On Cities and Comics: Report from Berlin

I am writing these notes at the end of a three day conference in Berlin centering on the relationship between comics and the city. I am not certain that I can do justice to what has been a diverse and yet programmatic conference, one thatlooked closely at the place of the urban imagination in comics from Japan, the United States, and Europe. For one thing, I have spent a good chunk of time the past few days in a kind of narcoleptic stupor - a consequence of fatigue from the end of the term, jet lag, and sweltering heat. (I suspect that the temperatures in Germany might have been one of the factors that convinced George W. Bush about the realities of global warming while he was here for the G8 summit). The only thing keeping me from simply melting into the floorboards has been a steady flow of iced Chai from the Starbucks around the corner. So, what follows will be a lose set of impressions rather than anything resembling live blogging or detailed notes.

The first thing I will note is the high level of sophistication about comics and comic culture running throughout the event - not simply the speakers who are some of the leading German (and American) thinkers about the medium but also the audience, which was full of bright and articulate young men and women who have developed a knack for thinking and talking about comics in all of their many manifestations. My friend, Greg Smith from Georgia State University, referenced the eagerness many of us have to find a comics homeland - a place where traditions are known and respected and innovative work is taken seriously. Might this be Brussells with its comics museums and festivals or Tokyo with its six story tall comic shops or San Diego, host of the Comicon to end all Comicons, or even the fictional Hicksville (where the library has all of those comics imagined and never actually produced by the grand masters of the medium)? Berlin might also be a worthy candidate if the conversations here were any indication.

At the same time, those of us who were here from the United States and speaking about American comics felt a kind of cultural divide. While it was clear this audience was passionate about various European comics traditions, especially Francophone comics, and about Manga, few of them knew much or cared much about the American comics tradition. Of course, the opposite is also true: I made a conscious decision some time ago that I could know American comics inside and out or I could try to sample comics from around the world. It's really been only in the past year or so that I have started to explore a broader range of national tradition, hence the writing I've shared here about Polish or Mexican comics. For me, a pleasure of the conference was learning more about writers like Tardi, Enki Bilal, or Marc-Antoine Mathieu, or to get an introduction to recent developments in Belgian comics by one of the country's leading comics scholars.

The conference made a very strong case for the centrality of the urban imagination to comics, across national traditions, and the centrality of comics as a medium for understanding how we have made sense of the experience of cities in the 20th and 21st century. The conference organizers Jorn Ahrens and Arno Meteling, lay out the basic claims in their prospectus for the conference:

There is undoubtedly a link between the medium comics and the big city as a modern living space. This emphasizes the need to investigate on the one hand a) how specifically urban topoi, self-portrayals, forms of cultural memorizing and variant readings of the city (strolling, advertising, architecture, detective stories, mass phenomena, street life) are being incorporated in comics, and on the other hand b) if comics have special competences for capturing urban space and city life and representing it aesthetically because of their hybrid nature consisting of words, pictures and sequences. Does the spatial inertia of the sequences in contrast to film, video or television result in a retardation in order to ease the saturation that has been attributed to the big city since 1900 (Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin)? This theory is backed up by numerous contemporary comic books and by the fact that the screen adaptations of comic books are limited to urban scenarios. Moreover, the history and the origins of comics support this theory.

From an historical point of view and against the backdrop of the modern age, comics are inseparably tied to the city: the history of comics begins - not taking into consideration the long history of combining pictures and words since the Ancient World and the tradition of illustration, caricature and picture stories in the 18th and 19th century - with the emergence of comic strips in American newspapers around 1900....

Parallel to expanding the comic strips successively to whole pages the space reserved for the city becomes bigger. Winsor McCay for instance uses the whole page as basis for his comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland (1906-1914) in order to create fantastic worlds and real cities. Eventually, comics outgrow the newspaper world: when the new format of the comic book is established as an independent publication, new characters fill the cities with life. Will Eisner's Spirit, which started out as a comic strip in newspapers, lives in a nameless city, Superman inhabits the futuristic Metropolis (1938), and Batman fights crime first in Manhattan/New York (1939) and from 1941 on in Gotham City. Thus, various distinctive comic book series at the end of the 1930s explore the city and its function as living space and origin of modern myths. In particular, the characters of the superhero comics (Superman, Batman) and the detective comics (The Spirit, Dick Tracy) delve deeper into the aesthetic, atmospheric and scenaristic possibilities of the city. From then on, the city acts even more as the foremost setting for comics of all genres and stylistic variants. The city becomes an important plot element, even an atmospheric and symbolic protagonist, and suddenly the focus of attention in a whole lot of genres.

From this point of view, comics have a certain self-reflexivity, whenever they act as a genuine medium of the urban modern age and adopt the cultural prerequisites of this modern age in the big city. This self-reflexive nature of the medium in terms of its history, mediality, cultural environment and origin can be found particularly in comics that treat, narrate and continue symbolic manifestations of the urban modern age. By now, every modern metropolis in the world has been made the subject of comics: Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, and time and again New York. At the same time, many fictional cities from comics have found their way into the global cultural memory: Superman's Metropolis, Batman's Gotham City, the New York of Spider-Man, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four as devised by Marvel, Tokyo and the post-nuclear Neo-Tokyo of manga or the Duckburg of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

The authors and artists of the influential science-fiction comics from France and Belgium as well have incorporated urban space time and again into their narratives (Caza, Moebius, Bilal, Druillet, Adamov, Mézières). In doing so, they referred to patterns from other media and the whole repository of cultural history and iconography, which is occasionally exceeded and expanded: for instance, completely new narrative techniques are applied in Moebius' Le garage hermétique, or architectural universes are developed, e.g. by Moebius, Marc-Antoine Mathieu, François Schuiten/Benoît Peeters (Les citées obscures), also by Warren Ellis/Darick Robertson (Transmetropolitan), Dean Motter/Michael Lark (Mr. X, Terminal City, Electropolis), Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Domo), and Enki Bilal (Nikopol), which exert their influence not only on cinematic settings (Blade Runner, Batman, Batman Returns, The Fifth Element, The Matrix), but also on postmodern architectural designs. The city as setting is also important because it acts as historical, significantly dense background (Tardi, Moore, Miller, Ware). In particular, the Franco-Belgian École Marcinelle, which is not limited to realistic series, has opened up the urban space for the so-called semifunnies (Franquin, Tillieux). Therefore, the subject of urbanity should obviously be explored in terms of connecting narrative strategies and visuality (horizontality, verticality, panoramic view), and certain urban qualities should be used in order to start an agenda for comics studies.</blockqoute>

This rationale statement offers a pretty good summary of the interconnections that emerged between the various papers presented at this event.

Jorn and Arno played an incredibly constructive role in planning this conference, asking the speakers to address urban themes through the lens of specific artists, while leaving each of us free to bring our own methodological and theoretical perspectives to the table. As a result, the conference covered a broad range of figures, including Will Eisner, Dean Motter, Alan Moore, and Outcault, as well as the European masters referenced earlier. This push towards a focus on specific artists, rather than broad theoretical claims, resulted in papers which combined close formal and thematic analysis of specific comics with broader conceptual frameworks about comics as a medium and about the various ways by which we understand and represent the experience of living within cities. And the conference was organized to offer contrasting perspectives on a range of different cities - including a rich paper on the ways the the Duckburg of Carl Bark's Donald Duck comics was translated into the very German Entenhausen for the German editions of his books and extending across imaginary cities like Gotham City and Terminal City as well as the very real New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Brussels. Surprisingly, there was no focus here on Berlin, the city which engulfed us, even as we were speaking.

The papers offered some glimpse of the ways that comics intercepted a range of other media forms, including discussions of comics in relation to architecture, painting, sculpture, theater, video games, the web, cinema, and literary storytelling. And the city was approached as a site of self-performance, as the focus of moral panic and social anxiety, as embodying our hopes for a more utopian future, as the site of estrangement and alienation, as a symbolic and mythic landscape whose monuments help to embody the lessons of the past, as a constantly changing and disorienting landscape, as part of a new globalized culture, as the space by which modern bureaucracies seek to rationalize human experience, and so much more.

From a formal perspective, we learned about the complexities of framing and gestures in the comics of Will Eisner (which Greg Smith traces back to both 19th century melodrama and vaudeville), about the complex roles which text plays in Outcault's early 20th century comics, about the mirroring structure of images in Alan Moore, about the bold play of color and narrational perspective in Bilal's Nikopol trilogy, and about the experiments in self-reflexivity which run through Mathieu's works.

Throughout, we saw how particular architectural features of urban environment leant themselves again and again to the borders and panels that help organize the space of the comics page, suggesting that the fit between comics and the city have as much to do with aesthetic as ideological reasons.

The issue of memory was another recurring theme that cut across the papers - from Scott Bukkatman's rift on the role that autobiographical perspectives have played in comics criticism through my own focus on the relationship of retrofuturism to the ways that the web has shifted our relationship to residual traces of older media forms and cultural practices, from the ways that Moore's work connects to the history of "memory palaces" to the ways that comics move back and forth across major transitional points in the culture, helping both French and Japanese readers understand the events of the Second World War as a lasting influence upon their culture.

The conference organizers are pushing to find a publisher for an anthology based on the conference. Normally, I am not convinced that most conferences cohere easily into a book but because of the strong editorial role which Aherns and Meteling brought to the organization of this event, I am convinced that this material would easily cohere into what could be a very important anthology on this topic.

I promised some of the European comics scholars that I met at the conference that I would help spread the word about what looks to be a fascinating new journal, Signs (Studies in Graphic Narratives), which centers primarily on the history of early comics and sequential art, from an international perspective. The first issue cuts across a range of national traditions, including a full color reproduction of an 18th century set of comic prints from Florence, a discussion of the prehistory of Manga in Japan (by Jacqueline Berndt), a consideration of Ally Sloper as a comic type by Roger Sabin, and some consideration of Imagerie Artistique, a series of prints produced for children in 19th Century France. I have not yet had a chance to do much more than skim through the articles but I see each as a valuable contribution to the growing body of research on the early history of graphic storytelling. The journal is lushly illustrated, reproducing scores of rare and hard to find images. As the issue's introduction explains, these articles each seem to offer "new pieces for the completion of the dispersed sort of puzzle that constitutes comics history." The editors are looking for possible contributors to their forthcoming issues as well as hoping that some American libraries will subscribe to the journal and make it available to their patrons. Interested parties can contact them at info@graphic-narratives.org.

From here, I am moving onto Helsinki to talk about media convergence and to Gothenburg, Sweden to speak about educational games at a conference which will also be attended by T.L. Taylor, James Paul Gee, and Helen Kennedy, among many others.

I will try to post at least a sample of my paper on Dean Motter and retrofuturism sometime early next week. So far, it exists only as a power point presentation and lives in my head. I hope to use the blog to nudge me into putting more of it down in writing.