When you see the words “comic adaptation,” you could be forgiven for pulling the face you usually reserve for “the novelisation of the film” or “vegan egg substitute;” adaptations are for people who can’t or won’t digest the original material, for whatever reason. The implication when converting literature into a more visual format is that the true product has been adulterated, and something fundamental has been lost.
This is what makes the comic version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass all the more surprising. A book concerned with the nature of language and literature shouldn’t survive transliteration with all its themes intact. Yet the artist duo of Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli not only succeed in keeping the spirit of the original text, they amplify it. They masterfully synchronise Auster’s exploration of the written word with their own meditations on the unique visual vocabulary of comics, striking assonant or dissonant chords on every page, though never out of step with the original narrative.
At a glance though, City of Glass is straight-up noir. Daniel Quinn is a widower and crime fiction writer, living a solitary life in the labyrinth of New York. Totally absorbed by his work, his lonely routine is finally disrupted by a series of mysterious phone calls, begging for his help. Someone has mistaken him for a private detective, and Quinn eventually feels compelled to take the case.
Beginning with the premise of a cynical protagonist accepting a dangerous mission from a beautiful woman, all against the backdrop of a vast city, you half expect the main character to don a fedora, light a cigarette, and start narrating everything in bad metaphors. Yet even in these first few pages, there are hints of where the book is heading. Quinn speaks about “the economy of mysteries,” how everything matters, everything is important… and this is immediately followed by a non-sequitur image. Right from the beginning, City of Glass revels in its own meta-mystery. Just as Quinn struggles to connect the pieces of his own investigation, the reader searches for meaning and symbolism in every panel and gutter, joining the protagonist on his descent into semiotic obsession.
Quinn’s tale was always intended by Auster to be a meta-narrative, and though the non-sequitur is the invention of the artist, it serves to augment the writer’s original work. Throughout, Karasik and Mazzucchelli manipulate perceptions of reality, identity, and time. The lines of buildings break down into mazes before rearranging themselves into fingerprints. A narrator might remain constant, but his form changes to a guitar, a teddy bear, a gramophone. The text stays on a path of linear progression, leaving art free to flit between collections of symbols or depictions of character’s inner worlds.
In perfect accompaniment to the “economy of mysteries,” City of Glass displays an economy of storytelling. Information is densely packed into each page, and with the artwork often divorced from literal interpretation of the action, varying levels of information can be conveyed simultaneously. Yet the reader is never overwhelmed by this mass of knowledge; Paul Karasik keeps the layouts for most pages in clear nine-panel grids, only eliminating the space between panels if wider shots are needed.
Bound within this structure are David Mazzucchelli’s bold and confident inks. City of Glass is a departure from his earlier style, most famously on Batman: Year One; his more Kirby-esque figures and environments have been stripped back into something more iconographic, evocative of Herge and Art Spiegelmann. Faces made with austere brush strokes peer out from a New York of deep shadows, and with minimal linework he captures a whole range of emotional depth and architectural detail. This simplified, more cartoony style is plain and straightforward, yet allows a greater level of obfuscation if the artist chooses. Is this city skyline a silhouette or a symbol? Is this a crescent moon, or the rind of an orange? Is this a depiction of a phone, or the depiction of an icon of a phone? Mazzucchelli is just as playful with imagery as Auster is with prose.
The artwork begins in rigid grids and clear lines, but this ordered world breaks down as Quinn’s investigation expands into questioning his own reality. As the text turns to the exploration of the roots of language, the art occasionally becomes evocative of woodcuts and illuminated manuscripts, the roots of illustration. As the mystery morphs into the meta-mystery, the panels Quinn inhabits swell, skew, and shatter. Those hoping for a clear-cut tale about a hard-boiled gumshoe will be left frustrated. The book gradually forgoes all pretence of crime fiction, and instead becomes absorbed in its own intellectualism. Though the art style, dialogue, and plot owe much to original film noir, the final product is more Mulholland Drive than Maltese Falcon.
Whether you find this gradual shift in tone irritating or intriguing, it’s certainly never boring. Both the written word and the cartoon can be described as simplified systems of mark-making to convey information, and the artists have woven their own visual alphabet through Auster’s prose. The resulting adaptation is one that deepens the mystery of the original, but never gets wholly bogged down in introspection; the succinctly composed pages keep up the action and suspense throughout. The reader is coerced into undertaking the same investigative process as Quinn – meticulous observation, rooting out connections, decoding ciphers – and thus the line between fictional detective and observer become blurred.
City of Glass is never wholly transparent, but nor does it allow its reflections on language to get in the way of being a visual pleasure. Short, cerebral, and enthralling, one read through isn’t enough. You may return to wander the streets of New York with Daniel Quinn in search of truth and meaning, again and again.
City of Glass, The Graphic Novel was first published in 2004. City of Glass by Paul Asuter was first published in 1985.