In an interview given in conjunction with Archi et BD, la Ville Dessinée (see Alex Buchet’s post), Jean-Marc Thévenet suggests there is in many comics “a psychological pressure suffered by a hero who is more often than not dominated by the environment in which they live.”  This is, perhaps, the most common manifestation of architecture in American comics.

At a more popular and utilitarian level, we have Marshall Rogers’ delineation of the ornamented skyscrapers, alleyways, fire escapes and bricks that make up the borders of Batman’s Gotham, casting the caped crusader into realistic space, Rogers’ occasionally clumsy anatomy and staging notwithstanding.

The Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of the protagonist’s life and thoughts in David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp have been discussed at length on this blog and find symbolic representation in his choice of furnishings and lodgings. The places and interiors which populate Seth’s George Sprott are as much an expression of the eponymous hero’s life and character as the people he meets and disappoints.

The chronological simultaneity of Chris Ware’s Building Stories can be seen as the spiritual heir of Will Eisner’s The Building, Richard Maguire’s Here and the puzzles and constraints of Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. In these stories, Ware explores how spaces shape the people who reside in them and how they pattern the rhythms in their lives.

Indeed, the building shorn of its facade has long been favored by cartoonists in search of a structure which best encapsulates the comics reading experience in a physically possible form: the rooms and walls acting like panels and borders; the movement of figures through plausible time and space being deemed aesthetically pleasing; and the immediacy of common experience and thus comprehension valuable.

The Library by Tom Gauld (from the collection of Glen Gold)

Only a handful of cartoonists have considered motives as elevated as those of the Italian artist and architect, Giovanni Battista Piranesi. In the introduction to Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, Luigi Ficacci summarizes the artist’s obsession in the following way

“Piranesi was an architect and regarded his profession as capable of revolutionizing the world – in other words, the manners and spaces in which social life manifested itself. When measured against the actual possibilities offered by contemporary reality, his ambitions were of colossal proportions and in the end it was the resistance posed by the real world that prevented him from realizing his artistic ambitions….his overriding artist ideal: restoring Rome with architecture – life and society – worthy of its ancient glory…his prolific output of prints was nothing other than a rhetorical device by which he demonstrated the truth of intellectual and artistic ideas, both in terms of historical knowledge and of what he wished to build in transformation of the present.”

The Gothic Arch (Carcere XIV)

Perhaps the closest comics have ever come to this are the albums of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters where a total immersion in both comics and architecture bears curious and engaging fruit. In their series of books collectively titled, Les Cités Obscures , Schuiten and Peeters use buildings and cities to evoke different ages and times as well as their associated ideas: the strange existential despair of Art Nouveau in The Great Walls of Samaris, the reactionary anarchy of the Sezession in Fever in Urbicand and the use of Gothic style and the Tower of Babel  as symbols for competing ideologies in The Tower. And in an echo of how a “Piranesi view has been deliberately borrowed as the practical model for some urban restoration projects in Rome”, so too have the authors of this series been involved in the restoration of La Masion Autrique, the first town house built by Victor Horta.

As with his peers, Josh Simmons’ architectural offering is more modest in intent and used primarily as a metaphor encapsulating passion and dread, that predicament of freedom which precedes “sin”. The first house we see in Simmons’ comic is broken, overgrown and derelict; the creeping vines and shattered frontage viewed with a certain nonchalance by the protagonist who is as yet inexperienced in life and love.

A quick journey through a forest brings him to a congregation of such buildings, some of them towering monuments to some as yet undefined purpose or goal. It is perhaps significant that most of these seem like apartment blocks; boarded up and forbidding colonies once dedicated to life and living.

The traveler strikes up a conversation with two women and agrees to explore these brick-lined caverns. A worn mattress (impeding and somewhat symbolic) is removed…

…the heights of these despondent wonders scaled and the three tread the tight rope of this relationship with a degree of eagerness, some with far more confidence than the rest.

The culmination of this first section involves a descent to a primordial underwater wonderland of the soul, a kind of baptism to seal first love.

The darkness which envelops the pair of lovers in the closing panel heralds a passage further into this labyrinth, bringing the group to a portrait of a southern gentleman who gazes down at them with hooded eyes like a distant god or devil guarding the entrance to subterranean depths of  disillusionment and abandonment.

Simmons’ short comic has been described as a horror story but the force administering the terror is neither alien or inexplicable for it is easily recognizable as love, an emotion which achieves finality in this instance only in injury, disorientation, fury, hopelessness and death.

There is a moment of peace after the initial fall as one of these women offers the protagonist a half eaten fruit, a premonition of knowledge, self-awareness and mortality; the maiden Kore trapping our protagonist in this underworld of passion, a latter day Lilith offering a meal to her husband, Adam.

The comic’s wordlessness forms a part of its metaphorical distance, the inky blackness punctuating the narrative and inviting the reader to intrude on the events depicted, focusing us on the dilapidated environments. The distress which characterizes the closing pages of this comic is heightened by Simmons’ feverish drawing and claustrophobic panel work. The approach is simple but effective; the despair conveyed with enough conviction to make us suspect that these are genuine and not merely imagined feelings. Simmons has cited depression, failed relationships, absent friends and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina as possible influences during the molding process, but it is the unyielding torment conveyed by the artist’s hand which will linger longest in the reader’s memory.

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Related material

A review of House by Jog

An interview with the author at Publishers Weekly

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