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Comics have expanded their turf way beyond the world of superheroes and the funny papers. Graphic novels have doubled the realms of fiction and memoir by adding pictorial storytelling, and non-fiction has been enriched by illustrations which can explain a topic in a way written words can’t.
Sophie Yanow’s War of Streets and Houses pushes the boundaries of what a graphic novel can be by using comics to create an academic treatise. Her spare drawings share the experience of an American student in Montreal witnessing the student strikes of 2012, and the violent response of the police. She overlaps this experience with an exploration of how urban planners designed cities specifically for the military to have an advantage over citizens and potential uprisings.
For example, in 1840 Marshal Bugeaud was sent to Algeria to suppress resistance, which he did by strategically demolishing buildings so that the infantry could “kill defenders with gunshot, or drop furniture, tiles and all matters of projectiles on their head.”
When twenty years later Georges-Eugène Haussmann redesigned Paris, he took Bugeaud to note and attempted to slice through tiny streets built up from footpaths, by gutting the city with army-friendly roads.
Yanow’s work follows in the footsteps of Situationists who explored how the politics of the layout of cities affect the people who live there. I love her idea of layering her characters’ life experiences with their politics and studies, and with the work and theories of historic urban planners. I wish I knew a bit more about Yanow’s characters; they seem like interesting people, and I would have enjoyed a bit more back-story.
The idea of using comics to explicate dense coursework is smart too. Readers with no knowledge of urban planning may find this book a bit obtuse, but hopefully the curiosity inspired by this little gem of activism will lead them to learn more about Bugeaud, Haussmann and the Montreal student strike, as well as question the urban design of their own city, and who it benefits.
War of the Streets and Houses
By Sophie Yanow
Paperback, 9780984681488, 64 pp.