Telling History through the Graphic Novel: Art and Propaganda in a story of Robert Moses

This post follows no pre-set review format.

Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City

Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez. Nobrow (Consortium, dist.), $24.95 ISBN 978-1-90770-496-3
RobertMoses-comic

Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City by Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez (2014) was originally published in French. This may explain why the work approaches its central figure like the man is a discovery, rather than a looming presence in the public psyche. Unfortunately, even accounting for translation, Christen and Balez’s book presents as more half-researched book report than biography.

Positive reviews of the graphic biography from Publisher’s Weekly and The New York Times appeared in early 2015 after the work was released in English, but it’s worth noting that reviewers like the Times’ Andy Newman mainly seemed impressed by the fact that someone had thought to make the biography of the famous urban planner into comic book format.

Robert Moses French Comic Book Hero The New York Times

These reviews seem not to notice that this kind of novel artistic product can easily disguise a work of alarmingly one-sided, bland propaganda for a controversial figure. For all Balez’s abilities, appealing, high-contrast panoramas of bathing facilities, bridges and new roads cannot impress those New Yorkers who remember Moses for his efforts to make beaches inaccessible for the poor and demolish neighborhoods of working-class Black and Latino New Yorkers in order to make way for highways and cars. Christin’s short mentions of Moses’s critics gives them no face other than Jane Jacobs, and the narrative seems to have no space to explore whether or not any critiques held weight.

jane jacobs
This four-panel sequence gives a number of entirely superficial, non-ideological reasons for Jacobs’ issues with Moses that brush off serious critiques of his urban policy. What is not clear from this image is that the coverage in Christin’s work never gets any deeper than that. (Image Christin and Balez, 2014).

Additionally, despite the fact that the book covers the arc of Moses’s long career, little context is given for what the history of urban planning in New York had been up until Moses set foot on the scene.

moses 3
We meet Moses, the dreamer, but not those who made his dreams possible or those he impacted.

In many ways, Moses and his rearrangement of neighborhoods, and top-down decisions on investment in public transit and roads followed in a long tradition of land expropriation and systemic racism. But as biographer Robert Caro (1974) noted, Moses’s projects took structural segregation further, building a modern city that worked well for only some of its population.

An ordinary biographer would be taken to task for failing to address or add new insights to the complex contradictions between Moses’s public works and his clear personal racism that ended up embedded in many of the sites he created. Christin should be held to the same standard.

Typographical errors (Staten Island becomes “State Island”, and Marine Park is called “Marine Beach”) only compound the feeling that this is a book report by someone impressed with structural projects but totally in the dark as to their meaning within a cityscape. It is disappointing, because sequential art as a medium has the potential to encourage so much interest in history.

state island
“State Island”

 

Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York, New York: Knopf, 1974.

Kolitz, Daniel (November 21, 2015). The Lingering Effects of NYC’s Racist City Planning. Hopes and Fears. Retrieved from http://www.hopesandfears.com/hopes/now/politics/216905-the-lingering-effects-of-nyc-racist-city-planning

Newman, Andy (March 27, 2015). Robert Moses, French Comic Book Hero. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/nyregion/robert-moses-french-comic-book-hero.html

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