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Mapping Montréal through comics: Michel Hellman's project

Our 2024 McConnell Professor of Practice presented the roadmap for his project to CIRM.

On May 29th, Michel Hellman, our 2024 McConnell Professor of Practice (in partnership with the Montreal Comic Arts Festival), gave a lecture entitled "Mapping Montréal through comics". It was an opportunity to hear him talk about his project during his residency with us, his inspirations and his creative process.

Who is Michel Hellman?

Michel Hellman is a cartoonist and illustrator. It was during his studies at McGill, in art history, that he began to document his daily life through his first comic strips, which eventually became the book Mile End (Pow Pow, 2011). He has since published three other books, Nunavik (Pow Pow, 2016), Iceberg (L'Oie de Cravan, 2018) and Le Petit guide du Plan nord (L'Oie de Cravan, 2013). He has also produced exhibitions on the Côte-des-Neiges and Rivière-des-Prairies neighborhoods.


Page couverture du livre Mile End de Michel Hellman


Page couverture du livre Nunavik de Michel Hellman


Image de l'exposition Côte-des-Neiges de Michel Hellman



For him, comics are an extremely versatile medium, as they allow stories to be told using not only a variety of styles but also materials. Of course, there is the good old pen and paper (which is the case in Mile End and Nunavik), but Michel has also explored other ways to approach sequential storytelling, with paper cutouts in Iceberg, and cut-out garbage bags (!) melted with an iron and glued to a white background in Le Petit guide du Plan nord.


Image du livre Iceberg de Michel Hellman



Image du Petit Guide du Plan Nord de Michel Hellman


What does he want to do at CRIEM?

Michel's project will revolve around the neighborhoods of Montréal, giving a special place to their identity(ies).

The image produced for this lecture is a sort of first step in this project, presenting different neighborhoods with their playful, stuffy, thirsty (and many more) identities, all around Mount Royal!

Image de la conférence Cartographier Montréal en bande dessinée de Michel Hellman

Michel explains the reactions to this illustration.

Working with CIRM's research community, Michel aims to address pressing contemporary issues (gentrification, access to housing, complex cohabitation between certain population groups), while favoring personal stories to uncover the intimate relationships that an individual or a group of individuals may develop with a specific place. With this program, we will be far from the tourist guide!

To achieve this, Michel is inspired by "sensitive mapping," which is a form of mapping that documents personal experiences of a territory. In other words, a sensitive map focuses on the emotions, personal stories, memories, sounds, and even smells associated with specific places within a given territory. Here are two examples of such maps, commented on by Michel.


Maps are often used in comics, so this is not a far-fetched idea. They are used to guide the reader or to situate the story's setting. They can even be integrated into the sequence of images, or even into the drawings themselves. What Michel wants to do with sensitive mapping is to engage the reader in an active role, to present the neighborhoods to them with fresh eyes. As he himself mentions:

"What may be different in my project is the crucial role they [sensitive maps] will play in constructing the narrative. I want to associate experiences with places of importance, and use the motif of cartography as a recurring element in my story to connect the past to the present, the personal to the collective."

How does he plan to do this?

Michel's narrative will be based on three pillars:

  • His observations in the field;
  • Testimonies from people who live in and represent different neighborhoods;
  • The research work of the CIRM community.

The map will be a kind of visual refrain, as it will always come back with new layers, imbued with new meanings thanks to observations, encounters, and research. Vignettes, or comics associated with each neighborhood, will be the visual verses.

But having said that, it's time to operationalize the whole thing, to use a word dear to academic research. Here's Michel's methodology.

"What may be different about my project is the decisive role they will play in the construction of the narrative. I want to associate experiences with places that hold significance, and use the motif of cartography as a recurring element in my narrative to connect the past to the present, the personal to the collective."

The point of view? Michel will continue to represent himself as a bear, the same avatar presented in Mile End and Nunavik, in order to maintain the continuity of his work.

Avatar de Michel Hellman: un personnage ours

The method? Strolling around the city, taking in parts of it as he would if he were a tourist, always with a notebook of observations, so that he can draw and document his decisions about where to go, what he sees and who he meets.


Image de carnet de Michel Hellman



Image de carnet de Michel Hellman



Image de carnet de Michel Hellman


There's even a precise term for this concept, which comes from Guy Debord: "psychogeographic drift".

Michel's project is therefore necessarily subjective, even random. Even though he documents the decisions that influence his psychogeographical drifting, he doesn't know in advance who he will meet, or what precise subjects will come up during the conversations, which he articulates, broadly speaking, around home.

What's next? Following this "data gathering", researchers from the CIRM community will be able to complement and add depth to Michel's remakrs. Comics as a tool for popularizing science have been enjoying a good run for some years now. Comics are playful, pleasing to the eye and particularly accessible to a wide audience; it is the kind of tool that makes researchers eager to disseminate their research.

In fact, at its best, comics can be used to generate new ideas and forge new links. For CIRM, an interdisciplinary research center, it is a dream come true! However, popularizing knowledge in comics comes with its own challenges, due to its very format.

If you put a lot of information in each box, readers lose interest. What is needed is to develop an emotional link between readers and the story being told. To be drawn into the story, you have to follow a character's journey. That is the key to good popularization. And, as mentioned earlier, the character whose journey (or rather, journeys) we will be following is Michel himself.

Here, he presents one of his first psychogeographical drifts, which he has already repeated on several occasions. This stroll took him from the Ernest-Cormier house... to the Ernest-Cormier esplanade, and serves as a first illustration of what his project at CIRM might look like.


Carte de la dérive de Michel Hellman, de la maison Cormier à l'esplanade Cormier



Dessin de la dérive de Michel Hellman, de la maison Cormier à l'esplanade Cormier


This is already an excellent example of storytelling, with a sensitive map, overlaid by the research of our member Aliki Economides. Bravo Michel! We can't wait for the rest!

Watch the entire lecture (in French)

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