Comic book geographies in practice: sketching the geoGraphic novel
In this book, I would like to propose a practice-based approach to comic-book geographies that realises geoGraphic narratives as part of geographers’ research efforts. Throughout the book I refer to comics and graphic narratives, considering different formats and genres that use the combination of words and images in sequence to compose stories. Thus, by geoGraphic narratives, I mean comics stories that have been written and drawn through aware space-centred and geographical decisions, and whose stylistic choices have adopted a precise geocritical perspective. GeoGraphic narratives can take different digital or printed forms, from comic books to web-comics, and can be displayed as place-based, site-specific artistic installations in different spatial contexts. They can be realised by the geographer
FIGURE 1.2 International geopolitics, conflicts, struggles for civil rights in the works of graphic journalism by the Italian artist—activist Gianluca Costantini. Cos- tantini, G 2017, Fedeli alia linea: II mondo raccontato dal graphic journalism, BeccoGiallo, Padua, p. 240 and p. 246.
alone or in collaboration with other scholars and artists; they can be funded and sustained by academic projects, directed by publishing houses, or appear as ‘do it yourself’ publications circulated in the networks of underground ‘comix’. Finally, in terms of length and genres, geoGraphic narratives can be comic strips, short comics stories, or geoGraphic novels. In Chapter 2, I present a comics story that was designed and installed as a site-specific art-installation in the city of Padua; in Chapter 3, I focus on a comic book anthology that I со-edited with urban sociologist Adriano Cancellieri; in Chapter 4, I focus on graphic mobilities through the geocentred reading of disparate graphic novels and memoirs by contemporary comics authors; and finally, in Chapter 5, I present an original geoGraphic novel I have written and drawn as a geographer—cartoonist, retracing the different phases of my geoGraphic fieldwork practice in Turku, Finland.
Before exploring geoGraphic narratives, let me briefly explain what it means to embrace a geocritical perspective on comic book geographies. Recently, geographers have been showing a growing interest in the ‘force of representations’ (Anderson 2019), and as a result, we are witnessing a renewed interest in literary geographies and a growth of research in the subfield of comic book geographies. Therefore, the definition of comics as a ‘spatial language’, which was pioneered by Thierry Groen- steen (2007), is a crucial starting point for a geocentred analysis of comics. ‘By adopting a geocentred reading, I further aim to stress (similar to Brosseau’s approach to literary texts) the importance of a formal analysis of comic narrative organization’, which considers the spatial composition of the comic book as a crucial element for the study of the geographies of comics (Peterle 2017, p. 48). As the seminal edited collection on Comic Book Geographies (Dittmer 2014) demonstrates, geographers read comics to explore urbanscapes, postcolonial geographies, geopolitics, and gender perspectives in different spatial contexts (Dittmer and Bos 2019). However, it is not just the content but also the form of the comic page that has captured geographers’ attention. As Dittmer states, ‘comics literacy is understood to work via micro-geographies of the page, highlighting aspects distinct to the form such as plurivectorial narration and simultaneity’ (2010, p. 222). Conceived as a ‘hybrid art of multiples’ (Meskin 2014, p. 32) which is ‘inherently intermedial’ (Kimmich 2008, p. 88), the ‘sequential art’ (McCloud 1993) has struggled for a long time against being considered as only a branch, or even worse, a subgenre of other media. Therefore, a geocriticism of comic books recognises that there is a distinctive ‘language of comics’ (Hick 2014, p. 140) that is made of specific basic units that are intrinsically spatial and that contributes to the construction of the peculiar geographies of (or emerging from) comics. According to Darren H. Hick, the structural units of the comics language are the panel, the coordination of panels in a sequence, the comic page, the frame, and the balloon (pp. 132-137). The combination of these units as a coherent whole on the page is a spatial process of composition that is constantly re-enacted by authors and readers. Embracing the perspective of comics authors, by engaging with the doing of comics as a research practice, could help geographers to start building their own geoGraphic narratives, actively guide readers through the pages, and compose graphic stories that promote spatial thinking through specific stylistic choices.
Comic books have already been considered from perspectives that focused on their representational, non-representational, and processual aspects (Dittmer 2010a). In fact, the comics page involves authors and readers in a truly spatial experience, asking them to make spatial decisions about which path to follow and to organise the content from a primarily spatial point of view. Comics, like texts, take place in precise spatio-temporal contexts and can be interpreted as proper ‘spatial events’ (Hones 2008) that happen every time readers or authors engage with them. Embracing a contextual approach (Thrift 1996), comics as practices let multiple time-spaces emerge. As Nigel Thrift asserts, thinking about the interconnection between the spatial and temporal dimensions, ‘it is neither time nor space that is central to the study of human interactional orders, but time-space’ (1996, p. 1): comics, with their peculiar grammar that organises narrative time around spatial decisions, look like the perfect laboratory to explore these emergent time- space interactions. Comics are more than mere representational tools and objects of study because they do things and are practices to engage with. So far, geographers’ explorations of the narrative possibilities of comics have mostly focused on how the reader is invited by the comics page to ‘imagine time and space in quite unique ways that other forms of textual consumption do not’ (Dittmer 2010a, p. 222). Both Juliet J. Fall’s recent contributions to comics form (2020a, 2020b, 2021) and the cartoGraphic essay that I created for the Living Maps Review (2019) move in another direction (see Figures 1.3 and 1.4); they propose geographical and
cartographic thinking in comics form, following the many critical works in comics form by cartoonists and academic scholars, from Scott McCloud’s works to Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening (2015). As Kuttner et al. observe, over the last dozen years there has been a significant increase in scholars doing comics-based research: many work in the discipline of anthropology, in health fields under the label of graphic medicine, in history, in the field of education, whereas others are scattered in many disciplinary fields, including scholars in the humanities and creating ‘data comics’ in the physical and environmental sciences (2020, p. 4). Experimenting with comics as inquiry, as public scholarship, and activism, many authors have also shared their thoughts about the methodologies used for comics-based research (Flowers 2017; Weaver-Hightower 2013; Williams 2012). Yet, this far-reaching framework lacks the contribution of geography.
Moving comic book geographies from representation to practice means that geographers should start telling their own graphic stories ‘rather than studying others’ stories’ (Cameron 2012, p. 584). This implies the examination of verbo-visual storytelling as a practice, with geographers looking at how comics ‘stories transform and (re)create the world’ (Cameron 2012, p. 580). Recently, a book series called ethnoGRAPHIC, published by University of Toronto Press, has begun to explore hybrid research outputs in comics form. In comparison to the emerging hybrid genre of the ‘ethnographic novel’ (see Chapter 3), the geoGraphic novel is a long narrative in comics form promoting ‘geographical thinking through comics’ (Fall 2021). GeoGraphic novels, and geoGraphic narratives of different lengths in general, aim to make use both of the intrinsic spatial peculiarities of the comics language and of qualitative geographical methods to conduct, represent, and disseminate geographical research. Taking inspiration from the domain of comics, geoGraphic narratives can take disparate forms such as, for example, a graphic memoir told from an autobiographical perspective or a reportage inspired by works of graphic journalism. Looking at the composition of the comics story from an internal perspective allows for further reflexivity; geoGraphic narratives could work for autoethnographic inquiries on the researcher’s positionality in the field. GeoGraphic narratives always produce situated knowledge, where the perspective and body of the researcher-cartoonist is entangled with the research output. As Patricia Leavy affirms, ‘fiction writers and qualitative researchers both seek to build believable representations of existing or possible worlds’ (2013, p. 21). As Marcello Tanca further observes, there is a prolific relationship between fiction and geography: in his view, fiction works as a process of symbolic territorialisation (Tanca 2020, p. 27) that asks for a deeper geographical consideration. So, what happens if this consideration starts from beyond the frame of the page, when a geographer adopts fiction not just as an object of study but as part of a broader geographical toolkit? Through verisimilitude, and the use of a combination of facts and fiction (Leavy 2013, p. 21), geoGraphic narratives could help to build a ‘critical consciousness in readers’ (Fall 2021, p. 30), helping them to perceive urban, social, economic, and spatial contradictions by actively engaging with comics. Different geographical perspectives can emerge by engaging with the composition and reception of a geoGraphic narrative; as Fall suggests, geographers could make conscious use of narrators’ or characters’ voices by playing with different points of view in the same story, deconstructing the ‘view from nowhere’, and ‘bringing the gaze back to the level of experience’ (Fall 2021, p. 30). With their combination of images and words, facts and fiction, and through their apparent simplicity, geoGraphic narratives are able to capture readers’ attention and to convey complex geographical content in an effective and engaging form.
A geoGraphic narrative is not just a means to represent a stable outside reality or geographical thinking differently. It is also a practice that is able to orient, affect, and move geographic thought in new directions in the very act of its telling (Cameron 2012, pp. 585-588). If a geocriticism of comic books has already illustrated how comics are compelling objects for the cultural geographical study of the textualisa- tion of space and spatialisation of text (Peterle 2017, p. 44), this book aims to take comics as spatial practices seriously. A practice-based approach to the geoGraphic narrative starts from the suggestion of non-representational theory to consider the importance of the material, embodied, sensory, and affective conditions (Boyd and Edwardes 2019, pp. 3-4); following Thrift, it is ‘obsessed’with practice, agency, the subject and its multiple relations, and the emerging contexts where research takes place (Thrift 1996, pp. 1-3). The aim of this book is not to trace the genealogy' of the ‘theories of practice’, from Bergson, Bachelard, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty to more recent work by de Certeau, Foucault, Deleuze, Bourdieu, Irigaray, Haraway, Latour, and Nigel Thrift (Merriman 2012, p. 10) but rather to observe that these previous reflections have given rise, in recent decades, to theoretical and methodological experimentations in different disciplinary contexts beyond geography, from anthropology' and performance studies to the creative arts (Boyd and Edwardes 2019, p. 2). All these efforts are aimed at ‘taking practice’ seriously, registering the emergent movements, intensities, and encounters by which multiple worlds take place (Anderson and Harrison 2016). Therefore, reflecting on the geoGraphic novel as a research practice means observing it from a proces- sual point of view, considering both the subjective and pre-cognitive, the singular and social, the representational and embodied, and the human, more-than-human, and elemental aspects of doing (and reading) comics. This book aims to contribute also to dialogues happening at the border of geography and the creative arts, and the empirical examples included in the following chapters are presented with that intention. ‘Graphic geography’ (Bertoncin et al. 2021) takes into account ‘the generative dynamics of skilled practices that are bound to respond to moment-by- moment variations in the environmental conditions of their enactment’ (Ingold 2011, p. 2). Following Tim Ingold’s efforts in redrawing anthropology, doing comics could be considered as another means ‘to reconnect observation and description with the movements of improvisatory practice’ (2011, p. 2) and, therefore, to redraw geography from a creative, graphic, verbo-visual, and narrative perspective.
If a geoGraphic narration should be used not merely to illustrate an already- existing written text or preconceived geographical ideas, ‘but as an inscriptive practice in its own right’ (Ingold 2011, p. 2), I suggest that comics allow us geographers to explore some of the potentialities of art—geography collaboration. Hoping to propose a partial reflection on the question asked by Harriet Hawkins et al. regarding ‘what might GeoHumanities do?’ (2015), I suggest that the practice of doing urban comics offers ‘possibilities for interventions and solutions that twine a reshaping of intellectual landscapes with a doing of work in the world’ (Hawkins 2015, p. 216). As I will show in the following chapters, geoGraphic narratives are able to move ‘beyond the frame’ in different senses. They engage wider and non-specialist audiences through creative content; in comparison to more traditional academic outputs, they are able to activate relational networks for sharing geographical thinking and research beyond academic spaces and contexts such as museums, public spaces, libraries, bookshops, and cultural events. Finally, they cross disciplinary frames, engaging scholars from disparate disciplinary backgrounds and bringing them into dialogue with art practitioners. Like urban comics, geoGraphic narratives further cross the borders between urban representation and action. By communicating research outputs in more accessible ways, comics are able to act upon cities (Davies
FIGURE 1.5 Following a long-lasting tradition in comics, Italian graphic journalist Claudio Calia reflects on his positionality as a comics author by representing himself as a character in the comics page. Calia, C 2014, Piccolo atlante storico-geografico dci centri sociali italiani, BeccoGiallo, Padua, p. 65. Reproduction by permission of the author.
2019) and involve wider audiences in the processes of urban change. As a geographer- cartoonist, my aim is to experiment with urban comics as artistic interventions in urban space.
If we admit that the construction (both physical and metaphorical) of the global city is connected to image-making, then comics and geoGraphic narratives intervene in the production of urban space and ‘represent counter-visual narratives that are able to re-produce contemporary cities by making infrastructural injustice and division visible, as well as creating new collective infrastructures that act as an alternative site of urban planning and resistance’ (Peterle 2020, p. 327). Comics can be profitably embraced by geographers to do fieldwork research, narrate urban spaces and social dynamics, and enact comic book geographies by bringing geographical meanings and concepts into practice through spatial action, interpersonal collaboration, and interdisciplinary dialogue. The practice of doing comics is a performative and affect-based practice that is able to merge the moment of research with its representation through a process of co-production between page and place (Anderson 2014). Doing comics as a research practice leads to new encounters and the discovery of unpredicted relational geographies of reading and writing (Saunders and Anderson 2016), composition and reception, and interpretation and dissemination that are worth exploring.
FIGURE 1.6 Italian cartoonist Eliana Albertini draws new directions in comic book geographies. Albertini, E 2019, Malibu, BeccoGiallo, Padua, pp. 98—99. Reproduction by permission of the author.
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