Decline and Fall: The Pterodactyl Hunters In The Gilded City

Posted by on July 7th, 2010 at 5:50 AM

Rob reviews Brendan Leach’s masters thesis, PTERODACTYL HUNTERS.

Brendan Leach’s THE PTERODACTYL HUNTERS IN THE GILDED CITY was his masters thesis comic at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). It’s an ambitious and cohesive comic that manages to be both an art object and a cheap, mass-produced form of communication. Its cover is designed to look like a fake newspaper from the early 20th century, all part of its reimagining of New York City if it had been terrorized by pterodactyls.  This book is all about the end of an era and how young people coming of aging during that time don’t want it to end–no matter how horrible it actually is.

The book follows two brothers, Eamon and Declan Sullivan, who both work on the pterodactyl patrol.  No explanation as to why these dinosaurs are still alive and how they came to menace the city was given, nor was one really necessary.  The only important bit of information that we were given was that the dinosaurs had been hunted almost to extinction, due in no small part to the heroic efforts of the arrogant and off-putting Eamon.  Declan, his younger brother, toiled in his shadow as a watchman, hoping that he’d somehow get a shot at glory before the monsters were all dead.

Leach turned what could have been a cheap gimmick into a genuinely affecting story.  He drew his visual inspiration from sources few young artists seem inspired by these days: David Mazzucchelli (his thesis advisor), Ben Katchor and Eddie Campbell.  From Mazzucchelli, he seemed inspired by his Rubber Blanket-era stories, especially in terms of how he used pauses and stillness to tell the story.  Leach’s scribbly line is not unlike Campbell’s, especially when he used a skeletal line to depict quick motion in a single panel.  Katchor obviously inspired Leach’s development of the alternate history of New York from a bygone era.  In addition to using the same kind of evocative gray-scaling that Katchor employs, there’s also the same level of attention to detail.

While there is a remarkable amount of detail, what makes this comic such a success is Leach’s restraint as an artist.  He’s subtle in evoking the changes that would grip a city afflicted with this particular kind of terror, like merchants hurriedly closing up shop before sundown (hunting time for the pterodactyls) and particular ethnic groups clustering to the industry that sprang up to kill the monsters.  Leach lets the reader read between the lines of what’s motivating Declan, for the most part; he has a character reveal a plot detail late in the comic that explicitly spells out his motivations, which I thought was unnecessary.

The ending of the book is spectacular, as Declan is on the verge of killing the last pterodactyl, an act that would simultaneously fulfill his life’s goal of becoming a hunter and completely nullify that goal by making his dream obsolete.  The “Gilded City” subtitle is a telling one, as the book is set a few years after the world-weary “Gilded Age” in US history, an era of tedious decadence and little heroism.  Killing the pterodactyl, Declan believed, would end an age of heroism, something he had always wanted to be a part of.  Leach is careful not to glamorize this in a couple of different ways.  First, the pterodactyls are killers and especially enjoy preying on children (no doubt because they’re easy targets).  At the same time, the dinosaurs are living beings with mates and nests; killing them is not a vanquishing of evil, but rather the culmination of a kill-or-be-killed process.

The reader was brought in at the end of an era, building tension between the genuine benefits that this end augured and the desperate, selfish desire of a young man who didn’t want it to end and knew it was wrong to think so.  For a young cartoonist, this is an impressive work.  At this point, I’d like to see Leach continue to cycle through his influences on his way to developing his own style, because he has the potential to be a significant comics artist.

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