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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."

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