CITY OF GLASS: The Graphic Novel
By Paul Auster, Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli
New introduction by Art Spiegelman
Picador. 144 pp. Paperback, $14
BIRTH OF A NATION: A Comic Novel
By Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin
Illustrations by Kyle Baker. Crown. 137 pp. $25
Originally published 10 years ago, City of Glass -- a graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster's prose novel of the same name, undertaken by artists Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli -- is finally receiving a well-deserved second printing. Although a decade old, City of Glass fits in neatly with such recent Borgesian, Hitchcockian graphic novels as Daniel Clowes's David Boring. This revived volume proves to be an overlooked ancestor of the genre, one of the unacknowledged foundation stones of the form.
Instrumental in the genesis of this work, Art Spiegelman contributes a fascinating new introduction. Despite Spiegelman's doubts about "why anyone on Earth should bother to adapt a book into . . . another book," the artists involved have succeeded in producing a true reimagining of Auster's small, surreal noir masterpiece. Daniel Quinn, a writer, is sucked by odd circumstances into assuming the role of "Paul Auster, detective." Already somewhat ambivalent about his earlier alternate identities -- as mystery writer William Wilson and Wilson's protagonist, Max Work -- Quinn gradually loses any core of solid identity as he tries to unravel the mystery of Peter Stillman, a young man horribly abused as a child. Drawing on ontological, epistemological, theological and linguistic paradoxes, the narrative nevertheless maintains a suspenseful, headlong gait.
Karasik and Mazzucchelli's bold-lined black-and-white artwork is a fine match for Auster's original wordage (here abridged and condensed, to be sure). Their meticulous naturalism in most panels captures the groundedness of the original's New York setting. Employing a nine-panel grid with subtle variations on the majority of pages, the artists play fruitfully with the imagery of prison bars and windows.
But where they excel and go beyond the original, earning Spiegelman's kudos for creating "a breakthrough work," is in those moments when they mate startlingly unanticipated visuals to Auster's prose. The most striking example of this occurs in the nine pages that illustrate a long speech by Peter Stillman from the novel. The protean, symbolic slideshow that Mazzucchelli and Karasik conjure up exactly captures the painful revelations of Stillman's past, as well as his unidiomatic, tic-filled speech patterns. And even less overtly hypnotic devices -- such as representing Quinn's urban wanderings by simply superimposing his figure over a full-page map of Manhattan -- contribute their own unique cartoony strengths.
City of Glass's themes are eternal, allowing new generations to appreciate it over and over. But topicality doesn't always prove to be a death sentence for a work of art. No one can predict for sure, but I suspect that the canny creators of Birth of a Nation -- Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin and Kyle Baker -- have crafted a tale that will outlive its ties to current headlines.
McGruder is well known, of course, for his often controversial daily comic strip, "The Boondocks." Hudlin has written and produced numerous films, including the popular "House Party." For this project, they collaborated on the scripting duties. The art comes from Kyle Baker, a legend within the comics field, most recently for his hilarious work on "Plastic Man." Relevantly, all three men are African Americans -- or should I say citizens of Blackland?
Blackland is the name chosen by the inhabitants of East St. Louis when they secede from the United States in a fit of righteous indignation attendant on a voting scandal. It seems that many of the black voters of the city were deliberately disenfranchised, allowing Gov. Caldwell of Texas (a dead ringer for George W. Bush) to be elected president by the slimmest of margins. Now, under their heroic mayor, Fred Fredericks, it's East St. Louis alone against a dozen deadly enemies, ranging from the federal government to the oil industry to the corrupt media. Only the faith and ingenuity of a core of oddball supporters might save the fledgling nation from extinction.
All this is truly funny. Sweetening their acidic satirical assaults with slapstick and running riffs involving horny mayoral assistants, squabbling citizens arguing over which black entertainer's face should go on the new currency, and wannabe female revolutionaries, the writers are careful not to neglect sheer storytelling virtues. Ideology and dogmatism take a back seat to comedy -- which, of course, is not to say that McGruder and Hudlin do not get in plenty of body blows. Caldwell/Bush is an utter idiot, mangling language left and right. His advisers -- Condoleezza and Colin lookalikes -- come off a little better, but not by much. Nor is the wrath of the authors directed solely against Caucasians. For instance, Roscoe, the thug who becomes the first general in Blackland, is a duplicitous lout.
The deepest and most affecting characterization is that of Fred Fredericks. We first meet the saintly mayor as he vainly tries to deal with striking garbage collectors by personally carting stinking bags of trash in his minivan. Like some black Jimmy Stewart in a Capra film, Fredericks is the noble linchpin that allows the whole story and concept to function. Yet he can be sanctimonious and dumb as well -- truly a well-rounded figure. The speculative elements of the plot -- cyberspace chicanery, a source of limitless clean energy -- are cleverly presented, too.
All of this thoughtful writing is upheld and incredibly bolstered by Baker's goofy, squiggly, loose-limbed art. Like such great cartoonists as Mad magazine's Sergio Aragones and Paul Coker, Baker makes the most of his abstracted lines. His two-page spread of an aerial dogfight through the famed St. Louis Arch is striking in its tilted composition. Plus he's swell at drawing sexy babes. Surprisingly, given McGruder's reputation for using occasional search-and-destroy tactics against the objects of his derision, this book ultimately recalls nothing so much as Leonard Wibberly's good-natured The Mouse Who Roared in its farcical, geopolitical shenanigans. *
Paul Di Filippo's "Beyond the Farthest Precinct," a sequel to Alan Moore's graphic novel "Top Ten," will be published next year.