Cybertron Street View

[Originally written for my Comic Cartography image blog.]

Who are maps for? Which way, temporally speaking, is a cartographer looking when collect their data and set down their lines?

The maps I grew up with, the ones in atlases and gloveboxes, looked to the future. Implicitly, they expect minimal change; their data will hopefully remain relevant in a month or a year or maybe even a decade. They mapped the present to benefit the future.

Narrative maps also look to the future, but instead of focusing on the present, they look to the past. They use minimal data, striving instead to create a sense of place or story. They map the past to preserve it for the future.

Examples:

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The first two maps above, attempt to reconstruct crimes of the past. In the third, Ken’s journey was through a place that no longer exists due to the mutable nature of the world of Mark Connery’s Rudy. The same sense of temporality—reconstructing a past in order to show people in the future—applies to historical maps as well.

But what about today’s post, along with the rest of the work of Tom Scioli? Who are these hectic diagrams made for, filled as they are with exploded views and character rundowns?

To explain, I want to take a closer look at Transformers vs GI Joe. It’s a series about change. However, as opposed to Ken’s Journey from Rudy, which is full of unwilled, natural, biological change, the change in TvGIJ is willful, harnessed, and directed. Control of that change is the main goal of the book’s conflict. (Tom Scioli himself harnesses change in his review of Transformers: Age of Extinction, willing it from a bad movie to a good one.)

The power to impose change is most often controlled by Cobra and the Decepticons, the antagonists of the book, but even when it’s in the hands of GI Joe, they fail to fully understand what they’re doing. The results are purposeful mutation toward forms that further destruction and fascism. The past is seen as a scrapyard of materials available to be razed, moved, subverted, converted.

And as the rate of change speeds up, the future becomes increasingly hybridized and constantly escalated and enlarged—essentially unknowable to those of us in the present. Data becomes harder and harder to gather, and the data we get becomes less reliable, so what’s the point of maps?

Maps are useless for guidance in TvGIJ, so they become narrative, but for the narrative to be understood, the gap between past (ruined, confused) and future (unknowable) must be shrunk to a pinpoint—an eternal “now” exploding with data that could become meaningless in the next second.

There are obvious parallels to the real world. Mapping has taken a more iterative approach with Google’s Map and services like the Transit App.

And then there’s Google’s Street View. (Their fleet looks like real-life Transformers and GI Joe equipment:

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And you’re invited to enlist in their army.)

Street View is curated most dramatically at @9eyes. The images there could easily be translated into freeze-frame expositional comic pages; like those pages, they’re single moments that, once past, are unable to be visited or recreated. They are maps created in the present for the present in the light of an impending and fickle future.

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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.

In Defense of Bad Maps

[Originally written for my Comic Cartography image blog.]

Sometimes I post some stinkers. Sure, there’s some brilliant work by Eliot R. Brown or Jaxon, but did I really need to post this Sal Buscema map of Mexico?

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Or this geometric map of Radiant City by Jaime Hernandez?

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Obviously, my answer is going to be, “Yes, I did need to post them,” and not just because of Professor X’s gnarly knuckles or those sweet hairdos Jaime always draws.

There are a couple reasons I like to post maps regardless of their level of whimsy or detail.

1) The first reason I post “bad maps” (and this speaks specifically to the subject of Professor X’s pointing) is because I want the data! I’m interested in how often different countries get represented, the level of detail, the context of those countries in a panel.

In globes, do certain countries face the reader more often than others? Do countries have consistent color palettes across different times and artists?

The only way to draw conclusions to questions like this is to collect all the examples I can find. Then I can write a book about it and become rich and retire at a young age.

2) The second reason I do this has been called, in this somewhat-famous Reddit comment, “transformative fandom.” Basically, instead of saying, “This map is bad/lazy/worthless,” I want to ask, “If this is how the map is shown in the world of the story, what does that mean?” In talking about this point, I want to focus on the Jaime map of Radiant City. It’s very easy to assume that the artist just threw some abstract shapes up on the panel in an attitude of just getting the drawing done or wanting to focus on the human elements of the story.

But couldn’t it be fun to assume that these shapes are a real and accurate representation of a city? The black lines must be roads, right? They can’t be buildings, since no one would shove buildings that close together. What could the different colors represent? We know that Mister X built Radiant City as beautiful pyschotecture, but the city was altered after he abandoned the project, and those alterations end up driving people mad. Does the yellow shading represent the changes that were made? Many of the yellow areas break up a grid with unusual shapes: a hexagon near the middle, those two concentric circles on the left. Stuff like that certainly drives me crazy when I’m trying to drive around. Sure, I could handle that one circle in the bottom right, but two concentric circles? With my luck, they’re probably one-ways, so I couldn’t even just turn around.

This sort of transformative fandom has history both in comics and outside of them. The Elder Scrolls fandom (such as the Elder Scrolls lore subreddit) combs the games and their paratexts for bits of info in order to compile sweeping theories about the world of the games. One of the mottoes driving their approach is “boring and therefore wrong,” which means that they should avoid statements like, “This character was portrayed in a certain way due to the limitations of the computers of the time” and instead look for more intricate and entertaining answers.

Transformative fandom in comics seems extra applicable, though, since comic readers are already forced to decide what happens in the narrative gaps that occur between every panel. Also, there’s the vaunted No-Prize. It was awarded to Marvel fans who chose to explain away perceived continuity mistakes with research, pseudoscience, magic, and more. This was an incentive for fans to participate in the creation of the stories, and it was set in opposition to those fans who would only nitpick and call out mistakes.

(There is, of course, some danger in buying too much into this kind of fandom—it can become a way of commercializing interest. For companies like Marvel, they can let fans simulate ownership of and power over a franchise without actually giving anything up.)

Lastly, transformative fandom is a neat approach because, well, it’s empathy. Being a “transformative fan” of people around you encourages you to look into their lives to find things that justify their behavior instead of being angry about perceived slights. “What kind of things might be going on with them to make them act that way?” (Just like with fandoms, that sort of thinking can be dangerous in relationships with a power imbalance or when only one side is participating.)

But That’s as Close as You Come: On Cerebus and Usefulness

[Originally written for my Comic Cartography image blog.]

I’d never read Cerebus until the past month, when a friend lent me the first four volumes. Watching Sim zero in on his skills and become a better cartoonist was honestly inspiring, but the values espoused by the characters are exhausting. In the world of Cerebus, you either take advantage of people or you get taken advantage of. Characters like Julius, Astoria, and Weisshaupt seek power over others by means of manipulation, and Cerebus is apparently their foil—an example of Robert E. Howard’s pure man, untainted by civilization, who only wants to live daily by the strength of his own arm.

Implicit in that “pure” go at life, though, is control over others: their subordination to him as they stay out of his way until he needs a drink or a lay. In wanting people to stay away unless they can offer him something, Cerebus exhibits a kind of privileged despotism that differs from the politicians of the book only in its assumption that what people will do outside of his view won’t affect the aardvark barbarian.

The maps of Cerebus follow from this cynical, mercenary viewpoint. In most cases, they aren’t the works of fancy that are typical of the genre; they aren’t there to entice the imagination or lend a sense of realism to an otherwise fantastical world. Instead, they’re all homodiegetic—they’re assumed to “live” in the world of the story—and they all serve political ends.

The first map we see is a simple floorplan for how to protect a festival floor. After that, we’re shown the breakdown of the voting districts during the Iestian election. These maps serve to illustrate the distribution of power, firstly helping to place guards during a festival, and then showing who needs to be influenced so that Cerebus can be elected prime minister.

The only cartographic flights of fantasy that are allowed in the first four volumes of Cerebus are those of conquest. We see Cerebus imagine his Aardvarkian Empire in High Society, and we see that map melt out of his dreams in Church & State II.

I think this is my problem with Cerebus. Even when characters are fighting for a better world—even when they’re just trying to imagineone—it’s a world that is only better for themselves. There’s no one seeking a radical rehaul of society under the auspices of equality or justice, and if someone claims to be doing that, they’re just playing for sympathy with the plebes. People don’t start with high ideologies and then become corrupted by a system; everyone starts corrupt, and the ideologies are just a veneer.

This might be realism or pragmatism to some, but I’m going to continue to think that some people in the world are struggling to fight the good fight.

Mutable Mutants

[Originally written for my Comic Cartography image blog.]

Chris Claremont’s catalog of tics is well-known: verbosity, repeated catchphrases, and exceeding focus on mental enslavement and the joy it can bring. What part could maps possibly play in this?

But there are a lot of maps in that final, mad dash to the Muir Island Saga that is Claremont’s exit from the title. They’re homodiegetic maps–that is, they occur inside the plot of the book, in full view of the characters (as opposed to the heterodiegetic maps, say, at the beginning of fantasy novels). The maps are there for the characters.

But unlike in The Losers, the maps aren’t something to be understood–they’re not foreshadowing difficult missions. Instead, the maps serve as narrative shortcuts. The remove all the business of searching and sleuthing; they directly point the way for the heroes or villains.

They belong to a little subset of late-Claremont plot devices–maps, jets, environmental suits–that serve to remove the characters’ struggles with the everyday. They don’t get hot or cold or even that hurt; mutates don’t have to go to the bathroom; everything they’re looking for is findable. Even when they live in the middle of the Outback, they can teleport across the world to get food and decor.

Soap opera elements are also abandoned; there are no more baseball games, and romance, often drawn out across pages during the ‘70s, is confined to ambiguous, single-panel kisses.

As the everyday drops away, the entire cast becomes violently mutable. Who can deal with romance when you’re not even sure who you are, were, and will be from moment to moment?

But let me go back. It all starts with the X-Men’s apparent deaths in Dallas. They’re given a chance to redefine themselves and relocate to the Australian Outback. They find that they’re invisible to cameras and scanners, and any mention of them in computer databanks is deleted. Without these secondhand methods of observation, they have a chance to define themselves based only on direct interactions, which is a freedom that no one could ever experience in our world. Self-definition at its finest.

Unfortunately, they never really get the chance to exercise this opportunity. Here’s a rundown of the many changes they go through upon being given the opportunity to reinvent themselves:

  • Rogue loses her powers and is taken over by the psychic remnants of Carol Danvers
  • Wolverine loses his powers and becomes old and sick (which is sort of his antithesis)
  • Polaris is taken over by the psychic entity Malice
  • Madelyne Pryor is influenced by Mr. Sinister and the demon N’astrith, eventually turning evil
  • the rest of the X-Men are, in turn, influenced by Madelyne, now calling herself the Goblin Queen
  • Longshot disappears
  • Rogue disappears through the Siege Perilous (a magical reinvention device) and is presumed dead
  • Storm is turned into an amnesiac child and is presumed dead
  • Polaris is stripped of her powers
  • Polaris gets new powers that make her grow
  • Psylocke, Dazzler, Colossus, and Havok go through the Siege Perilous
  • Colossus lives as a human artist
  • Havok becomes an anti-mutant Genoshan magistrate
  • Psylocke is made to look like an Asian, gets a new power, and becomes a ninja
  • Moira MacTaggart, Legion, and the rest of Muir Isle are influenced by the Shadow King
  • Banshee loses his mouth, Marvel Girl grows tentacles, and Callisto becomes a model
  • Cyclops becomes a Hound thing
  • Rogue becomes two bodies and loses her powers and lives among dinosaurs
  • Storm becomes a mutate and then an adult again
  • Professor X is replaced by a Skrull (or is it two Skrulls?)
  • Psylocke is replaced by a Skrull
  • A bunch of other X-Men are taken over by the Shadow King

And this is all in three years of the title. This intense and constant change is only exacerbated by the number of artists sharing duties on the title: Marc Silvestri, Rick Leonardi, Jim Lee, Kieron Dwyer, Bill Jaaska, Mike Collins, Whilce Portacio, Klaus Janson, John Byrne, Michael Golden, Larry Stroman, Art Adams, Paul Smith, Andy Kubert, Steven Butler–and that’s just the pencillers! The long runs of Cockrum or Byrne (or even Smith or Romita) are things of the past. The portrayals of the X-Men change as often as their identities, mindsets, and powers.

The overall effect is almost akin to the body horror of an alternative comic such as Charles Burns’s Black Hole: no one is who they want to be or who they thought they were, and they’re all struggling to attain a stable self that will never come. However, with bodily needs and everyday errands rendered moot by the plot devices that kicked this whole essay off, Claremont’s body horror (as can be expected from a superhero) is writ large and dramatically. Marvel Girl bemoans the loss of her telekinesis but exults in her half-dozen tentacle arms, only to lose the appendages just as she’s getting used to them. It’s not that the individual changes are horrifying; it’s that the rate of change itself is horrifying, too fast, and never when it’s wanted. It’s the generation gap, the medical and technological advances, the niche movements becoming mainstream and the mainstream fracturing, all at once and over and over.

Change itself has never been the enemy in X-Men. The villains have always been those that try to force change according to their own viewpoints and against the will of others. In the early X-Men stories, these villains were bigots or racists or mutant supremacists, and they tried to force change at a societal level, shouting to the world so that it would reflect their moral values.

In stark contrast, the villains of these twilight Claremont years enact change on a personal level, both physically and psychically: the Goblin Queen rewriting the citizens of New York, the Nanny’s child-reversion weapons, Genosha’s de-sexing and de-bodying, Masque and his enforced grotesque, the Skrulls as body snatchers, and the multitude of psychic infiltrators.

The horror of these last few years of Claremont’s run comes from the fact that the medium of conflict has been altered. The war is no longer fought with words and weapons. This battle is being fought over the shape of your flesh and the tint of your mind. The battleground is your own body, so you can’t choose to ignore the fight anymore.

So the world can spin on as it was, clearly mapped and labeled. The bad guys have a different canvas in mind for the forceful aesthetic of their ethos: your body, rendered into decay, wrapped tight in leather, and (perhaps joyfully) swinging a mass of tentacles.

[See all the X-Men maps here.]

Rudy’s Chimeric Cartography & Fun

[Originally written for my Comic Cartography image blog.]

It’s been months since I got a copy of the Rudy collection, and I still think of it a couple times a week. Rudy is malleable and weird without a hint irony. Due to its earnest naivete, it’s pliable world is closest to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which is not a comparison I make lightly.

In the deserts of Coconino County, though, the shifting environment switches between mundane (but absolutely aesthetically pleasing) set designs: a cactus becomes a potted plant, and a mesa becomes a slice of moon scooped hollow. It has a feeling of vaudeville set-switching; between panels, someone’s dragging out new props and rolling out new backgrounds.

In the land that Mark Connery has constructed for Rudy and friends, though, the settings shiver and melt on-panel, and the characters are liable to do the same. Compared to Herriman’s careful stagecraft, Connery’s equally unpredictable world seems to be more of a biological process, messier and less meticulous than Coconino.

In a world that’s constantly changing, what use are maps? At their most practical, maps are constructed for future use. “Here is a route that has worked in the past, and you can use it in the future.” In Rudy, the routes and lands that have been mapped could shift or disappear at any moment. This means that, looking forward, maps are useless as practical devices. Instead, they serve as memoirs: an attempt to record the state of the environment in the face of constant alteration.

Rudy’s world is ours in fast-forward (and weirder). We can look back at maps made hundreds of years ago, compare them to our present surroundings, and even extrapolate the goals and worldview of the original cartographers, turning them into a narrative. In Rudy, maps are worthless to future viewers, so they exist only as narratives.

[Look at all these Rudy maps!]

Losers Week

[Originally written for my Comic Cartography image blog.]

In case it wasn’t obvious, all the posts this week are from the Vertigo series The Losers. Written by Andy Diggle and with art mostly from Jock, it was an entertaining and well-plotted espionage book.

With art assists by Shawn Martinbrough, Nick Dragotta, Alé Garza, Ben Oliver, and Colin Wilson (who is one artist I always wish I could see more from), it was a book with a distinct look. The Lee Loughridge colors unified the whole book beautifully, and I was especially impressed with the blocky, geometrical shapes his colors took on for the flashback arc that ran through issues 14 to 17.

Maps play an interesting role in The Losers (and in other espionage books). In fantasy or sci-fi titles, the maps are most often for the reader’s benefit–they serve to orient us to a strange land filled with alien names. The characters in those stories usually know much more about their world than we do.

In espionage books, though, the characters’ world is similar to our own, so the maps aren’t for us–the maps are for the characters. In a fantasy world, maps might indicate a dangerous forest or a foreboding mountain. In espionage, the danger is often hidden in the next country over or the next floor up, and with information at a premium, a good map can be the difference between life and death.

Many of the maps on this blog serve us, the readers; the maps in The Losers serve the characters.