Welcome to ghost world: the temporal plane where high school friends Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer are caught, having finished high school, suspended in the moment between adolescence and adulthood. This extract is indicative of the episodic plotless drift of the narrative; a collection of virtually self-contained chapters connected by the characters and setting. We see Enid and Rebecca visit an ‘Original ’5o’s Diner’ – a pastiche location drained of any sense of historicity . It is the category of the spatial that is surely the most intriguing and perhaps the most overlooked here. The ‘ghost world’ is also a term that recalls Marc Augé’s notion of ‘non-places’, those transient homogenized contemporary urban and suburban spaces that Augé sees as a typical by-product of what he terms supermodernity. Such non-places are the result of the supermodern excess of time and space that sever meaningful connections with history and place:
If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.
(Augé, 1995 pp. 77-78).
By mapping Augé’s notion of non-places onto the grids of Ghost World we can get an idea of how such supermodern environments are represented via a medium particularly well suited to figuring spatial representations. Thierry Groensteen suggests intuitively that architectural metaphors are frequently invoked to describe what he calls ‘the general economy of the [comics] page’ stating, perhaps rather obviously, that: ‘[i]ndeed the page resembles a house that has several stories.’ (2007, p. 58). But I would suggest that the comics page also possesses a cartographic quality, mapping narrative space and place, the flattened regular rectilinear grids an analogue for the instrumentalised blocks of towns and cities.
At one point Enid tells Rebecca; ‘This is so depressing…How everything is all the same no matter where you go.’ (2008, p. 74). The non-places of Ghost World’s setting are located in an anonymous (sub)urban sprawl of fast food joints with ersatz décor and second-hand ambience, out of town shopping malls, and blank expanses of low rise blocks. Clowes manages to suggest a world invaded by franchises while cannily avoiding specific references (this ellipsis filled in by the reader from his/her own experiences and environment): non-places are not nowhere places – they are everywhere and interchangeable. This sense of interchangeability is underscored by Clowes’ own comments on the anonymised setting of Ghost World: ‘a vaguely suburban, half-Southern California, palm treed American sprawl (with various architectural touches from the Chicago of my youth).’ (2008, ‘Introduction, p. i). ‘What reigns there’, writes Augé ‘is actuality, the urgency of the present moment.’ (p. 104).
The characters wander aimlessly through a bland landscape of seemingly endless, blank low rise buildings, the smooth glossy surfaces of supermodern America punctured by the mysterious graffiti artist who paints ‘Ghost World’ on walls, garage doors, fences etc. Michel de Certeau, theorist of space and the everyday, proposed the categories of ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics.’ The strategy is ‘the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships’ that regulates social relations (de Certeau, p. 35-6). The tactic is that which ‘must play on and with a terrain imposed on it’ taking advantage of opportunities (1984, p. 37). The graffiti can be read as a tactic against the strategy of the non-places the girls inhabit., unsettling the rationalised cartographic grid of the comics page.
This environment, needless to say, affects them and their choices intensely. Their artfully contrived dialogue emphasises their attempts to construct some kind of critical distance from their environment and the banal mass of consumer choices on offer, a distance that fails to materialise (at least until the poetic conclusion), lapsing into an inadequate ironic insulation. The characters reach a point of indecision perplexed and unimpressed by the choices they face, with Enid about to go to university and Rebecca into the world of precarious employment. Enid’s reaction against the blank consumer landscape is to buy a hearse as her first car to drive to college, an escape route from the somnambulant ghost world. Rebecca, meanwhile, ends up working in exactly the kind of non-place fast food outlet the girls used to aimlessly hang out.
Augé, M. (1995) Non-Place: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity , translated by John Howe (London: Verso).
de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life , translated by Steven Rendell (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).
Clowes, D. (2008) Ghost World: Special Edition (Seattle: Fantagraphics).
Groensteen, T. (2007) The System of Comics (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press)