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City Of Spies
posted September 13, 2010

imageCreators: Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan and Pascal Dizin
Publishing Information: First Second, softcover, 176 pages, April 2010, $16.99
Ordering Numbers:

I found City Of Spies to be a dull slog, full of cliches, an ordinary story presented in a competent manner that I think wants to recall classic kids' adventure stories but doesn't have enough to say in its own, idiosyncratic way to exist as anything more than a weak echo of much better work. It feels like a pitch executed in comics form rather than its own thing, to an almost comic degree, and makes me wonder after the current state of First Second as a home for creator-driven efforts start to finish after a promising first few years out of the gate. The story of a 10-year-old girl forced to live with a socially-minded artistic relative that meets a lower class neighbor boy who draws her into Nazi spy hunting with at first mixed, then dangerous results more potent then the comics she draws, City Of Spies unfortunately... well, damn it, just re-read the first part of this ridiculous sentence.

I don't want to make City Of Spies sound like the worst comic in the world. It's not. The script work is accomplished: the characters are clearly and consistently signified, the broadly-conceived motivations stay on point, and the leads are likable. The cartooning can be lively and the neighborhoods depicted fun to take in. The problem is that there's no urgency here, no inner life, no desire to communicate anything fresh and original beyond executing its mostly obvious, hackneyed plot points. The craft chops on display aren't superior in a way that might transcend that fundamental lack of ambition. I never felt like I was looking at New York, I felt like I was looking at a generic cartoon story from an adventure comic, in much the same way the characters never stop being characters in such a story. Still, I'm certain City Of Spies will have its fans, among younger children who haven't encountered this kind of work, older children looking for something less challenging to consume and among the gatekeepers and adult readers who will at times revel in something that hits all the comfortable markers. It took me multiple times to finish it, and I'm not going back.