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?