Tuesday, May 4

City of Spies

by Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan 
artwork by Pascal Dizin 
First Second Press 2010 

This World War II espionage graphic novel set in New York is nothing short of an American cousin to Tintin, right down to the ligne claire style of artwork and youngsters in peril and adventure. 

It's 1942 and young Evelyn is getting dumped onto her NYC Aunt Lia so her dad can get married again.  Used to being left to her own, she creates the continuing comic adventures of Zirconium Man and his sidekick Scooter, who resembles Evelyn.  After a rocky start, she teams up with Tony, the super's boy, and they spend the summer searching the streets of New York for Nazi spies.  When Evelyn discovers a code template and works out its meaning, she and Tony attempt to route out the spies themselves, but they get in way over their head and find themselves hoping they've left enough of a trail that they can be saved in the nick of time. 

This doesn't even scratch the surface of what is going on in City of Spies, which is part of what makes it a rollicking adventure story.  The fact that Evelyn's family is Jewish, that they live in an ethnic neighborhood where everyone is desperately trying to cover their ethnic roots behind red, white, and blue patriotism, not only gives some great background to what wartime America was like but serves as a subtle echo to modern times where post-9/11 businesses were forced to place American flags in their windows for the same reasons.  As Evelyn and Tony discover, it's easy to see foreign agents wherever you look, and far too often it's the people who have assimilated themselves all too well who avoid suspicion.

At times I found Evelyn's comic book interludes to be a bit contrived.  They exist to give insight into how Evelyn is feeling – about being abandoned by her father, about losing her mother, about the nightmare of creeping Nazi fascism – and they rarely added enough to be worthwhile.  I was grateful at the end when her comics shifted toward an Evelyn-and-Tony team of Indiana Jones-type of adventurers, her fantasy realm now based on a cooperative friendship instead of paternalistic heroism.

The writing in brisk and well paced, with enough story for the secondary characters to move around in as well.  Dizin's art and color palate does Herge one better in presenting New York as a city with more that six colors; I don't fault Herge's limitations, he was one of the best at the time, but color processing was different 70 years ago. Would it be too much to hope for more Evelyn stories, adventures of a spunky girl in peril set in the mid-century that entertain against a historical background?  It might take a bit of jiggering (dad moves to New York so Tony could continue to be involved?) but I suspect this would hit the Tintin audience – boys and girls alike – and do very well.

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