Mapping Marvel Comics with StoryMap

Screenshot from 2018’s Spider-Man game for PS4 (aka my new obsession)

Like many other folks in digital humanities who are in positions where they consult with students, faculty members, and community partners on tools and resources, I’ve frequently steered interested parties to the suite of digital storytelling tools offered by the Knight Lab (a group that operates out of Northwestern University). While the Lab’s work is designed with a community of journalists in mind, its tools can also be useful in other contexts: classrooms or workshops interested in multimodal storytelling and digital exhibits; prototyping efforts for scholars interested in maps, data, or digital curation; or, given the relative ease with which a tool can be accessed and used to create and publish content, less formal or academic forays into the creation of digital content.

I’ve been interested in StoryMap for a while, particularly as an alternative to Neatline for individuals and collaborative projects interested more in digital exhibits than in the creation and publication of digital collections and metadata (which Omeka, the content management system that offers Neatline as a plugin, is particularly good at). There are “hacks” of Omeka that essentially “hide” various parts of a site to privilege exhibits created in Neatline (I worked on one here at Brown a few years ago), made by people interested in the possibilities of location-based storytelling, or annotations of high-resolution images of objects or interior spaces.

StoryMap from the Newest Americans project

A particularly great implementation of StoryMap (in my opinion) can be found at Newest Americans, a collaborative lab (collaboratory?) made up of people from the University of Rutgers-Newark, VII Photo, and Talking Eyes Media. Check out “A Building, A Block, A Neighborhood” and “The Ironbound Issue.” In the spring I’ll be teaching a Digital Storytelling course at Brown that takes these two particular publications as points of inspiration for hyperlocal histories.

In preparation for that work, I’ve been testing out StoryMap as a tool, so I decided to create a narrative that draws on my interest in comic books. Last year I started Marvel / NYC, a Tumblr dedicated to images of New York City in the long history of Marvel Comics. I made it because of my own interest in Tumblr sites that circulated comic book panels and sequences, and while I initially was drawn to those limitation in the context of a “research-in-process” blog I also started to think about other digital approaches that highlighted this project’s interest in space and the city. 

I became pretty interested in images of cultural institutions like museums, galleries, and monuments in these books, which I guess is not that surprising given my current gig. Explicit references to New York City landmarks in background scenes and dialogue over the years were essential components of the world-building that went into the creation of the Marvel Universe. These references also offer us perspectives on these particular spaces and on New York City as a whole: how the shorthand used to quickly describe or illustrate the city has changed over time, what Marvel’s creative teams tell us about who values or inhabits these spaces (and what we learn about the perspectives and experiences of these creators from their assumptions). I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Landmark Tokens” were a component of the new Spider-Man video game. To earn additional points and skills, Spider-Man must travel to various real (Empire State Building) and imagined (Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum in the Village!) and photograph them.

So I decided to map out some of the initial panels I had tagged with “museums” on Marvel/NYC (I thought about doing something with landmarks, but in the interest of time and the desire to prototype something, I decided to work with a smaller sample set). You can see the StoryMap on a separate page here, and I’d argue that this is the ideal way to view this story for now. I’ve embedded it at the bottom of this post too, but in an ideal world I’d follow the approach of Newest Americans and find a theme better suited to full-screen viewing of the StoryMap if I were privileging this content more (this corner of my personal site has a WordPress theme that favors text at the moment).

Even in the process of embedding, I’ve learned a few things about project development and design from this process. If you’re interested in using this tool, the overview provided by StoryMap is a good place to start. Here are some other thoughts:

The big ones for me are the questions of how long this tool will exist and how long my stuff will be accessible online in this format. The last project update on the Knight Lab’s blog that explicitly reference StoryMap was in June of 2016. Thanks to Twitter we can see that they recently worked through an issue affecting StoryMap and other tools in August 2018 (and The Cheat makes an appearance!) and just this month they retweeted a recent use of StoryMap, so there are signs of continued support. That being said, any project that relies on this tool should probably think about their reliance on a cool, free resource that might not be here for the foreseeable future. Think about the long-term preservation of items added to StoryMap (specifically your media files, narrative text, and location coordinates) and their potential re-use. StoryMap is on GitHub too, which is nice.

Smaller stuff that you and your users might run into:

-StoryMap hosting uploaded files and the StoryMap itself is nice, but the inability to easily find and access the StoryMap folder containing my media files kind of drove me bonkers. It’s also unclear how much space or how many files a user can add to an individual StoryMap or to their account as a whole (ditto for information on how many maps one can create).

-I found the interface fairly easy to navigate on my laptop (a dinosaur of a MacBook Pro) in Chrome. I liked the “Save” and “Publish Changes” features and the ability to drag and drop the order of the story’s slides. The only real headache came from viewing images that appeared stretched in “Preview” mode but looked fine when the story was published. That being said, StoryMap seems to prefer images that are wider horizontally than vertically, an occasional issue when it came to certain images from comics with the opposite dimensions favored. And I could imagine the need for additional work and context on ideal images / image-editing software in classroom settings.

-As with similar tools, you quickly realize what you can and can’t do within the limits of the options presented to you. I wanted to add additional images to a few annotations but chose to work within the limits in the end.

-The project page actually looked really great on a mobile device, and it seems like there’s a lot of potential for annotating / curating work in the context of a tour of physical spaces (with the usual caveat that not every user has unlimited data, so availability of wifi would be a big help here).

-I learned a bit from visualizing my content in this way! One thing that didn’t stand out initially when inventorying and tagging this initial batch of panels was their shared proximity to Central Park.

Generally speaking, I think StoryMap has a lot of potential as a tool that either augments other content (and this makes sense, given that it seemed designed to complement text-centric work by journalists who wanted to more explicitly highlight and interrogate the spatial dimensions of their narratives) or as a kind of “generous interface” inviting users to explore content elsewhere. In other words, I could imagine a StoryMap that links to photographs in a digital repository, open access academic publications, Wikipedia articles, full-texts of comic books whose panels are sampled (don’t worry, Marvel, I’m not going there! Though it might be cool to see some maps with Marvel Unlimited, though literally anything is preferable to the current interface over there!). 

Questions, comments? Feel free to email me at or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.