Sam Cannon on "Comics and the City"
Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence
Reviewed by Sam Cannon
The comic strip, and its eventual evolutions, represents a product of modern urbanity. Since the initial appearance of comic strips in The New York Times (1877), New York World (1860), and New York Journal (1895), this artistic medium has been formed by the atmosphere of the city and has responded to its native space. Jörn Ahrens and Arno Meteling’s edited collection, Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence, provides a variety of perspectives on the profound relationship between urban spaces and their representation in the medium of comics. The title of this collection of essays signals the scope and breadth of the analysis offered by the contributors to this volume. Cities, like comics, are spaces that deal directly with texts: warnings, signage, advertisements, or instructions. The visual images that bombard the city dweller also become the creative space of the comic artist, and the organizing or sequencing of the continuous spaces of the modern urban center mirror the structuring panels and gutters that sequence the events of the comic. Just as urban spaces combine and play with texts, images, and sequences, comics are, as Ahrens and Meteling point out in their introduction, “a unique hybrid media that combine words and pictures in a spatial sequence,” and as a result, “comics are confusing to readers of linear texts as well as to contemplative views of paintings and photos.” The editors of this collection argue that because of the unique features of the comic medium and its relationship to the city, there is a “strong interaction between comics and the urban space as the center of modern culture and daily life in the twentieth century.” The book achieves this analysis by finding connections between comics, mass media, modern culture, and urbanity.
The collection is organized into five sections that deal with history, nostalgia, superheroes, crime, and reflections related to the city space as it is represented in comic form. The majority of the contributors to this volume, including the editors, offer a European perspective on a genre that has strong roots in the US. These contributors conceive of new ways to interpret classic North American comics, and they also explore comics that come from the international community, thus offering a very comprehensive view of the city as imagined in comics. In-depth, academic analysis of the city and the comic keeps each chapter highly intellectual and professional, and the authors are non-apologetic for their serious investigation of what had previously been considered a genre for children and teenagers. This academic approach brings traditional literary, film, and urban studies texts in conversation with comics to reveal their inherent connections with modernity and urbanity. From Vitruvius to Roland Barthes to Michel Foucault, and from Georg Hegel to Walter Benjamin to Ben Highmore, the volume takes on important theories and applies them rigorously to comics in an attempt to contribute intelligently to the contemporary dialogue on urban spaces. In the end, readers familiar with critical theory will find this book extremely approachable, but it may prove a more difficult read for comic enthusiasts unaccustomed to theoretical methodologies.
For scholars of urban studies, Comics and the City draws out the influences that the real city can have on artistic productions and, likewise, brings to light how the multifaceted medium of the comic can change the ways in which urban spaces are lived and imagined. Jason Bainbridge’s chapter, “‘I Am New York’—Spider-Man, New York City and the Marvel Universe,” points out that the use of real landmarks and cityscapes in Marvel comics has created characters that are “products of the city but [...] are ‘super’ in that they can transcend those limitations (of gridlock, crime, and other urban constraint) that the city places on the rest of us.” The heroes produced by modern urban spaces can be read as meaningful representations of the hopes, fears, and future of those spaces. The entirety of the anthology is not dedicated to superhero comics but rather spans the wide genre of comics from Sunday newspaper strips to the philosophical graphic novel. Whatever the style of their examples, whether superhero comics or comic adaptations of classic literature, the authors of this volume are capable of putting the city at the forefront of their investigations by reading the urban space as the protagonist of these comics.
With its serious treatment of a complex genre that has been seen as less-than-serious and simplistic in the past, Ahrens and Meteling’s collection contributes significantly to the study of urbanity and urban spaces. The comic is shown to be inseparable from modernity and the city, and it is therefore a valuable tool through which urban spaces can be analyzed because of the comic’s textual, visual, and sequential possibilities. Other than the text by Bainbridge, however, there is little time invested in the real-world influence that comics have on city spaces. Bainbridge shows how, in 2007, “Spider- Man Week in NYC” truly changed the urban space; the influence for those changes came directly from the comic. There is space in the future for others to take on connections between comics and urban spaces that were not investigated in this book, such as the phenomena of Comic-Cons (conventions such as San Diego Comic- Con or WonderCon), which not only create real-world events in large urban spaces but also physically alter city spaces and change the local economy. Comics and the City may not be able to encompass all the possible intersections between comics and the city, but it is a promising start for a field that is ever broadening and appears full of potential.