In Hidden Systems: Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day, comics creator Dan Nott looks under the ground and behind cinderblock walls to detect the wires behind our wi-fi and the pipes connecting our plumbing. An MFA graduate-turned-instructor at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., Nott maps and makes sense of “the cloud” where we store our data and the energy that keeps our refrigerators running. Nott spoke with PW about “the information superhighway” and other metaphors, the fiber-optic pathways that follow old telegraph routes, and a research field trip inside the New England electrical grid.
How did you get into making nonfiction, explanatory comics?
My thesis at the Center for Cartoon Studies was a self-published book project, and one of the comics, “Lines of Light,” became the first chapter of Hidden Systems. It began as a very short comic about how we describe the internet as a cloud, and a superhighway, and a series of tubes. I thought it would be fun to draw these mismatched metaphors.
What got you from thinking about abstract metaphors to thinking about literal systems like cables, routers, and transformers?
I didn’t necessarily plan to do that at the outset. It came from starting to draw these metaphors and then feeling this curiosity like, “Wait—this is how we think about it, but how does it actually work?” In so many ways, the internet emerged out of the telephone network from the past century, and the telegraph network before that. Once I realized that our systems are physical things all around us, it seemed natural to explain what we have now.
How did you develop the original comic into a book-length project?
“Lines of Light” was only about 50 pages long, and publishers told me it needed to be closer to 200 to be a trade book. In 2018, I talked to [former Random House Graphic publishing director] Gina Gagliano—there was a lot of excitement around new imprints for middle grade and young adult comics—and she ended up being my primary editor. She gave great feedback throughout, and she trusted that I had a vision. She gave me a lot of leeway and time as well.
How do you organize information and illustrate these complex systems?
I always think of it as a comics puzzle. A topic as broad as the electric grid or water systems involves a lot of initial research, so I take notes—I do lots of drawing while I’m taking notes—and I come up with a flow of concepts.
Then I set it up modularly, with a nine-panel grid on every page. I put the scraps of information and drawings into the grid—that’s the puzzle aspect of it, where I fit all these pieces together and set up a rhythm that propels the reader. I refine the pages until I’m ready to approach finished art, which I do with ink on Bristol board and color digitally in Photoshop.
Word choice is important too. I like to write three-part sentences that sort of move you across the page. It often feels like I’m writing brief comics poems about infrastructure.
What surprising facts did you discover while learning about hidden systems?
It was fun to go on field trips as an adult. I got to visit the New England Independent System Operator, which runs the New England portion of the electric grid. This was something that I hadn’t known existed, and it’s a big control room like out of a spy movie, where they have the entire grid for the Northeast laid out. You can see all the different power plants and watch them coordinating this marketplace for how energy is bought and sold, to make sure close to the exact amount of electricity being used by people is being generated at the same time. To be in the room and see this balancing act happening was so eye-opening.
Now that you’ve gotten a behind-the-scenes look, how resilient are our hidden systems?
Especially with electricity and the internet, there’s a lot of redundancy built in. If something breaks, usually there’s a way the network can adapt. I tried not to focus on disasters, because this book is about the things working; when something does go wrong, the book gives context for understanding how it’s set up. But freak events make you realize just how precarious a lot of this is and how much these systems rely on each other. If the power goes out in Texas due to a weather event, it affects people’s ability to get clean water, and it can be hard to restart these systems once they go down.
You also explain the ways our infrastructures determine access to safe water, reliable electricity, and internet service. Why was this important to share with young readers?
I wanted to highlight that even when these systems are working right, they’re not working for a lot of people. We end up having to live with decisions that got made a long time ago, and they reinforce structural inequalities. It can be hard to correct for that once they’re already established. This book is providing the context for understanding the inequalities present in each of the three systems, whether it’s related to environmental harm or access.
What other children’s creators and comics makers influenced your work in this book?
I teach comics history at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and I’m interested in how people working in comics can draw from visual storytelling. [In my imagery,] I reference Virginia Lee Burton and her books The Little House, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and Life Story. I think she’s one of the most brilliant visual communicators of the past century, and her imagination and creativity and way of approaching big concepts with beautiful page design were inspiring to me. I reference David Macaulay as well—he has such a love for drawing that comes through his illustrations.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a comic for The Nib about artificial intelligence that draws on what I learned about computing history. I also did a [zine-size comic] book recently called Freedom and Unity about civics and democracy in Vermont specifically, commissioned by the Secretary of State’s office. I like that short format; you can hand them out and pass them around.
I would be excited to go into classrooms and libraries and talk about Hidden Systems, too. Comics are a great launching point for conversations with young people about how they want to imagine the future and how we can get from Point A to Point B. There are aspects of hidden systems that I still want to get to—like waste, or supply chains, or a book about making, moving, and reusing materials, the life cycle of what happens to things once we’re done.
Hidden Systems: Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day by Dan Nott. Random House Graphic, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-9848-9604-9