There’s something very visual about architecture and city planning. The structure and symmetry (or asymmetry) of buildings, the layout of roads, and the underlying history behind buildings and cities—these are as compelling as the stories and histories of people who live in them.
Cityscape: The Berlin trilogy on the fall of a great city is rich in detail.
The visual nature of the medium combined with the interpretative ability of illustrations and the sheer power of words makes graphic novels about cities especially attractive. Even when they dwell but fleetingly on cities, comics do so far better than books, photographs, even cinema.
One of my favourite passages in Alan Moore’s From Hell is the architectural journey of London Sir William Gull takes along with his coachman Netley, traversing the path of a pentacle between vertices that are popular London buildings with St Paul’s at the centre. Sir William, we know, is mad (and also Jack the Ripper) but his map is accurate. His London exists and is real—a fearsome city whose very silence is menacing (is it any surprise the movie failed?).
Then there is the graphic novel version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass. “New York was a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Each time he took a walk, he felt he was leaving himself behind…,” Auster writes. The words are potent but mixed with the illustrations of David Mazzucchelli (who has finally announced his arrival on the big stage with one of the finest comic books that will ever be written, Asterios Polyp), they become downright totemic.
The city is at the core of both From Hell and City of Glass, but Jason Lutes’ Berlin trilogy (I have the first two books and can’t find the third) is about the city itself. Sparse on text and rich in detail, Lutes’ history of Berlin between the wars (I am assuming the third book is set after World War II) is among the finest chronicles of the death of the Weimar republic, the rise of the Nazis, and the humbling of a once proud city.
There are countless comics about cities, from G. Willow Wilson’s Cairo to several books by Joe Sacco, but there are two comics about cities, living, breathing, dreaming cities that will haunt me forever, the way only a good book or piece of music can. The first is Mike Mignola’s retelling of Ray Bradbury’s The City, a story of a City that wreaks vengeance on Earthmen who killed its original habitants. The second is a story from Neil Gaiman’s World’s End (part of the Sandman series) about an unprepossessing young man who falls asleep on a train and finds himself in a city’s dreams.
I wonder what New Delhi dreams of.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org