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Paul Auster's City of Glass
Adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli
Published by Picador Press; $14.00 USD

About a decade ago, celebrated cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who has had a few good ideas in his time, had the idea to approach respected prose writers about writing graphic novels. Despite some initial interest, the best he could get was Auster giving him permission to adapt one of his existing works rather than producing anything new. This is the result, an adaptation of one of the novellas in The New York Trilogy. Karasik, a teacher of writing and the author of a nonfiction book on autism, was paired with Mazzucchelli, who at this time was a well-respected illustrator of superhero stories, though superhero stories of a higher caliber than most, Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, both written by Frank Miller. Out of print for years, it has now returned, quietly taking its place again as one of the very best graphic novels ever to grace the medium.

Utilizing a rigid grid format for the stark, unnerving artwork, Karasik and Mazzucchelli pare paragraphs of prose down to essential lines of dialogue, just like anyone tasked with adapting a book into a shorter format. But where they go beyond duty into art, actually enhancing the source material, can be found in their thorough, thoughtful use of the visual language of comics, a language not at Austerís disposal. The very first page lets the reader know that there will be layers of reality to shift between in this tale, and that not everything is as it appears. The sequence is of a close-up of a black telephone, pulling out a bit and then jumping to a more iconic image of a similar phone, seen straight on this time. We then see that this isnít a real phone at all, but an image of a phone printed at the bottom of a page in a telephone directory, with the real phone seen earlier perched on top of said directory. But, after all, thatís just a drawing of a phone, too, in our reality. And since itís a black-and-white book, who even knows what color that phone is?

The stage is then set for us to meet Peter Stillman, a grieving, shell of a man whose identity has been subsumed by the formulaic but wildly successful detective novels he writes under the pseudonym William Wilson. Heís a still man, with nothing enriching his life or helping him to get through his grief but one book after another. And then the phone rings, with someone believing him to be the detective, Paul Auster, and this person has a case for him. Of course, heís not Auster, but this is something to do, and so weíre off on a dreamlike adventure where the writer who usually puts the fictional private eye he created in motion is now put in motion as a private eye by the real Auster who created him.

Itís a missing person case, with a hot tomato hiring Auster/Stillman/Wilson to find her husband, Quinn. Auster plays around with noir tropes to the extent that Stillman almost gets into the act, fantasizing about a wild affair with Quinnís wife, but itís not to be. And Quinn turns out to be in danger from his crazy father, the guy who isolated him as a child so he would come up with his own pure, angelic language. But Stillman is already on the road to ruin, masquerading as Auster, and the idea of escaping into language of oneís own may be too tempting, especially to a writer, and one without the means to adequately express oneís grief in a learned language.

Auster and his adapters continue to push the boundaries of narrative convention by making Stillman less and less reliable a narrator, even drawing in the New York Mets (who know a thing or two about loss) in a delicious twist. And throughout, Karasik and Mazzucchelli answer their own challenges with every scene, increasing symbolic meaning, causing readers to question the reality of what theyíre reading, and foreshadowing Stillmanís fate with visual clues that make the book stand proudly next to its prose version, its brother in another reality. They have lost some of Austerís ruminations on the practice of creating fiction, but made the mystery more dramatic, more haunting and more beautifully sad.

-- Chris Allen

The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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