Getting Graphic with Immigration Research

Q&A with Bryan Caplan

by Priyanka Champaneri, BA ’05, MFA ’10

Getting Graphic with Immigration Research

If you picture a book about immigration research, you might not actually think of a book with…pictures. But Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan’s newest book, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration (First Second, 2019), is exactly that. Illustrated by Zach Weinersmith, the book is a nonfiction graphic novel. With a cartoon version of Caplan as the narrator, Open Borders makes the argument that no-holds-barred immigration would lead to worldwide economic prosperity and virtually eliminate poverty.

Why a nonfiction graphic novel?

A lot of what I’ve done on immigration consists of thought experiments. And thought experiments just work better if you can see them. So this was a really nice chance to actually draw thought experiments that I’d only described in words before. I can’t even draw, but I really like the format. I did have the idea [that] if I could go and not only write the script but also storyboard it…then I could just talk an artist into doing it. I was fortunate enough to get my No. 1 choice of [illustrator] in the world, Zach Weinersmith.

What was it like to see yourself as a comic book character?

It was pretty natural, actually! People like to have this narrator character [in graphic novels]. Zach actually did 10 different versions of me. Tall, short, cool, geeky, he just did a lot of different ones, and then I showed them to a lot of people who knew me. The one we went with was the boyish [version], the funny, nerdy guy. One thing this whole genre relies on is that humans identify with a drawing very easily. That’s why the format works. 

Was there anything in your research that surprised you?

One of the intellectually strongest, yet least palatable complaints about immigration is “People in poor countries have very little IQ, and if we let them in, then they’re going to mess up our country.” One thing I was able to track down is work on transnational adoption. And [to see] what happens, when people from Sweden or Norway adopt infants from third-world countries… [I saw] that this transnational adoption actually shows enormous gains of moving kids from the third world to the first world. So I have about 10 pages on this argument and the evidence in the book.

Would you ever write another graphic novel?

Yes—this was by far the most fun book to write. I never had a day where I just sat staring at a screen, rewriting the same paragraph over and over. Sometimes writing a book is sort of a feeling of tunneling out of the prison from The Count of Monte Cristo, where it’s like 10 years with a spoon…whereas with [a graphic novel], it’s more of a feeling of playing a game. It was just a great experience.