"In that empire, the art of cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single province occupied the entirety of a city, and the map of the empire, the entirety of a province. In time, those unconscionable maps no longer satisfied, and the cartographers guilds struck a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire..."
-Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude In Science
As Shakespeare posited in his famous quote "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players..." the fictional world exists as a sphere that is both equal and intrinsic to our own reality. However, the above epigraph speaks to a related but different need than the impulse to live according to these constructed narratives. It speaks to the need to map out and define in detail a domain. It is a need so great that eventually the cartographers create a map so detailed that it can be lived in. This is, in a sense, what fiction tries to do: explore and know different aspects of human nature. That the map of the empire eventually becomes an inhabitable place is an indication of the power of the fictional sphere. In this way, the graphic narrative--and especially texts like Paul Chadwick's Concrete that are rooted in the cartographic tradition--serve an important and unique function. The works of Shakespeare are written in characters, the ultimate communicative abstraction that allows the reader to "write themselves in" with greater ease. The images and explicit maps in graphic narrative serve to create a barrier between the reader and the text. While iconic, the graphic narrative is rarely as abstract as the written character. The graphic can have the critical eye of written fiction, yet takes with it the rational tradition of cartography. It is, in a sense, a versatile template for a heavily annotated map. The cartographic tradition and aesthetic serve a dynamic role in graphic narrative, offering an exploration of the map and how the map is intrinsic to our need to know and explain, a need that has played a large role in the history of the contemporary graphic narrative.
The cartographer's impulse to define and know is evident in Paul Chadwick's Concrete Volume 2: Heights. Even the title seems to imply the mindset of setting boundary and limits, defining heights. Indeed, in Concrete's narrative meditation on the history of Everest, he provides a map of the famed mountain, annotated with benchmark elevations and labels for the South Face of Everest and the Western Cwm. In the depiction, speech bubbles are seen emanating from the map, but no human figure is present (Chadwick 109). It is a reflection similar to that of the Borges' story---so great is the desire to define and know something that the characters become dwarfed within it. By removing the image of any human figure, it pulls the reader from the story, reminding one of the explicative mapping evident in fiction.
The map as an element of artistic expression is not new. The Hereford Mappa Mundi, or world map, is an incredibly detailed map dating from about 1290 A.D., featuring "500 drawings of the history of humankind and marvels of the natural world: 420 cities and towns; 15 biblical events; 33 plants, animals, birds, and strange creatures; 32 images of the peoples of the world; and 8 pictures from classical mythology ("The Dragon Chronicles")." What is most notable is how the margins are depicted. The blank spots on the map are filled with dragons and serpentine creatures, a depiction of the uncertainty, and warnings of the unknown. It underlines the popular narrative that dictated that the world was flat and that one would simply fall off at the end of the world. The implication of this narrative was that one would fall of the known world, into the unknown.
Of course, Concrete, with his heroes of Richard Burton and Sir Edmund Hillary take a much different look at those marginal spots on the map. Hillary encapsulated this with his terse answer on why he climbed Mt. Everest: "Because it was there"---it was something to be known, to be discovered. Their view is very much a result of the scientific revolution and Cartesian mapping, which relies on the principle of two axes infinitely extending in all four directions, creating an infinite grid: everything can be defined and placed relative to an origin point ("Rene Descartes").
This belief in the ability and value of mapping is reflected in the modern-day navigational crutch that is Google Maps. Google Maps began by working off existing maps, offering routes from address to address---traditionally abstract point A to point B Cartesian method. As it progressed it added in a Street view, which allowed one to navigate and view a street via graphically present arrows and roll key. From the viewpoint of a disembodied eye, one can now view, arrow click by arrow click, entire neighborhoods and cities. The map itself has come to be personified, suggesting restaurants and points of interest, interacting with the disembodied eye. In on-car GPS systems, the map is even given a friendly voice to guide the navigator and interact from a Cartesian perspective. This element of personifying the map indicates the purpose that mapping serves in graphic narrative. The directions it gives are the narrative voice of the journey between point a and point B, an evident narrator that speaks over the mapping function much like Concrete's speech bubbles on Everest. While it forces this separation between reader and text, it also offers dominance of it. If literature is meant to be a critical and accurate reflection of human beings and the world, an exploration of it, then the ability to map offers an important tool of navigation for this exploration. The personification of maps reflects the post-scientific view of maps as a useful and positive tool for conquering and defining the unknown, an element put to good use in the graphic form in terms of exploring and mapping the human sphere.
Hillary's quote about climbing Everest does not simply reflect a human being emboldened by the ability to map and define. It reflects a Victorian perspective that comes out of the scientific revolution. Embodied by men like Hillary and Concrete's hero, Richard Burton, nature and the surrounding world are viewed as things to be conquered. In terms of mapping within the graphic narrative, this takes on an important role. Shakespeare's quote in As You Like It, and Borges' tale of the cartographer's both seem preoccupied with the temptation of this alternate world. It places this reflective role of literature as a mirror that can be entered, a reflective but equal world. This is a concerning temptation, and both Shakespeare and Borges (whose story is noticeably set pre-scientific revolution) warn against conflating reality and fictional roles. This is noticeably different from Victorian binary, much more informed by mapping. Concrete notes the uneasiness of these marginal spaces, reflecting, "these heights weren't meant for life, I'm an intruder here, only tolerated" (Chadwick, 108). However, he is able to continue on because he has a defined space. The map turns mountains into points on a maps and annotations of elevations. It takes a three-dimensional plane and reconfigures it on a two dimensional plane. In this way, the graphic depiction of a terrain through a map becomes a dominant-subordinate binary of the kind espoused by Descartes and later by Burton---points on a map that are relative to the point of origin, the perspective the map holder/creator.
This binary is especially evident in Concrete's plans for the family farm, which hark back to the schematics of the scientific revolution. The revolution posited that rational inquiry and definition could lead to greater productivity--this budding agricultural revolution became wrapped up in the industrial revolution, producing today's hybrid of "factory farming." In "No Sweat"-a title that implies the efficiency and reliance on machines characteristic of this high-tech farming-Concrete's planned improvements for the family farm turn into a discourse on farming. Inlaid in an image of a bird's eye view of the farm, Concrete speaks of improving the irrigation system, and building an earth-sheltered hog shed. By way of explanation, one character asks, "Earth-sheltered? What's that?" This leads to a detailed explanation, and two pages later, a full-page panel of Concrete building, images of him intertwined with the stonework. The caption reads "He starts to apprehend...not destroying nature, but shaping it...ordering it...selecting the best...making things work...that is life." He later gives a tour of the hog house, in which the reader and Maureen take on the role of willing student--learning the techniques of organic farming complete with explanation and helpful mapping out of the structure and the farm (Chadwick 13-17).
This ethic of shaping the earth according to aesthetic and functional principles, shaping it and selecting the best, is an ethic seen in Earthworks. The post-scientific revolution dominant-subordinate binary of Man and nature directly informs this artist-canvas relationship. The artistic example that predates Cartesian mapping is the Nazca lines in South America. In more contemporary times, artists like Robert Smithson and the Earth Art movement used bulldozers to build artistic works such as "Spiral Jetty," which drew lines across vast landscapes, reordering and shaping nature. Using the same satellite imaging technology as Google maps, the NASA website now boasts an entire section of "Our Earth As Art." By clicking on a map divided by continent, one can view satellite images entitled "Von Karman Vortices" and "Whirlpool in the Air, Greenland" ("Our Earth As Art"). Aside from the flourishes of dragons, maps are at root an artistic endeavor. The art of the map is to take a vast and dwarfing landscape, and via geometry and a sextant, assume a specific viewpoint and reorder and reduce the landscape to symbolic representation, to points on a map, taking a three dimensional view and placing it on two-dimensional plane. It is not to dominate and conquer it in the way of Burton, but to take it on to one's terms, to define it and know it by placing it on a limited canvas. We cannot necessarily see past the horizon, but by placing it on a canvas, we define the edge, can define what is beyond it. It is the same element at play in Concrete, which uses this tradition of mapping and the various manifestations of this post-scientific revolution binary to explore how Concrete relates and dominates his landscape, how he maps it and defines it.