War of Streets and Houses
Sophie Yanow’s War of Streets and Houses is a difficult graphic novel to approach, but a rewarding one. I picked it up because it was described to me as about urban planning, as well as student rebellion during strikes in Montreal in 2012, and my brother is a civil engineer, so I thought he might find it interesting.
The concepts rely on the reader to bring herself to the work, as do the images. The art is sketchy and minimalist, sometimes relying on blank space to indicate concern and disconnection. It can be more of an outline for a book than a fully realized explanation, but I liked how much it shared and how it made me grapple with concepts foreign to my experience.
Yanow is ambivalent about participating in the student strikes against rising tuition. Like most people, she’s afraid of being hurt or arrested. She ponders the differences between urban and rural living, sprawl, how cities are designed (or spread), police tactics, urban warfare, and paranoia.
There are a lot of big ideas in this little volume, and I’m not sure an illustrated essay wouldn’t have been a better choice. There are moments when her images show the experience — as when she gets off the metro to a huge crowd of hooded figures — but others where the art is much more abstract, as when her figure, pondering city living, is shown small in an otherwise empty panel. This isn’t a story so much as a loose connection of related concepts and memories.
As the end notes explain, the title comes from a pamphlet written by a French officer sent to suppress resistance in Algiers in the 1840s, adding historical context to these conflicts. It’s rare to see such deep ideas about the ways we live and build explored in such a clear way. “How do we own our spaces?” is a fascinating question that I’m glad this book raised to me. You can see sample pages in this interview with the artist.