Comic Cartography: Maps, Comic Books, and the "-Nessness" of Each
Drawn by A. Degen - from Mighty Star and the Castle of the Cancatervater
I’ve been writing about maps in comics, albeit at a glacial pace, since the start of January 2014 at Comic Cartography. After posting for the past few years, I thought I had some things figured out. When I met the editors of The Coordinates Society, though, they asked me a great question: Why? Why think about the relationship between maps and comics?
And it’s a hard question. I’ve spent months trying to put my answer into a form approaching legibility. (My first attempt was a Word doc, left open for weeks, with just the word “comics.”) Personally, I learned to read via comics and sci-fi/fantasy novels, so maps in fiction were the norm for me.
Drawn by Sam Kieth - from Epicurus the Sage
It wasn’t until I began meeting others interested in maps and diagrams that I thought of starting to write about maps and comics. But I wanted to do some research, and my first question was, will this project be sustainable?
The answer was an overwhelming yes. Maps have been used in comics since at least the 1940s, the earliest days of the American comic book. Here’s a sample from Military Comics #1 (1941), notable for being written by Will Eisner who went on to coin the term “graphic novel.”
Art by Chuck Cuidera - from Military Comics #1
And then, of course, there’s Batman. He’s had a Batcave since very early on, and the reactions to his secret headquarters were so numerous that Batman #48 featured “The 1,000 Secrets of the Batcave,” including the following map.
Art by Jim Mooney - from Batman #48
High-tech headquarters became a staple of superhero comics. Combine that with the kind of world-building maps ported from sci-fi/fantasy books to their comic cousins, and I’ve ended up posting over 1,000 maps to date.
In those early days of research, though, I also wanted to make sure no one else was doing something similar. Academic thought on maps and comics, at least as far as is available to my limited google-fu, stemmed from a few sources:
Scott McCloud’s comment, in the seminal Understanding Comics, that comics are “the artist’s map of time itself”
Dylan Horrocks’s Hicksville and Atlas comics along with his call to explore “the connections between comics and literature, film, photography, graphic design, typography, performance, diagrams, or (for that matter) cartography” in his “Inventing Comics” essay
Antoni Moore’s “Maps as Comics, Comics as Maps,” presented to the International Cartographic Association
Both McCloud and Horrocks use map-related terminology in a largely metaphoric way. Here’s Horrocks on Understanding Comics: “I believe there is a danger that in adopting it [the map] as a manifesto, we will forget that for all the exciting new territory it opens up, it is still only one map. Like any map, it presents only one way of reading an infinitely complex landscape, thereby suppressing other possible readings.” To Horrocks, a map is not a collection of data related to physical space; it’s any kind of record of any kind of journey. From this perspective, a map can be almost anything: a photo album, a blog, a museum, a house, a person. It’s a wonderful sentiment, but in curating Comic Cartography, it’s not a very useful definition.
On the other end of the spectrum is Moore’s “Maps as Comics” paper. Moore's dissection of taxonomy limits any exploration of the liminal possibilities implied in the paper's title, though. Moore writes, “Due to their shared visual emphasis, art is the most similar medium to comics." Art, already a broad medium (in this case probably referring to paintings, drawings, and other two-dimensional images, but potentially also sculpture and performance) explicitly excludes comics. Comics are not art, and nor are they maps, but they can potentially be viewed as such.
Art by Alecos Papadatos - from Logicomix
Art by Jason Shiga - from Bookhunter
In my view, the notion that "everything is maps and only maps are maps" constitutes a big part of how I see Comic Cartography. Neither comics nor maps can be discrete things; "comicness" and "mapness" are qualities (along with proseness, advertisingness, gothicness, and everything else we can imagine as discrete genres, media, and tropes).
Comic Cartography explores the mapness of comics, or it rather explores the mapness of art that is primarily full of comicness.
To that end, Moore’s paper has some good points; maps can absolutely be considered as comic panels since both seek to capture a mutable thing in a singular visual. Additionally, maps and comics both frequently combine text, realistic visual representation, and more abstract visuals in order to relay their meaning. So when a map is a page or a panel in a comic, it’s easy—often intuitive—to read it in the context of the rest of the comic.
Art by Mike del Mundo - from Weirdworld
From there, it becomes a matter of asking questions of maps in comics that reflect the questions we ask of other art forms. The following are excerpts from answers to questions I’ve enjoyed asking on my blog:
What can maps do when a place is unmappable?
... In a world that’s constantly changing, what use are maps? At their most practical, maps are constructed for future use. “Here is a route that has worked in the past, and you can use it in the future.” In some comics, however, the routes and lands that have been mapped could shift or disappear at any moment. This means that, looking forward, maps are useless as practical devices. Instead, they serve as memoirs: an attempt to record the state of the environment in the face of constant alteration. In real life we can look back at maps made hundreds of years ago, compare them to our present surroundings, and even extrapolate the goals and worldview of the original cartographers, turning them into a narrative.
Comic gutters are forced narrative gaps; how does that affect maps, which work best when full of data?
... I was lucky enough to run into Saman Bemel-Benrud at Autoptic. He’s a cartoonist, but he’s also a designer for Mapbox, “a mapping platform for developers.” Given my interests, I asked him if he ever considered putting maps in his comics. His response was something along the lines of: “I always want to, but maps just need too much data.” This statement has been flowering in my head ever since.
Bemel-Benrud is right—the imminently important work of geographers is to use data to portray the world around us in order to help us understand how place, population, and politics all inform and direct each other.
And it’s very easy to see comics as being opposed to that on a very basic level: Comics are the storytelling medium that most obviously point out their narrative gaps—their lack of data. Whereas stories in all mediums have to omit things (and much fun can be had in deciding which moments to omit and why), most comics set discrete borders around their gaps—the "gutters" between panels. When I first talked with Bemel-Benrud, I equated comic gutters with an absence of data. Comic gutters are where information goes to die; they’re bordered entropy.
And looking at Bemel-Benrud’s comics, I see a lot of grappling with a lack of information. His 2dcloud mini, “Abyss,” shows two characters wrestling with the tension of unknowable space: a blank hole in a construction site and the ghost that appears when one of the characters tries to photograph the hole.
Ghosts themselves are a sort of interface for a lack of data. They represent our inability to know what happens after death, and they impose themselves on our world as blank spaces demanding to be known—a comic gutter between the past and the present. The ghost in “Abyss” acknowledges this: “Look around. On your side, matter trapped in space. On mine, information frozen in code. Linked in a cycle of co-creation. But separated by an impenetrable boundary.”
But the more I think about my meeting with Bemel-Benrud, the more potential I see for maps in comics. I realized that comic gutters aren’t a lack of information; they’re a place where the artist chose not to or didn’t have the means to portray the information. There’s information there, though; it’s information that is decoded by the reader rather than the writer--“information frozen in code.”
It’s a bit of a stretch to connect this with maps, but like with comics, there are gaps in maps that indicate where geographers need to look next. Like comics, these spaces are set off so that participants know to look there and interpret what they find.
Everyone’s familiar with “here be dragons/lions,” the classical phrase used to indicate an unknown area on a map—an invitation to tell another part of the story of the world. The tragedy, of course, was the built-in assumption that the mapmaker or a proxy needed to go to that place in order to tell that story. They were unwilling or unable to let those places define themselves. Most comics are more inviting with their blank spaces.
My hope is that doing this will lead to more maps in comics and better maps in comics. Then I can blog them and get a book deal and become rich.
Art by Housui Yamazaki - from Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service