Travel at the centre of a comic book anthology
If representation can be thought of as an ongoing, constantly assembling and disassembling, timing and spacing process of‘worlding’ (Dewsbury et al. 2002, p. 438), of composing worlds through words, what happens if we combine images and words through the doing of comics? What are the specific ‘forces’ (Anderson 2019) of comics’ representations? First, we have to admit that, ‘at its heart, research is storytelling’ (Christensen 2012, p. 232) and, thus, a narrative practice in its own right. In fact, as Julia Christensen observes, as researchers we listen to stories, reflect upon, and interpret them; then, we become ourselves storytellers as we start sharing those stories, along with personal experiences and ideas, with different audiences (p. 232). Yet, what happens if we decide to explicitly use comics to compose the story that emerged from our research? In Chapters 1 and 2, we saw how the spatial architecture of comics involves authors and readers in spatial events, taking place in specific time-spaces through emerging practices and interactions (Thrift 1996, p. 3). Nevertheless, I am interested here in what happens when geographers are involved first-hand in the production of comics, when they are asked to use their spatial grammar to conduct fieldwork and then re-present their research results. In my experience, the use of this particular form of storytelling has deeply influenced the research practice in the Arcella neighbourhood and profoundly affected how I planned and organised fieldwork activities. As explained in the previous section, the practice of doing comics has also changed my positionality in the field, affecting the way in which my role as an author—researcher was perceived by others, for example arousing the curiosity of many interviewees or capturing the attention of passers-by when I was taking pictures of small details in the neighbourhood. Even my own perspective, while I was moving, observing, speaking, listening, interviewing, and photographing in the field, was profoundly influenced by the fact that I was expected to reproduce those encounters, experiences, and dialogues in a graphic form (Brice 2018). In fact, ‘drawing is a way of thinking’, as David M.
Ball and Martha B. Kuhlman sustain in their volume on The Comics of Chris Ware (2010): indeed, during fieldwork, a voice in my head was constantly reminding me that I needed to imagine those events, walks, and encounters in comics form. Through comics, I saw interviewees as characters, and I felt that recording their visual features was as equally important as registering their verbal answers. In the same way, interviews sounded to me like stories that I had already started to organise in panels, pages, and speech bubbles while there were speaking. Apparently, during fieldwork, I was already inhabiting the space of the comics page.
Many of these reflections emerged during the co-ideation of the comic book anthology Quartieri: Viaggio al centra delle periferie italiane with urban sociologist and expert in ethnographic research methods Adriano Cancellieri (IUAV University of Venice). Published with the Italian publishing house BeccoGiallo, the anthology collects five comics stories on five peripheral neighbourhoods in Italy, namely Tor Bella Monaca in Rome, Bolognina in Bologna, San Siro in Milan, ZEN in Palermo, and Arcella in Padua. Our initial idea was to realise a graphic novel completely devoted to Arcella, an area on which both Adriano and I had been working for a while. Yet, my very small experience as a comic author together with the need for the publishing house to sell the editorial product all over the country led us to change our initial project and to consider the realisation of an edited collection. In fact, the editor’s suggestion of realising a collection of shorter stories about different peripheral neighbourhoods, spread throughout the country in very different urban contexts, was particularly intriguing for us from an urban research perspective: first, the collection of stories permitted us to create an interdisciplinary network of scholars and cartoonists working in the same cities; second, we imagined the anthology as an incomplete mosaic of contemporary Italian peripheries that could speak to a wider audience in the whole country. The inclusion of other cities broadened the spectrum of our potential readers, extending audiences to all those people who could now recognise their own urbanscapes in the five comics stories. This way, the initial project became a collective endeavour, an urban assemblage for which Adriano and I became responsible, as curators.
With the idea of a collection of disparate disciplinary and graphic voices in mind, we decided that each story had to somehow replicate our effort to bring academic researchers and comics authors together. Starting from the network of Tracce Urbane, we involved researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds, from urban sociology to anthropology, urban planning, and architecture. As soon as they agreed to take part in the project, we asked them to collaborate with comics authors, whose names were mainly suggested by BeccoGiallo in collaboration with the online graphic journalism magazine Stormi. Preferably, both the researcher and the comics author should have a personal connection with the selected peripheral area in their cities, which means an extensive history of research on the neighbourhood, in the case of the researchers; and a previous experience of creative interventions in the neighbourhood, in the case of the comics authors. In our view, this aimed to facilitate the dialogue about the urban area between researchers and cartoonists as well as to enrich the story with their own very personal experience in the neighbourhood. We did not want cartoonists to be mere graphic translators of previous and ready-made urban research; rather, we hoped to stimulate a dialogue between artists and researchers, composing a comic book anthology that should mirror this collaborative exchange.
Before moving to the geoGraphic research practice that led us to the realisation of the final product of the anthology, and of our specific comics story on Arcella, let me briefly introduce the general blueprint of the collection and the people involved. From a curatorial point of view, the project was certainly built on Adriano’s capacity to read and tell about urban social contexts through ethnographic methods, on his profound knowledge of the Arcella neighbourhood and expertise in contemporary urban phenomena such as urban regeneration, segregation, and migration (Cancellieri 2010, 2014; Cancellieri and Ostanel 2015; Cancellieri and Scandurra 2012; Saint-Blancat and Cancellieri 2014). At the same time, the project benefited from my research works on comics and in comics form, experimentations with creative methods and hybrid combinations of narrative forms and research practices, and collaborations with different comic book editorial projects in Italy. The encounter between our different experiences and disciplinary sensitivities was especially useful when we started to draft our research project on the Arcella neighbourhood, choosing the people to interview, the types of spaces to represent, and what to discard from our comics portrayal. Seen as a whole, our project benefited from the interdisciplinary network Tracce Urbane. As noted, Adriano and I were the only researcher duo that comprised, from the very beginning, one member that was also a comic author herself. In all other cases, comics authors were invited to join the members of Tracce Urbane, read their work, meet their research groups, and only then translate years of specialist works into comics through a collaborative dialogue. In some cases, though, the cartoonists themselves were researchers, like in the case of Giuseppe Lo Bocchiaro, who holds a PhD in Regional and Urban Planning and drew the chapter on Palermo in collaboration with anthropologist Ferdinando Fava (University of Padua). Fava’s long-term research on the ‘anthropologies of exclusion’ (Fava 2008) in the ZEN neighbourhood have easily met Lo Bocchiaro’s personal attention towards the city, Palermo, where he lives and works, and that he had already put at the centre of his research (Lo Bocchiaro and Tulumello 2014) and comics production. In Rome, urban planners Carlo Cel- lamare and Francesco Montillo have shared their research-action experience in the Tor Bella Monaca neighbourhood with Alekos Reize. Their thick network of relationships of mutual trust with the inhabitants provided access to inhabitants’ intimate stories of social marginalisation and resistance (Cellamare and Montillo 2020) that were then turned into comics form by the illustrator. Whereas in Bologna, Giuseppe Scandurra (University of Ferrara) spontaneously suggested collaborating with illustrator and cartoonist Mattia Moro, in Milan comics author Elena Mistrello was invited to join a wider research group of people connected to the research-action project Mapping San Siro (Polytechnic University of Milan) and coordinated by Francesca Cognetti in collaboration with Paolo Grassi and Elena Maranghi (Cognetti 2014; Cognetti and Fava 2020; Scandurra 2015).
Each chapter was realised in a very original manner from both a processual and a stylistic perspective. In some cases, couples worked through remote collaboration and exchange, while other times researchers asked cartoonists to take active part in the interviews or in other research activities in the neighbourhood. The result is a collection of five stories that are very different to one another in both their style and content, as well as in the process of their composition. Nevertheless, some common threads spontaneously emerged throughout the collection, creating connections between stories that had a separate origin, because they were set in distant urban contexts. For example, female characters seem to play a fundamental role in many stories in the comic book collection, with young and old women sharing their intimate experiences as mothers, migrants, and members of associations. In the chapter devoted to Padua, for example, we represent our encounters with different women: 84-year-old Maria, who has been living in the neighbourhood for more than 40 years; Odette, who was vice-president of an association for the African community in the neighbourhood; Ferdousi, a young Bangladeshi woman, who barely speaks some Italian words and moved to Padua a couple of years ago with her son and daughter (see Figure 3.4). In our story, their very personal experiences and perspectives become examples of the manifold existential trajectories of the many women who live, work, raise their children, and run their activities in the neighbourhood. In the comics story about Milan, the cartoonist Elena Mistrello becomes a character herself. During her visit in San Siro, she meets a group of teachers and mothers that are part of a strong network of solidarity, mutual help, and cultural exchange created by women of different origins who gravitate around the infant and primary school Carlo Dolci and share a common vision of a multicultural future for the neighbourhood. Finally, in the chapter set in Rome, the personal and intimate story of a single young mother reflects the structural fragilities of Tor Bella Monaca as a marginalised neighbourhood, where informal networks of mutual support struggle to fill in the gaps created by the almost complete absence of the institutions. Her story starts and develops at the margins of a football ground placed at the centre of the grey apartment buildings of Tor Bella Monaca.
In fact, another red thread that appears repeatedly throughout the collection is represented by public spaces, like football or basketball pitches, squares, parks, and bridges, which seem to be crucial spaces for multicultural and transgenerational encounters in many urban contexts. In Bologna, a small basketball pitch is the place where the story begins, a place of co-existence that brings together the voices of young teenagers with those of old men registering the changes occurring in the neighbourhood while sitting on a bench. During our walk-along interview with Somrat, to which I will return, he spontaneously traced a geography of the football pitches of Arcella, introducing an unexpected type of space in our preconceived map of the area. As we learned from the interviews, these apparently banal places
FIGURE 3.4 Collecting unheard female voices in the neighbourhood: a walk-along interview with Ferdousi in the Arcella neighbourhood, in Padua. Authors illustration in Qiiarticri, 2019. Reproduction by permission of BeccoGiallo.
represent fundamental chronotopes that help to interpret everyday practices, in real space, and to tell inhabitants’ stories, in the comics page.
Comics as counter-narratives
From a socio-spatial perspective, the five chosen neighbourhoods represent very different urban contexts: in fact, the collection comprises two Italian metropolises, Rome and Milan, two medium-sized cities, Bologna and Padua, and the very peculiar case study of Palermo. Despite all their differences and local particulars, concerning both the geographical and historical contexts, the five neighbourhoods share the common trait of being perceived as ‘peripheral’ and ‘marginal’ from both spatial and social perspectives. This marginality is often a cause and consequence of lower rent prices, which in turn determine a high percentage of foreign immigrants living in these areas. The Arcella neighbourhood, for example, with almost 40,000 inhabitants, is the second largest neighbourhood in the city of Padua, a city of 211,000 residents. It is often referred to as ‘a city in the city’, as it is spatially separated from the centre by train tracks to the south and bounded by the expressway and the River Brenta to the north. The percentage of foreign inhabitants in the area is around 29.25%. Of course, this percentage is not very high if compared to other multi-ethnic neighbourhoods of well-known international case studies and global cities; yet, it is quite impressive if we consider that the average of foreign inhabitants for the entire municipality of Padua was 16.78% in 2019.2 All of these traits are easily visible as soon as we walk northward from the city centre of Padua, passing the rails by the overpass Borgomagno to enter the Arcella neighbourhood. Here, the urbanscape is dotted with ethnic shops, densely populated by young university students and inhabitants of other nationalities, all together giving the impression of a very dynamic area, with the tram crossing the main road and dozens of bicycles moving in all directions. In the last decades, Arcella witnesses an increasing flow of international migration and the presence of many university students because of the availability of short-term and low-cost rent in the area; from a diachronic perspective, Arcella is also a historic district, whose foundation dates back to the early 13th century with the construction of the Franciscan convent Santa Maria de Celia - which likely gave the neighbourhood its name. The conflicts between ‘old’ and ‘new residents’ have been exacerbated by a quite dramatic representation of life in the neighbourhood fostered by local media, which often focus on the perception of insecurity and the problems of criminality and drug-dealing in the area. As Claudia Mantovan and Elena Ostanel suggest, Arcella could be listed among the ‘contested neighbourhoods’ of Italian cities even though on a medium-sized urban scale (Mantovan and Ostanel 2015): as in the area of the railway station of Padua, explored in Chapter 2, in Arcella the co-existence between different inhabitants, practices, and uses is also often stigmatised by media representations.
The will to move beyond stereotyped narratives of these so-called peripheries was especially at the basis of our collection of comics stories: in fact, another common trait of these five neighbourhoods is that they all suffer, at different scales, from the stigmatisation process often broadcasted by local newspapers and TV news. In this way, negative narratives become deeply rooted in people’s imaginaries, and even part of inhabitants’perception of their own identities. Thus, part of my visual research for drawing the comics story was devoted to newspaper headlines, in order to reproduce them on the page and give a taste of the rhetoric used to portray the neighbourhood. As I will further explore in Chapter 5, the comics language permits authors to embed various materials like archival documents, visual sources, newspaper clippings, and photographs, without the need to mediate their meaning through explanatory texts. The visual reproductions of these materials can be interpreted as mere fillers which are part of the design and visual composition of the page, or as integral parts of the narration which complete and inform the story as much as texts do. As Kuttner et al. affirm, comics multimodality is extremely useful to ‘present multiple forms of data and analysis’: through the combination of images and words, ‘comics affords researchers a strong platform for “thick description” (Geertz 1970), a chance to simultaneously explore the surface interactions and the multiple layers of meaning behind them’ (Kuttner et al. 2020, p. 8). For example, as shown in Figure 3.5,1 have decided to draw a newspaper with a typical sensationalist headline (‘degradation in the area of Bernina Street’) to give readers a taste of the atmosphere that reigns in the neighbourhood and pervades the imaginary of the local community: not by chance, the page is devoted to one of the more contested areas in the neighbourhood, namely the one around Bernina Street. Here, inhabitants guided by a right-wing party contest the presence of many local establishments (pubs, gyms, associations, clubs) run by people of non-Italian origins, accusing them as responsible for the degradation of the living conditions in the area. Yet, on the same comics page, a vybrant group of young people walks through the street playing instruments, contrasting the negative representation of the area through their bodies and cultural activities. Interestingly, this image, which promotes a new, hybrid identity for the neighbourhood, comes from research in the local newspapers’ archives: the comics page witnesses the co-presence of different, contrasting narratives in the same area (see Figure 3.5).
In fact, in recent years, a thick network of associations, citizen committees, and informal groups born on social media have started to propose a counter-narrative for Arcella. Through this bottom-up process, Arcella is being narrated as a place for cultural events, festivals, and debates to take place, an open and collaborative neighbourhood, increasingly referred to as ‘the city of tomorrow’, especially because of its dynamic, young, and multicultural identity. This was the context in which, as explained in Chapter 2, we worked with Fabio Roncato on the site-specific art installation Agli antipodi c’e Voceano At the Antipodes, There Is the Ocean], as part of the broader geo-artistic project Street Geography: Drawing Cities for a Sustainable Future (SG). Within this broader process of self-awareness embraced by Arcella’s inhabitants, SG aimed to share geographical knowledge through artistic language, composing a geographic narrative more accessible and attractive to a wide, nonspecialist audience. The same aim of contributing to this constructive urban narrative process, and to disseminate academic specialist thinking through an accessible
FIGURE 3.5 Assemblages of polyphonic voices: contrasting narratives about the contested area around Bernina Street in Padua are represented through the assemblage of stereotyped titles in the local newspapers and coloured images of cultural events taking place in the streets. Author’s illustration in Quartieri, 2019. Reproduction by permission of BeccoGiallo.
medium, is at the heart of the comic book anthology Quartieri. Comics stories permit the co-existence of contrasting narratives on the page. Placing inhabitants’ voices at the centre of different narratives that are not imposed from above but composed from below, urban comics represent an opportunity to let submersed stories emerge.