The city is not a city

A city is a complex organism. An ‘urbanist’ is a kind of sociologist, which suggests that to those who make cities their objects of study, it is people rather than buildings that constitute one. Indeed it’s possible to imagine a city without buildings—perhaps a large music festival, or historically a gathering of a nomadic people like the Mongols. A city that can be parsed as such without people though, will always appear as a site of trauma. Pompeii, say, its streets and floorplans intact beneath the ash for one thousand seven hundred years. Halabja, emptied of its inhabitants by chemical weapons in 1988. Pripyat, its utopian housing blocks and leisure facilities abandoned sixteen years after its founding.

Cities are also said to have memories. Psychogeographic literature, like that of Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore, Will Self, or even Michael Moorcock, could be said to explore urban memory, resurrecting its paths of desire against the grain of zoning and control. But where that memory can be said to reside in the absence of any habitation is unclear—in Pompeii I suppose it’s in its graffiti, and in Pripyat it is in exiled recollections, in dispersed and fading photo albums. In Alissa Chan’s Interim it’s located somewhere more abstract.

Her city is populated by a society, one which arises shortly after the beginning of the book, when its sole inhabitant is joined by another. A star falls into the empty city, and its energy is channeled into an un-gendered, child-like figure, drawn from the city’s memory, which is befriended by a raven which has hitherto subsisted in solitude. So we’re clearly in allegorical territory, and in this allegory it is the city’s memory which gives form to the individual, not vice versa.

The city itself is as empty as it is intact, its precisely drawn multicultural roofscape perfectly formed and showing no outward sign of being ill-maintained. Or am I wrong to call it a city? It’s a collection of buildings, a built environment, but it lacks other important features of the urban milieu. It doesn’t permit dérive, the playful, self-willed pathfinding described by the Situationists and central to the project of psychogeography—instead it goads its two inhabitants towards its sole correct traversal by the simple expedient of returning them violently to their starting point at any moment of deviation.

Eventually they find that one correct route, and the star-in-the-shape-of-a-child rejects the form that the city has imposed on it. This is clearly open to a number of interpretations, and I don’t propose to pick one—in fact, the whole narrative feels more satisfactory if that ambiguity is not forcibly collapsed. But there are many clear parallels—the training through repetition is obviously karmic, but it also feels ludic. To be sure the two protagonists are stuck in this loop, and it doesn’t look like a great deal of fun for them, but the process, and the specific climbing, puzzle-solving manoeuvres they are required to repeat with variations, feels very like a videogame.

For the most part the cityscape is rendered as a seamless, open terrain, but as the characters home in on the correct route we are treated to a zoomed-out perspective which shows the buildings clustered around their path, much as they might be in a game. The spaces around them are superfluous to the narrative, un-traversable and inaccessible. Of course their path through city can only be what it is, because this is a comic, printed in a certain way, not a game which might unfold differently on each play through, and if it seems like a game, it isn’t an open-world but a platform puzzler.

Chan says that she’s interested in stillness, and that is an abundant quality in this book, but movement, or the passage of time, is also present, and appears to be a central concern. The first panel shows the breaking of dawn over a single unmoving section of the cityscape, and over the page, the first double-spread layout represents movement through a sequence of fragmented panels like those Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely memorably deployed in We3. Obviously, any comic embodies strategies for imbuing a set of static images with sequentiality, but in Interim the character of both sequence (or cyclicity) and stasis seem to be foregrounded.

This effect is achieved by way of what is, for Chan’s first comic of any length, an extraordinary range of formal devices, all deployed with a degree of assurance that suggests a much more seasoned hand. Her drawing style is clean, lucid and precise, her colours cool—and often shaded with a delicate half-tone technique. While her figures (of humans and corvids) are expressively iconic, her buildings have the look of architectural sketches, and are well observed in terms of their faith to a variety of building styles. Of course the buildings should be well-drawn in a comic that makes a city one of its central characters, but there’s more to it than that: like that opening panel, where vertical stripes of colour infuse a spatial image with temporality, the typologies of her buildings enclose a huge span of history within her cityscapes, from the ancient to the paradigmatically modern. Time both passes in her book, and is fixed, made still, rendered as space.

Her city is not a city, but then her characters are not people, and collectively they are not a society. Instead, all these things are symbols and simplifications, assembled into a narrative which clarifies and elucidates certain forms of experience and relationship, in much the same way that a line drawing disentangles and makes legible the chaos of an optical impression. The only caveat to such a characterisation is that we must place our trust in the illustrator’s interpretation of what struck their optic nerve, but in the end isn’t that what we need illustrators for? To tell us what we’re looking at.

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