A couple months back, I revisited my all-time favorite novel, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Unsurprisingly, the thing holds up. There are so many reasons why I think that book is a masterpiece, but the one aspect of it in particular that stood out for me on this reread was its discussion of the differences between country life and city life. It’s not exactly one of the dominant themes of the story, but it is a recurring one, and it’s explored through the eyes of several characters (as most of the novel’s themes are). Kesey does a fantastic job of making neither the city nor the country seem inherently more appealing or superior, while still examining how unlike each other they are.
The idea that urban and rural settings differ greatly was not at all new when Kesey tackled it, and it’s been explored by many others since then, in fiction and non-fiction alike. In fact, the main reason I was especially interested in the country-vs.-city stuff in Sometimes a Great Notion this time around is because it tied so directly to several other things I was reading concurrently, all of them comicbooks. There are lots of things, big and small, obvious and subtle, that set cities apart from smaller towns, but the two most frequently and readily observed are that, a) in a city, everything is more cramped and crowded, and b) things move more quickly there. Those are the key distinctions, and many other differences between the two environments can be housed under these categories, as the layout and general momentum of any location influences so much of what goes on there. I want to dig into these factors a little bit through the lenses of a few of the aforementioned comicbooks that Sometimes a Great Notion reminded me of, and then turn around and go in the other direction to see what comics can tell us about the ways in which every place, no matter its shape or size, is the same as every other.
First of all, it should be said that the entire medium of comics connects to the field of urban planning. Every page of every comicbook needs to find out the best way to position and fit all the images it wants to show, and determining the structure and design of a given page or panel is a key part of graphic storytelling. A comics artist has to decide how many panels can fit on a page, what size they should be, how they should be placed in relation to one another, how wide or narrow the gutters between them should be (or if they should even have gutters), the POV of every panel, the details seen in every panel, the amount of negative space to employ, and so on. Though my experience is limited in both areas, I imagine this artistic legwork is not unlike trying to plan a city, determining what buildings go where, how to zone everything, how big to make the streets, what signs to include where, etc. Space is an essential part of reading any comic, and it’s an essential part of living in or even passing through any city; it determines how we move and what we see along the way.
Sophie Yanow’s tiny, unassuming book War of Streets and Houses looks at the spacing differences between cities and rural areas in the context of how urbanity can be used against people, even weaponized. The story’s protagonist (never named, but ostensibly a stand-in for Yanow herself) is an American artist who grew up in the woods of California, but moves to Montreal in her adulthood and is there for the 2012 Quebec student protests. She witnesses and even, to a lesser degree, participates in these protests, and has many friends who are heavily involved. Over the course of the narrative, she learns through both study and actual experience some of the ways in which cities have been and are still made into tools of oppression and violence. The lack of open spaces, the looming structures and other imposing architecture, and the ceaseless sprawl of cities allows the powers that be to corral, intimidate, and distract the population. Yanow points specifically to things like kettling, where police surround protestors in a small section of the city from which they cannot escape, then cut them off from food, facilities, etc. as a needlessly harsh and punitive method of crowd control. She also mentions some historical instances of demolishing and/or rebuilding key parts of a city to take control of it, a strategy of war that has also been employed in peacetime. Cities are vulnerable to these kinds of tactics because they are so full and crowded, so it takes less effort to block people in, and even a small amount of destruction can affect a large number of people. Forces smart enough to see the weaknesses of a city can exploit them to gain power for themselves and steal it from others, something that happens more quickly and forcefully in that setting than a more rural one.
Yet Yanow is not anti-city. Far from it. She (or her main character, anyway) chooses to live in a city because it allows her to connect more people more easily, simply because there are more people around. She talks about how, if you put up posters in a city, you’re guaranteed someone will see your work and/or get your message, since there are so many alleys and walls available that a city can be blanketed with posters without them really getting in anyone’s way. And even with the over-active and violent police response to the student protests, the city continues to be the heart of that revolutionary movement, the best setting in which the students can come together, share ideas, and make their case. It is easier for the protestors to be disruptive in the narrow streets of a city, and for them to stay connected, so even if it’s sometimes turned against them, they remain there because they know it’s the right place to be. Sometimes the city can feel like a trap that’s closing in, but that closing in can also be viewed as pushing people together, so that the lack of space becomes a wealth of available community.
Tim Seeley and Mike Norton’s series Revival spends most of its time in rural Wisconsin. The core premise of the book is that in one small town, on one particular day, several recently deceased citizens came back to life. Called “revivers,” these possibly undead folks seem to be immortal now, and there are all kind of theories, both in the book and out, as to what’s actually going on and why. Really, though, the reviver stuff is a backdrop/catalyst for the small-town dramas that are the heart of the comic. Families begin to crack under the pressure of having a reviver among them, old friends become enemies over disagreements about how to handle the situation, and the entire town gets a bit of mass cabin fever once it’s put on quarantine. All of this stuff slow-boils, progressing and worsening only gradually because of where it takes place. Generally speaking, people aren’t in so much of a hurry in a small town as they might be in a big city, and once the quarantine goes into effect, nobody has anywhere to go, anyway. So there is a lot of watching and waiting in Revival, and the conflicts that do arise develop slowly, because there’s nothing but time on the cast’s hands. This is not to say that nothing ever reaches its peak, or that there are no thrilling or action-packed moments. It’s just that those big beats are separated by many smaller, quieter, more intimate ones, scenes of snow-covered fields and terse conversations that punctuate the excitement and reflect the pace and tone of small-town life everywhere.
Recently, one of Revivial’s primary heroes, Dana Cypress, was brought to New York City to help track down Anders, a reviver who somehow got out of Wisconsin and made it all the way to the Big Apple. Dana is a police officer, and one of the people in charge of handling reviver-related cases, so when evidence of reviver activity was discovered in NYC, it was a natural choice to include her on the investigation. Dana’s time in New York only spans three issues (#21-23) and yet in that tiny space she goes through some of the most intense stuff seen in this series to date. It kicks off with the discovery of a body that’s been viciously disemboweled by Anders and put on display, only to have that body suddenly return to life, its severed head speaking cryptically before the entire figure catches fire and disintegrates. From there, things continue to ramp up quickly, and in short order Dana is busting up a group of well-to-do New York socialites who are eating pieces of Anders’ body in the hopes that they might get some reviver immortality for themselves. It’s some of the most disgusting, unsettling, disturbing material Revival has included thus far, and instead of being spread out like usual, it was hyper-condensed, the storyline moving at a New York speed to keep up with the setting.
This is the only time (so far) that Revival’s narrative has strayed outside of its central locale, and the difference was immediately apparent. Without the patience of its primary setting, Revival temporarily morphed into an action-horror-crime story, full of shock value and in-your-face terror instead of the creeping dread and brief flashes of gore usually present. It served as a nice, clean comparison of the city and the country without ever explicitly needing to point out their differences. Those differences were already in place, and it was just a matter of letting them organically affect the story.
If large cities and tiny rural towns look, feel, and move so differently, then what is it they share? I’m not sure if this is the right word to apply to a location, but in my mind the thing that you can find anywhere, regardless of size, is a certain local identity. Every place has a personality that’s determined by its history and its populace, which are in turn determined by geography, climate, and various other external circumstances. On the one hand, the whole notion of divvying up land and drawing borders and giving names to locations is a little absurd, but at the same time, New York is not the same as Boston is not the same as Pocatello is not the same as Rio de Janeiro. They each have their own vibe, and that’s true no matter where you go.
Though there are a handful of viable contenders, the most immediate and obvious example of a comicbook location with a strong identity is Gotham City. That has always been the case, and in the past few years head Batman scribe Scott Snyder has taken great pains to build up the history and power of Gotham as a place. He introduced a generations-old secret society called the Court of Owls, he told stories about Batman being surprised and caught off-guard by the city he thought he knew so well, and Snyder even took the time to write with Kyle Higgins a mini-series called Gates of Gotham that was all about filling in the city’s past and bonding it to the present. Snyder’s work has opened the door for new series like Gotham Academy and Gotham by Midnight, both comics that take place in Gotham without needing the Dark Knight to be their star. There’s also a Gotham show on Fox right now that looks at an imagined pre-Batman version of the city, so it’s clear that Gotham’s got legs all its own, separate from the character that made it famous. It was true even before Snyder’s time that Gotham bred insane villains and dark, tortured heroes, and that it could put even the most prepared or well-acquainted citizen through some rough, unexpected trials when it wanted. Snyder (and the many creators with whom he works) took that idea and ran with it, and he continues to run with it now as Gotham’s influence extends beyond Batman and into new, previously unexplored areas.
Though considerably less well-known in our world, the town of Mason in Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising has no less personality than Gotham. And Mason touches the lives of its inhabitants with equal force as well, even though it’s smaller and less populated. Centuries back, the people of Mason killed several young women in a fairly ruthless, public way because they believed (correctly) that the women were witches. In the present day, those witches have returned, led by the vindictive Lilith, who intends to get her revenge on all the modern-day descendants of the people who murdered her. Because Mason is so small and isolated, many families have lived there for generations, so Lilith has no lack of potential targets. She can also do a lot of damage without needing to be especially destructive, because towns like Mason don’t have the resources or manpower of a larger city. A major snowstorm, a swarm of rats…these are the kinds of things that can overturn life in Mason, and they are among the tactics Lilith uses to attack the entire town at once. At the same time, the people of Mason are used to dealing with weather and the wilderness, used to fending for themselves when necessary, so they get by despite Lilith’s impressive efforts. She definitely gets in their way and causes some major problems, but nobody panics or turns on each other or anything so dramatic as that. They persevere, they adjust, and they keep going, because that’s the identity Mason has established for itself.
We’ve all got to live somewhere, so the differences between cities and small towns matter to everyone, and usually come up more than once in a lifetime, like whenever someone moves, for example. It’s important to know that if you’re going from small to big, country to city, you can expect to have less space, more noise, and a faster tempo in your life, but also access to more culture, people, and ideas. If going in the other direction, it’s good to prepare yourself for some extra free time and boredom, and to try to enjoy/appreciate the additional freedom and openness as much as possible. Wherever you’re headed, though, size will not be all that matters, because mixed in with all the commonalities, there’s always something unique about every place you go.