Philosophy – A Discovery in Comics

By Margreet de Heer with Yiri T. Kohl (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-698-3 (HB)

I’m feeling the urge to big up the transformative and informational aspect of comics, so expect a few educational reviews – the books, not my blather about them – over the forthcoming days. Here’s an old favourite to start you off…

It has long been a truism of the creative arts that the most effective, efficient and economical method of instruction and informational training is the comic strip.

For well more than a century, advertising mavens have exploited the easy impact of words wedded to evocative pictures, and public information materials frequently use sequential narrative to get hard messages over quickly and simply – unless you’re a graph designer for the British government.

Since World War II, carefully crafted strips have been constantly used as training materials in every aspect of adult life from school careers advice to various branches of military service – utilising the talents of comics giants as varied as Milton Caniff, Will Eisner (who spent decades producing reams of comic manuals for the US army and other government departments), Kurt Schaffenberger and Neil Adams.

These days the educational value and merit of comics is a given. The magnificent Larry Gonick in particular has been using the strip medium to stuff learning and entertainment in equal amounts into the weary brains of jaded students with his webcomic Raw Materials and such seasoned tomes as The Cartoon History of the Universe, The Cartoon History of the United States and The Cartoon Guide to… series (Genetics, Sex, Computers, Non-Communication, Physics, Statistics, the Environment and more).

Japan uses a huge number of manga text books in its schools and universities and has even released government reports and business prospectuses as comic books to get around the public’s apathy towards reading large dreary volumes of public information.

So do we and so do the Americans. I’ve even produced the occasional tract myself. The medium has also been used to sublimely and elegantly tackle the greatest and most all-consuming preoccupation and creation of the mind of Man…

In 1972, Margreet de Heer was born into a family of theologians and despite some rebellious teen forays to the wild side of life – fascinatingly covered in the ‘Know My Self’ section of this fabulous graphic primer – studied Theology for 9 years at the University of Amsterdam. After graduating in 1999, she decided to become a cartoonist – and did – but also worked at the wonderful comics and cool stuff emporium/cultural icon Lambiek in Amsterdam.

Whilst there – and before becoming a full-time professional in 2005 – she collaborated with industry expert Kees Kousemaker on a history of Dutch comics. In 2007, with commissions in publications as broad and varied as Yes, Zij aan Zij, Viva Mama, Flo’, Jippo, Farfelu and NRC.Next, she began a series of cartoon philosophical reports for the newspaper Trouw. These prompted a perspicacious publisher to commission a complete book on this most ancient of topics. Filosofie in Beeld was first released in 2010 and translated into English by NBM two years later as Philosophy – a Discovery in Comics.

This gloriously accessible tome – available in hardback and digital editions – is crafted by a gifted writer with a master’s grasp of her subject, and opens with the core concept ‘What is Thinking?’, examining the processes of mind through a number of elegantly crafted examples before moving onto ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’

Those paradigms of ‘Self-Awareness’, ‘Logical Thinking’, ‘Language’, ‘Symbols’, ‘Abstract Thinking’ and ‘Humor’ are captivatingly and comprehensively covered before the history and cognitive high points of civilisation are disclosed with ‘The Foundation of Western Philosophy’.

This potted history of ‘Dualism’ relates the life stories, conceptual legacies and achievements of ‘Socrates’ and the ‘Socratic Discourse’; his star pupil ‘Plato’ and the universal man ‘Aristotle’: all winningly counterpointed by a balancing sidebar autobiography in ‘Know My Self’ plus some cogent observations and a few comparisons with the Eastern philosophy of ‘Unity’

‘Medieval Philosophy’ then deals with the influence of the Christian Church on ‘Augustine’ and ‘Thomas Aquinas’; the “Great Thinkers” of early Europe by examining the warring concepts of ‘Free Will’ and ‘Predestination’ and explores the lives of ‘Erasmus’ and ‘Humanism’; ‘Descartes’ and his maxim ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ and ‘Spinoza’, whose consummate faith-based dictum was ‘Know Thyself’

The charming, beguiling foundation course continues with ‘What is Reality?’ bringing us up to the modern age with ‘And Now’ comprising another brilliantly clever diversion as de Heer includes the ‘Personal Philosophies’ of families and friends.

Her husband – and this book’s colourist – Yiri bases his outlook on the incredible life of outrageous comedian ‘George Carlin’; her aged friend Gerrit looks to ‘Nietzsche’, mother-in-law Yolanda modelled herself on Cambridge lecturer and intellectual ‘George Steiner’ whilst De Heer’s little brother Maarten prefers to shop around, picking up what he needs from thinkers as varied as ‘Aldous Huxley’ to cartoonist ‘Marten Toonder’. The author bravely puts her money where her mouth is and reveals her own thoughts on Life, the Universe and Everything before asking again ‘What Do You Think?’

This is a truly sharp and witty book – the first of a trilogy also examining Religion and Science – which adroitly reduces centuries of contentious pondering, violent discussion and high-altitude academic acrimony to an enthralling, utterly enthralling experience any smart kid or keen elder would be happy to experience.

Clear, concise, appropriately challenging and informatively funny Philosophy – A Discovery in Comics is a wonder of unpretentious, exuberant graphic craft and a timeless book we can all enjoy, comics fans or not.
© @2010 Uitgeverij Meinema, Zoetermeer, TheNetherlands. English translation © 2012 Margreet de Heer & Yiri T. Kohl.