There are comics that everyone agrees are brilliant but nobody seems to talk about. Usually they’reÂ sui generis, works that came out of nowhere and inspired no imitators,Â little islands of imagination that fit awkwardly into any critic’s attempt to map the known comics world. Â Looking over the old TCJ “Top 100 Comics of the 20th Century” list, a few such titles pop out. Â The Idiots Abroad.Â Â Los Tejanos. Feiffer’s Tantrum. Â Anything by Harvey Kurtzman, really, although there have been courageous efforts to understand Kurtzman. Â The Cartoon History of the Universe. And this slim graphic novel, which is #45 on the TCJ list and shows up on many other such lists, but no one ever seems to know what to say about it.
Paul Auster’s City of Glass
by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli
adapted from the novella by Paul Auster
In fact, artist David Mazzucchelli has two comics in the Top 100,Â City of Glass and Rubber Blanket, which is pretty good for a cartoonist who produced maybe a dozen comics, total, in the 20th century. Â Mazzucchelli’s career has followed a strange, rambling path; surely there’s no other creator whose five best-known works are a Batman story, a Daredevil story, an underground comic book, an adaptation of a postmodern metafictional novel, and a graphic novel about an aging professor. Â If nothing else, his portfolio shows range.
Mazzucchelli established himself in the 1980s as a top superhero artist, drawing the acclaimed Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One for Ultimate All-Time Wizard Hot Pick Frank Miller. Â (Spoilers: The female leads are whores.) Â In the wake of the success of Year One, Mazzucchelli abruptly abandoned superhero comics to self-publish the alternative anthologyÂ Rubber Blanket, which survived for three legendary issues, and to drawÂ City of Glass. Â The dynamic, Miller-influenced art of his superhero work folded in on itself into a toned-down, naturalistic style. Â Then Mazzucchelli dropped out of comics for fifteen years except for the occasional short story for Fantagraphics or the Spiegelman/Mouly editorial team, only to re-emerge in 2009 with the thick graphic novel Asterios Polyp.
City of Glass was presumably a labor of love for Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik, a writer and editor best known for editing such seminal anthologies as RAW, Masters of American Comics, and the Fletcher Hanks collections. Â I mean, why else would they adapt a 1980s postmodern noir mystery into comic-book form? Â I can’t think of any other American comics project remotely like this. Â There have been surprisingly few adaptations of prose literature that go beyond the level of Classics Illustrated (which is not to bag on Classics Illustrated comics, which I love), and those few tend to focus on big-name classics of Western literature, like Crumb’s sallies at Franz Kafka and the friggin’ Bible. Â Very seldom does a cartoonist try his or her hand at a contemporary novel. Â Whatever possessed Karasik and Mazzucchelli to do this? Â And then nobody ever did it again.
A story likeÂ City of Glass should defy adaptation anyway. Â It’sÂ postmodern fiction, which means it’s an excuse for the author to be aggravatingly clever. Â City of Glass is, sort of, the story of Quinn, a crime novelist who gets mistaken for a detective and hired to protect a client in a real case. Â Except that the detective he’s mistaken for is named Paul Auster, and when Quinn finally tracks him down he finds Paul Auster the author (that’s another level of cleverness on Auster’s part, having a name that sounds like “author”), but by that time Quinn is beyond surprise, having gotten entangled in a cruel, decades-long experiment to recover the language of God.
Most cartoonists wouldn’t want to try to illustrate something like this, but Karasik and Mazzucchelli not only find ingenious ways to convert the cerebral concepts into concrete images, they make the visual dimension of City of Glass into a thematically crucial element of the story. Â The adaptation transcends the original, becomes its own entity. Â Karasik and Mazzucchelli don’t do this with a lot of fancy comic-book effects. Â On the contrary, their comic is visually modest, consisting mostly of small, simple drawings arranged in variations of the traditional nine-panel grid. Â Mazzucchelli shifts through an amazing array of styles–stripped-down iconography, faux-woodcut, noirish chiaroscuro with Tothian inks–but he does so subtly, never calling attention to himself, letting his art serve the story. Â The result looks almost blandly illustrated, like a civilian’s generic idea of a comic book, until a closer reading reveals visual richness.
And there’s a lot of postmodern cleverness: repeating visual motifs, images that melt and shift form, fingerprints that change into city streets that change into letters of the alphabet. Â In the comic’s most praised sequence, a character’s strange stream-of-consciousness account of his life trickles out of word balloons that emerge from a series of objects, possibly symbolic, possibly meaningless: a cave painting, a gramophone, a newspaper comic strip, a pile of shit. Â And maybe the monologue is a pile of shit, or a cartoon, or a magic trick. Â The creators aren’t telling.
I first read City of Glass in college, when these kinds of puzzles delighted me. Â They still do, but as time goes on I’m increasingly impressed by the craft that went into the book: Karasik’s deceptively clean and straightforward storytelling, Mazzucchelli’s simple, amazingly flexible art. Â Nobody else ever did anything like this. Â Possibly because it’s harder than it looks.