GeoGraphic fieldwork in practice: mobile methods, creative practices, and the researcher–cartoonist beyond the frame
The attempt to narrativise movement through geoGraphic choices was a fundamental part of my creative research endeavour: movement was not simply connected to the main topic of the story, but was also at the centre of my research practice, through a set of embodied experiences and mobile methods. The doing of comics was an intrinsically mobile practice, where mobilities of different kinds together with more structured mobile methods have been embraced in order to conduct fieldwork. Mobilities can variously meet a geoGraphic research practice, sometimes becoming a narrative topic for comics stories and an object for the spatial analysis that stimulates their composition. Other times, the focus on mobilities suggests embracing a mobile perspective on the people we meet, the neighbourhoods we pass through, and the practices we would like to represent in the comics story. As seen in the previous chapters, mobilities played a significant role in my geoGraphic research even before the composition of Lines: for example, in Chapter 2, mobility was the key topic around which Monica Bellido Mora was asked to compose her comics installation in the train station of Padua for the Street Geography project; moreover, in Chapter 3, the interviews in the Arcella neighbourhood were conducted through the mobile method of ‘talking whilst walking’ (Anderson 2004). These examples show how mobilities can enter a geoGraphic research practice from both a representational and processual perspective: beyond comics’ contents, mobile practices and perspectives on the move contribute to the processes of composition and dissemination of comics. A processual approach to comics as practices suggests, indeed, analysing what kind of mobilities influenced the way in which the story was imagined, composed, and circulated. Looking at Lines from a processual perspective permits me to explore comics’ intrinsic mobility and to focus on the mobile practices that contributed to the composition of my comics story.
The mobile grammar of comics
During the composition of Lines, different mobilities permitted me to cross spatio- temporal thresholds: through mobile practices, I was able to create connections between the memories of the past that I collected and what I was experiencing in first person in the present; mobilities were a narrative trigger for the geoGraphic narration to unfold, since both transport means and their passengers are protagonists in the comics story. The various movements of transport means and people are not just represented in the story’s contents but are also turned into structural features to set the narration, organise the plotline, introduce new characters, and move from one place to another in space and time. From a processual perspective, Lines looks like a story on mobilities that was composed through a deeply mobile research practice.
Even if mobile methods entered the creative geoGraphic practice of composing Lines, I did not a priori decide to embrace them because of the mobile nature of the main topic of the story. Indeed, as Peter Merriman claims, to do research on mobile subjects, practices, or spaces we do not need to necessarily embrace ‘new mobile methods’ to overstate their value in comparison to other more ‘conventional’ ones (2014, pp. 169-179). As Merriman affirms, the humanities provide us with a good example of how long-lasting and prolific research on mobility can be profitably conducted with methods that are considered more ‘conventional’ (2014, p. 168) or, traditionally, less mobile, such as textual analysis or archival research, to mention only a few. As already exposed in Chapter 4 when speaking about literary mobilities, many scholars in the humanities (historians, historical and human geographers, literary theorists, philosophers, architects) and arts practitioners ‘have had a long-standing interest in practices, experiences, representations and technologies of mobility, travel and transport, whether in writing histories of mobility, transport, travel writing and exploration, or in developing philosophical approaches that value movement, flux and change’ (Merriman 2014, p. 171). Nevertheless, despite the undisputed contribution of the humanities to mobilities research and the conceptualisation of the ‘new mobilities paradigm’, scholars in these disciplinary fields do not necessarily refer to mobile methods to conduct their research on mobile subjects. This applies also for the doing of comics as a research practice: in fact, it is not necessary to move with the subjects of our narrative research to gain a better comprehension and geoGraphic representation of their movements, mobile affects, and practices. I argue that comics studies and comic book geographies can contribute to the enrichment of the expanding set of experimental, creative, and mobile methods in and beyond the social sciences. Recently, the encounter between well-established qualitative and mobile methods has given rise to hybrid experimentations, among which there are the already mentioned go-along interviews; disparate forms of mobile video, photo, and autoethnography; and more creative and performative mobile methods such as place-writing, drawing, photographing, and dancing, to mention only a few (Bissell 2009, 2010; Biischer et al. 2011; McCormack 2008; Ward 2014). Comics-based research may also contribute to the expanding debate on mobilities and mobile methods.
A mobile approach to comics is directly inspired by the peculiar spatial grammar of comics. As Jason Dittmer variously states in his seminal works on comic book geographies, the embodied experience of reading comics naturally implies a kind of movement. In fact, if ‘meaning in comic book visuality is produced through an emergent process of plurivectorial narration’ (Dittmer 2010, p. 235), it is the embodied movement of the reader’s eye that creates sense by moving from one panel to the other (Dittmer and Latham 2015, p. 435). This embodied experience also involves the comics author, because, like reading, the practice of composing comics is intrinsically mobile and spatial. The composition of comics implies the movement of the author’s eye throughout the page to place elements, write text, and draw figurative content. This process is often recursive, since authors may come back to the same page at different times, in order to change details and refine graphic features and textual choices. The process of composition is also often a highly consuming embodied practice that implies the movement of the whole body. During the practice of drawing, the mobility of the body is also influenced by external non-human factors and human actors: especially when drawing outdoor, the changeability of the surrounding landscape and the effect of the elemental together with the deeper connection with the non-human imply a constant mobility of the whole body. Like scribing and other verbo-visual immersive practices, doing comics is both a representational and more-than-representational practice that ‘unfolds through embodied performances, transubjective and more- than-human choreographies, and requires participants to practise a multi-sensory engagement’ (Bertoncin et al. 2021, p. 33). Drawing takes place in the most disparate situations, when travelling on transport means or standing on the sidewalk. When drawing in urban space, the sense of being immersed in and moving together with the surrounding landscape is often part of the act of tracing the line on paper. Here, external stimuli, such as the sudden sound of a car horn, the distracting voice of a child, the relaxing melody of the water flowing, the laughs of two friends passing by, and the screeching sound of a bike’s brakes and of the tires scraping on the asphalt permeate the trait of the line by dictating its irregularities or thickness. According to Thrift’s contextual approach, also the research practice of doing comics, invites researchers ‘thinking with the entire body’, valorises ‘thought-in- action’, and emphasises the importance of the particular moment (1996, p. 7).
An unceasing flux of gestures, actions, shifts, changes of position, and other bodily movements lead us to thinking of drawing as an event that happens beyond the space of the page and of comics as a process that extends far beyond the frame of the single panels. Following Sage Brice’s inspiring work on observational drawing, the doing of comics may also be understood as a process, a situated skill, a mobile embodied practice that becomes ‘a particular mode of attunement, and a way of opening up new spaces of encounter within a more-than-human world’ (2018, p. 137). Through a processual and mobile perspective, comics can be interpreted as a way ‘for attunement to spatial, temporal, material and cultural relations that play out in the storying of a landscape’ (Brice 2018, p. 136). The practice of doing comics is a storying process that includes a set of experiences, encounters, perceptions, and affects that happen beyond the frame of the comics page. These events, even if not represented on the page, still contribute to the composition of the geoGraphic narrative by influencing the collection of narrative materials and graphic ideas.
Beyond the embodiments of authors and readers, there is a further mobile feature of the comics language that I would like to discuss before coming to the mobile methods I have embraced for the composition of Lines. I recalled in Chapter 2 the significant role of assemblage for the geographical interest in urban comics: namely, it is a useful concept to describe the process of composing a comics page by the juxtaposition of different elements (texts, images, panels, frames and gutters). Assemblage as a concept further helps in describing the close relationship between comics and the city and highlights the fact that both the comics page and urban space are produced through ongoing assembling, disassembling, and reassembling movements. Dittmer himself, when thinking about how to narrate urban assemblages through comics, affirms that ‘one of the contributions of assemblage thinking to the study of urbanism has been to highlight the city’s relationality, its flux, and its movement’ (Dittmer 2014, pp. 477-478): since comics, like cities, can be understood as assemblages, the same reference to relationality, flux, and movement can be used to describe the geoGraphic novel. Assemblage suggests thinking of cities like processes that are made of a constant flux of emerging combinations of meaning; likewise, the geoGraphic novel can be interpreted as an ongoing process of composition of meaning, where authors’ and readers’ movements across the page, and beyond the frame in real space, are stimulated by the mobile essence of the spatial grammar of comics.
Moving while doing comics
The topic of my narrative investigation and especially the mobile grammar of comics spontaneously led me to organise fieldwork through a set of mobile practices: by mapping, walking, cycling, and travelling by bus through the city of Turku,
I was able to build my own mobile perspective on its transport system and spatial practices. To orient myself in the city, I did not use technical maps but rather relied on ordinary maps taken from the tourist and Foli offices and, of course, on the use of Google Maps on my smartphone (see pages 20 and 21 in Figures 5.12 and 5.13). Nevertheless, these maps were not sufficient for my goal to embrace a stratigraphic gaze on the city’s public transport network, because they represented Turku’s urban area only nowadays. Therefore, I compared them with the reproductions of historical maps and in particular with those of the past tramway network presented by Mikko Laaksonen in his books (Laaksonen 2009). The multi-layered combination of these cartographic representations made it possible to visualise the sometimes-virtual, sometimes-physical traces of the past tramway in contemporary urban space: the tramline functioned as both an orientating tool in the city and a diachronic thread that helped me to move diachronically from the present to the past of Turku. By comparing the past maps of the tramway and the present ones of the bus lines, I was able to recognise some overlapping areas in their routes: these areas functioned as bridges to connect different times and existential lines in the comics page as, for example, along the Linnankatu, the main road that connects the city centre with the harbour area (shown in Figures 5.2. and 5.3) and where bus number 1 retraces the old route of tramline number 1. When I performed this stratified map, this line became a pathway to follow in the real urban space; the route on the map also became a plotline in the narration and helped me to merge several temporal levels.
Maps were also variously performed during interviews, often offering a useful reference point for informants to locate their practices and orientate themselves. Literary cartographers have variously claimed that maps have an intrinsic narrative potential (Muehrcke and Muehrcke 1974; Tally 2014): recently, maps have stimulated autoethnographic carto-fictional writings (Peterle 2019) and speculative explorations that tell the ‘map’s own experience’ through fictional it-narrations (Rossetto 2019, p. 74). Recalling John Brian Harley’s seminal paper on the map as biography, maps ‘can draw from the roots of our experience’, and sometimes we can just ‘read them as transcriptions of ourselves’ (Harley 1987, p. 18). For this reason, I often used maps as storytelling devices to help informants trace their routes and tell their mobile stories. With fingers pointed at a crossroad, a street, or a building, the conversation often started to unfold once the map was unfolded on the table. These moments were part of the performative and mapping practices I engaged with during fieldwork but also became scenes in the comics narration, since these mobile and embodied experiences are often represented in the pages of Lines.
As mentioned in the previous section, the Foli map triggered the storytelling practice at the Archive of the Museum Centre of Turku: when the archivists tried to locate photographs on it, they realised a spontaneous multi-layered assemblage of images, words, and cartographic projections that placed past photographs in contemporary urbanscape. As illustrated on page 14 (see Figure 5.11), the map was a basis for organising a cycling tour across the city during my interview with
Doing comics on the move 153
Mikko Laaksonen: while sitting on a table in a local restaurant before cycling, Mikko traced the route of our cycling tour on the Foli map and used the reproduction of historical maps in his book to show me where we would have crossed the former tramway path. Afterwards, performing the former tramway map by bike, we found traces of the tramway on the city walls, along the streets, and in the grass of an apparently banal flowerbed. Moreover, since cycling is Mikko’s everyday means of transportation, engaging together in this mobile practice made it possible for ‘more nuanced, situated and richer linguistic accounts’ of his embodied everyday mobilities that otherwise I would have ignored (Brown and Spinney 2010, p. 131). Finally, as displayed on pages 20 and 21 (Figures 5.12 and 5.13), during an interview with Emma, an activist and tram enthusiast, she spontaneously used the dynamic map of the bus lines available on the Foli website to organise her thoughts. Zooming in and out, Emma used the map as a storytelling device by showing me the route of the bus that she used to take to come back home, at night, on a small island of the Turku archipelago, when she was a student at the University of Turku. Using maps as storytelling practices and engaging with mobile methods, ‘people can talk about their practices’, providing the researcher-cartoonist with unexpected personal accounts on mobile experiences, affects, and emotions (Hitchings 2012).
As exposed more thoroughly in previous works on comic book cartographies (Peterle 2017 or see Figures 1.3. and 1.4 in Chapter 1), there is a close connection between comics and maps that lays at the basis of this intensive use of maps in my cartoGraphic practice. As when writing or reading comics, engaging with maps means producing an interpretative and narrative path, where ‘there is no right way to read’ or move (Hatfield 2005, p. 65). Comics do not simply have map-like features; maps also have comics-like features that become extremely useful when organising geoGraphic and cartoGraphic fieldwork: indeed, the orientation that vernacular and historical maps provided me with, in Turku, was both spatial and narrative, since they guided my steps in real space, across the city, but also in the narration, as a valuable help throughout the composition process. Map-users, like comics authors or readers, need to elaborate different spatial strategies to move in concrete and fictional space and to orientate themselves in space and time. Indeed, the comic book has been described as ‘a map of time’ (McCloud 2000; Raeburn 2004) that needs to be passed through, traversed, and crossed to be deciphered. Through his ground-breaking short comics strip and his more recent graphic novel Here, Richard McGuire has demonstrated how we can represent the overlapping and crossing of different timelines in a single place, in his case a living room, using the assemblage of several time-frames on the same comics page (McGuire 1989, 2014). Following his suggestion but moving outside the walls of a house, in public urban space, I imagined that different timelines can be superimposed on the same map, especially when we compare cartographic representations from disparate eras. These overlaps become virtually present also in the urban space we are performing, loading streets, crossroads, transportation networks, and squares with meanings and stories from other eras.
Beyond their use as storytelling devices during interviews, maps themselves were interpreted as ongoing, emerging practices that asked to be performed and experienced and suggested to me movement both horizontally, in space, and vertically, in time. According to emergent perspectives in cartographic theory, the maps of public transportation asked me to be performed, embodied, and enacted (Dodge et al. 2009; Kitchin 2010; Rossetto 2012). So, the coloured line of the past tram route on the map became a narrative line along which I could move to see how much the city has changed over time, register the various ways in which people used to move in different times, and build my storyline through a deeply embodied experience. The tramline functioned as an invisible trace and a silent guide, which helped me to move across the present space and past history of the city. Following Bissell, I was in search of‘new ways of understanding how practices emerge, persist, and transform’ over time in order to be able to capture, in my geoGraphic novel, ‘the complexity of forces that animate commuting practices and shape mobile lives’ (Bissell 2014, p. 1946). A processual approach and the non-representational theories of practice helped me to explore the manifold ways in which mobility transformations take place beyond a linear conception of temporality (p. 1947).
Therefore, I embraced myself an everyday mobile perspective and decided to perform the map of the old tramlines mostly by walking, sometimes by bus, and even by bike; here, I was searching for traces of the tram’s passage and collecting memories about the tramways’ presence on a daily scale, through a ‘grounded’ and embodied experience (Ingold 2004). By following these lines, I was able to collect traces of the tramway’s material presence: like, for example, old yellow signs left on the walkways that once were used to warn pedestrians of the presence of the tram tracks or pylons of the old electric tramway that are now used as street lamps. Thanks to these transtemporal clues of the tramway’s presence, the practice of walking revealed itself as a useful method for becoming aware of the experiential and non-linear dimension of time in urbanscape. As commuting practices and transport routes are always evolving and adapting, both cycling on a guided tour with Mikko and walking alone also functioned as ‘a way of understanding the complex temporal folds through which the past inheres in the present, transforming its course’ (Bissell 2014, p. 1947).
Engaging with mobile methods from a specific narrative and geoGraphic perspective, I am particularly intrigued by the relationship between mobile methods and creative arts (Lorimer and Wylie 2010). Like Middleton, I interpret everyday movements as means of reading/knowing urban space (Middleton 2009, 2010, 2011a, 2011b): indeed, there is a close connection between the practice of doing comics and mobile methods. The practices of cycling and walking in the city provided me with a fundamental embodied and sensory experience that contributed to the production of meaning as well as to the comprehension of everyday rhythms and practices of mobilities in Turku (Middleton 2011a). Walking was also a method to experience everyday urban rhythms and to sense the city through an embodied practice: through my own body, by moving up and down the small hills of the city of Turku or following the flow of the river towards the sea, I registered the changing sounds of the urban environment at different times, noticing the difference between the silent morning, before the sunrise, and the sounds and coloured lights of cars during peak hours. The atmosphere in the geoGraphic novel and its apparently suspended sense of space and time have been deeply influenced by these sensorial perceptions and the fact that my fieldwork took place in silent and cold Finnish January and not in the summer, for example.
As Tim Ingold claims, we perceive not from a fixed point but along a ‘path of observation’, a continuous itinerary of movement (Ingold 2004, p. 331):
But if perception is thus a function of movement, then what we perceive must, at least in part, depend on how we move. Locomotion, not cognition, must be the starting point for the study of perceptual activity
(Ingold 2004, p. 331)
I often use walking as a method to collect perceptions as well as visual and narrative materials; the practice of walking helps me to rearrange ideas into a more structured form. Helped by the regular movement of my feet, I start to place one point after the other and compose plotlines on the city map that easily become narrative threads in the process of the story’s composition. Walking on the streets is intrinsically narrative and creative beyond social activity (Ingold 2004, p. 328): for example, encounters with other people can turn into narrative dialogues and crossroads and changes of direction in real space can suggest a twist in the plotline. During all these mobile practices, from walking to cycling and bus riding, I was constantly engaged with the doing of comics and the composition of my geoGraphic novel: along the routes I took verbo-visual notes, wrote and sketched drawings on my fieldwork journal, and took pictures. Moving while doing comics, I started my verbo-visual assemblage of Turku’s urbanscape, to which I returned once fieldwork was finished in order to start disassembling and reassembling those materials into a coherent geoGraphic novel.
During fieldwork, a journal, dozens of pens, a Canon mirrorless camera, and the audio recording app on my smartphone were the mobile toolkit that accompanied me in my research practice. Whereas the sketches and photos I took in Turku represented the raw materials to start drawing the comics story on my old iPad, the written notes and audio tapes helped me to arrange the collected memories into complex stories and to remember smaller details from the interviews. Apparently, after two weeks of intense fieldwork I had collected what I needed to realise the short comics story for the PUTSPACE project: to be honest, I came back with more materials than I expected, and, therefore, the comics story that was initially planned to be around five pages turned into a longer story of more than twenty pages. The story expanded spontaneously, because of the multi-layered stratification of stories I had collected. Once in Italy, the geoGraphic novel started quickly to unfold by including more photographs in the drawings and suggesting other ways to cross characters’ narrative lines and merge the interviewees’ perspectives.
Before going back to Italy, I also searched for other ‘mobile stories’, especially in comics form, about the transport network in Turku and in Finland, more generally. As far as I know and was told, there is no graphic novel about public transport in Turku, telling either the story of the past tramline or of the contemporary bus network. However, I found a collection of comics strips published in Finnish and realised by a bus driver, who decided to share his own daily experience as a worker for public transport. Furthermore, during my research, I came to know that some comics strips on public tramways set in different cities, namely San Francisco, Lisbon, Turku and Tampere, were drawn by well-known Finnish comics artist Paulli Kallio to decorate the barriers of the building site for the new tramway that will be opened in Tampere (a city almost 170 kilometres north of Turku), between 2020 and 2021. Maybe this represents a further virtual narrative line to follow, which could help me to connect the history of the tramway in Turku with that of other cities in Finland or to explore the potential futures of the tramway in the city. Certainly, this shows how much urban comics are increasingly used to intervene in public contexts for transforming urban spaces into narrative surfaces and becoming themselves part of urban infrastructures, as Dominic Davies claims (2019).
When working on a geoGraphic novel, entering a comic books shop can also be part of the research process! It may happen, for example, that one of your key informants (Mikko) is also a comic book enthusiast, who introduces you to the shopkeeper of the main comic book store in town and to his wife, Maijastiina, who works part-time at the Foli office in the city centre. The narration of her personal everyday experience with comics and public transport, as a worker at both the comics store and the Foli office, a commuter, a woman, and a mother, functioned as a narrative expedient to bring different narrative threads together. Her story was perfect to close the geoGraphic novel with a kind of Ringkomposition that comes back to the young girl of the beginning of the story and provides readers with a multiscalar female perspective on the city of Turku (see Figures 5.14 and 5.15). As we have seen, the comics page is a transcalar space that embeds plurivectorial narrative lines and several temporal layers that co-exist through the combination of panels, images, and words.
The comics page is a place where virtualities happen: indeed, on page 23 (see Figure 5.15), before the story ends, I was able to stage the encounter between different characters in the story and different interviewees I met in my fieldwork. In the comics story, Maijastiina is the mother of the young girl with the yellow backpack (that we encountered from page 4 to page 6) and, on a bus ride (page 23), their narrative routes meet that of the lady we heard speaking at the beginning of the comics story (from page 3 to page 6). Three stories and generations of women meet on the same bus, in the same comics page. Juxtapositions, encounters, and coincidences are part of urban everyday life and permeate our experience as much as our research practices and storyworlds. Like ‘performative improvisations’ (Amin and Thrift 2002, p. 3), these everyday mobile practices entered my geoGraphic novel in unpredicted ways, opening ‘the horizon of the present to the richness and complexity of duration’ and making it possible to register ‘past happenings that project into the future’ (Bissell 2014, p. 1947).
FIGURE 5.14 Author’s illustration. Page 22, from Lines, by Giada Peterle, BeccoGiallo, Padua, 2021.
FIGURE 5.15 Three generations of women meet on a bus ride. Author’s illustration. Page 23, from Lines, by Giada Peterle, BeccoGiallo, Padua, 2021.
FIGURE 5.16 Mobile archives of memories. Authors illustration. Page 24, from Lines, by Giada Peterle, BeccoGiallo, Padua, 2021.
FIGURE 5.17 The geographer-cartoonist during geoGraphic fieldwork. Author’s illustration. Page 25, from Lines, by Giada Peterle, BeccoGiallo, Padua, 2021.
Notes from a geoGraphic fieldwork diary: end of the line
29 January 2020
The KauppahalU, the covered market, is one of the main attractions in the city. I remember visiting it back in 2015. That visit is probably one of the most vivid memories I have of my short first stay in Turku. And, I swear, I’m not saying it because I'm working on public transport and mobilities now, but when you enter the door it looks like you’re entering an old carriage, with wooden walls and leather seats. Even if the market is immobile in space, you’ve the impression of travelling through time and being transported into another era. Instead of train compartments, though, the space is divided by several stands selling meat cuts, smells, and products. I feel displaced, and maybe it’s because I don’t see any evident research or scientific reason for being here until I jump into a small touristic stand with thousands of items, gadgets, and objects. There’s an entire column of postcards devoted to the yellow tram: different models of tram cars are portrayed at the centre of the picture, while you can see the city changing over time in the background. No doubt, the yellow trams are the real protagonists of the postcards. I buy a copy of each of them. I consider sending them to my parents in Italy, but they wouldn’t understand how meaningful these yellow cars have become to me. I decide not to buy any stamp and to simply start a personal collection. Probably I’m becoming a tram enthusiast myself. Now, I’ve reached the final station. End of the line, I get off the train, exit the wooden door of the market, and start walking again along the invisible yellow thread.
- 1 STORMI is an online journal of graphic journalism that is ‘anti-fascist, antisexist, antiracist and ecologist, and ideated by Giacomo Taddeo Traini and Mattia Ferri’. It was born under the wing of the BeccoGiallo publishing house and publishes original works and archival materials by both emerging and well-known comics authors. More information is available at the website: www.stormi.info/.
- 2 Due to a lack of space for the reproduction of figures, some parts of the story have been cut. The complete English version of Lines is available at: http://narrativegeographies, com/lines/and has been published also in a printed version by BeccoGiallo in 2021.
- 3 Prof. Jason Finch (Abo Akademi) was the supervisor of my PUTSPACE project and is one of the projects principal investigators. He is a member and co-founder of the ALUS - Association for Literary Urban Studies, and his contribution for an interdisciplinary perspective on urban literary studies and spatial literary studies more generally was fundamental in the development of the project.
- 4 The English title of the graphic novel by Nora Krug differs from the German one: Hei- mat: Ein Deutsches Familienalbum, namely ‘Heimat: A German family book’, with the word ‘Heimat’ to be intended, according to the author’s website, as ‘the German word for the place that first forms us, where the sensibilities and identity of one generation pass on to the next’. See: https://nora-krug.com/.
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