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New media to disseminate research? A comprehensive comic book on urban mobility issues.

Book review of: E. Ravalet, S. Vincent-Geslin, V. Kaufmann, J. Leveugle. 2014 Slices of (mobile) life. A sociological survey and manifesto on work-related high mobility.
Philippe Gerber
Bibliographical reference

Ravalet E., Vincent-Geslin S., Kaufmann V., Leveugle J. 2014. Slices of (mobile) life. A sociological survey and manifesto on work-related high mobility. Paris, Loco Editions.

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Slices of (Mobile) LifeFull size image
Credits: Loco Éditions

1Graphic novels and books incorporating biographies and social chronicles are becoming increasingly common in all the best bookshops. This kind of illustrated reading is beginning to catch up with super-hero stories and the more traditional adventure, sci-fi and fantasy type comic books. The genre’s powerful educational potential has made it possible to open up to a wider, more curious and more diverse readership, subjects and themes that can sometimes be difficult to address. The latest iconic works of this type focus on researchers in fields such as mathematics (Logicomix, by Doxiàdis and Papadimitriou, published by Vuibert, tells the story of little Bertie Russell and how he revolutionised our understanding of logic), physics and computers (Les Rêveurs Lunaires, published by Gallimard/Grasset, comprises four short biographies of leading savants like Turing; the illustrations come from the magnificent paintbrush of Edmond Baudoin, and the words from Cédric Vilani, a French mathematician more famous for his Fields Medal in mathematics). Others are social stories rooted in everyday life – a life that is hard for some (and here let us hail the EU initiative which led to the publication, in 2010, in all 23 official languages, of two free comic books produced by famous writer-artists, Jump Start and Take Two, collections of graphic stories showing how it’s possible to make a new start in life with the help of some of the EU’s special programmes), but happier for others (Transports sentimentaux, collection published by La Boite à Bulles).

2Emmanuel Ravalet, Stéphanie Vincent-Geslin, Vincent Kaufmann and Jean Leveugle, the people behind this challenging initiative, no doubt wanted to combine these two narrative genres in this new work, Slices of Mobile Life. The book is a condensed version of their latest research programme regarding work-related high mobility (available here:​projet/​jobmob). Its aim was to quantify and thereby analyse regular long distance travel in six European countries, based on a number of quantitative (Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Poland and Switzerland) and qualitative (France) surveys. In addition to this annotated work, other articles and reports have since been published.

3The first part of the book in question tells the story of no less than six people who regularly travel long distances, while the second goes on to summarise the main conclusions arising from the research, with a particular focus on the social, economic, geographical and demographic characteristics of these highly mobile lives. Finally, the last part – in a nutshell – is intended as a wake-up call to HR departments, which need to take particular care of their highly mobile employees, because of their unusual – some might say tiring – working conditions.

4Let us start by focusing on the first part of the book, which is by far the most original, particularly in the way it handles the narrative. Each of the six individual lives is portrayed in four pages, offering altogether some 30 illustrated pages, which depict scenes and stories from their everyday lives and daily routines. Here we can see, by reading between the lines, that the lives they lead are nothing like those of jet-setters, CEOs of multinationals, or indeed any of the other stereotypes portrayed by the media. This book is about train driver Jean, humanities teacher Emilie, sales rep Martin, care assistant Gaby, free-lance music teacher Thierry, and Christelle, a former sales rep now in charge of her own team. All of them must try and reconcile their family life with their working lives, often conducted at high speed because of all the long hours spent travelling. The challenge is to find a way of managing one’s circadian rhythms whilst simultaneously taking into account the constraints of other members of the household, by organising things as well as one can with not just one’s spouse or partner, but sometimes with one’s social and family networks too, in such a way as to avoid disrupting the activities of the nuclear family. Compensation strategies abound (resting or contacting family members whilst using public transport, preparing for meetings in the car, and so on); there is little margin for error, as otherwise the couple’s relationship may gradually begin to founder; and there is no room at all for the unexpected. A couple must be particularly strong if it is to survive the vagaries of such a lifestyle, which leads, a priori, to a larger number of divorces than average, whether they live in the city, the suburbs or the countryside. The arrival of a child tends to lead to a cessation of this kind of long distance travelling, particularly for women.

5It is amusing to see how the six different lives occasionally come together as they travel from one place to another, linking the various stories illustrated by Jean Leveugle. Thus does Martin, who travels on the train driven by Jean, try to strike up a conversation with Gaby (to no avail, as it happens), and the reader can imagine Emilie and Thierry observing each other in their respective cars, as they wait at a level crossing for the French regional express train to (TER) to pass. This ‘comic book’ uses such established devices as narrative ellipsis to make the reader’s experience relatively smooth and unjolted, whilst ensuring that each of the six chapters can be read independently. It is a pity, however, that each individual is only allocated a relatively small space (4 pages), as this makes it difficult to establish the kind of empathy the authors would no doubt have wanted. Fortunately, the anecdotes are well compiled and this makes the stories even more touching. Thus the authors allow details of how these long distance commuters organise their lives to trickle through, whether they concern their choice of housing, their method of transport, or whether or not they intend to go on being long distance commuters. Meanwhile, J. Leveugle, despite not being a career comic book artist, manages the dual feat of building credible, moving characters, the kind of people you might meet on the street any day of the week, yet at the same time characters you might easily come across in a more traditional comic book. And all this whilst simultaneously incorporating a subtle dose of cryptic backdrops, succinct explanatory diagrams and analogies with, for example, the inexorable passage of time or different modes of transport. Such is the persuasive power of this comic strip.

6But why, then, stop when the going was so good? The next two parts of the book are of interest, of course, as they provide a condensed version of the results and practical suggestions that turn this study of long-distance commuters into an analysis of how best to organise the society of tomorrow. In these last two parts, the authors have simply passed on the information in the traditional manner, i.e. via a written text with the occasional drawing or illustration that may or may not be taken from the comic strip itself. The easy-reading nature and originality of the book gets a little lost along the way, even if the intent to make the work accessible remains clear.

7In this part of the book, information comes thick and fast, as do the potential solutions offered to these long-distance commuters - solutions which could equally be of use throughout the working population. For example, why not set up clubs, networks where families of long-distance commuters could discuss their experiences and swap ideas through social networking sites for example, helping to improve organisation or share good practice? Why could employers not check that employees who wish to play the long distance commute game see it as more than just a stage in their career? Similarly, should we not be facilitating modes of transport that respect the environment, at a time when greenhouse gas emissions are so dangerous for the planet? For example, long distance commuters could benefit from attending courses on travel and transport, or could be given the opportunity to telework, etc.? All these questions, interwoven with suitable solutions, could have been items slipped into corners of J. Leveugle’s illustrations here and there, albeit with greater or lesser ease… or they could even have been included in the storylines of our six model characters, thus making this a rich, comprehensive comic book, like the other comics mentioned earlier.

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Electronic reference

Philippe Gerber, New media to disseminate research? A comprehensive comic book on urban mobility issues.Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2016, Online since 04 April 2016, connection on 28 July 2021. URL:

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About the author

Philippe Gerber

Philippe Gerber is research fellow in the field of geography, with an expertise in daily and residential mobility. He is developing several research projects in the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research. The main objectives are modelling and simulating mobility behaviours considering urban constraints, especially in the context of cross-border regions. Email :

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