PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

New York City-Sourced Chaos in Graphic Novel 'Strange Attractors'

Instability underpins this maps-and-Manhattan-centric graphic novel from Charles Soule.

Robert Saywitz
Publisher: Archaia
Length: 128 pages
Writer: Charles Soule
Graphic Novel: Strange Attractors
Publication Date: 2013-05-28

A sprawling, physically and emotionally complicated Manhattan is front and center for Strange Attractors, a graphic novel from Archaia that swirls around theoretical mathematics and maps. Writer Charles Soule, who took over scripting duties this year at DC's Swamp Thing, gushes over his book's setting in the introductory letter. "I can…unequivocally say that nowhere else I’ve been comes close to New York City," he writes. "This city can be a hard place to live, even though it’s an easy place to love." Strange Attractors's Columbia University grad student Heller Wilson is researching what he sees as NYC's "stronger, more resilient" ability to recover from a disaster. He partners with an eccentric former professor named Dr. Brownfield to explore, through the principles of cause and effect, the volley of disorder and civility in the city. Brownfield is revealed to be off-center in the first of the book's strongest exchanges, and the pair's initial encounter is a bit contentious. The elder's scientific methods prove unconventional and often illegal, prompting frustration from Wilson even as he's mostly convinced that his new associate is performing a public good.

In 1808, a Manhattan planning commission put to work an eccentric thinker whose primary focus would also relate to retaining order. Tasked with helping mend what was a far too disorderly approval process for the city's street construction, John Randel Jr. hoofed it over all of the island's then-varying and convoluted landscapes, measuring and surveying with tools that he crafted himself. Occupational hazards for surveyors 200 years ago included arrests for trespassing and facing off angry dogs unleashed by equally ill-tempered landowners. "One new avenue was laid out on a line that cut in half the kitchen of a vegetable woman," wrote Edward Robb Ellis in The Epic of New York City. "(S)he and her neighbors bombarded surveyors with cabbages and artichokes." Randel's maps yielded the plan for and application of Manhattan's street grid -- a thing of confounding beauty, the importance of which can't be overstated. In a 2013 book The Measure of Manhattan, author Marguerite Holloway wrote about Randel's historical imprint, about the lines he laid "for communication, for transportation of people and goods; lines for establishing nationhood, statehood, and for individual ownership."

"Randel was convinced he was ensuring a wonderful future for Americans and for the city of New York," wrote Holloway. "By many measures, he did."

Allusions to John Randel's pioneering ideas are visualized in Strange Attractors's hand-drawn and digital maps, drafted by illustrator Robert Saywitz. Even as Charles Soule isn't so much examining urban planning within Strange Attractors, the wonders of Manhattan's iconic grid are inherently woven into the book. Integrating Saywitz's maps makes for an appealing nuance, whether they're spidery, ornate figures animating the pages of Brownfield's notepad or subtle two-toned backdrops for the novel's chapter breaks. Soule's script generates the undercurrent of instability that might call for a modern-day planning commission to help preserve normalcy in a city "that exists just on this side of chaos," as Wilson's thesis advisor Dr. Kenowyck explains to his student. Artist Greg Scott beams in his role, too, as he's charged not only with articulating Soule's often intangible concepts, Scott's translation of the writer's New York City affinity is a marvel.

Park fountains, Upper West Side brownstones, and the baked-in grit that lines aerial renderings of the six train's tracks are all well-handled in Strange Attractors, and Soule's affection for Manhattan materializes in the story's better-known guidebook landmarks, too. Grand Central Station's exterior is larger than life here -- nearby skyscrapers the Grand Hyatt Hotel, the newer-by-60-years-or-so MetLife Building, or the Chrysler Building dwarf it considerably, but the station's Midtown Manhattan neighbors are relegated to secondary status in a panel filled-out by the iconic terminal. Colorists Art Lyon and Matthew Petz opt for cemetery greys and loads of shadow, largely blackening-out these buildings in favor of spotlighting Grand Central's structural magnificence. Similar gusto is lent to Central Park's lush expanse, as the sequence's pastoral greens and powder blues amplify the ominous silhouettes of Dr. Brownfield and Heller Wilson in the foreground. Sensible page composition yields a balance of the shaded figures and muted colors, as well as a couple of flashback panels, each element helping temper Brownfield's overview of the park precinct's rocky past and its beckoning, parent-and-toddler-friendly present. They walk for a while, eyeing the Great Lawn. The ex-professor rattles off 1977's various horrors: Son of Sam, perpetual fires in the Bronx, an electrical power outage in stifling-hot July of that year. He mentions the park's tumultuous 1970s, back when the number of felonies recorded in the precinct numbered in the upper hundreds. An October, 1971 New York Times account of the violent crimes that took place in Central Park cited more than 300 arrests on felony charges, with nearly 800 robberies having been "reported in the park during the first eight months" of that year.

"Back then," explains Brownfield, "this park was all gangs, whores, junkies. Barely safe during the day, and after dark it was like something out of Hieronymous Bosch."

Perhaps no sequence better illustrates the crux of Soule's novel than another Midtown exchange. Order and clarity are cast in a picturesque fashion atop the Empire State building just ahead of midnight. Heller Wilson and his girlfriend Grace fawn over the observation deck's offerings, while police officers on the street below mull a looming strike over pension negotiations before they're suddenly confronting the now too-frequent urban threat of a suspicious figure and a strange bag. It's fast and tense, escalating quickly and with familiar results. The peaceful, watercolor-crested view from more than 1,000 feet up is suddenly a distant memory. "It may look like it will last forever, but it's fragile, Mister Wilson," Dr. Brownfield tells Heller in Central Park. "The chaos is always there, hovering, waiting."

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.