“I don’t believe in math. I’ve got my own problems.” Get it? Because ... math problems? Yeah, that’s my Dad-joke way of saying that I’m pretty goddamn terrible at math. In fact, the only time I use anything math-related is when I hit on chicks using various combinations of words like “divide” and “multiply” to elicit “intercourse.” Inevitably, of course, that equation falls apart on me too ... still not sure why. I guess dames just don’t appreciate romance like they used to. Back to the point, whether it’s geometry, trig, calculus, long division ... oh hell, let’s be honest: addition and subtraction ... look, if I can’t use my fingers, the experience leaves me feeling drained, brow-beaten, confused; in a word, flummoxed. So you can believe me when I say that I don’t pop giant math wood when the check hits the table.
And yet, there is also something terrifyingly beautiful about math. It’s like elvish or, I dunno, Esperanto ... is that still a thing? It’s this language, which, when wielded by those more fluent in it than I, opens the complexities of the universe, as if by magic. And putting this in graphic practice is just one of the reasons why I’ve fallen in love with Archaia’s recently collected series Strange Attractors. Its use of math, or more specifically, complexity theory, within the context of maintaining the fragile social, economic and environmental fabrics of city life, is so well-crafted, so intricate and intriguing, it makes even a mathematically-challenged Bastard like me willing to stretch my toes, literarily speaking, across the mathematical divide.
For a book using elaborate mathematics as its narrative fulcrum, the story behind Strange Attractors is actually pretty simple. A PhD candidate at Columbia University, Heller Wilson has, perhaps ironically, grown tired of the formulaic approach that his professors and peers have taken to complexity theory, a study which basically attempts to chart the interconnectedness of, in this case, manmade systems. This school of thought could be applied to anything, from the strength of the stock exchange to the intensity within the swell and heave at you local bar, club or, if you’re European, “discothèque.”
The system in New York City, however, is ... different. There is something intrinsically unique within its dynamic that has kept it alive and strong throughout its existence. Unlike other cities, like Detroit or Buffalo, New York seems to survive and indeed thrive after tragedy, but Heller doesn’t think this is solely the result of the indefatigability of its people, but rather something more ... complex. To truly understand the web that binds this all together, and to pass his course and get a steady job, Heller goes in search of a one Dr. Spencer Brownfield, ousted Columbia professor, rogue scholar, anti-socialite and probable fucking lunatic.
Throughout his academically-illicit studies with Dr. Brownfield, whose theories recently drove his first disciple to madness and eventually suicide, Heller learns that this old man with a bad cough and a tragic backstory has propped himself up as the custodian of his beloved New York. A most cantankerous cartographer, Brownfield has created detailed conceptual models of the various systems throughout New York, from garbage to paper routes, and all points in between. He then subtly manipulates these systems by performing seemingly inane acts. Whether it’s releasing a rat into a crowded restaurant, planting ice cream cones in the middle of a park or buying and then binning as much Diet Coke as he can find, Brownfield performs his whacky ballet throughout the city on the daily, and in so doing, proposes that he is saving it, healing it and preparing it for hardships to come, all through the magic of complexity theory.
By implementing this ground-level Butterfly Effect wizardry, which visually manifests in a way similar to the probability “powers” of Amadeus Cho, the good doctor likens his self-imposed and sacred charge to that of a zinc tablet or a handful of echinacea, in that he is boosting the natural immunity of New York City. Not believing him at first, Heller’s doubts are soon allayed thanks to a trick Brownfield performs, calling into question everything that the wide-eyed post-grad once thought he knew.
But there are greater threats to reality afoot besides Heller’s bruised belief structure and increasingly-ignored social and academic lives, because despite Brownfield’s best efforts and preparations, New York City might be dying. And they are the only two people who can save it ... or ARE they?
I don’t want to spell anything else out for you, because really, you should read Strange Attractors for yourself. It is one of the most interesting stories I have ever read in the medium of sequential art, not only because it uses math in a way that hasn’t interested me this much since the movie PI, but also because of Soule’s gripping writing style.
Combining, in my opinion, the best parts of Brian Michael Bendis’ verbosity and Jonathan Hickman’s conceptualism (and diagram-making), Soule’s world feels as organic as the systems he proposes are mathematical. There may be a significant amount of story to consume here, let alone ideas, but this book’s intricacies never seem overly dense or leaden. In other hands, reading something this complex may have felt like swimming in molasses, - pretty sweet, but overly viscous - but here, not unlike the effect on those that study complexity theory, its intricacies are hypnotic and infinitely engaging.
Thankfully, Soule doesn’t go too in-depth behind the mathematical theories that drive his book along, and in so doing, does not leave dunces like myself in the dust. In fact, he does a great job of illustrating the theories that have clearly so deeply inspired this book by using the interconnectedness of the story as its own example.
For instance, not only is New York itself beset by possible collapse and decay thanks to the forces that would seek to assail it, from its own natural subsidence, to external factors like crime, poverty and even terrorism, but the characters of Heller and Brownfield themselves must face how their own systems are affected by life’s inherent complexity, and their fixation with tending to it. One of them makes it out alive, the other ... not so much. Getting to and past that point is harrowing, tense and massively arresting. This is one of those books which, after its reading, you turn over in your hands and immediately flip through again, not because it’s too convoluted, but because it’s so damn good.
The art from Greg Scott is equally impressive. It carries a uniqueness that I’ve not seen before; at once detailed and lifelike yet also dreamily obscured, like the fluxed pseudo-impressionism of thickly lain rotoscoping. I imagine this is a tandem effort, but I absolutely love how populated the environments of his pages are, how they live, breathe and move, highlighting the importance of the backgrounds of this story, and bringing them - and thus the importance of order in the City - to the fore.
I know this is getting a bit long in the tooth, but something really needs to be said about the color in this book as well. Keeping pace with Scott’s art, the colors by Art Lyon and Matthew Petz oscillate, not in quality, but with the mood of the story. Sometimes it’s naturalistic, vibrating along with the lifelike kinetics of the art, while other times it coalesces into monochrome, either to show the balance of the chaos and order within the city, or that which exists within out characters. With pun very much intended, it’s important to set the right tone in a book like Strange Attractors, and I think Lyon and Petz do a bang-up job of it.
Further art impresses at the section after the story, wherein artist Robert Baywitz gives his inspirations for the map designs that appear in the book. This short diary containing his motivations, inspirations and directions from Soule paints a fascinating treatise in character cartography, and illustrates the depths at which this story was written.
As beautifully as its art and writing conspire to manufacture a spell book about math and graphs, Strange Attractors is also unquestionably a love letter to New York City, but not one that leaves you groaning. Even in the foreword, it’s more than clear that Soule hearts the shit out of New York, but that never comes across as heavy-handed in the story, and is a measured respect rather than fawning praise.
I’ll stop my own exuberant praise of this book now, right after I saw how much I recommend it, which is quote a bit, you might be surprised to know. Exceptional storytelling and relatable, fully-realized characters plus fantastic art and colors all around a mathemagical realistic plot equals a damn, damn fine comic book. That’s not just my opinion. It’s math.
Writer: Charles Soule
Artist: Greg Scott
Colorsits: Art Lyon & Matthew Petz
Publisher: Archaia Entertainment
Release Date: 5/15/13