City of Spies and Resistance Vol. 1

Posted by on April 22nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

City of Spies
Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan and Pascal Dizin
First Second, 176 pp., $16.99
9-781596-432628

Resistance Vol. 1
Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis
First Second, 124 pp., $16.99
9-781596-432918

This month, First Second is releasing two works by debut graphic novelists, both set during World War II, both aimed at a young adult readership, dealing with very similar themes and ideas.  It’s an interesting move, one that befits the the publisher’s target bookstore market  and also reflects the recent trend for prose writers to branch off into the world of comics.  First Second has already published a few successful crossovers from prose to graphic novels: 2009’s Ball Peen Hammer by playwright and YA author Adam Rapp , and the more recent Booth by historian Catherine Clinton.

From City of Spies, art by Pascal Dizin

City of Spies is set in the New York of 1942, after America’s entrance into the war.  Against this backdrop of war-induced paranoia — propaganda posters cover the sides of buildings, German business-people hide behind Yankee Doodle storefronts — Evelyn, a 10-year-old girl, is sent to live with her bohemian aunt while her womanizing father is away on his sixth honeymoon.  She becomes embroiled in the look-out for spies and finds herself the unlikely heroine in foiling a plot to send American secrets to the Nazis. On the other hand, Resistance places the reader in Vichy, also during 1942, as the German army attempts to expand their occupation of France.  Readers see this through the eyes of Paul and Marie, two children who find themselves caught in the middle of a German invasion, see their Jewish neighbors captured, and then join the Resistance to help reunite their friend with his parents in Paris.

From Resistance Vol. 1, art by Leland Purvis

Thankfully, on the part of the authors, neither of these books seem like a quick cash-in on comics’ sudden cultural currency, and both employ some pretty smart devices to elevate these works above “illustrated novels with word balloons.”  City of Spies employs a comic-within-a-comic technique to take us inside the main character’s head — Evelyn reimagines her father and herself as adventuring superheroes in her sketchbooks.  This side-steps two of YA fiction’s worst offenses: the clichéd pining of a child for his or her absent parent and the the author transferring his or her own sense of self-awareness into the head of a 10-year-old.  The adventures of Zirconium Man and Scooter, then, enable us to read Evelyn’s thoughts on a purely abstract, subconscious level.  It also works within the ’40s milieu, when divorce was still a taboo subject, and comics were very much the popular idea space of children.  Captain Marvel and Action Comics can be seen in the background of several scenes, the latter giving a subtle nod to comics as a product of Jewish identity.  Evelyn herself is Jewish, and her Aunt Lia is a Spiegelman, which, in a comic about World War II, cannot be a coincidence.

Resistance employs a similar device with Paul — a typically taciturn adolescent — using his sketchbook as his strongest means of expression.  Jablonski and Purvis exploit this more than Kim, Klavan and Dizin, and to greater effect by often weaving pages of the sketchbook into the narrative flow, letting readers see Paul’s subjective view of events as they unfold, taking advantage of the loose diegetic continuum of the medium.  For all this formal playfulness, though, Purvis’ art is Resistance’s main failing.  It’s sketchiness feels unfinished and often undisciplined, with overly expressionistic hatching that distorts the features of his characters.  Even the page compositions, while fairly regimented and unadventurous, leave any scene with more than three characters disorienting as he struggles with the flow between panels and subtleties like eyeline matches to guide the storytelling — it’s not unusual to see two characters facing one another while directing their dialogue at someone entirely different.  The whole affair comes off as very rushed, with awkward-looking figures and faces that lack any real distinction, muddying the plot yet further.

From Resistance Vol. 1, art by Leland Purvis

The art of City of Spies, however, is its strength.  Dizin’s elegant lines recall the best of European adventure comics, making the book feel almost like an artifact from the 1940s.  Even with two award-winning novelists at the helm, though, its plot is fairly cookie-cutter for young adult fiction: the absent parent, the inhospitable guardian, kids who outsmart the police and the bad guys to help win the war.  However, it would seem that Kim and Klavan are uncertain of their audience or, more likely, how comics are experienced.  The WWII setting is a wasted opportunity to engage in any kind of educational content for younger readers — all we learn is that New York has neighborhoods and that the Alhambra is a Moorish palace in Spain.  They assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader who, if we use the age of the main characters as a guide, will be around 10.  The subtle clues as to what the secret plans are for, which are used to raise tension as the plot unfolds, will go over the head of most sixth graders: “gaseous diffusion,” “isotopes,” “fission” —  how many will understand this kind of vocabulary, let alone piece together that they’re connected with nuclear weaponry?  Throw in the references to Hitchcock, The Three Stooges and racy romance novels and there’s a whole lot of empty signifiers for the younger reader to puzzle over.

From City of Spies, art by Pascal Dizin

It would appear that the authors are aiming for a shared readership of both parent and child, but it’s questionable as to how often this would happen, given that the adolescent subject matter would preclude this from learner readers’ bookshelves.  And for the older reader — independent of any child — there is little here of any interest, beyond Dizin’s beautiful ligne claire art. Jablonski’s tale, on the other hand, feels much more confident in its audience and purpose.  Rather than try to capture the entire war effort in a microcosm, she instead focuses on a very small piece of history, using that to illuminate several aspects of the war — the Holocaust, French politics, the Resistance movement and even some Parisian history. Again, there is not much to engage the older reader, but for a young adult, there is the right amount of action that is skillfully blended with the necessary history to leave younger readers both entertained and enlightened.

Both books are certainly uneven in their execution, but deal with a complex subject in interesting and fairly original ways.  In spite of some less-than-stellar artwork, Resistance manages to be the more successful, mainly due to Jablonski’s innate understanding of how YA fiction works and not just how, but why teens read.  It’s certain to be mainstay of many “Best Graphic Novels for Teens” lists from now on, since — as Kim and Klavan might do well to take note — sometimes, comics are just for kids.

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One Response to “City of Spies and Resistance Vol. 1”

  1. […] Gavin Lees reviews two of First Second's spring YA graphic novels, both about teenagers in World War II: City […]