Tuesday, March 13, 2007

100 Great Pages: Paul Auster's City of Glass, by Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli, page 4

First of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

City of Glass is a wonderful novel by Paul Auster -- first of a trilogy of which the latter two parts are equally good -- which was adapted into a graphic novel* which was, if anything, even better than the original novel. I know, I know: we have a fetish for the original, and a bias for high-prestige arts like prose novels and against more popular arts like comics, and for that matter many of us have fond memories of looking down on "classics illustrated" versions of great books, so for many people I will instantly loose credibility by daring to suggest that the graphic novel may be better. But the theoretical arguments for the equality of more popular to more elite forms have been made many times, and the aesthetic bias towards original rather than adapted arts collapses when one considers something like film -- arguably the art form which comics most resembles. So I will pretend that I can go ahead and speak of the work without further justification.

Paul Auster's City of Glass (see the footnote for information about the different tiles the work has been published under) is a superb book, one which falls into a sub-genre that I would call a "metaphysical mystery". This is hardly a well-known sub-genre, although I didn't make up the term, and lots of predecessors can be thought of (probably Jorge Luis Borges above all). It is a mystery in which what begins as a traditional mystery peels away the metaphysical certainties of the world to the point where the nature of reality becomes the central question, replacing the identity of the culprit (or whatever mystery the book begins with).

Auster's original novel is a stunning piece of prose, but it's so much a piece of prose that, reading it, my initial instinct would be to swear that it was unadaptable to any visual medium, film as well as comics. (Ironically, I felt this way even though I read the prose version after reading the comic!) But in a remarkable judo-like move, Karasik & Mazzucchelli manage to make that a virtue, replacing artistic structures with features intrinsic to (and not extricable from) prose with parallel artistic structures intrinsic to comics.

One fine example of this comes early on, on the fourth page of the comic, which looks like this:

(Click for larger version)

The zooming-in-to-a-new-world effect is used multiple times in the work, and perfectly fits the book's themes of puzzles of reality and investigation. Here the transformation leads mysteriously back to the original scene (in a way that may be indebted to the art of photographer Duane Michals), again thematically matching the book's probing of reality.

But the thematic art goes deeper than that. The mystery of the city is a large component of City of Glass (the original novel is part of a work called the "New York trilogy", after all), and the transformation of the lines of the building first into a maze and then into a fingerprint encapsulates much of the feel of the work to come. That that fingerprint turns out to be on a pane of glass, looking out on a city, just adds to the deliciousness. (This use of overtly symbolic images, illustrating and twisting the adapted words, is one of the stylistic characteristics of the work, and is one of the reasons I chose this page.)

Above I called the page a "zoom", borrowing a metaphor from film: but of course that is deeply misleading. Call it rather an ontological slide, a merging of one thing into another made possible by the abstraction of things into lines in the comics drawing. A building becomes a labyrinth; a labyrinth becomes an abstract design of a sort that suggests thought; the abstract design becomes a footprint, then a thumbprint on the window -- and we are back to a building again. And yet surely at some point in there it was a map as well? "all just lines on paper, folks!": things are queer, indeed.

And let us not ignore some of the marvelous little details of the design. In the sixth panel, as Quinn found that on his best walks "he was able to feel that he was nowhere" we have a smaller version of the earlier maze (is it still a maze?) surrounded by white: a map in the middle of nowhere; also a representation of a head (as if in an old-fashioned schematic drawing of a brain), itself nowhere. He is equally "nowhere" in panel seven, when the footprint (or is it already a thumbprint?) exists in a blank white space. In panel eight, as we are told that "New York was the Nowhere he had built around himself", we see a thumbprint (symbol of the absent self, and also classic icon of identity in the detective story) on glass (and this is, again, 'city of glass') in a window looking out on a faceless building in, yes, New York: New York has grown to surround the signifier of the absent self that Quinn has been reduced to. And with "never leave it again" in panel nine we see Quinn's bare foot in his apartment, as this page detailing his walks around the city manages to be claustrophobically trapped in his apartment during a discussion of wanderings.

It's also instructive to compare the page with the corresponding paragraph from Auster's prose novel. Here's the complete paragraph and a half from which the text in the page above is taken:
...More than anything else, however, what he liked to do was walk. Nearly every day, rain or shine, hot or cold, he would leave his apartment to walk through the city -- never really going anywhere, but simply going wherever his legs happened to take him.

New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutatory emptiness within. The world was outside of him, around him, before him, and the speed with which it kept changing made it impossible for him to dwell on any one thing for very long. Motion was of the essence, the act of putting one foot in front of the other and allowing himself to follow the drift of his own body. By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal, and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere. New York was the nowhere he had built around himself, and he realized that he had no intention of ever leaving it again. (Paul Auster, City of Glass, paragraphs 2-3)
Prose is not comics; an adaptation is not (and should not try to be) a replacement for the original. Each is an artistic work of its own integrity, and certainly both the page of the Karasik & Mazzucchelli graphic novel and the page by Auster contain some power not in the other.

Nevertheless, it is amazing to me how much Auster's prose can serve as a brilliant interpretation of the meaning of the comics page (if one ignores the historical facts of their creation). "Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well": these words are not printed on the page reproduced above, but the idea is shot through it, embodied in the sequence of the images, the loosing in the buildings become the loosing in the maze becoming the loosing in the signs of self (map of the mind, footprint, thumbprint). So, too, with the words "the world was outside of him, around him, before him, and the speed with which it kept changing made it impossible for him to dwell on any one thing for very long": there is no motion on the comics page, but there is a world outside/around/before, and a series of changes which will not let him (and us?) dwell to long on any one thing. The entire page embodies such thoughts as "Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind," or the reduction of the self (never fully pictured on the page) to the seeing eye.

One is not a replacement for the other. But both are fine works of art, which convey the same (a similar?) story -- one in words; the other in words and sequential images. Both brilliantly.

I might mention that my biggest regret in choosing page four to represent this work (since I don't normally intend to discuss more than one page from any single work in this series) is that it doesn't show off Mazzucchelli's extraordinary art very well. For along with all the symbolism, Mazzucchelli simply draws simple, beautiful scenes. To just give you a taste of that, here are two panels from a few pages later in the book, one from page twelve, one from page thirteen:

Note the extraordinary detail in both the cityscape and in the drawing room. The latter panel also shows off another wonderful little use of a comics device: the blank thought balloon. I can't say for certain that this is original with Karasik & Mazzucchelli, but I've never seen it before; and it works very well. (There are, I should emphasize, not thought balloons in every panel by any means, so that Karasik & Mazzucchelli could simply have portrayed the man sitting in the room with a silent panel; putting in a thought balloon, and then leaving it blank, captures something else entirely.)

My other regret about choosing page four is that some of the other layouts are more spectacular. Here, for example, are a few of the (many!) other pages that I considered using but didn't, page 8 on the left, and (a rather poor scan of) pages 130-131 on the right:

-- In each case here the overall page layout is simply extremely well done, beautiful as well as meaningful. But I'll stop here before I go on to write about a whole additional page! (This does, however, exemplify some of my own misgivings about this entire project -- namely, that a page, however good, usually cannot fairly be used to represent an entire work.)

Still, just as a page, page four from Paul Auster's City of Glass is an astonishing piece of art: a virtuoso slide from a simple view through a maze of interlocking symbols and back to the view again. It is not something that the narrator sees -- it is not an "event" that happens -- but it is a series of pictures that does not merely illustrate, but breathes life into, the words it accompanies.

A great page.

Meanwhile, I urge everyone to read Paul Auster's City of Glass -- even if (perhaps especially if) you've read and enjoyed the prose novel. It's a superb piece of work and well worth tracking down.

* The edition I have (Avon Books, 1994) was published under the title Paul Auster's City of Glass, with the credits reading "Script Adaptation by Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli, Art by David Mazzucchelli". (It was part of a briefly-lived series called "Neon Lit" and edited by Art Spiegelman, and so you'll occasionally see this edition's title listed as Neon Lit: Paul Auster's City of Glass, and occasionally see Spiegelman listed as an additional author (he also wrote an introduction.)) Ten years later a second edition was published (Picador, 2004) under the title City of Glass: the Graphic Novel, with the authors now listed as Paul Auster, Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. So, confusingly, the work (which is the same work) was published under two different titles and with two different lead authors. If you want to read it (and it's really superb), you might try searching by the ISBN; the original edition ISBN is 038077108X, and the new edition ISBN is 0312423608. I suspect the newer edition might be slightly easier to find, but really, they're pretty much the same except for the cover.


Unknown said...

Seems like every comics-related post you make I'm destined to show up and say, "Great job!" But this one was really cool. I've heard City of Glass is really good, so this makes me want to read it even more.

On a side note, you might be interested in my current posts about Will Eisner. I've named this week Will Eisner Week on my blog, and I've been doing posts about his writing and art. I did one the other day on his page layouts, with examples and such. You might like it, since it seems kind of like what you're doing with this series, although I don't go into nearly as much detail. Any comments or criticisms you have would be much appreciated, but don't feel obligated.

Stephen said...

Matt, believe me, the positive feedback is much appreciated. And City of Glass is simply wonderful -- I can recommend without hesitation or caveat, unlike Cerebus.

Everyone else: if you like this series, definitely do check out Matt's post on Eisner's layouts. Eisner was definitely on my list of artists to get to in this series, but Matt does a great job with it -- intimidating, but inspiring too. The rest of Matt's Eisner week series is worth a look too.