Life on the Grid: Comics and the Everyday

The grid as the most human of ordering and routing systems

Contributed by Peter Wilkins Douglas College
January 08, 2014
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While it is not an essential feature of comics, the grid is a "standard feature" of comics, following Aaron Meskin in "Defining Comics". 
 
The way the grid functions as a powerful organizational structure in comics echoes the way the "grid," as fact and figure, functions elsewhere in the world. For this discussion, the urban street grid that structures many modern cities, and the electrical power grid will be the most pertinent examples.  
 
The comics grid functions as a "gestell", the term that Martin Heidegger uses to define the structure of technology in "The Question Concerning Technology". Gestell is difficult to translate into English, but analogues include "framework," "skeleton," and "bookshelf": anything that holds up and sustains a system. 
 
For the comic, the grid holds up its system of representation, establishing the visual array of the page and helping to guide the eye how and where to look. Without the grid, a comic becomes, perhaps, simply a drawing or cartoon. 
 
The grid allows us to read sequentially, as we would prose, with each panel laid out from top left to bottom right one after the other. But it also allows us survey the page in many other ways as well. It allows us to see the page as a series of locations, places upon which we might settle, like plots of land and city blocks. The grid on the comics page allows for flows of transit through and/or across its loci. 
 
So when we think of "comics off the page," our minds turn to ways that "the grid" works in the world to organize other kinds of spaces and places in order that we might comprehend them and move through them. 
 
Any system of compartmentalization can be an analogue for the comics grid:  buildings, jewel boxes, and compartments—any structure that allows for the placement of items inside it. The purpose of the jewel box is not only to store jewels—we can do that haphazardly in a drawer or uncompartmentalized box—but also to allow us to find them easily when we want them. A house is essentially a box divided up into other boxes that organize how we live. The human imposition of order on the world tends to be rectangular or square.  Other shapes are possible but less likely to occur because they don't fit into each other so well. 
 
Of all the compartmentalizations to which the comics grid is allied, the grid of the contemporary city is the one that interests me most.  The urban grid has something of a bad rap: some perceive its method of ordering as either boring or too "public", because they allow people to move through the grid too easily. 
 
Paul Knight is a city planner, whose website, The Great American Grid (http://www.thegreatamericangrid.com/infographics), shows the variety of urban grids across the United States and tries to disprove the idea that “Grids are boring places to live.”  Knight, in his opposition to the rise of the cul de sac as the organizing feature of American suburban life, calls for the return of the grid. 
 
Everyone, from developers to everyday citizens, should benefit from the grid’s built-in qualities of efficiency, economy, flexibility, adaptability, sustainability, accessibility, and walkability. Good urbanism does not need a plan that looks exciting from the air; it needs a plan that works on the ground. By its very geometry, the grid has all of the physical qualities that allows good urbanism to thrive.
 
According to Knight, the grid allows for flow, where suburban cul de sacs are just a bunch of dead ends that block movement. The urban grid's appearance of boredom belies its actual liveliness. 
 
What applies to the city also applies to the comic in most instances, particularly Knight's idea that "Good urbanism does not need a plan that looks exciting from the air; it needs a plan that works on the ground." This principle is true for the regular 4 to 12 panel grids of comics. While deviations from the regular structure work if they make meaning or control transit for a particular purpose, attempts to make the page layout more exciting for its own sake lead to confusion and irrationality in the structure of the comic, becoming the visual equivalent of a cul de sac. 
 
When the grid is regular it becomes somewhat neutral, so that what happens within its squares or rectangles assumes prime significance. Furthermore, regularity allows for the comparison between what's going on in one block or panel and another, and such comparisons generate alternative physical and cognitive routes. 
 
This page from Jason's Hey…Wait exemplifies the relationships between route and panel in a way that evokes routes through a city as analogous to routes through a page.  
 
Hey Wait
 
The page depicts the way from one boy's house to the others while it also provides different ways around the page itself depending on how we move through and across the panels. 
 
The fact that the grid is such a liberating, egalitarian structure reveals some confusion in the way we think about it.  The grid is a powerful metaphor, usually for the notion of entrapment. It is possible to perceive it as a spider's web that captures us and refuses to allow us to live freely.  The expression "living off the grid" which once referred to not being connected to a city or town's electrical utility now has a more general meaning of living outside of such constraints. 
 
In the 21st Century, the concept of living off the grid has produced a strange combination of environmentalism and libertarianism. Contemporary environmentalists have used the term to define living outside the consumption habits of modern society, in specially designed houses (doubtless considerably expensive) that use solar panels and alternative, disconected, plumbing systems.  
 
But is this "off the grid" existence any better than the cul de sac? Is it not just another form of individualistic privilege, disconnecting certain people from the rest of us? At what point does being an example of how the rest of us should live become something like the Environmental Man's burden (http://onbegleystreet.com/)? 
 
The comics grid and Knight's version of the urban grid suggest that constraints can, ironically, be liberating, kind of like the rope that binds Queequeg and Ishmael in Moby-Dick. The grid is connectivity and inter-dependence, guaranteeing our existence within society as connected individuals, just as the comics grid guarantees a relationship among the panels. Comics artists are fond of these productive, liberating constraints. They focus the imagination and allow the artist to have something other than blank nothingness with which to work.  
 
In Gravity's Rainbow Thomas Pynchon considers the problem of surveying and comprehending the totality of the "system" of language, human relations, politics, whatever grids structure our existence. His metaphor for this problem is paranoia; our inability to survey and comprehend leads us to feel that we are trapped in some sort of conspiracy whose motives are somehow sinister and that forces us to see insidious connections that may not even exist. 
 
Pynchon uses all sorts of meta-metaphors of transit to describe this situation, the most famous perhaps being the following: "Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide … though he's amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes back through the loudspeaker …" (419). Here, what defines the system is lack of individual control over the transit system. One is a passenger rather than a driver. That lack of control makes "the system" appear anarchic, even unsystematic, rather than orderly. But, what Pynchon's novel teaches us is that patience and pattern recognition, "gridding things out," can help us gain control over such systems. We may not be able to get a "master of the universe" view of them, but we can move around within them, from station to station within the transit system. We can be less paranoid. 
 
While the grid appears to be mechanical and "inhuman" it is in fact the most human of ordering and routing systems. It is the imposition of human order on "gridless" nature. Perhaps it exemplifies both the human and inhuman elements of that relationship. On the one hand, the grid appears to be inhuman, a kind of pure structure. On the other hand, what is more human than the grid? 
 
However, the grid is not without its issues. It is just one human order and perhaps a statist, colonialist, Western one at that. Deleuze and Guattari would oppose to it a free floating nomadism. 
 
In the comics world, a conceivable challenge to the grid would be certain Giles cartoons (http://www.cartoons.ac.uk/collections/CG/1/4/1), single panel works with all sorts of things going on simultaneously, or a Where's Waldo (http://whereswaldo.com/index.html#findwaldo/map1) page. In such instances, chaos is pleasurable. These cartoons also remind us that what goes on within each panel of the grid can be chaotic, just as what goes on within each city block. 
 
Maybe this alternation between the grid and what goes on within each of its panels or blocks is the dialectic of modern Western life: order and chaos challenging each other within our minds.
 
Works Cited
 
Heidegger, Martin. "The Question Concerning Technology" in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper, 1982. 
 
Jason. Hey, Wait… Trans. Kim Thompson. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1984
 
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Penguin, 2013. 
 
Meskin, Aaron.  "Defining Comics" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Crticism 65:4 Fall 2007. 369-379.
 
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973. 
Hey Wait