Reading urban dystopia
Explore city architecture as seen in comics and graphic novels with lawyer and writer Lawrence Liang
One of the most iconic images that even non-comic aficionados are familiar with, is that of Batman perched on a gargoyle, looking down at Gotham City. “It’s a bird’s eye… a god’s eye view of the city,” says lawyer and writer Lawrence Liang. “But it’s also how a city planner would look at the city.” It’s a very different perspective than the one in The Walking Man by Jirō Taniguchi, pointed out Liang, in which the Manga comic’s protagonist takes a walk around his city. “He takes the time to look around,” he adds. “You experience temporality through that. It’s a contrasting view from the one Batman has of Gotham City – there’s a distinction in seeing a city from the top and walking it.” These are just some of the discussions that participants can look forward to at “Comics and the Urban Imagination”, a four-day course that explores the representation of cities in comics and graphic novels.
Liang will be in Mumbai to teach the course as part of ‘Scaffolds, Layouts and Palimpsests’ at the School of Environment and Architecture (SEA). Participants will be introduced to a slew of international and Indian comics via the tropes of architecture, dystopia and labyrinths. Apart from offering an understanding of comics and graphic novels, the course aims to explore the role of the image and the imagination in shaping urban form. The course, according to SEA website, will examine the intersection of comics and the imagination of the city, in terms of representation and how architectural concepts may offer a new way of understanding the formal properties of comics.
Although Liang is best known for his work at the Alternative Law Forum in Bengaluru, of which he is the co-founder, he is also a film and media scholar. “I have been reading comics seriously for quite some time now,” he says. “I have always had an interest in visual culture.” According to Liang, when it comes to the visual archives of the city, both photography and cinema have been extensively mined for their ability to capture an experience. “As archives of the city, they are both intentional and unintentional,” he says. “If you look at cinema, you are often shooting on location. You capture more than what you intend to – the ambience and the archive of the city at a particular time.” Further, today’s selfie-happy culture, people are constantly taking photographs. “Rather than seeing better, there is a visual blindness,” he adds.
Which is one of the reasons that Liang is drawn to comics – while a photograph is taken, a drawing is made, creating a representation of the urban space. “What you leave or include becomes more acute in a drawing,” he says.
While landscapes are intrinsic to comic books, cityscapes are predominant in many of the narratives. No matter what their origin, superheroes have made mega cities – real and fiction – their homes and the base to fight crimes from. Phantom may feel left out, but urban landscapes are pretty much inherent to the aesthetics of comic books now. The form also gives the space to create allegorical cities, and to reinterpret the future of the cities, in all their utopian and dystopian possibilities. “The history of the city is essential to the narrative imagination of a comic,” explians Liang. “Like Batman and Gotham City. It creates a perceptual archive.”
Liang adds that there has always been a strong linkage between architecture and comics. Graphic novels and comics give free reign to the architectural imagination, making urban centres the protagonist of the narrative at times. Chris Ware’s Building Stories is one such book about the people who live in a three-level building in Chicago. It comes as a box containing 14 little books, some made from cloth, some paper. “Chris Ware slows down the action,” says Liang. “Very little happens, but there are so many images. It slows you down, to take in the minute and intricate detailing. In Building Stories, the protagonist is the building.” Then there’s Les Cités Obscures by Belgian comics’ artist François Schuiten and writer Benoît Peeters. Schuiten studied architecture and his education serves as a firm foundation for the surreal, metaphysical landscapes he conjures up here.
Liang points out the different approaches that comic book artists and writers can take while reinterpreting the city within their panels. For instance, in the Tintin books, he explains the landscape is elaborately researched. “The designs of the beams and the chairs, [Hergé] used archival material, a historical approach,” he elaborates. Science-fiction comics use the future approach, the narratives reflecting the anxieties and hopes of a city as a shared living experience.
As urbanscapes take over our literary, cinematic, and every day imagination, the phenomenon is also symptomatic to our idea of progress and development – vertical, shiny, and sleek like the cities in the pages of these graphic novels. In sharp contrast is the idea of wilderness, rural landscapes, and other unfamiliar spaces. This is an idea cleverly encompassed in The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins. The monochromatic graphic novel tells the story of Dave, who lives in an island called Here, where everything is perfect. Liang says that in Here, the city is imagined as a seamless space – a perfect realisation of modern planning. In contrast is the mayhem of There, a place of supposed chaos and fear. “It’s a space full of incredible anxiety and fear,” says Liang. “The contrast plays out interestingly, when aspects of There start emerging Here.” The Gigantic Beard may be fiction, but it the neurotic fear and anxiety it depicts, is familiar and eerily real.