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Oh, those crazy kids and their Nazi-hunting!
I’ve pointed it out before, but it’s worth pointing out again: It’s so nice to see a comic that is truly all-ages, and not just something that kids might like and that might just amuse adults. It’s tough to get a good balance where the story works for kids but also works for adults. City of Spies is one such comic. It’s written by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan, drawn by Pascal Dizin, and colored by Hilary Sycamore. First Second Books published this sucker it costs a mere $16.99. It’s a trifle!
Okay, it’s June 1942. A young girl named Evelyn is dropped off at a New York apartment building, where she’s going to spend the summer with her aunt, Lia, while her father goes off on vacation with the latest of his succession of young wives. Evelyn knows no one, and her aunt, a rich, free-spirited, flighty woman who likes to have parties with her artistic friends, is not a terribly good role model. Evelyn meets Tony, the son of the building’s handyman, and becomes friends with him. Evelyn has a secret: She likes to create comics. Her superhero, Zirconium Man, looks suspiciously like her dad (and the name is, I have to believe, a joke about his serial marrying), while his sidekick, Scooter, is Evelyn. Together they fight Nazis and a strange, black, tentacled creature that keeps showing up. Kim and Klavan keep it unclear how much of this creature is actually on the page and how much of it is haunting Evelyn’s nightmares. Meanwhile, Evelyn and Tony become convinced that their neighborhood is infested with Nazi spies. They suspect the doorman, but that turns out to be a false trail and convinces the police they know nothing. Of course, in classic boy-who-cried-wolf mold, they do discover a Nazi plot, but no one (at first) believes them. The second half of the book becomes a chase, as they try to follow the Nazi plotters to the conclusion and convince the authorities that they’re not crazy. Of course, as this is an adventure, they are able to convince Brendan, the friendly beat cop in the neighborhood, but he sees conspiracies everywhere, so getting him on their side isn’t such a coup.
It’s not a terrible intricate plot, but it is fun to follow along. Much more interesting is the interactions between the characters. Evelyn and Tony bond over Evelyn’s comics, and they have a good friendship that, naturally, holds hints of something more romantic, as they’re at the age when their hormones are starting to take over. Evelyn’s relationship with her aunt is handled well, too, as Lia wants to be the “cool” parent but doesn’t know the first thing about relating to her niece. She has to learn throughout the book how to be a better role model and how to understand what Evelyn needs from an adult. Evelyn’s father obviously doesn’t provide it, so Lia needs to fill that role. Meanwhile, Lia realizes that she’s been living a lie as well, as she comes to understand that being a good “parent” to Evelyn means taking her own life more seriously. None of this stuff is heavy-handed; Kim and Klavan make sure that the Nazi plot is almost always center stage, and the interesting character bits slip in when we’re not expecting them.
There’s also the theme of mistrust among Americans running throughout the book. Lia lives in the center of a heavily German neighborhood (it’s on the Upper East Side, but there aren’t a ton of markers indicating exactly where), so when Evelyn shows up, she gets a crash course in how the war has changed people’s perceptions of immigrants and how the immigrants themselves have tried to be even more patriotic. She suspects some people simply because of their German accents, but she also realizes that the immigrants, even if they’re recently arrived from Europe, shouldn’t be lumped in with America’s enemies. She’s a kid, so she suspects some people of being spies just because she doesn’t like them. It’s part of the fun of reading the book to watch as Evelyn and Tony try to figure out who’s a spy and who’s not – they don’t always get it right, and the discovery of the actual plot happens by accident. Kim and Klavan don’t pull the hoariest of clichés out by making the most unimpeachable American the actual spy, but they do play around with both their characters’ and the readers’ preconceptions, which is fairly neat.
Dizin’s art is very much Hergé-inspired; not only the style but even some of the characters reminded me of Tintin (Tony’s hair even looks like Tintin’s!). It’s a good look; Evelyn and Tony look like kids, which is oddly difficult for some artists to pull off, and we really get a good feel for the city and the time period. Kim and Klavan make the book fairly dense; it’s 172 pages but there’s a lot on each page, and Dizin does a very good job keeping everything moving along nicely. Evelyn’s comics are in a slightly different style, and they’re benday-dotted up nicely. Dizin doesn’t have to change styles too much, but he gives us a creepy nightmare at one point when Evelyn dreams of her mother’s death. He doesn’t give the characters’ faces too much detail, but he still manages to convey some good emotions through the art. While the plot itself isn’t too intricate, Kim and Klavan ask Dizin to draw a lot of different characters and a lot of different locations, and he does a good job with all of it. The clear line style he uses fits both the time period and the fact that this is a book for both kids and adults. It has a slightly innocent look, which makes it feel more like an adventure and less like a spy book starring Nazis. There’s some violence, but Dizin wisely keeps it just off-panel, which makes it a bit more effective.
City of Spies is not the greatest spy comic, but Kim and Klavan do a good job tapping into the paranoia that Americans must have felt during the terrifying early days of World War II. There’s an undercurrent of menace in the book because of the fear that Germans were in our midst and doing horrible things. It works much better as a commentary on American society and how we react when we’re scared. Kim and Klavan also do a very good job examining family relationships and what it means to grow up. All the main characters grow up somehow in the book, from Evelyn and Tony to Lia and Brendan. All of them have familial issues that they need to work out, and the writers do a good job showing how they do so without being too obnoxious about it. This is a deeper book than you might think, and it’s also a pretty good adventure. There’s nothing wrong with giving it a look!
Tomorrow: More kids, and more Nazis. It’s a theme!
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