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A New Comic Book Explains How Government, Democracy Work

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This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance

Only one quarter of grown-ass adults can correctly name all three branches of the U.S. government, according to a 2017 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. This bad. This very bad. But a new project by Vermont's Center for Cartoon Studies offers a glimmer of hope that the next generation of the voting public might be more civically literate.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance was the brainchild of CCS cofounder James Sturm. Weary of the uncivil discourse that has increasingly become the norm, Sturm decided to create an easy-to-grok visual guide to the underpinnings of the American political system.

The 32-page comic, developed to meet Common Core State Standards (read: classroom approved), offers a concise overview of each branch of government, along with some encouraging messages about the importance of civic engagement, lest anyone feel helpless to change the status quo.

On the heels of a successful Kickstarter campaign in July, Sturm plans to take the project to classrooms throughout the Northeast and Midwest over the next few months. At least one state — Sturm won't say which, except that it has a population bigger than Vermont's — has expressed interest in ordering hundreds of thousands of copies to distribute in its school districts.

Closer to home, CCS will visit Woodstock Union High School on September 17 — the 232nd anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. True to its democratic subject matter, the comic will also be available as a free downloadable PDF on the CCS website as of September 1.

A panel from the graphic novel This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • A panel from the graphic novel This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance

Sturm doesn't want to get into partisan bickering, but he acknowledged that the impetus for the project grew out of his sense that people seem to be doing a lot of uninformed shouting.

"There's such a fierce partisan debate going on, and it's not built on a lot of facts," he said. "This was an attempt to lay down a foundation for that conversation — how the system should work, who should have power."

After he came up with the concept last summer, Sturm enlisted Dan Nott as the project's lead cartoonist. The 2018 CCS graduate has a knack for rendering complex systems in simple graphic terms: Nott's CCS thesis, a nonfiction comic on how stuff like the internet actually works, became the basis for his forthcoming book, Hidden Systems — a visual explainer of the infrastructure of water and electricity, among other elusive quotidian concepts.

"Dan was the really obvious choice," said Sturm. "A lot of explainer comics can be dense and not engaging, but Dan can find the poetry in what he's trying to communicate."

Before Nott enrolled at CCS, he lived in Boston, where he worked a day job in electronics repair and drew political cartoons on the side. Nott considers himself a fairly informed citizen, but this project forced him to get intimately acquainted with the minutiae of American governance. The hardest concept to draw, he said, was the Electoral College: "I only had one panel to explain it, and I had to do it over and over again."

In fact, the research process was proof positive that this comic needed to exist. "I went to the Dartmouth [College] library and checked out a bunch of books on government, which were super dense," said Nott. "Like, where do you go for a quick refresher?"

Ironically, he added, many people vividly remember the "Schoolhouse Rock" animated short film that depicts the branches of government as a three-ring circus, even if they recall absolutely nothing else from civics class — a testament to the power of cartoons.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Democracy for Dummies? A New Comic Book Explains Government"

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