Here Be Data Ghosts: Entropy and Gaps in Comics and Maps

[Originally written for my Comic Cartography image blog.]

I was lucky enough to run into Saman Bemel-Benrud at Autoptic. He’s a cartoonist, but he’s also a designer for Mapbox, “a mapping platform for developers.” Given my interests, I asked him if he ever considered putting maps in his comics. His response was something along the lines of, “I always want to, but maps just need too much data.” This statement has been flowering in my head ever since.

Because Bemel-Benrud is right—the imminently important work of geographers is to use data to portray the world around us in order to help us understand how place, population, and politics all inform and direct each other. (Check out the Census Bureau or, to pick a random geographer, the work of Jamie Peck for more info.)

And it’s very easy to see comics as being opposed to that on a very basic level: comics are the storytelling medium that most obviously point out their narrative gaps—their lack of data. Whereas stories in all mediums have to omit things (and much fun can be had in deciding which moments to omit and why), most comics set discrete borders around their gaps—the gutters between panels. When I first talked with Bemel-Benrud, I equated comic gutters with an absence of data. Comic gutters are where information goes to die; they’re bordered entropy.

And looking at Bemel-Benrud’s comics, I see a lot of grappling with a lack of information. His 2dcloud​ mini, “Abyss,” shows two characters wrestling with the tension of unknowable space: a blank hole in a construction site and the ghost that appears when one of the characters tries to photograph the hole.

Ghosts themselves are a sort of interface for a lack of data. They represent our inability to know what happens after death, and they impose themselves on our world as blank spaces demanding to be known—a comic gutter between the past and the present. The ghost in “Abyss” acknowledges this: “Look around. On your side, matter trapped in space. On mine, information frozen in code. Linked in a cycle of co-creation. But separated by an impenetrable boundary.”

But the more I think about my meeting with Bemel-Benrud, the more potential I see for maps in comics. I realized that comic gutters aren’t a lack of information; they’re a place where the artist chose not to or didn’t have the means to portray the information. There’s information there, though; it’s information that is decoded by the reader rather than the writer. “Information frozen in code.”

It’s a bit of a stretch to connect this with maps, but like with comics, there are gaps in maps that indicate where geographers need to look next. Like comics, these spaces are set off so that participants know to look there and interpret what they find.

Everyone’s familiar with “Here be dragons/lions,” the classical phrase used to indicate an unknown area—an invitation to tell another part of the story of the world. The tragedy of course, was the built-in assumption that the mapmaker or a proxy needed to go to that place in order to tell that story. They were unwilling or unable to let those places define themselves. Most comics are more inviting with their blank spaces. In more contemporary times, we’ve seen that top-down collection of data overturned with crowdsourced efforts to map places such as disaster sites—a place in the hegemony where others are invited in to define a space.

In saying that maps need data, there’s also an assumption of which data is useful. Some of my favorite maps would be useless to a geographer or foreign visitor. Take a look at this map of Palomar from Love & Rockets: Blood of Palomar, and the map of New Zealand from Hicksville.

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The first reminds me of my own time growing up in a small town: street names were unimportant, but the aerial view affords a sense of spatial relationships that couldn’t be understood from the ground. The New Zealand map was drawn by two men abducted from the island to train others to dress flax. The men had no idea how to do this (they had no data), but they could map the island. Their map contains the data that matters the them, but it wouldn’t be much use to a 21st century tourist. Who’s defining what data matters?

I still absolutely cede Bemel-Benrud’s point that the best medium for a utilitarian map is, well, a map. But maps in comics can be used like the science in science fiction: they help us imagine a present and a future (respectively) the hard data of the “objective” society dictated by the cartographer/scientist is interpreted through a subjective interface of our own readings. We mix in our own data, and we possess the ghost.

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