Have you ever had that one teacher who could do no wrong? Whose every word dripped with wisdom that just might have been worth the price of higher education? Whose artistic introductions continue to shape the way you view the world?
Luckily, I had one of those teachers once, Dr. Peter Markman, an expert on myths, particularly those of Mesoamerica, who also happened to teach the world’s greatest comparative world lit classes. Throughout the two classes (and many meals) I spent with Dr. Markman, every book we dissected was a revelation unto me, a discourse in not only how to write, but also how to live an examined life. One of his choices was The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster, a transformative text if ever there was one; that, like much of Auster’s art, explores the existential depths of identity and language, and just how effective either of them can really be.
As with all of Dr. Markman’s author introductions, I immediately became a fan of Auster, whose absurdist worldview seemed to align perfectly with my revered professor’s, and, as my schooling ultimately revealed, my own. So when I fell in love with David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp, and began looking around for more works by the Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One artist, I was immediately drawn to (pardon the pun) his work bringing Auster’s City of Glass to life, along with cartoonist/illustrator Paul Karasik. And now, it too has become the stuff of love, and another fine example, perhaps the clearest for me yet, that comic art and high art can very easily be one and the same.
The book doesn’t exactly seem ripe for adaptation of any kind, but somehow comics legend Art Spiegelman (whose Maus helped create the term “graphic novel”) spearheaded the effort, the first in a noir-literature-to-graphic-novels project, which took two artists to ultimately bring it to life.
As Spiegelman’s first pick in the would-be series, City of Glass is part of Auster’s early deconstructionist detective stories in his New York Trilogy – which tells the tale of mystery writer Daniel Quinn, who used to be a loving, feeling poet, until he loses his family, and becomes a mystery-writer-for-hire, tucked away in his lonely little office. Then one day, a woman calls, repeatedly, looking for Detective Paul Auster. Finally, when it seems like she’s got no other hope, Quinn takes the case, while pretending to be Detective Auster. If that sounds like an identity problem, you’re right, which is complicated ever more when Quinn as Detective Auster meets the writer Paul Auster.
Though plot is perhaps inconsequential in a world where words and identity seemingly mean nothing, there’s a compelling one that unfolds throughout City of Glass, albeit somewhat vaguely. But while the illustrations service the words, they don’t always tell the same story, and indeed, create a whole other level of meaning – one which my mind easily harkens back to at times, giving symbolic shapes to Auster’s persistently elusive poetry. It’s truly an additive adaptation, one where something completely new yet similar is attained, a hypnotic piece, made maddeningly more lucid by the pictures, albeit never quite clear.