughts on concept modeling with a challenging domain. Will I continue noodling on this model? Yes. Will it get better? Time will tell. Good thing it’s not for a client project!

What follows is the sidebar from the second edition describing the genesis of the model.

Excerpt: About the example for Concept Models

I love comics, a fact widely known in my personal and professional circles. In 2009 I was introduced to a couple of guys, Ben Scofield and Nick Plante. They also love comics, and we got together to try to reinvent the online comics experience. We didn’t get too far, but I did a bit of concept modeling to help me wrap my head around the complexities of the architecture of comics.

Comic books are an interesting domain because they bring some unique dimensions. For example, the character (like Superman or Spider-Man) is the franchise. Spider-Man can appear in multiple series. This means there are multiple storylines (sometimes intersecting, sometimes in completely different universes) involving the same character. (TV actors can appear in one and only one series at a time, right? The occasional cross-over happens, but we assume that the character remains exactly the same in all appearances.)

Authors and artists play a large role in reader preference. I’ll buy a new comic by Ed Brubaker, just like I’d buy a new novel by Elmore Leonard. The prominence of the creator in movies perhaps has equal weight, but not in television. When was the last time you watched an episode of something because so-and-so wrote or directed it? On the larger comics franchises, writers and artists rotate. Brubaker wrote Daredevil for a few years but has since moved on. Readers may drop a series because their favorite writer or artist is no longer working on the book. (Admittedly, the new team on Daredevil has kept up the pace and tone set by Brubaker, so it remains in my monthly stack.)

Comics also appear in multiple formats—single issues and collections. There is also a substantial corpus of non-superhero comics (sometimes called graphic novels). All these nuances yield a set of concepts with complex relationships that make your intranet look positively flat.

Even if you’re not into comics, the examples should still be meaningful. I don’t geek out too much (that may be the last you hear of Spider-Man and Daredevil), and the concepts are directly relevant to most kinds of entertainment: movies, television shows, music. They should be, therefore, pretty accessible.

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One Comment
  1. melissa permalink

    Great model! I also noticed there is not a direct relationship between artist and author to character like there is to story. As a character can be created before a story there should be a relationship there. The primary relationship for character is with Publisher who also owns story and there is no connection there either. whew! Talk about a type twister ;)

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