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Comics Column #4 Mapmaking and the Hoi Polloi (Dylan Horrocks)

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Comics Column #4: Mapmaking and the Hoi Polloi (Dylan Horrocks)

XXIII. “There is only the past.”

Jordan Mechner, creator of the long-lived Prince of Persia video game franchise, released a graphic novel inspired by his games earlier this year through First Second books. A publisher swiftly becoming known for high-quality literary works, First Second usually releases imported works from beloved European cartoonists like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, as well as prestige projects from already-known talents like Eddie Campbell or Jessica Abel—the idea of a video game adaptation coming from their publishing house, even a particularly well-marketed book like Prince of Persia (celebrating a major new game release), seemed something of an anomaly. However, unlike most adaptations of a video game into any other particular media—cinema having notably had trouble with the product so far—this book turned out to be surprisingly well thought-out and often gentle in its storytelling. While hardcore gamers who came to the book out of curiosity may have been disappointed at the minimal level of swashbuckling—or, really, any of the superficial elements inherent to the “platform game” video game mechanics—the book is a rewarding, if disposable, bit of fairy tale confection.

What makes the book work is not, strictly speaking, Iranian writer A.B. Sina’s appropriation of Arabian Nights themes or the elegant simplicity of the linework by married artists LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland (one a noted illustrator of children’s books, the other an animator at Dreamworks), but rather their combined understanding of the medium that they’re working in. For an adaptation, there is a distinctly notable tailoring of the story to the strengths of the comic narrative. Prince of Persia, the game series, has two primary elements to its story: first, that there is and has been more than one prince, each of whose story repeats throughout history (an element it shares on some level with the best-selling Zelda franchise) and second, that time is an integral element. At first, that time played out as a time limit that the player had to race; later, it took the form of a time-travel mechanic that allowed the player to rewind moves and gaffes mid-play. In the graphic novel, the stories of two heroic Princes of Persia are intertwined through history and told concurrently, and the idea of “time” is played out in a myriad of techniques. From thematic elements concerning the impact of history on the present (at one point, one Prince must battle history itself, in the form of the dead rising), to the mechanics of how the story itself is told, the interplay of moments in time is kept at the forefront.

By telling two stories in tandem, vacillating back and forth, the most obvious method of playing with time and history is the juxtaposition of two moments in subsequent panels. This is a technique that was taken to perhaps its narrative limit in the two Dr. Manhattan chapters in Watchmen, where Manhattan’s near-omniscience enables him to see all of time at once. We view moments out of order and simultaneously on the comic page, a taste of how Manhattan looks at all of time. As Dr. Manhattan says:

“Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.”

One of the best comics of last year, Matt Kindt’s Super Spy, presented its series of vignettes and short stories out of order, and left it up to the reader to assemble the narrative itself—it worked twofold, because the actual espionage plot was very much secondary to the examination of what the characters had become due to their profession, and also because the act of “decoding” that part of history placed the reader within the story, trying to piece things together along with the characters. In Prince of Persia, one of the Princes, who both enacts moments in history and inhabits them, has been drawing picture scrolls telling the story of the previous Prince—and by reenacting those moments and identifying with them, he’s making his artwork tell the story of two times, just as the book itself does. When he’s forced to leave his artwork behind, the story barrels forward along the secondary motif of the river—the lifeblood of any desert kingdom, water here is used to represent time—the chosen prince of the prophecies rises from the waters, coming out of history itself, and the site of his reenactments becomes the true kingdom.

The inside covers of the books are marked with a pair of maps, essentially bookending history with cartography. This is appropriate for comics, as, in their ability to display moments in time simultaneously, they resemble nothing so much as maps of time as opposed to place.

XXIV. “...The Big Kids Table…”

One of America’s most favored sons in the world of comics, Chris Ware, tends to be lauded more for craft than for story, and it’s easy to see why: while an intensely skilled cartoonist, as a storyteller he is almost completely constrained by his style, a combination of emotional desolation and ironic detachment toward his own humor. While there is a certain degree of biting satire in portraying God as a superhero, a blatantly Superman-looking one at that, and then making that man a pathetic failure, the actual humor of it has no air to breathe because every other character in his works are similarly empty and broken. His best-selling Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Boy in the World was based in part on his real life confrontation with his father; his other major works feature the same tropes. If Ware shares one trait in common with Warren Ellis, the subject of this column’s previous installment, it’s his tendency to approach the same subject again and again, yet each time with a pair of tweezers.

Ware has two techniques that have gained some deserved praise, however, with regards to the portrayal of history. The first is similar to the jumbled histories of Watchmen and Prince of Persia, in which Ware sums up moments in creative history in brief comic strips and then collects them together on the page like a crowded Sunday newspaper, allowing them to play off one another and create history in aggregate—a concept brought even further by David Heatley, whose recent book My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down features a pair of stories, one for each of Heatley’s parents, in which hundreds of tiny one-note strips are piled atop each other in order to get a larger sense of each of them.

The second technique Ware uses, though, is more unique. Ware’s formal diagrams for portraying relationships between his characters and the flow of history are uniquely beautiful. Late in Jimmy Corrigan, Ware has a two-page diagram follow the bloodline of one of the supporting characters back in time, using a series of snapshots, cutaways of a yearbook, the appearance of a pressed flower in a Bible, and a complicated series of arrows and trails in order to tie her to another supporting character who, as in Prince of Persia, exists in a simultaneous narrative taking place earlier in history. That it’s even difficult to describe without the image notes it as particularly unique to the comic medium.

Ware and many of his peers—Ivan Brunetti, Adrian Tomine, Seth, and others—have ascended to certain rarefied stratum amongst comic professionals. They are viewed as the forefront of the medium by The New York Times, manage to pick up awards previously available only to prose fiction, and are otherwise held as proof that the comic medium has evolved past the material that wider audiences had for so long considered the only potential of comics at all. The other side of it, however, is that very frequently they find themselves considered the exception that proves the rule. They’re sometimes shelved independently of other graphic novels—Spiegelman’s Maus, David B.’s Epileptic, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis have been in the “Biography” section for years—and many of them are so insular that their recommendations and commentary stay restricted to the same crowd year in and year out. The Best American Comics was established three years ago as a counterpart to other “Best American” collections of prose writing and has largely maintained the same roster of talent in each annual edition.

It’s the inevitable counterpoint to the insularity of superhero comics, which I discussed last time. Many of these cartoonists and their books very much do belong in the list of “best comics,” but not all of them, all of the time, to the exclusion of the thousands of other creators who have been innovating or otherwise producing powerful work in relative obscurity. Unfortunately, there are no used bookstores, third-run theaters, or DVD rentals to provide late discoveries of work that slipped past the initial radar.

I was digging through some old notes in preparation for this installment on an especially bitter night in 2005, after attending a gallery opening here in Chicago hosted by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, editor of a Yale anthology of comics very similar to the “Best American” books. The gallery featured the same few folks; I hurled out some invective that evening, some of which I’m inclined to retract and some of which is still true today:

“Brunetti is part of that society of cartoonists that holds our most public faces—Spiegelman and Ware, Chester Brown and Seth and Joe Matt, Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine and the rest of those who hold Schultz and Crumb as the binary star which we should orbit. They’re the ones that sit at the Big Kids Table, and at this point, we’re resigned to it. They’re married to our roots in the daily and Sunday strips, and for many, that form is what informs their every creation, a view that cannot be disentangled. The comic book as a unit is the stuff of old pulps. To stray too far into genre territory, other than as an ironic metaphor, is to obfuscate your message and resign yourself to obscurity. But above all, there can be only one creator, not a union of writer and artist, for only a single creator can achieve their full vision.

”[...] I was surprised to see Jeffrey Brown had been offered a seat. His style is scratchy, they often look like they’ve been dashed out on a napkin over breadsticks, before the entrée arrives. As a writer, he manages often quite eloquently to capture a moment, a feeling, and to bring these together to show us life that feels very true, and often is quite literally. But should there not be a higher standard of artistic storytelling, to find your work on a wall? Where is David Mack here? Why wasn’t he invited to sit at the table? Where is the innovation of JH Williams III? Is the main requirement of comic literary greatness solely the ability to capture malaise and emotional torpor? Is the sole genre the capturing of a wasteland of desperate isolation? And why is it so frequently autobiographical?

”[...] There is a self-loathing that is apparent in comics at every turn, all the more troubling as we reach an acceptable level of pop culture acceptance, but it is perhaps never more alarming than it is here, at what we consider our highest peak. It so often feels like these are men who create comics because they’re not good at anything else. Often, their comics read like a protracted suicide note. All the more terrifying when they’re so carefully, artfully crafted. Ware, for all his faults, has done more for the language of visual storytelling in his work than many of his peers. The irony being, of course, that it so frequently crosses paths with the work McCloud is disseminating in the online community. It’s not hard to make the connection between his elaborate and intricate “mapping” panels and McCloud’s nonlinear “trails.” Though I think perhaps Ware would be mortified at the connection.”

Jeffrey Brown, of course, followed up one of his highest profile moments with the quaint and charming book The Incredible Change-Bots, a “Transformers” parody. It’s been clear he doesn’t take all of this particularly seriously, and I respect the man for it. My final comment, however, ties directly into Ware’s formalist work and how it’s worth viewing separately from his other stylistic hang-ups. Many of the other groundbreaking cartoonists working today have been experimenting with similar explorations into how time is handled in comics—how the map is drawn—including those who deserve a higher profile.

XXV. “The proximity of bodies.”

The idea of the “map of time” perhaps first made its impressions with McCloud’s Understanding Comics, in which he explicates in full detail just how confusing the passage of time can be in comics—that is, what we assume are “static images” usually contain the passage of time, highlighted by dialog and motion. Because the comic sequence provides a visual schema for time’s passing, one could consider time the most integral element in the physical construction of comics, both within the panel and then through a sequence of multiple panels.

Really, though, the movement has as its father the work of New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks, creator of the acclaimed Hicksville. Horrocks was one of the first to come forward and directly challenge McCloud’s polemic, particularly with regards to McCloud’s attempt to define terms that encompass the entirety of the medium—one whose borders are in constant dispute. Horrocks wrote “Inventing Comics” for The Comics Journal shortly after the McCloud book was released, and he pokes hard at a number of McCloud’s assertions (including the link to textual language, which I spoke rather cheekily about in this column’s second installment. In “Inventing Comics,” Horrocks used the relationship between McCloud’s theorizing and a cartographer charting known territory to highlight the limitations in Understanding Comics, and one has to pause at the title of McCloud’s sequel text: Reinventing Comics.

The fascination that Horrocks has with cartography is nowhere clearer than in his best-known work. Hicksville is the story of a comics journalist named Leonard Batts who travels to a small town in New Zealand to do a feature on a popular superhero writer’s upbringing and finds instead a mythical utopia for comic creators and a number of truths about the star writer and the life he’d left behind. Throughout his travels, Batts is guided by a series of mysteriously-appearing fragments of a comic about Captain Cook and a cartographer, which discuss the nature of maps and what they mean to culture as a whole. For the first half of the narrative, it seems wholly disconnected from the rest of the work, until an interlude exploring a supporting character’s backstory brings her to a fictional Eastern-European nation called Cornucopia, where an aging cartoonist named Emil Kopen explains his work:

“Maps are of two kinds. Some seek to represent the location of things in space. That is the first kind—the geography of space. But others represent the location of things in time—or perhaps their progression through time. These maps tell stories, which is to say they are the geography of time. [...] But these days I have begun to feel that stories, too, are basically concerned with spatial relationships. The proximity of bodies. Time is simply what interferes with that, yes?”

Kopen then claims that he’s digressed into talking about magic (more on this in a bit). It becomes clear here, however, that while the story of Captain Cook in the interwoven narrative of Hicksville is partly a love letter to New Zealand as a whole, and in particular this town where comics are the natural lifeblood, and where the lighthouse contains a library of every great comic never written, the story is also about comics itself, maps that can be communication with something beyond oneself.

Horrocks has been working on a sequel to Hicksville titled Atlas, in which this subject is further explored; however, the glacial pace of new Atlas chapters makes the ten year wait for the conclusion of Berlin (the subject of this column’s first installment) seem downright punctual. In fascist Cornucopia, maps were outlawed (among other things) in order to keep the populace confused and docile, and only war hero Emil Kopen was able to disseminate maps to the people through his newspaper comic strip.

Horrocks wrote one other significant essay on the nature of comics, comparing McCloud’s work to James Kochalka’s own theorizing in The Cute Manifesto—he examines storytelling, particularly in comics, as being primarily about the creation of a world in which to play, the play being the narrative itself. This is not so far off from Stuart Moulthrop’s idea of the “Interstitial,” as previously mentioned, and like Moulthrop, Horrocks makes the connection between comic books and video games, rather than with cinema or prose fiction. In the case of Horrocks, however, the map of that world and its history is inherent to the form in which the story is told.

This idea was also utilized by Nick Bertozzi for his Xeric Grant-winning minicomic Boswash, about a Civil War-era surveyor and cartographer. The comic itself is folded in the manner of a road map, and the story literally “unfolds” as one opens it. By telling Boswash’s story within a physical map, the character is physically constrained by the nature of the map and its borders, which fits the character’s story: he is forced to go on the run when he insists on showing his superior where the true border lies in disputed territory.

McCloud, for his part, in the writing of Reinventing Comics, made the transition of focus to web-based comics and their potential for experimentation. While he offered many different ideas, and continues to explore in his comics work online, one notable inclusion was the concept of the “infinite canvas.” Comics are ever-more frequently exploring their physical space—Chris Ware in particular is notable for seemingly never using the same size and shape for any two comics—but they are by nature restricted by both the printing process and practicality. Online, however, a single comic can theoretically take up a near-infinite amount of “space”—the parameters of the screen through which you view the comic will only concern the window you use to see part of the image at once. This is, in one sense, the natural extrapolation from the “window” concept as explained in the column’s first installment—while you might only see part of the map at once, you have access to the entire thing, and all panels can be in juxtaposition with each other in a single space, rather than on opposite sides of a sheet of paper. Online experimental comics pioneer Daniel Merlin Goodbrey has since developed a flash program called the Tarquin Engine, which enables one to zoom in and out of a single “infinite canvas” comic, allowing depth to be introduced to a comic’s “physical” construction as well as allow for an entire comic to be viewed at once.

In order to connect panels in an online setting, however, McCloud needed to use something other than the “gutters” that occur between two panels in a print comic, since an infinite amount of space can make the question of direction confusing with regards to how a comic is read. He came up with something that he called “trails.” By using a simple (or deliberately ornate!) line connecting panels from one to another, often going in multiple directions, the comics resemble a map more directly—and what’s more, the diagrams of Chris Ware. Using “trails” in an online comic allows for additional techniques, including the ability to exaggerate the space between two given panels to suggest a length of time, more literally displaying how time can “interfere with the proximity of bodies.”

XVI. “Everything’s made from language?”

Perhaps a suitable antidote for Ware’s emotionally empty formalism are the comics of Kevin Huizenga. Huizenga is perhaps the great humanist of the “indie cartoonists” (Los Bros Hernandez does a different sort of work, and I tend to count them separately despite their general brilliance)—his work has the clean lines and formal experimentation of Ware with a more full-bodied emotional range. Curses, his one hardcover collection, is focused on wanting children and losing them, and despite the pain inherent in the story is at times very funny, very moving, and even occasionally creepy. When it comes to formalism—and the cartography of time—however, you can draw a line from Ware’s history diagrams to Huizenga’s short story “Time Travelling.”

In “Time Travelling,” Huizenga’s self-similar character Glenn Ganges is walking to the library on a spring day and realizes that the day is so similar to another that he could very well be living that day again. Rather than feeling trapped by it, Ganges feels the purity of the moment as eternal, and thus recurring—which means other moments are full of potential as well. Huizenga conveys the feeling of stepping out of time by having Ganges step through a series of panels-as-windows (calling back the trope I’d discussed earlier) and then viewing the comic page as a series of moments in history that could be replaced with other moments in a constantly turning wheel of all possible worlds. Later, when Ganges is home and experiencing a comparatively rare dark moment while watching his wife sleep, the wheel image recurs, evoking the previous image (see “recurring visual metaphors, column #2) but now each moment is represented by a person, by a couple—to Huizenga, the people are what matter within and without the moment, and he never loses the gentle humanity of his characters (a number of times, Huizenga has even circled this issue through the logic and visual aesthetic of video games—in the second issue of his “Ganges” series, an abstract portrayal of a video game battle leads into a story in which characters during the dot-com bubble have no external outlet for their anxieties—and camaraderie—save a regular death match tournament).

In the responses to my second installment here at The House, commenter Bruce Reid drew my attention to artist Warren Craghead. Many of his illustrations and comic work follows the pattern of Ware and McCloud in their diagrammatical form. Small collections of image and text form like clumps and are connected by “trail”-like lines that often fork. Some of his work, in fact, quite literally depicts places and the paths between them. They’re nonlinear and frequently tend toward the abstract, which lends them the poetic cadence that I’d spoken of in that previous column. Somewhat similarly, Douglas Wolk in Making Comics drew connections between comics as cartography and the use of poetry when discussing the work of Hope Larson.

Perhaps one of the great tragedies of modern comics is the frustratingly high percentage of time that Hope Larson’s work is spoken of only in the shadow of her husband’s. Make no mistake: you’d have to go far afield to find a bigger fan of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s work than myself; the “Scott Pilgrim” series is one of the most enjoyable comic experiences that I could recommend, and despite its hipster reputation it has been incredibly accessible and approachable, in my experience, for newcomers to comics. But since O’Malley’s work has been scheduled for adaptation by Edgar Wright (with Michael Cera to star), the increased press coverage of his work has frequently mentioned Larson only as an afterthought, and one of the most promising cartoonists of her generation has been edged out of the spotlight in the last few years, even after the success of her young adult book Chiggers. The truth is, despite having a greater personal fondness (and identification) for and with O’Malley’s work, Larson is the better cartoonist—her craft is at this stage much more impressive and she has a greater tendency toward exploration.

Part of the problem may be that her books have, to date, been distinctly all-ages in tone (she is reportedly at work on her first “adult novel”), and a child-appropriate narrative is a very easy way to get the complexity of your storytelling choices ignored. Her second book, Gray Horses, concerns dreams and dream logic, and the rhythms of her work very much speak to the idea of “poetic cadence” in comics. Wolk writes:

“One big theme ... is the flow of the world’s images and sensations between the real and imaginary realms: wrinkles in a blanket become a dream image of grass in a field ... Dream logic is the only way to make a map of the processes of joy, and Larson is already becoming a master cartographer of the psyche.”

Indeed, her book’s endpapers and indicia pages all feature map fragments—relating to the protagonist’s literal travels, but also acting as metaphor for plotting the border territory between dream and real. The relationship between photographs and experience in Gray Horses serves not only to blur that boundary further, but also implies, as Prince of Persia attempted to state outright, that history, memory, experience, and dreams are all aspects of time, and in comics can frequently become interchangeable.

Many cartoonists, particularly those in the aforementioned “British Invasion,” have dealt at some level or another with the idea of magic, the nature of the comic medium making it the ideal tool to express magical ideas. Alan Moore, more than any other, has used comics to disseminate his particular view on magic, and that magic is frequently tied as much to geography as to comics. In From Hell, his first major “magical” text, and one of the last books he completed before declaring himself a full-fledged wizard, Moore has a lengthy chapter in which Sir William Gull, the author’s suspected Jack the Ripper, takes his coachman Netley all about London and shows him how the architecture of the city has ominous magical significance that is specifically informed by its history. Psychogeography has played some part in virtually every work that Moore’s written since—the works contained in the book A Disease of Language, which was mentioned in regards to poetics in this column’s second installment, are specifically concerned with the magical history of his hometown of Northhampton, England.

No work of Moore’s, however, is more specifically involved with magic than his opus Promethea, a title that at first appears to be a pastiche of Wonder Woman and quickly becomes a near-polemic on Moore’s Kabbalistic (by way of Crowley) ideas. While a study of comic technique in Promethea could fill a sixteen-week course, the idea of cartography and language plays a specific part—the Kabbalah, after all, is a cosmological map itself. When Moore’s characters begin their quest up through the spheres towards the Godhead, the Kabbalah is drawn in the manner of a London Tube map, even as Moore and his artist J.H. Williams III wander around the station.

In a confrontation with Mercury, Moore’s heroines are informed that the gods are abstract ideas, dream ideas that could only exist through imagery and stories, and Mercury implies a link between hieroglyphics or vase paintings and modern day comics in the existence of myth, all the while looking directly at the reader. And just moments before, the map of time has been up-ended; Promethea is trapped wandering a road in the shape of a Mobius strip, and she sees herself coming and going along the path just as the reader can see each simultaneous depiction of her on the comic page.

These conceptual tricks reach their apex in the final issue, in which the characters in the story have attained a certain amount of enlightenment, and Promethea speaks directly to the reader in a complicated fold-out poster of an issue that takes the idea that Boswash suggested and cranks it up. On either side of the poster, Promethea travels around the image, and one can follow her and read her dialog in order, or follow a series of “trails” that connect disjointed ideas in a different narrative order—or, one can read it one page at a time as it appears in the book format! In attempting to convey his unique view of magic and the nature of the universe, Moore has completely rewired the natural cartography of reading comics.

XVII. “...an infinitely complex landscape…”

Matt Madden, one of the co-authors of the cartooning textbook Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (and also, now, one of the series editors of the “Best American Comics” line), had earlier worked on an experimental text titled 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, an attempt to do a comics version of the original Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, one of the co-founders of the Oulipo movement in experimental literature. Madden created ninety-nine variations of the same single-page comic script, attempting to show the variety of possibilities the comics medium had available to it in the telling of a simple tale. In addition to camera angle challenges that would fit in a similar experiment in cinema (all close-shot, all low-shot, etc.), and a series of style imitations (done as Jack Kirby, done as an EC horror comic), there were some very inventive choices. One particular selection had the story told not with a series of panels or dialog balloons, but rather with a full-page map. The physical objects are boundaries and borders, the people geography, and the dialog and thought are roadways to travel—while it’s obviously not the most clear of his storytelling options, one can piece together the story being told even from the map.

Madden’s use of cartography for storytelling is on the one hand the most “unnecessarily” experimental, but it also serves as a perfect example for how time operates in comics as a unique geography, an oft-overlooked aspect of the medium that informs creators in all the genres and forms. While it is true that much of the best work in comics is getting passed over in favor of a more select group of creators, this element is one of many that shows the various comic camps aren’t really that separate (I mean really, on some level, is Ware’s pathetic deity superhero that far off from Lethem’s wandering neighborhood superhero Omega?).

The “cartography of time” that comics can represent is something that film is less suitable for, but I’m drawn back to the awkward “panel” superstructure of Ang Lee’s Hulk, which I mentioned in the first installment of this column. In zooming out to view footage of many clips from the film at once before moving into another, it couldn’t quite get across the feeling of reading a comic while watching a film, but there’s a definite link there, a map of the story of the film using chosen moments in sequence. And even the lackluster adaptation of From Hell couldn’t entirely gloss over the strange beauty in London’s urban geography with its magical import.

Horrocks wrote of McCloud’s book in “Inventing Comics,”

“Like any map, it presents only one way of reading an infinitely complex landscape, thereby suppressing other possible readings. There are some alternative readings which McCloud is clearly wanting to suppress—those dreaded ’stereotypes’ that ’defined what comics could be too narrowly.’ But even these maps can be useful at times—they helped guide me on my journey through the history of the industry, for example. They are, after all, the same maps that guided many of the cartoonists, publishers and readers who built that industry.”

The divisions aren’t going to go away, any more than the divisions that split prose, cinema, video games, and other media into their own various subsections. And while the market forces at work today make those divisions so pronounced that many brilliant creators are going largely unheard, they can also be used as landmarks on a map for exploring comics as a whole, even while finding the similarities from territory to territory.

Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.