Comics scholars often compare comics to maps, and sometimes claim outright that comics are a type of map. There is nothing wrong with this  as a useful metaphor – there is clearly some sense of the verb “to map” such that comics map (fictional) three-dimensional spaces onto (real) two-dimensional pages, and a much more mysterious sense in which comics map the dynamic (again, fictional) passage of time onto static images on (again, real) paper. In everyday usage, however, the verb “to map” has much wider applicability that the technical meaning of the noun “map”. So the difficult question is this: Is there any real, substantial sense in which comics are maps, in something like the sense of the term as it is used by cartographers?

This idea, like many (most?) interesting thoughts about comics, likely has its origin in Scott McCloud’s work. Probably the clearest statement of McCloud’s idea occurs in Reinventing Comics, where he writes:

“… but to grasp the essence of comics I think it’s helpful to also begin seeing comics as this. An artist’s map of time itself.” (p. 206)

His point, as the discussion makes clear, is that comics involve the spatial representation of temporal information – in short, that comics involve mapping (verb!) time onto the space of the page. This is a deep insight. But it doesn’t mean that comics are, in the narrower sense of the term, genuine maps (noun!). Further, McCloud goes on to point out that “This idea of the temporal map describes more than just comics…” (p. 207). It is striking that only one of the four examples of ‘temporal maps’ depicted in   can plausibly be thought of as a map in the literal cartographic sense of the word.

Probably the most sophisticated examination of this idea is Antoni Moore’s article “Maps as Comics, Comics as Maps”. Following Dylan Horrock’s suggestion that we explore “the connections between comics and … cartography” he carefully details numerous similarities between maps and comics (both in production and in reception), and highlights various ways that comics could incorporate maps and vice versa. In addition, he makes it clear that a single work could simultaneously be a map and a comic (the lovely example at the top of this post is from his article). But the mere fact that some comics might also be maps does not mean all comics are maps (and Moore is careful not to commit himself to this stronger conclusion).

Horrocks, of course, makes much of this idea in Hicksville, where he has the great cartoonist Emil Kopen describe himself as a map-maker. This at least suggests that Horrocks himself takes the comics-are-maps idea seriously. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to do so.

So, are comics maps?


About roytcook

Roy T Cook is CLA Scholar of the College and John M Dolan Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of popular art. He is the co-editor of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012, w/ Aaron Meskin), The Routledge Companion to Comics (Routledge 2016, w/ Aaron Meskin & Frank Bramlett), and LEGO and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick (Wiley-Blackwell 2017, w/ Sondra Bacharach).

7 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on shanepatrickboyle and commented:
    “Pencil, Panel, Page: Questions About Comics” is my favorite comics blog and today’s topic relates to Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville, which is one of my favorite graphic novels.

  2. Hicksville is one of my favorite graphic novels (to the extent that there have been several Halloweens I have gone as Sam Zabel and been mistaken for Charlie Brown) and ever since I have read it, I have been doing a lot of thinking on the themes expressed in Hicksville and its spinoffs.

    Unfortunately, most of the writings I have since collected on the topics of narrative as cartography, cartography as fiction and mapping the imagination are in storage, so I will try not to jump too deep into this discussion at this time.

    I will say, however, that Horrocks suggests that comics are one of many forms maps can take. There can be also be prose maps, as Leonard Batts learns the hard way in Atlas # 1 at around the same time he finds out maps are illegal in the area he is travelling. Hone Heke explains in the the pages of a mysterious comic within Hicksville, “Some can be seen, like those made of wood or shells or weaving. But most are spoken with words.”

    Hicksville, to me, seems less concerned with the question of whether or not all comics are literal maps and more concerned with questions about how we go about mapping the seemingly unmappable. According to Hicksville, or at least according to Hone Heke, this is a very urgent question, because “We are entering a new world; one in which everything is alive and in motion. If we are to find our way, we must learn to map water and fire, wind and mist — even te wairua e te mauri *…” (*”The spirit and the life force.”)

    I believe Horrocks’ answer is that comics are at least one way (if not the best way) to accomplish this task.

    On a related side note:

    While I was in White River Junction, Vermont (the Hicksville of the Western Hemisphere), I met someone who said he participated in a Summer workshop at CCS, to gain ideas for a project that involved mapping. He said he worked for a company that developed planned communities in New Hampshire and he had decided that comics were the best way to communicate plans for these communities over time.

  3. My own personal opinion is that narratives (both fiction and nonfiction, visual and prose) can be maps. I would not go so far as to say that all narratives are maps, but I do believe all maps are narratives and all maps are to an extent fictional narratives (whether intentional or not) and there is no such thing as a “literal” map.

    But if all maps are narratives, then all visual maps are visual narratives. By some definitions, this would mean that all visual maps are comics.

  4. Roy,
    Sorry for being late with this response. I think this is a fascinating question. One particular feature that maps and comics do not typically share is a legend. Most maps have a list of conventions to help the reader understand what the visual symbols mean–mountain ranges, state lines, country borders, water and dry land, etc.

    Even dialect maps have legends, a list of conventions used to identify types of speakers who were surveyed/interviewed for the research project. Many dialect atlases can be found in print form, but one example of a digitized dialect atlas can be found at the University of Georgia:

    Most comics don’t contain legends. Readers of comics have to study the visual representations and make guesses about how they function in the text. I’m thinking particularly of speed lines, motion lines, and impact flashes. Elisabeth Potsch and Robert Williams have recently published a chapter that explores the cognitive linguistic foundations of these visual symbols. (It’s in *Linguistics and the Study of Comics*.) Potsch and Williams demonstrate how readers bring their embodied, lived experiences in the physical world, which are part of their cognitive systems for understanding the world, to bear on reading comics and engaging with the visual codes.

    Shane’s point about visual narrative and maps does complicate matters. Are maps narratives? Perhaps, depending on how we define narrative or how we define story. In any case, readers have to have the skill set to interact with the symbols before much understanding can take place.

  5. roytcook says:

    Frank – I think your point about legends is important, but I am not sure why yet (I need to think more about this!) Is it evidence that comics aren’t maps (I would like that!) or is it just evidence that, if they are, then they are a very different kind of map than traditional cartographic works with legends? Could they be particularly viewer-involving maps, that require the reader to provide their own ‘legend’, in some sense? Difficult questions.

    I also agree that the answer depends on how we define both comics and maps, and my suspicion is that a precise definition of ‘map’ will be as difficult (or impossible?) to formulate as a precise definition of ‘comic’.

    One thing I will note here is that I worry when proposed definitions of important value-laden concepts are very broadly applicable, counting many counter-intuitive cases as instances of the concept being defined. I think this is a problem with McCloud’s definition of comics, and I also warn my undergraduates against this kind of ‘mistake’ when thinking about definitions of art. The point can be made clear to students by considering the common gut-level response that students often give at the beginning of a course on art: That art is anything that we create, or anything we treat as art (the ‘we’ being the student, or anyone else, and hence understood more broadly than in more formalized institutional definitions). If this was right, then just about anything we make is, or at least could be, art. But then it is hard to explain the particular value that we do, and that intuitively we should, place on art – if everything is art, then there is nothing special about art.

    My real worry, I guess, is that an account that takes comics to be a type of map errs in something like this direction. Maps, presumably, are something we value in virtue of a kind of functional role they play for us (this need not be the only reason we value them, but it is the primary one – the one presumably most connected to whatever it is that makes them maps in the first place). But if the category is so broad as to include all comics, then it is hard to figure out exactly what this functional role is (other than that it involves the notion of ‘mapping’ in the broader sense outlined above). Conversely, one of the primary reasons that we value (at least many) comics is in virtue of their role as a certain kind of artwork. If all maps (or even all visual maps) were comics, then again it is hard to see what that role is.

    This is all kind of vague, I think, but hopefully it gives some better idea of why I am so worried about all the comics-as-maps, maps-as-comics talk.

    • Oh, boy! “If everything is art, then there is nothing special about art.” Yes! Many artists talk about art in this way, and many art teachers talk about art in this way. Demystifying the art that we admire is part of the process of learning about it, and this entails coming to the realization that there isn’t anything special about art.

      I know that intellectually, but my soul has a tough time with it. Some art is simply magical…it’s inspirational…it makes my soul sing. Not just visual art….works of music and poetry and fiction….

      Are comics maps? Maybe. Your point that if comics are maps then they’re very different from tradition maps makes good sense to me. My own is belief is that this is a very useful metaphor. “Comics are maps” is a way of understanding two different things, just like the metaphor “comics are are a language.” Comics are not language, not in the linguistic system/textual sense. But there are some similarities which prove useful.

  6. Nathan Strait says:

    I found this post in a Google search for Antoni Moore’s article “Maps as comics, comics as maps.” I’m glad to see someone cite Moore’s article, which has been very important to me and which I think has received surprisingly little attention.

    It’s worth noting that the first sentence of the abstract of Moore’s article says: “On the basis of shared emphasis on time as well as space, this paper argues for introducing principles of comic art into cartography, specifically maps depicting sequences of episodes, or snapshots.” And the first sentence of his introduction says: “This paper presents an argument for the use of comic design in cartography to create maps that are more expressive, specifically in representing the time dimension.” It’s clear from these key opening sentences that in Moore’s view, comics are not maps; maps and comics are two different types of graphics that can potentially enrich each other when combined. In my view, this is exactly the right approach.

    A more fruitful question than “Are comics maps?” might be: “What do comics and maps have in common that allow them to be combined?”

    One answer to this question is: Maps and comics are both graphics or drawings (leaving aside for the moment a more functional definition of maps and comics which would include things such as photo novellas, Polynesian stick charts, and Ammassalik wooden maps).

    From that idea we could begin to inquire into the nature of drawing, and we would want to consult works such as: Margaret A. Hagen’s Varieties of realism: geometries of representational art (1986), John Willats’ Art and representation: new principles in the analysis of pictures (1997), Adrian Frutiger & Erich Alb’s Geometry of feelings (1998), Adrian Frutiger & Simone Frutiger’s Words for line drawings (1999), Manfredo Massironi’s The psychology of graphic images: seeing, drawing, communicating (2002), Donna J. Peuquet’s Representations of space and time (2002), Tim Ingold’s Lines: a brief history (2007), Christiane Lange-Küttner & Annie Vinter’s Drawing and the non-verbal mind: a life-span perspective (2008), Marc Treib’s Drawing/thinking: confronting an electronic age (2008), and Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, & C. R. Perkins’ The map reader: theories of mapping practice and cartographic representation (2011).

    It’s also worth noting that many (or most?) maps these days are automatically generated from geographic information systems (GIS). And some people are exploring the intersection of GIS and narrative just as Moore explored the intersection of comics and maps, for example (these examples are from 2008 because that’s when I was doing research on this topic; more recent examples may exist):

    Mei-Po Kwan & Guoxiang Ding (2008). Geo-narrative: extending geographic information systems for narrative analysis in qualitative and mixed-method research. The Professional Geographer, 60(4), 443–465.

    Ryan Eccles, Thomas Kapler, Robert Harper, & William Wright (2008). Stories in GeoTime. Information Visualization, 7(1), 3–17.

    Margaret Wickens Pearce (2008). Framing the days: place and narrative in cartography. Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 35(1), 17–32.

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