Traversing Frames: the Dialectic between Comics and Travel by Nina Mickwitz

22 Dec

This article proposes that the concept of travel can provide a useful framing device for a composite of enquiries relating to comics. It argues that there exists a dialectic between comics and travel, which perhaps has elided concerted attention, and which might yield fruitful areas for further research.

How to speak of travel? Travel practices and modes encompass divergent spheres of experience, yet commonality can be extrapolated in the movement of bodies across geographical locations (Kaur and Hutnyk, 1999: 1-4). Tourism has become one of the most significant global industries – in 2010 international tourist arrivals reached 940 million and figures are expected to continue growing (UNWTO) in spite of widespread financial downturns. Migrant workforces constitute close to 214 million (Migration Policy Institute website), while diasporas resulting from ethnic, religious and political persecution are a feature of the present as much as of the recent and more distant past. Current figures put the figure of forcibly displaced people in the worlds at 43.3 million (UNHCR). Movements and cross-cultural encounters, negotiations and hybridisations are most commonly examined in their relation to occidental expansion, imperialism and neo-colonialism, although it might be timely to remember that travel defined by west- east, or north -south relationships intrinsically reproduces a euro-centric model (Kaur and Hutnyk, 1999: 1).

Such a cultural heritage has shaped narratives of exploration and mastery, of self-discovery and cultural capital, prevalent in the language and discourse of travel from the British Grand Tourists of the 18th and 19th centuries to contemporary forms of mass tourism and independent travel. In the words of Reynolds (2000: 542): ‘Travel literature is a hot commodity in publishing markets, and forms of armchair travel (such as the Travel channel on cable television) contribute to romanticized notions of travel.’ The connection between mobility, stimulation and renewal is thus a potent theme in the western tradition, which postmodern thought has extended in concepts such as nomadism, migrancy and border-crossings in its critique of fixed identity (Featherstone, 1995: 126-127).

Wolff (1993) urges caution of the seductive cache of language related to travel as it finds its way into cultural theory. She maintains that travel metaphors are based on the perspective of a privileged, predominantly white and particularly male experience and renders other aspects and knowledge invisible through such assumptions. It does seem clear that concepts of choice and freedom, the quest for authentic experience and personal transformation make for an uncomfortable fit with the circumstances for a vast proportion of travellers. Instead economic necessity and survival instigate uncountable, and significantly less spoken of journeys which are marked by uncertainty, exploitation and lack of choice. But rather than refusing the concept of travel as a means of thinking, a critical application which incorporates an understanding of the unevenness signified might be more productive. Despite the indelible differences and disparate positions of travelling subjects, and the still disproportionate representation of Eurocentric perspectives, there are characteristics of travel which are shared to some extent. There is a way of seeing marked by unfamiliarity, there is the requirement to adapt, and there is an accentuated alterity in the experience of being other; as well as being in a ‘strange land’ one finds oneself ‘a stranger’ [1].

So, how do these ideas about travel connect with comics?

In terms of a historical trajectory of the medium, movement across locations is evident; from sections in the daily press to specialist publishing houses, from news agents to direct sales, from niche market to the literary contexts of book shops and wider cultural recognition. In this sense both travel signifying transience and as an allusion to territory applies. The longstanding trend of adaptation from comics to screen and the partial migration from material to virtual forms of dissemination (Priego, 2010) represent other forms of movement and transition. Perhaps the spaces of cultural innovation, transitions and transgressions alluded to by border and borderland theory (Anzaldúa, 1987; Henderson, 1995) can be called upon to examine some of these movements. Instances of cross cultural transference can also be traced in the immigrant workforces in North American golden age comics and the history of manga and its fandom.

But, the journey can also be traced as a prevalent and consistent theme which underpins the narrative structure in a wide range of comics, both story arcs and individual and self-contained comics and graphic novels. The early years of popular print culture coincided with new developments in communications and transport, and additionally the structuring and standardisation of work and leisure time. It is thus not surprising to find that the theme of travel has accompanied comics from early on, as in the case of Cham’s Travel Impressions of Mr. Boniface in 1844 and Doré’s (Dis)pleasures of a Pleasure Trip in 1850 (Mainardi, 2007). And not only did travel feature in such early works, but comics became known as ‘railway literature’, undemanding reading for passing the time while travelling (Sabin, 1993: 21).

As an example of a comic book hero whose adventures throughout the 20th century and beyond have almost invariably taken the form of journeys to exotic locations we need look no further than Hergé’s Tintin. Journeys such as those undertaken by Tintin resonate with and in a sense materialise Simmel’s [1911] (1979) idea that the adventure is defined by a removal from everyday life and delimited by its beginning and end points. Julia Round (2009) has pointed to the particular type of journey constituted by the quest as a ubiquitous element in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. The quest is a purposeful journey most often guided by a particular mission. But often, as for example in the case of Moore and Gibson’s The Ballad of Halo Jones (serialised in 2000AD 1984-86, published in book form in 2005), the journey incorporates a more random and haphazard quality. This enables a narrative structure of a looser, episodic nature and a foregrounding of chance encounters rather than causality (Bruzzi, 2006: 81 – 85). It is also a narrative structure particularly well suited to serialisation, which would favour its uses in both comics and television.

Mikkonen’s (2007) exploration of ‘narrative as travel’ posits the journey as a way of thinking about and through narrative, which resonates with comics on a formal level. ‘The travel story enables a double reading of the same world: the world as it is seen and the world as it is narrated’. Such a model of the travel story corresponds uncannily to the inherent qualities of comics narration. In addition, the movement across the comics page (and the rhythm) oscillates between a movement forward; mobility, action and pauses of contemplation. Such pauses can be encouraged by aspect-to-aspect panel transitions, or by complex panels requiring concerted attention, but are ultimately determined by the reader. The spatio-temporal relations which constitute the comics page and which can be brought to bear on everyday and lived contexts appear accentuated when thought of in relation to travel. The traversal and experience of space and time become inextricably entwined and possible to understand and convey only in relation to each other. Eight hours in a transit lounge or in transit; on a ferry, plane or other enclosed travel-related space morph in ways peculiar to such spaces. Those hours extend and contract differently to any other eight hours spent. And when travelling by car or train, the scale of spatial relationships become measured in terms of time; two hours of moorland, another twenty minutes until suburbs will give way to agrarian fields etc. The idea that ‘travel writing serves as a model narrative, since it typically involves and draws attention to the traveller’s mediating perspective’ (ibid) is, in comics, further underlined by the inherent subjectivity of drawing. Drawing, culturally perceived as an art of process, occupies a space which comprises both ideation and representation (Dexter, 2005: 6) and thus manifests the act of mediation. This characteristic is a creative tool as well as a constitutive aspect of comics in general, but which in terms of mediating historical and geographical ‘reality’ has a particular poignancy in relation to non-fiction comics [2].

The number of non-fiction and semi-fictional comics representing travels and taking a journey as their narrative structure is conspicuous; Craig Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage, Guy Delisle’s ouvre, Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer, and to a large extent Joe Sacco’s work. As Walter Benjamin said: ‘When someone goes on a trip, he has something to tell about’ (1999: 84). In this sense we can discern a continuation of travel writing, and a kinship with the documentary tradition of travelogue film. In view of the critiques of travel as understood as privileged and gendered mobility, it is notable that a large proportion of comics themed and structured around travel are written from the viewpoint of a western male. Indeed, Sarnath Banerjee [3] has criticised the way Delisle’s accounts of the Far East reproduces orientalist discourse; his travelogues depicting the Asian subjects as unfathomable ‘others’ (cited by Ghose, 2010). But Pyongyang: Journey in North Korea (2005) and Shenhzen: A Travelogue from China (2006) also express the sense of dislocation and isolation felt by Delisle who as a result of global economics goes to work (overseeing outsourced animation) in a country he has little understanding of, and a situation which offers scant possibilities for cultural integration.

Sacco’s body of work itself demonstrates a trajectory, and thus a journey in a different sense. Notes From a Defeatist (2003) depicts his early days in Berlin, drifting around a sub-cultural scene, when he comes across as the archetypal searching traveller who travels as a rite-of –passage. His subsequent travels to conflict-torn places in the Balkans and the Middle East show a gradually growing engagement with his role as witness and reporter. Sacco intermittently reflect on his position as an outsider, and the limitations of his understanding as well as his privileges when it comes to mobility; the capacity to cross borders and check-points which restrict the movements of the local populations.

Jessica Abel’s La Perdida (2006) in turn broaches issues of cultural and imaginary projection and the quest for authenticity so commonly haunting travellers from highly industrialised countries, and offers the less frequently explored perspective of a female traveller.

But we also have comics engaging with experiences of exile and migration. In Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007) travel is configured less as mobility, more as complex, cross-cultural negotiations of self and place. Cultural identity is also at the heart of American Born Chinese (2006) by Gene Luen Yang and Mark Kalesniko’s Mail Order Bride (2001) challenges the narrow racialized/ing constructs available for Asian American women’s negotiation of selfhood (Paparone, 2007). Here again, Anzaldúa’s borderland theory which explores spaces for identity construction arising from a complex set of refusals and arbitrations might extend a productive framework for further analysis.

Shaun Tan’s wordless work The Arrival (2007) is a universalising parable about emigree experience and multicultural diversity which nevertheless alludes strongly to the heritage of multiple diasporic strands in metropolitan cities such as New York. Although it contains disturbing scenes; the visually told stories of totalitarian persecution and the isolation and helplessness of newly arrived immigrants, separated from family and limited by lack of language skills, the story is one of optimism; of lives slowly rebuilding and of new communities being formed. A much harsher take is offered in the recently published 216-paged Näkymättömät Kädet (2011) by Ville Tietäväinen, translating as ‘Invisible Hands’. This is a fictional narrative originated in field research; about the misfortunes of a North African man who to support his family volunteers to be trafficked to Spain. Through the composite character of Rashid the story reveals the hardships faced by illegal migrants and brings to light the entrapment, exploitation and broken lives produced silently and unseen by global economics [4].

This preliminary and incomplete summary of comics which thematically and in terms of narrative structure relate to travel indicates multiple perspectives and concerns.

In view of debates relating to comics studies’ position as an interdisciplinary field, which Tony Venezia has called a ‘middle space’ (Comics Forum, October 27th, 2011) and one which moreover is characterised by cross-cultural links, patterns of traffic and networks traversing national boundaries, as Daniel Stein’s post (Comics Forum, November 7th, 2011) indicates, the notion of travel resonates with the study of comics on a variety of levels.

At Transitions 2 Symposium at Birkbeck College, November 2011, plenary discussion brought up the question of American and Francophone comics attracting a disproportionate amount of consideration, arguably at the cost of British comics. This flags up ways in which the global flow of cultural production and dissemination does focus attention unevenly, resulting in overlooked areas. But what is equally suggested is that delineating comics studies along national boundaries might sit uncomfortably in a world where cultural identities do not necessarily conform to concepts of nationhood and where boundaries are more usefully conceived of as permeable, fluid and complex.

Aware of the perfunctory manner this article has sketched out a range of examples indicating possibilities for more precise excavations of the intersection between comics and travel, I would welcome an exchange of ideas to pursue these ideas further.


Anzaldúa, G.(1987) Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Fransisco: Aunt Lute Books

Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations. London: Pimlico

Bruzzi, S. (2006) 2nd Ed. New Documentary. Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge

Ed. Dexter, E. (2005) ‘Introduction’ in Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing. London and New York: Phaidon Press

Featherstone, M. (1995) Undoing Culture – Globilization, Postmodernism and Identity. London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: Sage Publications

Ed. Henderson, M. G. (1995) Borders, Boundaries and Frames: Cultural Criticism and Cultural Studies. New York and London: Routledge

Ghose, A. ‘When the Truth is Graphic’ on

Eds. Kaur, R. and Hutnyk, J. (1999) Travel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics. London and New York: Zed Books

Mainardi, P. ‘The Invention of Comics’ in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: A Journal of Nineteenth Century Visual Culture. Volume 6, Issue 1 (Spring 2007).

Mikkonen, K. (2007) ’The “Narrative is Travel” Metaphor: between spatial sequence and open consequence’. Narrative. [Accessed 04/04/2009]

Paparone, L. ‘Art and Identity in Mark Kalesniko’s Mail Order Bride’ in MELUS, Volume 32, No. 3, Coloring America: Multi-Ethnic Engagements with Graphic Narrative. (Fall 2007): 201-219

Phipps, P. ‘Tourists, Terrorists, Death and Value’ in Eds. Kaur, R. and Hutnyk, J. (1999) Travel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics. London and New York: Zed Books

Priego, Ernesto (2010) “21st Century Comics: Comics as Migrant Art.” Presentation at the Comica Symposium 2010, Transitions: New Directions in Comics Studies; Friday 5 November; School of Arts, Birkbeck, University of London

Simmel, G. ‘The Adventurer’ in ed. Levine, D. N. (1971) Georg Simmel: On Individuality and Social Forms. The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London

Reynolds, N. ‘ (2000) ‘Who’s Going to Cross the Border? Travel Metaphors, Material Conditions, and Contested Places’ in JAC: Journal of Rhetoric, Culture and Politics. Volume 20., issue 3

Ed. Rojek, C. And Urry, J. (1997) Touring Cultures: Transformations of Travel and Theory. London: Routledge

Round, J. (2010) ‘It’s all relative: breaking barriers and binaries in Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon’s Preacher’ in Popular Narrative Media, 4

Ed. Ruoff, J. (2006) Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel. Durham: Duke University Press

Sabin, R. (1993) Adult Comics: an Introduction. London and New York: Routledge

Wolff, J. (1992) ‘On the Road Again: Metaphors of Travel in Cultural Criticism in ed. McDowell, L. (1997) Undoing Place? A Geographical Reader. London and New York: Arnold

Nina Mickwitz is a PhD student and associate tutor at the School of Film and Television at University of East Anglia. She holds a BA in Illustration from University of Lincoln, where writing a dissertation on the topic of ‘Word and Image’ brought about an entwined interest in comics and academic study.

Her doctoral research is formulated around the proposal that comics texts hitherto categorised broadly under non-fiction (or as in the case of the Harvey Awards; ‘biographical, historical or journalistic’) offer their reader a position equivalent to that of a documentary audience. Thus the visual and narrative form of documentary allows a point of comparison productively divergent from literary models.


[1] – Admittedly, such requirements are systematically minimised in package holiday tourism, where otherness is commodified and presented in processed and manufactured ‘bite-size chunks’ and the reassurance of familiarity catered for, within its controlled environments and on menus. By self-conscious contrast, they figure large in the discourse of independent travel and backpacking (Phipps, 1999).

[2] – Drawn accounts which claim a documentary relationship to the world they reference. If ‘documentary instead of treating the real as an effect to be produced, treats it as a fact to be understood’ (Rancière, 2006: 158), then the drawn documentary complicates the notion of the real, and highlights the role of interpretation in its mediation.

[3] – Author of graphic novels Corridor (2004) and The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (2007).

[4] – Sacco’s ‘The Unwanted’ (2010) also tackles the continuing situation of migrants from Africa who attempt to enter the fortified European employment markets. The contrast between this reportage-style piece and Tietäväinen’s pathos infused narrative, both on the same theme, demonstrate (if anyone was still in doubt) the range of treatments available in comics.

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Posted by on 2011/12/22 in Guest Writers



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