An Indies Introduce Q&A with Dan Nott

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Dan Nott, author of the novel "Hidden Systems"Dan Nott is the author of Hidden Systems, a Winter/Spring 2023 Indies Introduce Kids selection.

Nott is a cartoonist, illustrator, and educator living in Vermont. Dan’s nonfiction work uses comics to explore and untangle complex topics, and create a basis for understanding current events. He has released two comic books with the Center for Cartoon Studies, This is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance, and Freedom and Unity: A Graphic Guide to Civics and Democracy in Vermont. Dan’s short comics and illustrations for investigative journalism have appeared in The Nib, Spotlight PA, WBUR, and NJ Advance Media, among others. In 2022, his comics work was exhibited at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute, for the exhibit Drawing Us Together: Public Life and Public Health in Contemporary Comics. Dan graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies, where he now teaches an MFA course on comics history, theory and communities called Survey of the Drawn Story. Dan co-runs Parsifal Press, a micro press for independent comics and special objects, with his partner, Daryl Seitchik.  

Justin Colussy-Estes of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Georgia, served on the panel that selected Nott’s debut for Indies Introduce. Of the book, Colussy-Estes said, “Dan Nott takes one of the most innocuous and seemingly boring subjects — infrastructure — and demonstrates just how fascinating and vital it can be. Subtleties, entrenched inequalities, dis-functions, and outmoded processes are laid bare in a way that is awesome and interesting to read!”

Here, Nott and Colussy-Estes discuss Hidden Systems.

Justin Colussy-Estes: Hidden Systems is fascinating, and completely unique — I would never in a million years have thought of a graphic novel about infrastructure! First, what made you decide to tackle this as the subject of a book, and why do it in comics form?

Dan Nott: I began by thinking about the metaphors we rely on for picturing things we may not understand super well, and thought it would be fun to draw them — like the “series of tubes,” “cyberspace,” or a “super highway” to describe the internet. That got me wondering more about how the internet actually worked, which led me to draw out what it looks like and the history of how it emerged. There are a lot of reasons I love working in comics, but my favorite part is the playfulness that comes with being able to draw things that we can typically only imagine.

JCE: Despite having called Hidden Systems completely unique, it doesn’t come out of nowhere — there’s a long, rich history of “information comics.” What are your influences? What made you take on this genre, as opposed to all the things comics are maybe better known for?

DN: Yeah, you’re totally right. I’m drawing on different traditions in comics and picture books, and trying to synthesize them in new ways. David Macaulay, who wrote a really nice blurb for my book, has a great technique of using imaginative drawing to help us understand concepts in books like The Way Things Work, and Underground. Virginia Lee Burton’s classic children’s books like The Little House and Life Story use beautiful page design to explore topics like industrialization and deep time in a really artful way. I studied political science and international relations, and I wanted to find a way to combine these studies with a creative practice. I was initially inspired by the long tradition of editorial cartooning in the U.S., which relies on visual metaphor to comment on current events. Eventually, comics by cartoonists like Joe Sacco (Palestine) and Sophie Yanow (The War of Streets and Houses) showed me that comics could be used for journalism, history, and essays. 

JCE: How daunting was the research part of this project? Was there a time you felt swamped or overwhelmed?

DN: Yeah, all the time! As I say in the introduction and conclusion, I was constantly surprised by how much I didn’t know about so many systems I rely on in my daily life. It’s very daunting to pitch a comic about something as broad as water systems, and then figure out how to make a compelling and thoughtful narrative out of it. I read widely at first, and tried to follow my curiosity and values, paying attention to the bits of history that left me enchanted and, at times, alarmed. I’m also trying to tell the story of each system both chronologically and thematically, so arranging the material in a logical way was the biggest challenge. But I had a good routine for over four years of working on the book page by page each night. I often thought of the process as going to work on my “comics puzzles.”

JCE: The three main systems you describe in the book — internet, electricity, and water—are not necessarily ones I would associate with each other. How did you narrow it down to those three? 

DN: I self-published the fifty-page chapter on the internet in 2018 and was trying to decide whether to expand on that topic or do a series on different systems. I wasn’t sure a stand-alone book on the electric grid would be as compelling as one about the internet. I was driving to the White Mountains in New Hampshire and passed a hydroelectric dam, and I began to think about the intersections of different systems, and how it could be unique to explore their connections and shared history. Each system’s history presents a different way of looking at the forces that have shaped our society, but the connections between them aren’t hard to find. The internet, the electric grid, and water systems are all so reliant on each other that if one fails, the other systems are inevitably affected.

JCE: Every time I picked up the book, it provoked so much thought and prompted so many questions about our society and how it’s built. Is there any particular idea or concept you hope readers take with them after reading the book?

DN: That’s so nice to hear, and encouraging curiosity is really the main purpose of the book. I also hope it helps people understand the basic layouts of systems that are constantly in the news and at the root of a lot of our problems. This is important not only for when things go wrong, but when we’re trying to make our world safer and more equitable. When we advocate for things like net neutrality or solar energy or water conservation, it helps to be able to picture what these systems look like and to have a basic understanding of their history. I also wanted to show that these systems didn’t just appear—they are the result of a lot of decisions, and they can be reimagined. I think the David Graeber quote at the beginning says it best: “The world is something we make, and could just as well make differently.”

Hidden Systems by Dan Nott (Random House Graphic, 9781984896049, Paperback Young Adult, $17.99) On Sale: 3/14/2023.

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