We believe that a map — a symbol — is something we dream up to represent a real place, real people, real things. That’s not true. The maps, the symbols, are dreaming us.
— Amelia Earhart, in air #6
As the world has become effectively smaller, the apparent differences between individual places have also diminished, reducing the variety of cultural landscapes and human experience to interchangeable tract houses, big box stores, and chain restaurants. This is what political scientist Benjamin Barber calls “McWorld”.
Opposing that tendency is “Jihad”, or, the militant and exclusivist assertion of local difference against the homogenizing consumerism of McWorld. For Barber, the (post)modern world is shaped by the tension between these forces, which are nonetheless paradoxically linked, both politically and in practice (think ethnic separatist suicide bombers whose last meals might include Coca Cola and KFC, or someone who attends a Wal-Mart protest while drinking Starbucks).
G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker locate the opening narrative for their new Vertigo series, air, in these tensions between the apparent homogeneity of the “global village” and human desires for a world richer in meaning.
air is about Blythe, an acrophobic flight attendant. As the series begins, she finds herself entangled in the rivalry between the Etesian Front, whose self-proclaimed mission is to take “the skies back from terror”, and Zayn, a man of indeterminate nationality with whom Blythe becomes romantically involved. The initial story arc ends with the heroine beginning to discover the power of her own mind to remake the world.
In the first two issues, the events in air are largely set in airports and airplanes. So, while the book is peppered with references to many different places, what the reader mostly sees are landscapes like this:
Travel and the whole world blurs … Who are you anymore? You’re anonymous; you’re an ID in your wallet. You cross over to some fuck-ugly phantom world of Cinnabons, Au Bon Pain, magazine racks, uncomfortable seats, crying babies, identical anonymous spaces.
Writing in the ‘70s, geographer Edward Relph argued that this feeling is one of “placelessness”, or, “a weakening of the identity of places to the point where they not only look alike, but feel alike and offer the same bland possibilities for experience” (Place and Placelessness, Pion Limited, 1976, 90). When it no longer matters much whether one is here or there, then the value of any given place is diminished. When this becomes generalized, the world at-large acquires a thinness of meaning.
air’s initial settings are the almost purely utilitarian spaces of air travel, spaces that, in Relph’s terms, can only offer the most mediocre of human experiences. Indeed, he uses the term “flatscape” to describe the look and feel of such places. The two-dimensionality of comics is well-suited to representing these spaces, and in the series, Chris Chuckry’s non-descript colors and Perker’s thin lines amplify the idea of “flatness”, or shallowness, in the landscape.
Following Barber, where one finds McWorld, one will also find the Jihadist reaction. In air, this takes the form of the Etesian Front. The members of the Front, led by Benjamin Lancaster, invest the bland spaces of commercial flight with meaning by seeing them as places under constant threat, as territory that needs to be reclaimed from “terrorists”. In a larger sense, these landscapes are made to be central in a global struggle of Us against Them, with planes and airports being Ours.
The cover for issue two underlines the Jihadist side to air‘s narrative. On it, Blythe is drawn wheeling a food cart piled with weapons on a plane filled with violent looking men of all creeds and colors, from white neo-Nazis to Afghan warlords. The Etesian Front, it seems, is hardly alone in its attempt to fill the void marked by the culturally arid landscapes of global consumerism.
That Lancaster and the Etesians would have a particular interest in Blythe’s lover-to-be, Zayn, is not surprising when considering how he is introduced, which is as a placeless person to match the placeless landscapes.
Tall, thin, dark-haired, with vaguely “ethnic” facial features, Zayn credibly passes himself off as having a number of different names and being from a variety of places: Javad Aryanpur from Pakistan, Niko Kastellios from Greece, Manuel del Torro from Spain. The belief that everyone has their place is one of the securities, however imaginary, afforded by a world of seemingly stable boundaries and distinct identities. The members of the Etesian Front yearn for that kind of certainty even as they participate in international air travel, one of the more obvious cultural and economic forces undermining the literal and figurative distance between places.
When Blythe asks for his “real name”, Javad/Niko/Manuel, offers “Zayn”, a name almost impossible to pin down as far as its origin, a point driven home in one of the final panels of air’s first issue as Blythe and co-worker Fletcher puzzle over a letter with a return address of “Bandho State Prison, Handra, Narimar”. Narimar is a country with no official existence, but its role in the book suggests that Wilson and Perker, while hardly sympathetic to the Etesians, also desire a more meaningful world than the one implied by the placeless landscapes of Blythe’s everyday work life.
In that other world, exotic, forgotten countries are hidden behind the emergent blandness, and “the map is the territory”, or, as Blythe exclaims mid-way through issue two regarding Narimar, “we have to believe it exists in order for it to exist”. The landscapes in front of us may offer nothing but mediocre sameness, but the landscapes of our imaginations still hold greater possibilities, possibilities that exceed both the empty spaces of air travel and the violent reactionary politics of the Etesians.
In the fourth issue of the series, in fact, it is revealed that the Lancaster is not merely a true believer, but is, at the least, also working for a rival to Blythe’s employer, Clearfleet. The object of their contest is a technology that allows travel through a machine that turns the world into a set of symbols that can be manipulated by select individuals, “hyperpracts”, who have a unique ability to interpret the world through those symbols. The real battle in air, it seems, is between the human imagination and the forces of normalization that would level that imagination to the lowest common denominator.
Airports and airplanes are extreme manifestations of a placeless McWorld, and Jihad is a backward-looking form of resistance to that placelessness, but Willow and Perker suggest that we need not be limited by those choices. In air they posit that the only limitations on our imaginations are the ones we impose upon ourselves.