Messages in Maps
Psychogeography, Cultural Ecology and the Prefigured Place
Travis Hedge Coke
Ta-Nehisi Coates rewrote the map of Wakanda. Of all his work on Black Panther and related comics, the new map impresses me the most. It is, while not wordy, the most literary action. While seemingly nonjudgmental, the most political. He de-anglicized some of the place names and outright removed those with - at best - unfortunate connotations, such as the Primitive Peaks and what is listed on earlier maps as Domain of the White Gorillas (Mostly Uncharted). He concretized Wakanda’s six major cities, in opposition to earlier versions of “mostly uncharted” or generic “Woods” surrounding a centralized city that counts.
In passing, this might not even register with the average reader. Some people jump over extras, anyway, but more than that simply don’t sight-read everything and put it into an orchestrated context with a story set in the place a map is illustrating.
People do not often interpolate place names, nearness to waterways or distance from agriculture as even purposeful decisions made by an author. We do not consider it when we know the map is a fiction of a fictional place. We don’t question it when we know it’s an engineered clarification of a real space. And, to be fair, we really aren’t taught that we should, or taught how we can.
Sidenote: Coates and Stelfreeze are talking to something like seven different completely-formed and articulate audiences with every release of Black Panther.
Our primary introductions to maps probably presented them to us as objective and inarguable. It would feel different if a person went around naming everything and claiming it, in real time before us, as theirs or belonging to this ally, etc. Walk up to a local and go, “This thing you call _____ is now _____ because that’s my language and this is about me and what fits well in my mouth,” and the sense is very different than when it’s been done quietly, beforehand, without our witnessing.
The authorship of a map is usually entirely erased by the time we peruse it. That there was an author is obscured from us, in the case of real maps, so they will have the power of truth, and in the case of imaginal lands, so they have the power of conviction. To read a map without questioning the choices of labels, boundaries, or distortions is to be as colonized as the land is as the map is drawn.
We grow up reading maps and we spend year after year in school, most of us, learning cultural ecologies in History, in Cultural Geography, World Cultures, what have you, and yet, don’t consider these systems and narratives to have an angle. We expect the explanation of city life in Italy or rural life in Uganda to be as objective as the multiplication tables in Math class. We extend this to maps of fictional locales the same way we do not anticipate the math or science in a story will be false unless it highlights its falsity.
Sidenote: Anecdotal facts couched within otherwise pure fiction are still treated as objective truths by many in any given audience.
A smart author and in this case I am considering all major contributors as authors, visual artists, wordsmiths, anyone making a significant choice in regards image or text. Of course, not all comics - not all of any media - is up to the nominal authors, and sometimes you’re tasked with something, as Eliot R Brown was. A former technical artist and designer for Marvel, the first serious effort at a map of Gotham City was Brown’s first work for DC. And, it was a work where revisions seem to have piled onto revisions to the point where the work may be said to have lost any cohesive authoring, and not really, even, a steady hand stitching the piecemeal together.
In fact, the map as it has been published and republished/reused (in movies, advertisements, comics, etc) does not line up with the final version that Brown turned in.
Further down the control-scale we have the map generated for Marvel's Age of Apocalypse, which just knocks out South America and the Middle East as “Atrocity Zone” or just irradiated wasteland, but also gives us San Francisco, Dallas, and Chicago while the “Human Settlements” in Africa (which, in comics scenes, plenty of exoticism and nonsense) are given no names or clarification.
Sidenote: A cognitive map is a mental representation (and thereby a useful distortion) of the relative locations and attributes in a spatial environment. All maps of Wakanda, in print, are representative of cognitive maps.
The anglocentric nature of the map, that the only details are given over to the United States and to England, even in an anglophone comic, seems to run contrary to the intent of a map of the world, illustrating a world issue. It’s a serviceable map, but barely even that. And, even some people who worked intimately on the comics seem unsure how the map really came to be what it is. While the Gotham map may lack an authoritative author, it has authority, while this map does not even have that.
I mention these, primarily, to show the strength of the authorship and cohesive intent of the Coates and Manny Mederos map. But, divers hands or not, cognizant expressions or not, all of these maps are subject to the purviews of cultural ecology, behavioral geography, psychogeography, implicit history and the privileging of information and assumptions. Just because the Coates and Mederos map uses the phrase “political geography,” right on it, does not mean it has more of a political geography than those generated by cartographers or authors who did not use the phrase.
Not intending something is never the same as not doing something. Intent does not govern effect. Warrior Falls and Black Warrior Creek to the east of “Mostly Uncharted” and north of Primitive Peaks, no matter how well-intended, had certain effects back when that map of Wakanda was created, and it has different, and perhaps more sharply-felt-by-a-wider-audience effects when considered today. Knocking out all of South America as “wasteland” and leaving Australia completely off your word map has effects. The AoA map isn’t a map of the world, but a map of an embarrassingly childish American perspective of the world. The Gotham map is articulate and full, and its use by storytellers as a setting
Sidenote: Cultural ecology is the study of human adaptations to social and physical environments. But, in fiction, the near-opposite occurs, and social and physical environments are adapted to primary characters and prefigured plots.
All maps are representative of cognitive maps. Presence and repetition, familiarity and novelty encourages our reflex perceptions and tells us our left from right, our uptown from downtown, why Australia is a continent and why Europe is one (and why some people expect Central America to be one). Maps aren’t topographies and geography. Maps, illustrate.
How we describe worlds describes us. What we accept, how we engage with maps, with the cultural and political ecologies drafted and concretized by authors can define us as readers. When I refer disparagingly to aspects of some of these maps, when I question or beg questions, I am not trying to insult, or even accuse the cartographers and authors. I am grateful for their good work, and for them having done it. Having done their work, the maps are - in many significant ways - no longer about them.