Comic book geographies beyond the frame

Quartieri was a precious opportunity to observe the geographies of dissemination and reception of geoGraphic products from an internal point of view. The possibility of reflecting on the unexpected reactions and contexts in which we were invited to present our work and discuss our methods of research provides me with a few considerations about the power of comics to activate urban storytelling practices beyond the frame of the page, and outside the academic context. Following Sheila 14ones’ proposal of embracing literary geographies not simply as a method of literary interpretation but also as a critical lens to explore the geographies of creation, promotion, and reception (2014, p. 129). I suggest the same also applies for comic book geographies. Through this lens, comic book geographies comprise the socio- spatial conditions in which the comics story is composed, the ‘creative geographies of the author’, and the way authors narrate themselves (Hones 2014, p. 140): these geographies of composition have been partially seen from an autoethnographic perspective in the previous sections, and will be further discussed in Chapter 5. Nevertheless, I would also like to explore the geographies of reception of Quartieri. Indeed, what Hones calls the ‘geographies of reception’ play a fundamental role in comic book geography, especially if we engage with the doing of comics as a research practice and consider the geoGraphic narrative as a creative-research endeavour that hopes to engage both specialist and non-academic audiences. On the one hand, geographer-cartoonists are involved in the process of promotion of their research outputs, trying to engage, where possible, both non-specialist readers and professional critics. On the other hand, from a spatial perspective, we have to consider that readers’ conversations happen in both face-to-face presentations and online, in virtual spaces, through the social networks and the forums of online journals providing reviews, articles, and interviews with author-researchers. From a strictly geographical perspective, then, even the process of reading and interpreting is relational, in the sense that readers are always placed in specific spatio-temporal contexts that influence their practices and the circulation of their interpretations. Moreover, interpretation can take place through individual reading and through public encounters, where dialogues, questions, and the sharing of opinions contribute to plurivocal reading practices. Therefore, the geographies of reception, circulation, and dissemination of geoGraphic narratives include both a locational and relational geography and raise ‘an interesting spatial dimension to the issue of location and interaction’ connected to a specific comics story (Hones 2014, p. 150). Like the ongoing process of the text-event, the geoGraphic novel should also be understood ‘in terms of a dynamic interaction, a process of engagement across various kinds of distance’: namely, the comics narration ‘becomes regenerated and renegotiated in the process of being collaboratively written, published, distributed, read, and discussed’ (Hones 2014, p. 146). When drafting a geoGraphic research project, geographers should be thinking of these specific geographies of reception.

The comic book as a place of encounter

The verbo-visual mapping process started like a more traditional cartographic projection of Arcella and a collection of disparate ethnographic materials, comprising images and photographs, interviews, oral testimonies, and written documents such as newspaper articles, books, and small publications on the area. This collection of disparate voices soon became a plurivocal narrative that activated our empathy and reflexivity as researchers (Fall 2016): the initial disembodied maps of the neighbourhood were soon replaced by our embodied and empathetic mapping practices (Fall 2004, p. 661). The process lasted for months, during which we were constantly asked to question our initial maps through what soon became a process of polyphonic mapping, with voices from different actors recomposing our spatial configuration of the neighbourhood and, thus, the narrative architecture of the story. It was a big effort, as an author—researcher, to be responsible for finding a narrative structure that could bring our comics story as close as possible to our research practice. The editor, on his part, asked us to stick to the facts, avoiding the use of fictional characters to re-elaborate our ethnoGraphic material. This request comes both from BeccoGiallo’s editorial identity and from the peculiar form of Quartieri: on the one hand, BeccoGiallo is specialised in graphic journalism and, thus, our comics stories should be coherent with the expectations of an audience that is used to reading facts, not fiction; on the other hand, a comic book anthology realised by academic researchers in collaboration with comics authors is a quite unique experiment in BeccoGiallo’s catalogue, and the editor wanted our collection to be an opportunity for readers to immerse themselves in the research process, to learn something about urban research methodologies, and to meet actual inhabitants from different geographical areas. If our project was an attempt to bring urban research practices and the doing of urban comics together, this characteristic needed to be visible in the short stories and to become part of their narrative structure.

In practice, the necessity' of putting on the page real stories and portrayals meant, on a textual level, transposing the text of the interviews into the captions and balloons of the comics story and, on a graphic level, assembling the photographs taken during interviews and the visual materials collected during fieldwork into a montage of drawings. This process of ‘transposition’ of interviews into narrative dialogues, of photographs into drawings, and of fieldwork practices happening in real space into a comics story structured in panels and pages, was especially important. In our case, the research practice unfolded together with the composition of the story' as Adriano and I did not have any ready-made research materials that could be easily translated into a geoGraphic narrative. Thus, Adriano was constantly reminding me, throughout the research process, of how careful we should be when using personal and intimate stories, especially because the circulation of the anthology' was meant to be wider than that of a more traditional research output. For example, other inhabitants in the neighbourhood could recognise the characters represented in the stories. Especially for this sense of responsibility' and gratitude towards the people we met, the interviewees were also the first ones to have the printed copy of the comic book anthology in their hands, even before it was distributed in the bookshops and officially published. These were moments of incredible pressure for Adriano and me, since we were worried about the way' in which interviewees would react to our narrative and graphic choices, to the fact that their hours-long interviews were cut into short dialogues of no more than a couple of pages each. We asked ourselves, Will they recognise their own story? Will they recognise their face in the graphic portrays? Once again, the potentiality' of the medium was far beyond our expectations, and these moments almost always turned into deeply emotional encounters, where people laughed loudly and almost cried as soon as they saw themselves on the printed pages of the comic book. As Adriano often says, we probably underestimated the emotional value of the fact of reading their personal stories and seeing themselves represented in a printed book. This was especially meaningful for those people whose voices often remain unheard, like Ferdousi’s, an immigrant woman with a weak social and relational network in the neighbourhood. When we entered her house, she sat on Somrat’s bed with the book in her hands, while her son and daughter started translating the text, performing the translation process that we witnessed during the walking interview in the opposite direction. This time, Somrat was no longer translating Ferdousi’s answers for us; on the contrary, he was translating our voices for his mother, telling her their own story' from another perspective, the one of two researchers. While walking, Somrat helped us to access his mother’s perspective; in the same way', with the comic book in his hands, he became a transcultural bridge, filling up the linguistic gap that separated the interviewee from the interviewers, the story from its protagonist. While I was drawing a dedication to Somrat and Konok, Ferdousi offered us a cup of tea with milk and a piece of cake. The comic book became a ‘space of encounter and a place of mediation between disparate experiential, cultural, geographical, and gender perspectives’ (Peterle 2017b, p. 141), a bridge connecting people beyond the page. As I have proposed elsewhere, comics work as a ‘place of mediation among authors, editors, subjects/protagonists of the story and readers’ (Peterle 2017b, p. 124). From a critical perspective, the potentialities of the encounter between the doing of comics as a research practice and postcolonial studies seems to be still underexplored (Mehta and Mukherji 2015): as a space of encounter, comics are able to create new intercultural relations and translin- guistic dialogues; they have the power to produce and circulate new postcolonial vocabularies (Peterle 2017b, pp. 124—125). Others were partially disappointed by the absence of their personal point of view in the comic book: even in these cases, though, the presence of Quartieri became an opportunity to activate dialogues and personal storytelling practices about the neighbourhood.

The geoCraphic event

In the end, in looking back at the process of doing comics and drawing spaces, the map was actually far more than a mere narrative expedient to build the story. The map metaphorically allowed the neighbourhood to speak for itself. It made Amelias relational networks visible; it was a tool for geographical and spatial reflex- ivity; it became a very emotional, subjective, and plural narrative that brought us to reflect on our own role in the neighbourhood, on our positionality as researchers; it allowed us to question our preconceived projections, which soon appeared incomplete. As we walked in the neighbourhood for months, we became visible to the many inhabitants, who saw us moving across the roads with our notebooks and cameras: somehow, we ourselves became part of the map. Some of the potential places we have mentioned in the comics story are still ‘under construction’, at the centre of institutional urban planning projects or claimed by local committees; others, like the occupied building of the social centre ‘Berta Casetta del Popolo’ [‘Berta, the house of the people’] have already been erased from the map, cleared by the police before the comic book was published and the geoGraphic event of its dissemination took place. Yet, Berta’s political scope, urban vision, and social commitment, even if the group is no longer physically present in the building at No. 5, Callegari Street, are still impressed on paper. Through the comic book, it still finds virtual spaces to be narrated and shared. This way, the comic book has already become a memory site, a space where narratives of place-making processes are shared, and the contradictions between top-down administration and bottom- up urban change in the area are visible. Paradoxically, a space that apparently no longer exists in the city' is still alive in the comics story, and especially thanks to the work done on a daily scale by the young volunteers and founders of Casetta Berta in the neighbourhood.

As Van Hulst states, there is research that looks at storytelling as a model of the way planning is done, but there is also research that looks at storytelling as a model for the way spaces are actually drawn and urban planning could or should be done (Van Hulst 2012), Proposing doing comics as a research practice, I place this particular form of storytelling and reading at the centre of everyday urban planning practices. Our collection of comics stories, Quartieri, inscribes itself within a set of various energies, practices, activities, and projects that are attempting to imagine the future city, often starting from peripheral areas and marginalised groups, not only in Padua but also in Milan, Bologna, Rome, and Palermo, as in many other cities in Italy and beyond. In this sense, my hope is that our anthology and our short comic book story succeeded in questioning and challenging the ideas of marginality and spatial segregation often connected to Italian peripheries, bringing these issues once again to readers’ attention. The anthology provides a space for an unusual encounter between academic research and urban comics: from this encounter, new lines of collaborations have emerged, providing me with the opportunity to introduce comics into my research toolkit and to propose it in other research projects.

From a dissemination perspective, or what could be called the geographies of the comic book’s circulation, the disparate contexts in which we presented the anthology gave us the opportunity to think of the comic book as a relational geo- Graphic event that creates new networks of readers, authors, researchers, and ideas. As Sheila Hones affirms, the way in which our spatial geoGraphic event unfolded was ‘both unpredictable and unique’, and it is still emerging at this moment out of the mixing together of our intentions, as authors, and the purposes and habits of our readers (2008, p. 1301). As explained in the previous sections, Quartieri helped us to rethink Arcella as a relational place, where local identity is co-constructed at different temporal and spatial scales, through local, national, and international flows of movement. Through the practice of doing comics, from an autoethnographic perspective, the neighbourhood appears to me, now, as a place that is charged with personal experiences and emotional meaning; for this reason, the final page of our story shows a visual metaphor representing my emotional attachment, namely a map of Arcella taking the shape of a heart. Arcella is a place at the heart of a city, at the heart of the world, as metaphorically shown in Figure 3.10.

The anthology' functions as a potential space to allow encounters, stories, and mapping practices to emerge: Quartieri presents an incomplete map to its readers, as Adriano and I confess in the Introduction to the volume. It is just a starting point for further reflections to be made. Indeed, new encounters happen, relationships start, and interpretations emerge through the practice of both composing and circulating tlie comics story. Considering the geographies of circulation and dissemination, for example, our book presentations took place in bookshops, universities, local associations, and parks as well as in commercial, public, regenerated, abandoned, and occupied spaces. More interestingly, readers did not search for a mimetic representation of their own urban contexts in the comics anthology': on the contrary, they spontaneously individuated similarities, common urban features, and remembrances that reminded them of their own neighbourhoods. Therefore, we were invited to

A neighbourhood ‘at the heart ot the city’

FIGURE 3.10 A neighbourhood ‘at the heart ot the city’: a visual metaphor shows how the map of Arcella is now filled with emotional value. Author’s illustration in Quartieri, 2019. Reproduction by permission of BeccoGiallo.

speak about the five neighbourhoods at the centre of the comic book even in cities that are not represented in the partial cartographic mosaic I have drawn on the cover of the book. Cities like Bolzano, Trento, Pisa, Urbino, and Rovereto, to mention only a few, recognised some traits of their own ‘peripheral’ neighbourhoods in the comics portrayals we realised and thus invited us to join their conversation, to share our ideas, permitting us to enlarge our map of urban peripheralities.

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: as counter-visual narratives they are able to re-produce cities, make infrastructural injustice and division visible, and create new collective infrastructures ‘that act as an alternative site of urban planning and resistance’ (Peterle 2020, p. 327). In this sense, the geoGraphic narrative is not simply an object of study but a spatial, ethnoGraphic, and cartoGraphic practice that happens every time authors and readers engage with it. As I tried to demonstrate through the example of Quartieri, comics can be profitably embraced by geographers for doing fieldwork research, narrating urban spaces and social dynamics, and enacting comic book geographies (Dewsbury et al. 2002; Dittmer 2010, 2014). Through the composition and circulation of comics, we bring geographical meanings, reasonings, and reflections into practice through spatial action, interpersonal collaboration, and interdisciplinary dialogue. Doing comics is an ongoing, performative, and affect-based practice (Dewsbury 2010) that is able to merge the moment of research with that of its re-presentation, in a constantly unfolding process of drawing spaces for the ‘co-production of page and place’ (Saunders 2013). Doing comics as a research practice creates new spaces of encounter. Comics activate a prolific exchange between urban creative narratives and spatial interventions (Marston and De Leeuw 2013), and they draw unpredicted relational geographies of reading and writing (Saunders and Anderson 2016), composition and reception, interpretation and dissemination that are worth exploring.

Notes

  • 1 Tracce Urbane is a network of Italian scholars from different universities and with different disciplinary backgrounds, among which are included architecture, urban sociolog)' anthropology, and urban planning. Tracce Urbane works specifically on urban topics and contexts, often through qualitative, ethnographic, participatory, and creative methods. The group has founded the homonymous interdisciplinary open access online journal TU Tracce Urbane — Rivista Italiana Transdisciplinare di Stndi Urbani — Italian Journal of Urban Studies (Sapienza University of Rome), available at: https://ojs.uniromal.it/index.php/ TU/index.
  • 2 Annual Municipal Statistics 2019 of the Municipality of Padua. Source: Comune di Padova - Elaborazione del Settore Programmazione Controllo e Statistica su dati dell’Anagrafe available at: www.padovanet.it/informazione/padova-cifre.
  • 3 The Colbachini Stadium represents another significant landmark in the neighbourhood. Located at the geographical centre of Arcella, it is represented in this chapter in Figure 3.9.

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PART II

 
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