News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Book Review: Visible Cities, Global Comics: Urban Images and Spatial Form by Benjamin Fraser

Benjamin Fraser. Visible Cities, Global Comics: Urban Images and Spatial Form. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019. $30 paperback, $99 hardcover.

In Visible Cities, Global Comics: Urban Images and Spatial Form Benjamin Fraser takes an “urban cultural studies approach to the medium of comics” (2019: 3). Braiding comics theory alongside Marxist spatial thinkers such as Raymond Williams and Henri Lefebvre, Fraser argues that “comics artists necessarily comment on the way social power drives the structure of the city, resulting in the exclusion of certain groups and certain ideas” (2019: 6-7). While Visible Cities, Global Comics follows an increasing interest in the urban and spatial aspects of comics, as seen in edited collections such as Jörn Ahrens and Arno Meteling’s Comics and the City (2010) and Jason Dittmer’s Comic Book Geographies (2014), it has the distinction of being the first scholarly monograph on global urban representations in comics. The book theorizes how cities are represented in comics and how urban geography is implicated in the very structure of comics as an industrialized art form (Fraser, 2019: 217).

Fraser sees three important points of connection between cities and comics: subject matter, artistic form, and method of production. Explaining the importance of what he calls “an urban contribution to an interdisciplinary phase in comics studies,” he says:

First, the city becomes a privileged subject of comics. Second, the panel-and-gutter structure of comic strips, in particular, reflects the way in which art was impacted by tropes of linearity and rational planning that were themselves synonymous with the urban form. Third, the mass production of comics showcases its links with forms of industrialization that are urban in origin. (Fraser, 2019: 3, 7).

Fraser’s three-pronged analysis is perhaps one of the book’s greatest contributions. He does not merely analyze the visual representation of cities in comics, how “the city becomes an iconic expression of modernity in comics” (Fraser, 2019:7). Fraser’s analysis is both deeply formalist, attending to the geometrizing devices of the comics page, and deeply materialist, tracing the historical contexts and political economies under which comics creation, production, and distribution become intertwined with urban logics. The book’s second significant contribution is its global and temporal scope. The book comprises comics from across the globe from the 18th century through the contemporary moment, and Fraser carefully situates each comic within its unique geographic and sociohistorical location. While Fraser himself notes that the book emphasizes works that have already been translated to English, with the exception of a few Spanish-language comics, its attention to global comics slightly pushes the needle away from comics studies’ Anglophone emphasis and showcases the importance of highlighting newly translated and non-English works.

Tracing the intersections of content, form, and production, Fraser begins each chapter by offering a theoretical framework for reading comics through a particular node of urban cultural studies. He then provides a series of examples, examining each comics artist somewhat chronologically and offering biographical and historical context as necessary before moving into an analysis of their work. The first chapter focuses predominantly on early comics, beginning with Hogarth and then moving into the rise of comics alongside 20th Century print journalism, that are “decidedly urban in orientation,” comics that represent city spaces thematically and formally and engage urban readers (Fraser, 2019: 19). Where chapter one evaluates the representation of the city in comics, chapter two interrogates the affective, interior effects the city has on the lives of urbanites. It takes a Marxian approach to urban everyday life and evaluates how comics artists employ human senses to resist the “dehumanizing forces that pervade the modern city” (Fraser, 2019: 51). Chapter three critiques how urban planning is used to solidify power and privilege and explores how comics represent the material structures of the city as oppressive and limiting. Chapter tour interrogates the relationship between architecture and comics and evaluates how both construct the tactile, spatial experience of the city. The fifth and final chapter highlights how discourses about danger, disease, and death that inform our understanding of the city are fantastically depicted in comics. Together, these chapters investigate how the structure of the city reinforces patriarchal and normative social and state powers, the material impacts urban space has on the lives of urbanites, and how these dynamics get represented, questioned, and critiqued in comic narratives (Fraser, 2019: 217).

Throughout the book, Fraser maintains a commitment to emphasizing the material conditions of the city and comics production. For instance, the second chapter traces how the linear structure of modern urban planning coincides with the rise of mechanized industrialization—in short, how “capitalism survived throughout the 20th Century by producing space in its image” (Fraser, 2019: 52, 54). In this chapter, Fraser argues that Daishu Ma’s Leaf (2015) uses color and visual splendor to illustrate the Marxian premise that the human senses, such as pleasure and curiosity, can resist capitalism’s alienation (Fraser, 2019: 89). Perhaps the book’s most salient example of how comics intertwine with the material conditions of the industrialized city is Fraser’s analysis of Joost Swarte’s The Comix Factory (1980) in the fourth chapter.  Swarte’s single panel image, which was designed especially for the cover of RAW #2, illustrates how comics production is intimately connected to the structure of the city through its visual density, verticality, and graphic excess (Fraser, 2019: 141-143). Visible Cities, Global Comics bursts with examples of how comics are imbricated in the development of the city and its investments in industrialization and global capitalism, yet Fraser avoids straying into abstract musings about the formal “architecture” of comics that are devoid from a materialist base. As he makes clear, “It is important to understand that artistic representation is always tied to the material world in which we live” (Fraser, 2019: 12). Fraser’s Visible Cities, Global Comics: Urban Images and Spatial Form is expansive in scope and offers a significant contribution to both urban cultural studies and comics studies. Ultimately, the work encourages comics scholars to move beyond mere visual representation in their analysis and to consider the material conditions under which comics are produced and how processes of alienation, industrialization, and power manifest themselves in the formal structures of cities and comics.

Maite Urcaregui

A version of this review will appear in the 21:2 issue in the fall of 2020.

Maite Urcaregui is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Maite’s research investigates how multiethnic American authors participate in and problematize convenient discourses of citizenship, nation, and identity in their literature through strategic deployments of visual elements. Her work is forthcoming in The Routledge Companion to Gender and Sexuality in Comic Book Studies >Gender and the Superhero Narrative (University Press of Mississippi, 2018).

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