Comic book geographies in practice

As John D. Dewsbury et al. suggest, ‘enacting geographies’ means to propose a serial logic of the unfinished that would be able to recognise, undergo, and embrace, rather than define and explain, the ongoing, exceeding essence of the world and, therefore, the unfolding essence of research itself. This book starts with the suggestion of accepting that ‘the world is more excessive than we can theorise’ (Dewsbury et al. 2002, p. 437) and invites geographers to embrace a kind of spatial thinking that focuses on processually registering experience and presenting research, rather than on steadily representing fixed thoughts:

We want to work on presenting the world, not on representing it, or explaining it. Our understanding of non-representational theory is that it is characterised by a firm belief in the actuality of representation.

(Dewsbury et al. 2002, p. 438)

In this light, representations are no longer interpreted as ‘veils, dreams, ideologies, as anything, in short, that is a covering which is laid over the ontic’ (p. 438), but rather as practices that constantly (re)present the world. Following this suggestion, recent research in comic book geography has demonstrated that even comics can be ‘taken seriously’ (p. 438). This book takes a step forward and suggests that comics have to be taken seriously not just as objects of analysis but also as creative practices to conduct geographical research through the use of disparate empirical engagements with urban comics.

Furthermore, if representations are considered ‘as performative in themselves; as doings’ (p. 438), the same especially applies to comics. In fact, the peculiar spatial structure of comics invites authors and readers into a constant spatial effort; provides them with an experience of performative movements across the space of the page; and asks them for constant assembling, disassembling, and reassembling of meanings throughout the narration. As I have highlighted in my previous work on comic book cartographies,

both the comic author, who composes the comic space by making spatial decisions, and the reader live a fragmentary cognitive and embodied spatial experience that is similar to that of searching for the way through composing and reading a map.

(Peterle 2017, p. 45)

Writing and reading comics are intrinsically spatial practices that engage geographers in immersive experiences and spatial thinking. According to Jason Dittmer’s seminal manifesto, ‘comic book visualities open geographers up to uncertainty, tangentiality, and contingency’ (2010a, p. 234), and comics should be explored from both a representational and non-representational angle. Through ‘emergent causality’, comics propose a construction of meaning that proceeds through the montage of apparently disconnected elements and unrelated parts (Dittmer 2010a, p. 235). Recalling Walter Benjamin’s constellations of meaning, comics do not compose a single mosaic or vision but rather activate an emergent, unceasing process of spatial reconfiguration and composition of meaning. Enacting comic book geographies means embracing comics as both an object and practice of research, the double perspective of the author and reader, the geographer and cartoonist, or researcher-artist. Comics as a research practice invites us to cooperate with a relational, non-linear, and plurivectorial perception of time and space; a processual understanding of representation; and a narrative conception of urban space.

Starting from these ‘tactical suggestions’ (Dewsbury et al. 2002, p. 439) and understanding geographical research as a pluralistic, open-ended process of experiencing and knowing space, in this volume I suggest exploring comic book geographies from both a representational and more-than-representational viewpoint and interpreting comics as an ‘emerging field of practice’ also in geography (Kuttner et al. 2020, p. 2). Comics offer more than representations of geographical issues; they are ‘cultural artifacts, sites of literacy, means of communication, discursive events and practices, sites of imaginative interplay, and tools for literacy sponsorship’ (Kuttner et al. 2020, pp. 2-3) that permit geographers to conduct qualitative research differently. Interpreting comics as performative doings permits me to open up comic book geographies to a double perspective that will emerge throughout the empirical chapters of the book: comics as doings and the practice of doing comics. Thinking of comics as doings means recognising that they act, move, affect, and intervene in the world. Comics create connections and relationships and activate practices that have effects beyond the comics’ frame, outside the page, and in the material world. As Ben Anderson claims, there has been a ‘range of substantive and theoretical research trajectories coalesce [ing] around the proposition that representations do things - they are activities that enable, sustain, interrupt, consolidate, or otherwise (re)make forms or ways of life’ (2019, p. 1120). Given cultural geographers’ ‘concerted effort to understand the force of representations as they make, remake, and unmake worlds’ (Anderson 2019, p. 1120), this book proposes a specific focus on how the intrinsically spatial grammar of comics (Groensteen 2007) has the potential to make, remake, and unmake urban contexts. As Dydia DeLyser et al. say, geographers ‘are working, in multiple ways, with multiple methods, to find geographical praxis that may speak to a world always in the making’ (DeLyser et al. 2010, p. 14). I suggest that the doing of comics could be embraced as a prolific research practice to explore the unfolding process of building worlds through words and images.

This ability of comic narratives to act on urban spaces is especially intriguing in light of the recent (re)appearance of a so-called creative turn in geography and the declared ‘urgency’ to experiment with creative approaches and methodologies, especially within the field of the geohumanities (Eshun and Madge 2016; Hawkins 2013b; Jellis 2015). The practice of doing comics thus represents an opportunity to embrace creativity ‘as a mode of critical exploration’ (Hawkins 2013a, p. 53). Harriet Hawkins has defined ‘creative geographies’as ‘modes of experimental “art-full” research that have creative practices at their heart’ and ‘have become increasingly vibrant of late’ (2015, pp. 262). As she further argues:

These research strategies, which see geographers working as and in collaboration with artists, creative writers and a range of other arts practitioners, re-cast geography’s interdisciplinary relationship with arts and humanities scholarship and practices and its own intradisciplinary relations.

(2015, pp. 262-263)

Following the increasing interest in art-geography contaminations, this volume explores comic book geographies from a processual, often autoethnographic perspective. In fact, theoretical reasoning emerges here through a series of empirical examples and creative graphic interventions in urban space that I realised either in collaboration with artists, art practitioners, and scholars from other disciplines, or that I drew and wrote myself.

So, why focus on comics in urban contexts? There are several reasons for these creative comics collaborations to happen in urban contexts. Comics and the city are inseparably tied and the close connection between graphic narratives and urban spaces and between the genre of the graphic novel and the metropolis has been widely recognised and explored across disciplines (Ahrens and Meteling 2010; Eisner 1985, 1996). For the purpose of my book, two very recent works analysing the relationship between comics and the urban environment were especially helpful: Benjamin Fraser’s Visible Cities, Global Comics: Urban Images and Spatial Form (2019) and Dominic Davies’ Urban Comics: Infrastructure and the Global City in Contemporary Graphic Narratives (2019). Both works analyse urban comics as immersed in broader geographical, spatial, economic, and social contexts. These two works interpret comics as tools to understand beyond representing cities and more disruptively to intervene in the shaping of urban spatialities. According to Davies, ‘graphic narrative is able to capture the political forces that solidify into the material infrastructure of contemporary urban spaces’ (2019, p. 11). In fact, according to both Fraser and Davies, comics are made of visual and textual elements, of single fragments of space that somehow re-produce urban infrastructures, making them visible, readable, understandable, and, thus, malleable. Mirroring the malleability and contingency of urban space, comics too are openly malleable and contingent in their structure; as Fraser affirms, ‘in the right hands, the visual structure of the comics page thus becomes a way of exposing, questioning, critiquing, and perhaps even correcting this systematic urban imbalance’ (2019, pp. 6-7). Therefore, in thinking of the city as a narrative space, and of the comic page as a spatial architecture, comics literacy can become an extremely useful tool to continue reimagining the urban and rethinking cities’ materialities through graphic representations (Amin and Thrift 2002; Latham and McCormack 2004):

In presenting and re-presenting urban space, urban comics use their infrastructural form to shift the social and spatial coordinates that shape urban life, a recalibration that can contribute to the rebuilding of a more socially and spatially just city.

(Davies 2019, p. 17)

Comics can thus be interpreted as partially unpredictable spatial practices and creative interventions that create spatial transgression through the construction of new meanings, or the de-construction of old ones. Comics can be used by geographers as urban interferences that use the same architectural language and spatial grammar of cities; in fact, like cities, the geographies of comics allow for interruptions, transgressions, changes of trajectories, and plurivectorial movements. This book aims to contribute to urban comics studies from a precise, practice-based angle that ‘valorises practical expertise’ (Thrift 1996, p. 7) and attempts to show how urban comics work from within, when spatial choices are made by a comics author who happens to be also a geographer. Furthermore, rephrasing the title of the chapter by Paul J. Kuttner, Nick Sousanis, and Marcus 13. Weaver-Hightower, ‘How to draw comics the scholarly way: creating comics-based research in the academy’ (2017), this book suggests how to draw comics the geographical way and proposes a set of practices for creating comics-based research in geography.

To this end, before presenting the geoGraphic novel as a creative and narrative research practice in geography, I would like to refer to the concept of ‘assemblage’ as it has been outlined in recent geographical research with a focus on its relationship with comics and urban thinking. Indeed, assemblage helps to further reinforce the connections between graphic narratives and urban spaces. Regardless of how we might interpret and define assemblage ‘as what? a concept, a sensibility, an orientation?’ (McFarlane 2011, p. 651), it is certainly because of its incessant mobility, incipient trans-locality, declared pluralism, spatio-temporal relationality, and professed openness to issues of processuality, practice, and performativity that a reflection on this concept recurs in this book. Assemblage could be interpreted as an orientation, a predisposition of thought on the world, and an object of study in the world, especially when speaking about urbanism and comics. Like comics, cities themselves appear as spaces in-becoming, constantly being assembled and reassembled. As Colin McFarlane affirms, ‘assemblage orientates the researcher to the multiple practices through which urbanism is achieved as a play of the actual and the possible’ (2011, p. 652). Therefore, a conception of the city-as-assemblage interprets even the city itself as a processual, relational, generative, and emergent montage of past, present, and future times and spaces. The city is no more understood as localised and bounded, one and single, but instead ‘as multiple assemblages

TAMassociati assemble the comics page as an architectural building

FIGURE 1.1 TAMassociati assemble the comics page as an architectural building.

TAMassociati, Pantaleo, R, Gerardi, M and Molinari, L 2019, Architettura della felicita: Future come sostanza di rose sperate, BeccoGiallo, Padua, p. 63. Reproduction by permission of the authors.

of actual and virtual urbanisms’ (p. 655). Assemblage is thus a way of understanding, approaching, dwelling, and even representing urban spaces. If, as Dittmer affirms, ‘the ways in which we narrate the urban are a crucial site of intervention in which we as geographers can work to enable greater awareness of urban assemblages and the complex processes that sustain them’ (2014, p. 500), then what if we use the assemblage of comics as a form to represent and conduct research on urban space? Narrating urbanism in terms of not just as-assemblage but through-assemblage is certainly a challenge. As Dittmer further explains, because most urban narratives adopt the perspective associated with one or a limited number of human protagonists and tend to be linear in form, ‘what is needed then are new narratives of urbanism that express the dynamism of the city, that could be able to act back upon our own embodied sensibilities, enabling us to see the city anew’ (Dittmer 2014, p. 478). I hope this book can be interpreted as an experimental attempt to proceed in this direction.

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