Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I’ve been reading City of Glass, the cartoonization of the Paul Auster novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. I hated it before it even began, since unfortunately, against my usual custom, I read the foreword, by one Art Spiegelman, editor of the book. He recounted his choice of an artist: “I enlisted David Mazzucchelli, whose art on Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One had shown a grace, economy, and understanding of the form that made the superhero genre almost interesting.” Oh yeah like it takes your breed of anthropomorphic mice to make the holocaust almost interesting again. I threw the book into a corner and read some Supergirl instead.

When I took the book up once more, I became really excited about it on page 15, the panels you see above. This is Peter Stillman talking, the face of the mystery (happily I won’t have to go into the story for this, so no spoilers ahead except ultimate disappointment). Or rather, this is his speech bubble talking through him. It’s such a simple but brilliant move. The man becomes a puppet of his own voice. 

Then a slow zoom and we move past the uvula into allegorical realms where there are all kinds of things that the voice is speaking through, like cave paintings, drains, gramophone horns, turds, teddy bears, all defining the character as his attributes . . . but more than that the speech bubble’s tube down the throat of things channels the author speaking, first of the comic, but on a deeper level of the original novel, Paul Auster, whose puppets Karasik and Mazzucchelli are (and who in fact has a cameo in the comic/novel itself, wrapping this up structurally). And by acknowledging that all the images are read/read out by that auctorial voice, the art fights back and you have a real back and forth between words and image that in this richness is a very rare thing.

But they can’t keep it up.

Here’s the upper two tiers from page 100. “Quinn spent the following day on his feet.” And you get feet. For “every twenty minutes he would call Virginia” you get a clock. “The busy signal had become a comforting metronome,” that was actually two panels earlier, bzzt bzzt. “The random noises of the city” . . . are cars in the city that random? but yeah, they help us understand the word “noise.” Mind-numbingly literal. “Negating speech and the possibility of speech,” and you get the graffiti on the wall behind . . . that’s actually a subtle gesture I’d have enjoyed earlier in the book. Still, it has become obvious that the art has no life of its own left but merely illustrates the narrator’s voiceless text boxes.

Which is a clever demonstration of why adaptations usually suck.


  1. You don't need to get to page 100 to notice how literal the image-word relationship is. Which is a pity, because parts of this comic are wildly inventive. But everywhere across its length are these idiotic panels that illustrate the text boxes like in an elementary school assignment. "Now, kids. Please draw what comes to your mind when you read this sentence." Actually, I think this comic might even be less interesting than the results of such an assignment. I speculated once that, maybe, in its mind-numbing, dictatorial literalness, the comic was offering an extremely abstract take on the noirish trope of architecture as prison... here the "architecture" being the strict, rigid walls of meaning that encircle the lifeless city and conceal its truth, forcing it to conform to the dictates of the narration. The city doesn't exist outside of the words referring to it, since no existence is possible outside of textual descriptions. Our protagonist, in his quest to find out the truth, which lies beyond was is told to him, falls into a wordless, meaningless void, an empty vacuum still not filled-in by the totalitarian narrative voice. Bit too fancy, though. Not sure it works.

  2. Hey Guido, that's actually a splendid reading but I forbid you to save this thing.

    Although of course there is the downward slope of the story. The descent into madness, despite the postmodern trappings, offers a hard and fast resolution, even if there appear to be loose strands everywhere, they are tidily wrapped up in the larger narrative of things becoming unravelled. It also probably means that the void isn't meaningless, since its structural function is so clear.