June 3, 2016

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Strange Attractors #1 (of 5)

Strange Attractors #1
Written by Charles Soule
Illustrated by Greg Scott and Soo Lee
Colored by Art Lyon, Matthew Patz and Felipe Sobreiro
Lettered by Thomas Mauer and Ed Dukeshire
Published by Boom! Studios

Cities are incredibly complex organisms. The constant movement of people from place to place, along with cars and other vehicles, trains, the water, the sewers, electricity, all the commerce flowing in and out of the city.  New York City in particular, as a non-New Yorker, has always felt like a chaotic place to me. The crowds, the traffic, etc. For the most part though, it works as intended. Why is that?  

Well, one answer might be that there are secret forces working constantly behind the scenes to prevent New York from descending rapidly into chaos and anarchy.  That's the hook behind the strong first issue of Strange Attractors from Charles Soule and some very talented artists, first released as a graphic novel from Archaia and now being released as a miniseries from Boom! Studios. Strange Attractors feels sort of like a low-rent The Adjustment Bureau meets Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, with some interesting twists. 

The story begins with a graduate student addressing a college class with the idea of chaos and New York City, and the number of actions that somehow take place in an orderly fashion without the whole city breaking down, and how tenuous this order is. Things don't work out for this student, but the action moves to the encounter between the elderly professor Spencer Brownfield and nervous graduate student Heller Wilson.  Heller approaches Professor Brownfield to talk complexity theory; the professor is blunt and idiosyncratic, to say the least, but he's interested in Heller and they might just be able to help each other with their work.  As the issue ends we start to see what the disgraced former Columbia faculty member has been up to for many years (including some very complex maps, illustrated by Robert Saywitz). The issue concludes with an additional short vignette about another mathematician taking an unusual approach in attempting to positively impact the City. 

The art in Strange Attractors really sells the story. The tone that's set here is a fairly realistic one, except  at the outset where we see the world as the initial mathematician sees it. In some of those moments we see the weirdness and complexity and equations of societal interactions that he sees. They're blindingly colorful and pretty overwhelming (sort of like when John Nash sees equations in A Beautiful Mind but in a overwhelming, harmful way).  These bursts of color and geometry make a nice contrast to the rest of the issue, which is told with a strong sense of realism and a great sense of place. 

Greg Scott has a moody style that captures effectively every day moments. His line work makes me think of a slightly scratchier Gabriel Hardman or Paul Azaceta. Scott really captures the weariness and frustration and other emotions of the characters, particularly Brownfield and Heller when they're together at a diner and we see them closeup.  In the first part of the story, Art Lyon and Matthew Patz do great work in coloring the story. They bring a lot of those moody, slightly dark, slightly off-kilter feelings of the story to life. The color work feels very precise here; while it's generally what one might think of as "realistic" coloring, there's great work (such as below) in changing the color of background objects to bring focus to Heller and the Professor. In the below page where the waitress interrupts the two at their table, the background is a single bright color; they've been talking intently and her sudden appearance signals a change in focus. I really appreciate when color is used in this way to help convey mood (or a change in focus) and advance the storytelling.

The end of the issue has a vignette called "Antithesis" and it's ably illustrated by Soo Lee, with colors from Felipe Sobreiro. Lee focuses her panels primarily around the World Trade Center circa 1981, giving the setting immediate poignancy. She's got a cleaner but less realistic style than Scott (at least when it comes to depictions of people) so it makes for an interesting contrast; her facial work reminds me a little of a slightly more manga-influenced Aaron Kuder. But she shows the cityscape and the characters in it with great precision. Felipe Sobreiro colors this sequence and this work feels similarly grounded like the rest of the book, but with a little bit lighter and more hopeful of a feel to it.  

Strange Attractors is a comic chock-full of ideas. It's a little narrative and exposition-heavy, but given the academic setting of the story and the heady subject matter there's a narrative reason for that. Plus, New Yorkers love to talk. The fundamental idea that Soule is exploring here is a fascinating one. The idea of systems, why they work, how they work, and why they do or don't break down; I can imagine someone coming to New York or any other large city for the first time, looking around, and wondering "how the hell does this not fall apart?"*  The inference that the story is that Professor Brownfield has been napping the complexity of New York City for over 30 years, and not only mapping the city but influencing the city in subtle ways as well. There's been a lot of stories over the years about secret organizations influencing and controlling society, such as the relatively recent movie The Adjustment Bureau which played with this idea that our lives are controlled in this way by a sinister group that moves chess pieces from the shadows. 

What I really like about Strange Attractors is that it takes a more standard idea and flips it on its head. The work of influencing the City isn't being undertaken by a powerful cabal; it's being done by a single disgraced former Math Professor living on the Upper West Side.  There's also the distinct possibility that he's just an old man suffering from mental illness, or a person with non-neurotypical thinking who just makes weird maps and charts and who takes random actions because he believes he's somehow influencing the city as well. The story leaves that possibility open, and we're left wondering about Professor Brownfield just as Heller is wondering what he's gotten himself into. 
There's a lot to enjoy in Strange Attractors.  This is a smart comic (really, I feel smarter for having read this book) with a lot of interesting ideas, and characters that are compelling enough to make me want to see where it goes.

* True story, when I was 5 or so we were stuck at the top of the Empire State Building because the elevators weren't working, and when I was maybe 14 we got stuck in a NYC subway car for an hour or so because there was a big Con Ed explosion in the Bronx that was causing delays in all sorts of trains.  I wish there were weird mathematicians running around at the time trying to fix those problems!