Revealing the Secrets of NYC in STRANGE ATTRACTORS OGN
Comics writer Charles Soule has done everything from Mexican wrestling to rock n’ roll in his brief comic career, but his next project sees him pull back the curtain on the inner workings of New York City. In the upcoming graphic novel Strange Attractors, Soule and artist Greg Scott uncovers the truth that the Big Apple works as a machine built by a million hands, with the seemingly standalone parts working in tandem to make the city work. But this machine can’t stay running without some help, and when a Columbia grad student studying architecture begins to unravel the mystery he finds an aged genius greasing the gears and keeping New York City on track, but not for too much longer.
Newsarama: Lucha Libre to Rock & Roll to …mathematics? Tell us Charles, how does Strange Attractors lives up to the unique projects you’ve done before?
Charles Soule: Well, Strange Attractors is about a lot of things - it's mostly a book about New York City and how much I love that insane, epic S.O.B. of a town. It's also about attempting to exert control over our own destinies, and yes, mathematics, specifically complexity theory. Just like the rest of my stuff, it's a book about subjects I find fascinating (and worth exerting all the time and effort required to bring a new project into the world.)
Just to speak a little more specifically about the story, the main character is a guy named Heller Wilson, a grad student up at Columbia. He's been working on his thesis for a while - it's all about New York City, specifically how all of the city's endless layers of systems (power, transport, supply lines, economy, water, traffic, etc.) somehow manage to work together to keep the city running, despite the fact that no one ever planned them that way. I mean, there are systems in N.Y.C. that were built in the 1800s running right alongside stuff from the 21st century. He's stuck, though, because according to his calculations, NYC should have completely collapsed in on itself back in the late 70s. The city simply shouldn't work. It's too complex, too crazy, too big.
Until Heller solves that problem, he can't finish his thesis, and he can't get the sweet job waiting for him after he graduates, and he just can't get on with his life. So, he investigates, and what he finds is that something's actually been holding the city together - or, more accurately, someone, an elderly genius using "complexity magic" to make sure the city he loves can continue to thrive. When Heller finds him, the old guy's thrilled, because the mere fact that Heller was brilliant enough to track him down means that Heller can take over the thankless, grueling job of running N.Y.C. from behind the scenes. Heller, as you might expect, is a little less thrilled - he didn't realize what he was signing on for. Layer on top of that a massive crisis slowly building in the city's foundations that could literally destroy all of New York, and you get a really fun adventure. It's pretty cool!My silly one-liner for the story was Harry Potter meets Good Will Hunting, and I still think that's pretty accurate. The way math is used in the story is more like magic. I've always been fascinated by the way the realm of numbers is completely infinite. Once a mathematician proves one theorem, it just opens the door to another thing to try to understand. Number space, if you want to call it that, goes on forever just like outer space, and there are some pretty bizarre things in there. Imaginary numbers, quantum mechanics, all kinds of crazy stuff.
I don't pretend to understand all of that, or even very much of it - but what Strange Attractors does capture, I think, is some of the magical qualities inherent in numbers, and the beauty that can be found in a perfectly balanced formula or equation. I touched on some of these subjects in 27, of course, but that was mostly stuff built around the number 9. In this book, it's not just nine, it's all the numbers. Talk about bang for your buck!
Soule: Well, Heller's one of those guys who's never been great at taking control over his own life. He's really smart, so opportunities have always come to him easily, but because of that, he never really found a reason to fight for anything, or try particularly hard. He lets other people guide him where they think he should go, and he tends to take the path of least resistance. When the story opens, he's in a tough spot, just stuck in this miasma where the rest of his life seems totally predetermined. It's all good things - the great job, the respect of his peers, the hot girlfriend, money - but he can't seem to muster up much passion for it. He's looking for something, but he has no idea what it is. Hell, he probably doesn't even realize he's looking.
Heller is also a massive music fan - I don't think I can write a book that doesn't have music involved in some way. He can't play any instruments, but he's a dedicated student of New York's incredible musical history. He knows and loves it all, from Duke Ellington to TV on the Radio. The music of N.Y.C. plays into the story in a pretty fun way, both specifically with respect to Heller and more generally in connection with the city as a whole.
Nrama: And who's the "elderly genius" you mentioned who is working behind the scenes to keep N.Y.C. running?
Soule: Ah, Dr. Spencer Brownfield. He's awesome. He looks like a wizened old hobo, he wanders around the city all day doing bizarre things that make no outward sense (like pushing the "walk" button at an intersection for an hour straight, or tipping over every trash can in Madison Square Park), and brings his own food with him everywhere he goes to ensure that he consumes no more than exactly 1700 calories per day. He seems like a nut, and in many ways he is, but he's also a genius. Heller first finds out about him when he stumbles across some journals in the Columbia library from the 1970s discussing theories that were decades ahead of their time. Spencer has taken the "butterfly effect" theory we're all familiar with and refined it to the point where he can toss a coin onto a sidewalk and prevent a car accident forty blocks away - or cause one.He has a lot of tragedy in his past, and a big part of the story is figuring out just how much of what he believes is actually true, or just the ramblings of a sad, crazy old man.
Soule: In his decades working as N.Y.C.'s behind-the-scenes guardian, Dr. Brownfield developed a cool process for mapping the city's systems, which he can also use, from time to time, to sort of turn the city in a direction he wants it to go. It also lets him see problems coming down the pipe, so he can fix them ahead of time. It takes enormous effort on Spencer's part, though - every time he gives the city a tune-up, he has to coordinate a thousand different elements very precisely. In Strange Attractors, Spencer detects a massive catastrophe looming over the city, but he's just too damn old to do what needs to be done to prevent it. That's part of why he's so relieved when Heller finds him - finally, here's someone who can take over the job. As I mentioned, though, Heller isn't exactly super-psyched to give up his entire life to take over some crazy old dude's weird crusade, no matter how many sweet journal articles he may have written thirty-five years back.
Nrama: And what happens if Heller doesn’t step up and do what needs to be done to prevent the catastrophe Dr. Brownfield sees on the horizon?
Soule: Well, I'd like to leave the specifics in the book, but the stakes are very high. About eight million people live in New York City, and that number would go down considerably if some pretty serious steps don't get taken.
Soule: My goal with everything I do is to bring readers in with a premise and keep them there with the characters. In Strange Attractors, our two main guys are each, in their own way, struggling to exert some control over their lives - which is something I think everyone fights with from time to time. Of course, the world generally has its own ideas about that sort of thing. It's a grand story in the tradition of that eminent classic of modern philosophy, Terminator 2; how much of our fate is predetermined, and how much is up to us?
Nrama: We’ve seen you do work at SLG, work at Image, and now work for Archaia. How’d you come to bring Strange Attractors and yourself to Archaia?
Soule I've actually got something else with another great publisher in the works, too - I guess I'm just a tramp for publishers - I'll put out for anyone. The simple answer is that every publisher has its own strengths. Archaia isn't Image, and neither one is SLG. One thing I think is important when you're pitching a project is figuring out where your story would actually fit. I mean, you can try pitching a superhero slapfest to Top Shelf or First Second, but I'm not sure how much traction you would get. Same is true if you're doing a 300-page, all woodcut memoir about your childhood in rural Kentucky and you pitch it to Marvel. There's a publisher for just about every well-done book (and even some terrible ones), but in most cases they aren't going to come looking for you. Doing the legwork and understanding who puts out what is important.
So, to get back to your original question, I've been a fan of Archaia's gorgeous hardcovers and book design for years. I think the look of a book is at least half as important as what it's about in terms of getting someone to buy it - maybe more. (Of course, once the book's bought it's all about what's in it - the prettiest cover in the world won't save a crap story or terrible interior art.) The idea of having one of my stories delivered in such a lovely package was very appealing. I also think Archaia has a great attitude towards the type of stories they're willing to put out. Their catalog covers an incredibly varied spread of books. I mean, they've got cool modern noir in Josh Fialkov's Tumor, the lyrical beauty of Ramon Perez's art in Tale of Sand and so many more: Return of the Dapper Men, Mouse Guard, Cow Boy, Feeding Ground etc. etc. etc.
Strange Attractors seemed to fit right in, and fortunately Stephen Christy, Archaia's Editor-In-Chief, agreed.
Soule: Well, first of all, let me add two names - Dan Duncan did the cover, and Matthew Petz has jumped on board to help out with colors as we careen towards the finish line.
Greg Scott was actually introduced to me by Nathan Edmondson when he heard I was looking for someone for a New York City-based project. Greg is a phenomenal penciller/inker, with a completely hand-drawn style - lots of amazing, heavy inks. His original pages end up being about half a pound each, just because of all the ink he slaps onto the boards. He lives on Staten Island, which was very important for this book. I needed someone who lived in N.Y.C. so they could interpret the scenes with a certain accuracy that only a true New Yorker could provide. Greg's stuff is amazing that way. I mean, people will be able to walk around New York with a copy of Strange Attractors in their hands and recognize street corners. It's just that perfect.
Art Lyon is handling colors (with Matt's help), and he's doing a marvelous job. This book has some very specific color notes - the colors have to actually do a fair amount of storytelling, which I always think is fun. Both guys are coming through with FLYING COLORS.
Finally, the book's secret weapon, Robert Saywitz. Robert has done some comics work in the past - he drew a short story with me called Sal & Chrys that recently was published at Trip City, and he inked the second volume of my Strongman series, but for Strange Attractors he's doing something completely different. Robert is a fine artist by trade - he does a lot of amazing portraits and cool installations. So, I asked him if he could design the complexity maps that Spencer and Heller use to navigate the city's systems. These things look spectacular. In many ways, the maps are the centerpiece of the book. There's one tied to a major plot twist that is totally mind-blowing, and I think if Robert ever decides to sell the original art he'll probably be able to retire.
So, that's Strange Attractors. The book is currently slated to hit this fall, and I hope people enjoy it. In the meantime, the trade for 27: Second Set just hit shelves, and the series is running online from the beginning up at http://twenty-seven.keenspot.com. I've also very excited to be contributing a short story to Jim Zub's third Skullkickers: Tavern Tales anthology in issue 18, out this September, alongside some amazing talent. (Justin Jordan, Tradd Moore, Blair Butler and John Layman, just to name a few.) Lots of great stuff in the works.