Global Focus on Local Issues: Comics and Urban Development

By Dr. Leah S. Misemer

When STEM students are trying to solve problems, how do we get them to look beyond their own backyards to see how others have approached the same issues? This question informed my decision to include comics from France and Japan in my first year writing course on “Comics and Civic Engagement.” In the course, students read comics about the city, did research on urban development issues facing Atlanta, and then created and exhibited comics designed to raise awareness about those local issues. The comics we read about cities like Chicago, New York, Tokyo, and Paris helped the students brainstorm research topics around problems facing cities in general, and presentations from local community partners at the Grove Park Foundation and the Center for Sustainable Communities helped them ground those issues in the local Atlanta setting.

To provide a variety of options for style and form, I wanted students to develop a more global perspective on comics than is typical in comics-related syllabi in the U.S., which tend to include mostly long-form comics published in America. Towards the beginning of my scholarly career, I wrote an article about Orientalism in manga studies published in the Western world that highlighted the prevalence of the image of the businessman reading manga on the train as an example that visually situates manga as exotic. While the exoticization of the Other is problematic, this perspective also limits our understanding of American comics, suggesting that, if Japanese comics are strange because adults read them, then American comics are perceived as being only for children. This is the perception students often bring into my class, as their responses on my entrance questionnaire indicate most of their experience is limited to superheroes and newspaper comics. As we read through the texts on the syllabus, the students learn that comics can come from many genres and cover many topics. In the case of this class, I chose comics that revealed the underbelly of the city and confronted the reader with the plight of the downtrodden and working class. We are used to seeing cities represented as glittering skylines, but these comics reveal upon whose backs that scenery is built.

One of my students (whom we will call Alix, an athlete raised partially in Japan who was majoring in physics) began the class, as students sometimes do, going through the motions. I heard little from him in class, and his reflective journals and other assignments demonstrated minimal effort. His level of engagement seemed to change when we read Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s “The Push Man and Other Stories,” a collection of short comics about working-class experience in Tokyo.

The cover image of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man and Other Stories

I chose Tatsumi’s work because it diverges radically from common American perceptions of manga that characterize the Orientalism discussed previously: the image many Americans who do not read manga have of the form is dominated by the cute, Disney-influenced figures common in Osamu Tezuka’s work. A contemporary of Tezuka, Tatsumi’s lineage manifests in the darker, underground genre of manga called gekiga, which has received little scholarly attention. The main characters of Tatsumi’s stories are decidedly working-class: mechanics, telephone disinfecters, sewer waste managers, and push men (the men in charge of packing people into trains in Tokyo) who confront rejection, isolation, and abuse, often responding with violence. The unnamed characters reflect the anonymity of the city, and depictions of trash, smoke, and sewage are common aspects of Tatsumi’s visual vocabulary.  These anonymous main characters are all men who attempt to dominate and control women, which gave us an avenue for including gender dynamics as part of our class discussion.

At the beginning of the course, Alix, drawn to the Japanese subject matter, chose to join the group that presented on Tatsumi. Perhaps encouraged by the inclusion of his home culture in the literature we were reading for the class, when Alix chose his research topic, he began to look at Japanese public transportation as a model we could use to approach the problems with public transportation in Atlanta. He was able to build on knowledge he already had from growing up in Japan, using that personal experience to open his presentation with a short pair of anecdotes contrasting his experiences on public transportation in Atlanta and in Japan. Having a text included in the course that came from his own culture encouraged Alix to value the expertise he had gained from his life experiences. Instead of his international status being a barrier, as is often the case for international students, it provided him with an advantage.

Alix was not the only student who sought models from elsewhere to address Atlanta’s urban development problems. A student from Brazil suggested a plan to give kids in the areas surrounding the Mercedes Benz stadium an opportunity to build community by playing soccer together. Their sessions would implement a Brazilian technology that converts footsteps into electrical energy, thereby lowering the cost of the opportunity and making it available to those with a lower socioeconomic status. This was another example of an international student drawing on their home culture to inform local solutions, and that global focus extended beyond international students. One student looked at the biking culture of the Netherlands to make suggestions on how we could build such a culture in Atlanta. Another turned to mixed housing in the purpose built communities of New Orleans as a model for ensuring responsible development in the rapidly gentrifying Old Fourth Ward and Grant Park neighborhoods. Still others turned to Maryland for solutions to food insecurity and to New York to highlight the gentrification issues developers ought to keep in mind as they continue to create green spaces like the BeltLine.

By choosing texts from outside Atlanta and beyond the U.S. that helped students develop research topics and keywords, I encouraged students to take a national and global view when seeking solutions. As my students become society leaders in charge of shaping technology, hopefully this global perspective, one that sees value in other cultures’ different areas of expertise and worldview, will continue to guide their decision-making.

Additional Resources

“Using Comics to Teach the 4 Cs” by David Seelow

“Comics in the Classroom” by Gene Luen Yang

“The Visual Magic of Comics” by Scott McCloud