Review: Strange Attractors is a graphic novel of ideas with dynamic, cinematic action

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

Has is ever occurred to you just how improbable modern society is? Have you ever thought about how absurdly interdependent every aspect of our civilization is upon each other, how tenuously we manage some of the most essential aspects of our world, and how easy it would be for those things to fall apart?

I'm not just talking about the set of events that led to 9/11 or to the stock market crash of 2008 or even about the unrepaired problem on your car that led to that car crash that you were involved in or that time when you accidentally overdrew your bank account because your boss forgot to hit "send" when submitting the payroll.

No, I'm talking about all the little things that we take for granted: the ways that fresh bananas find their way from South America to your local market, the ways that there's always coffee waiting for you at your favorite local coffee shop and how the roads are seldom more than their standard mess and how a million different systems have to go exactly right in order for society to function in the ways that it normally does. It's a cliché to say that the world is interconnected, but unless you're the kind of person who thinks about logistics all day, you probably never think about just how interconnected systems are and how easy it would be for them all to fall apart.

Strange Attractors

Charles Soule and Greg Scott's Strange Attractors is a graphic novel of ideas with a deeply caring and passionate human heart at its center. It's alternately a love story for the city of New York, a meditation on the incredible interdependence of society, the story of a wise master taking on a talented student, a meditation on the ways that different generations solve problems, and a thoughtful explanation of complexity theory and the butterfly effect.

Oh yeah, and it's also thoroughly entertaining.

Soule and Scott spin a wonderfully engrossing novel out from their heady ideas, a story told at a careening speed that drags the reader along breathlessly as unexpected events happen on seemingly each page. It was surprisingly easy to fall into the world that the creative team delivered in this book; with his setting of New York Soule found his muse to make complex ideas not just palatable but fascinating.

Strange Attractors

The main character of this graphic novel is a Columbia University graduate student named Heller Wilson, a brilliant mathematician who's struggling to complete his thesis in complexity theory. A not-so-chance encounter with semi-disgraced genius Dr. Spencer Brownfield results in the lives of both men changing dramatically. Brownfield is a kind of disembodied spirit of New York, a human who lives as a sort of ghost of the machine that is New York City, performing strange ritualistic actions that ensure everything runs smoothly in New York. He's the man who ensures that the bodegas get stocked with bananas and that the subways basically run on time and that every other small thing that should happen in New York actually happens. Though the people in New York never notice him, Brownfield works tirelessly to make sure that the greatest city in the world performs like a well-humming machine.

But Brownfield is getting old and he's not the man he used to be. More than that, he's facing real struggles with his efforts to keep New York together. There's a kind of existential threat that's accelerating the inherent phases of New York's lifecycle. Brownfield needs a helper. So, yes, the meeting with Wilson is no accident. The two men were meant to come together in order to save New York.

Strange Attractors

I'm making this book feel very dry, but that's absolutely not true. Strange Attractors has a very smart rhythm to it, a tempo and energy and life that causes every scene to come alive under Greg Scott's artwork. Scott's characters have a joy and vividness that gives a cinematic feel to the story being told here. These characters are easy to read and are empathetic; we like them because we can really watch them "act" on the printed page.

The characters interact wonderfully with a very realistic seeming New York. The many scenes set in Central Park, for instance, are drawn with a verisimilitude that can only come from people who have spent a lot of time there and can't wait to get back. Similarly, there are scenes towards the end of the book that happen all around New York City that are both perfectly drawn from real life and wonderfully creative and artistic at the same time.

Strange Attractors

I called this book cinematic above, and it reads at times like the unproduced screenplay for a film that could never be created. Soule's graphic novel is written more like a movie than a collection of several comic books, with a nice three act structure, smart dramatic arcs and a wide open window for sequels. If Strange Attractors is cinematic, it has a terrific cinematographer in Greg Scott and a great soundtrack that's implied by the rhythms of the story. It's probably too abstract to be filmed as an actual movie, but familiar cinematic tropes are presented in fresh and intriguing ways throughout this book.

I know that Soule is busy writing several different projects at DC to considerable acclaim but I hope we get to travel back to New York in order to spend more time with Heller Wilson and his friends. Strange Attractors is a thoroughly engrossing comic of both ideas and energy, a wonderfully unique and thoroughly intriguing book that really makes me want to go back to New York soon. 

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