Why Is It Like That Here? Comics As a Medium for Exploring Our Varying Senses of Place

One of the pleasures in reading comics as a cultural geographer is being drawn to the ways in which different creators deal with questions of place. The places in which a book is set can be treated simply as background, or as deeply significant to what the characters do. Places can be invented or ‘real’. Some panels are dense with contextual detail, while others may have little sense of setting at all.

These kinds of variations are found in other narrative media, too, but I think that comics, by being hand drawn, by typically being the product of a smaller set of creators — maybe just one person — and by not being limited by budgets in the way that, say, film or TV can be, give writers and artists a unique kind of freedom to make and remake places for their stories.

One of the comics I regularly use in my introductory cultural geography course is Brian Wood’s and Ryan Kelly’s Local (Oni Press, 2008). Each issue in this series takes place in a different North American city. In his commentary to the first issue, Wood writes, “Local, simply put is a series of short stories about people and the places they live in.” Among the ‘hometowns’ included in the series are, Portland, Oregon, Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Toronto, Ontario. He continues:

“I’ve been a little obsessed with the idea of locations and hometowns for a while now… Life operates very differently when you get out of major population centers, and some of the best films I’ve seen and books I’ve read take place in locations I would never have thought about otherwise”.

As Wood recognizes, the choice to focus on less universally recognized cities and neighborhoods raises the problem of how to represent these places in ways that will appeal to both newcomers and to insiders: “The location can’t be the story, though. Getting into the minute details of any specific place runs the risk of alienating anyone who doesn’t live there. The Local stories will be universal … But, for the locals, the stories will contain landmarks and references that’ll be instantly recognizable.”

One way that Wood and collaborator Ryan Kelly manage this problem is through ‘establishing panels’ that work as entries to a place, showcasing details that might provide a general sense of ‘where’, as well as specific locations or features that are less meaningful unless one is already a local.

“The second issue of the series is set in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The opening panels and page set the scene with a wintery landscape, bare trees, blowing snow and accumulations on cars, streets and sidewalks, all qualities of place that likely make sense to most (North American) readers. The scene also shows an old school Chinese-American restaurant, the Red Dragon, and a liquor store, Hum’s, both of which appear authentic in their particulars, from the distinctive shape of the shared, or connected, roofline to the specifics in the typography and design of the signs.

Kelly’s detailed renderings of features like street corners, skylines, landmarks, and storefronts play a critical role in making the places of Local seem ‘real’, whatever an individual’s experience with a city might be. I may not know Minneapolis personally, but the establishing image looks and feels like somewhere I could find and visit. If I do know the city, I probably recognize or can locate what I see with little effort.

Another text that I frequently use is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Pantheon, 2007). Like Local, Persepolis is a book that highlights places, but Satrapi’s approach to showing the cities of her story is radically different from Wood’s and Kelly’s. Unlike Kelly’s dense and detailed art, Satrapi’s drawings are clean and simple.

The sense of place conveyed in Persepolis is less from the density of detail and more from the author’s attunement to cultural signifiers of location. Rather than physical landscapes, or built environments, Satrapi focuses on what people do in different places to orient readers to where and when. These practices include: dress, hairstyles, what people eat, how they pass the time, and what norms they follow, ignore or resist. From these cues, you always know if Marjane is in Tehran or Vienna and what it means for her to be in one place rather than the other.

From The Complete Persepolis

Wood, Kelly, and Satrapi are concerned with the representation of actual, human places, which presents the challenge of realism, whether in literal or affective terms. Creators who have their stories take place in entirely fictional worlds while free of any debt to ‘the real’, still need to convey an appropriate sense of location.

From Won Ton Soup Vol. 2 #1

For example, in the Won Ton Soup books (Oni Press, 2007 & 2009), James Stokoe creates visually rich worlds and settings, conveying an almost tactile sense of place and a palpable feeling of cultural difference between the where on the page and the where of the reader. By contrast, the city in Brian Michael Bendis’ and Michael Avon Oeming’s Powers (Marvel Icon, 2000-present) is more a noirish idea of a metropolis than it is a place you might visit if only it existed. Here the city is a pure narrative fiction, one that neither needs nor wants to be taken as real, but as a set of references to other fictional cities from movies, TV, crime novels, and other comics.

Places never look and feel one way all the time to everyone. The manifest subjectivity of comics makes it a medium almost perfectly suited to exploring varying senses of place, from the city block you might live on to the most fantastic world you can imagine apprehending with your senses.

Note: The title of this column, “Why Is It Like That Here?”, is borrowed from, Arild Holt-Jensen, Geography: History & Concepts: A Student’s Guide, 4th edition, SAGE Publications, 2009.