Comics and the City: An Interview with Jorn Ahrens

In 2007, I attended a really exciting conference in Berlin which brought together comics scholars from the United States and Europe to talk about the intersections between comics and the city. Here's a blog post that I wrote about the conference at the time. More recently, the conference organizers Jorn Ahrens and Arno Meteling have published a book, Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence which builds upon the conference, including many of the key papers presented as well as some edited for the collection. My own work on Retrofuturism in the comics of Dean Motter was included in the book in a slightly different form that the version I shared with readers of this blog. The book is organized around five key themes: History, comics and the city; Retrofuturistic and nostalgic cities; Superhero cities; Locations of crime; and the City-Comic as a Mode of reflection. I have really been enjoying reading some of the other contributions to the book. Among the comics and artists represented in the collection are The Yellow Kid, Jason Lute's Berlin, the works of Eurocomics masters such as Francois Schuiten and Jacques Tardi, Batman's Gotham City, Ex Machina, Promethea, Spider-man's New York, Will Eisner, From Hell, 100 Bullets, Carl Barks, and Enki Bilal.

Hoping to call attention to this collection, I reached out to Jorn Ahrens, who teaches Cultural Sociology at the University of Giessen, to share some of his own thinking about the intersection of comics and urban studies. Here's what he had to share.

A central premise of the book is that comics have played a key role in producing and reproducing images of the city. Why is there such a close connection between this medium and the urban imagination?

Joern: The medium itself stems from the emergence of urban culture, especially from a mass media that can not be imagined without the urban environments of modernity. That way, from the beginning, comics can be seen as a medium in and by which a modern urban culture reflects itself by establishing certain narratives and images that help to clarify the self-understanding concerning in which "reality" people might be living apart from their nearest life-world. Comics can do that so profoundly, because they are the first medium that successfully combines the elements of word and image which means that they create a double representation of the world. Word and image both reflect on the social world they are produced in and they may also comment each other. With regard to those very new and unconvenient urban environments they massively participate in the construction of specific imagologies of the contemporary, which is: images of the cultural reality that, although they remain being images, help create access to reality and its perception.

Are there specific ideas about the city which originate with comics or do you see comics as primarily replicating ideas which are in broader circulation?

Joern: I see primarily the coincidence of the historical emergance of an environment of mass society, most clearly accentuated in modern urbanity with its implementation of the modern self, speed, a stone-born-nature, etc. and new types of mass media of which the comic is one. This coincidence, in my view, feeds a very particular and reflexive relation between the comic and the city. The film, too, is involved in this development. However, I see the comic being special here when its frozen sequentiality also corresponds with the frozen architecture of the sublime that the modern city contunally tries to realize.

What have comics added to our understanding of what it means to live in the city?

Joern: Especially they added a kind of commonly shared iconography of the city. Comics made the city readable. The city as social realm strongly refers to communication via images. Comics help turning these images into cultural narratives and aesthetics and to create outstanding icons of modern identity, landmarks of our self-understanding that are, by definition, not bound to specific cities or nations.

Your book cuts across some key divides which shape how comics get discussed, discussing commercial and art comics, American and European comics, historical and contemporary comics side by side. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of adopting such an inclusive approach?

Joern: The greatest disadvantage is, of course, that the field is too broad--you will always miss something. The nice advantage of the approach is that we are able to offer a sort of panorama that covers all these aspects that you are mentioning and in which combination only you might get that kind of overview we had in mind.

Yet, you also made a decision not to include Japanese comics in your mix. Why? What might such comics have told us about the nature of the urban imagination in comics?

Joern: Well, that's kind of an odd story that tells you more about the adventures of editing a book than of conceptualizing it. The answer to this question is far off from intellectuality. As you know, the idea to realize the book based on a conference we held in Berlin in 2007--and that involved a manga section for we, of course, believe manga to be one of the aesthetic and narrative core genres to presently approach urbanity in comics. Unfortunately, we have been victims of some evil curse that, one by one, took away from us any manga author after we grasped him or her. One disagreed with the book's concept, one was depressive, one was moving house, two just vanished and never answered e-mails again. It's a pity. If ever one or two manga scholars would show up who don't vanish again after two seconds, I'd plea for a special supplemental printing.

Some of the comics you discuss deal with specific real world cities while other cities are the projection of the author's imagination. How do these different strategies allow reflection on the urban experience?

Joern: The urban experience is a genuinely imaginative one. It comes up as a dreamworld or as "cities of the fantastic" to put it with the comics by Schuiten and Peeters. Take Berlin, City of Stones, for example--there you can find out that the dealings with the real, historically accurately depicted city are always involved into discourses of imagination about the city and its reality. On the other hand, truly imaginated cities, used as parables or simply as topographies unlimited to the author's imagination, like in the works of Marc-Antoine Mathieu, might give room to communicate deep insight about the nature and concept of the modern city in general. Of course, the modern city is a diverse thing, nevertheless there seem to be some core principles that can be elegantly stated by the means of "graphic literature".

Are different genres of comics apt to lend themselves to utopian or dystopian conceptions of the city?

Joern: I wouldn't put it that way. In my view it is rather the city that creates a utopian or dystopian notion to the use of genre. The use and representation of the city itself, may it be in graphics or plot, determines what the genre communicates its readers.

Joern, you focused your essay on 100 Bullets. Can you explain to readers who may not be familiar with this independent title why you think it is especially significant in understanding the themes of the book?

Joern: What fascinates me in 100 Bullets is that this series creates a kind of double imagination of contemporary urban society and culture. So, firstly, we have quite a decent documentary-like approach that presents highly realistic depictions of the urban life from the far upper class down to homeless people. But at the same time this comic is fully aware of its artificiality (as any media product is one) which it shows by its emphasization of aesthetic stylization and narrative cliché. That way 100 Bullets aptly crosses out the distinction of seemingly reality and creates a double representation of the cultural and social environment it is set in that covers both documentation and deconstructing reflection. Hence, in my view 100 Bullets comes up as one of the most fascinating examples for the immanent capacity of popular culture to unfold complex meditations on the medium and society while it still provides a greatly entertaining narrative and exciting artwork. So, with which subject can that be done better than by covering the presently floating images of the modern city and its characters?

The book brings together comics scholars from Europe and North America. What did you see as the differences in the status and approach of comics research in these two contexts? Where do you see common ground between the researchers?

Joern: I think, the main difference still is the divide in the formal canon. European and North American scholars still often refer to quite a different collection of works stemming from the two quite different traditions in comic culture (and Europe, of course, is far from being a homogeneous comic topography itself). This is not banal or only a problem of data overview. Hence, the different approaches in style, format, and narration also produce a different understanding of the medium and its intellectual reflection. Comics here and there are absolutely not the same and yet--they are. Common ground, then, can definitely be seen in the goodbye to the concept of high culture as much as to the struggle between high and low in general. Research in comics stems from a wide understanding of culture that does not doubt the legitimacy and productivity of mass culture. This is the comic studies' advantage in comparison to film studies. Comics never really had their cinephilia that desparately made them try to be acknowledged as art, too, as we still have to face it in film studies. So, I'd say that comic studies are lustily participating in entering a new self-understanding of modern culture.

Jorn Ahrens is Stand-In Professor in Cultural Sociology at the University of Giessen. His research focuses on cultural theory, popular media, questions of the self, violence and myth. His publications include "How to Save the Unsaved World?: Visiting the Self in 12 Monkeys, Terminator 2, and The Matrix," in A. Holba and K. Hart (eds.) Media and the Appocalypse (2009) and "Der Mensch als Beute. Narrationen anthropologischer Angst im Science Fiction-Film" in Zeitschrift fur Kulture-und Medienforschung (2009). Ahrens was a visting scholar with the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT.