More stories than we could use

New York Times Magazine Comics

In the summer of 2013, a 26 year-old fortuneteller in New York City’s Times Square secured $2,500 for a consultation with a new client over his bout of lovesickness. It was only the beginning for the psychic, Priscilla Kelly Delmaro, and the glum Brooklyn man Niall Rice, who’d wandered across the Williamsburg Bridge and into the city that August, ruminating over a woman he loved named Michelle and who didn’t love him back. The fortuneteller met with Rice over the course of 20 months according to police reports, discussing with her client what spirits had told her about what he needed to do to win over Michelle. By the end of the year, reported New York Times crime columnist Michael Wilson, Rice handed over more than three hundred thousand dollars to Delmaro.

“Long past the point at which many people would have become suspicious — the endless need for special crystals, the time machine, the 80-mile bridge made of gold, the reincarnation portal — he kept paying,” wrote Wilson of Delmaro’s mark, “until he was living his own grim version of the movie ‘Ghost.’”

New York Times Magazine Comics

Michael Wilson’s Crime Scene column at the Times came to an end earlier this year, but his chronicling of how Niall Rice came to spend nearly $714,000 on not one but two fortunetellers reemerged in the paper on June 4th when Eisner Award-nominated artist Tillie Walden adapted it for a special issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine that focused on comics. For Walden’s contribution to the graphic storytelling edition of the magazine’s “annual New York issue,” there were fun and likely challenging intangible elements in Wilson’s story to bring to the medium — Delmaro spoke of a meta “quest” and a “time machine to cleanse the man’s past” — each depicted as part of a hallucinatory patchwork of gloopy backgrounds, squiggly lines, and of loose panel borders that dissolve into one another. The more straightforward city scenes — where figures, featureless in an attempt to suggest anonymity and that they could be anyone in this sprawling city, often loom disproportionately over boxy skylines and peach backdrops — are playful and compelling, too, even if the architecture doesn’t call for the level of jaw-dropping detail that we see in The End of Summer, for which the artist earned an Ignatz Award.

New York Times Magazine ComicsWalden had lots of room on the page to spread out for her renamed “Twin Flames,” as the pages of the The New York Times Magazine are tall and wide at 9″ by 11″, but the slate of cartoonists who were assigned adaptations of the selected twelve Metro Desk stories were limited, and the reader experience isn’t exactly what I hoped it would be. Along with the magazine on June 4th, comics were examined or represented across the newspaper’s pages in Douglas Wolk’s reviews column, a drawn serialized version of Moby Dick, and a review of Hope Nicholson’s book on female superheroes. If this was indicative of the Times’ new effort to “expand on coverage” and be more inclusive of comics in the wake of dumping the Graphic Novels Bestseller List in February, they’re on the right track. As far as adapting actual news reporting for comics, however, we could’ve used a better go at that.

Four of the adaptations in The New York Times Magazine comics issue were plucked from Wilson’s six-year long now-lapsed column, but it’s a big city, and they aren’t all crime stories. Editors working with art director Matt Willey curated a diverse set of reported features for the project.

“We had more stories than we could use, which allowed the illustrators to choose this one over that one,” the magazine’s editor Jake Silverstein told It’s Nice That. “(S)ome stories resonated more with artists, some didn’t.”

I imagine that finding good source material to adapt for comics is hardly a problem at The New York Times. But artists such as Walden, Wesley Allsbrook, Kevin Huizenga, David Mazzucchelli, and more only got a handful of pages to tell with comics what were in all cases richly reported yarns. Writer Joe McCulloch pointed this out at The Comics Journal, and that reading comics that are totally disrupted with full-page advertisements (see Marvel, DC) is disorienting and frustrating. In this case, they’re ads for two million-dollar condos and banks that break up a four-page comics story. I honestly don’t know how people do it, or how I ever did it. I’m not as down on the NYT’s endeavor as McCulloch is, but I share in his interest in the “artists pushing the hardest against the restrictions” here. Given the limitations that pair with transforming The New York Times Magazine into a comics anthology — some of which could have been avoided with fewer adaptations and allocating more pages for each — I appreciate how the artists utilized the space they were given particularly on these big, glossy pages. I’m partial to Allsbrook’s short piece and a few others.

New York Times Magazine Comics

Evidently favoring a story that took place in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn last fall, Bologna, Italy-born artist Bianca Bagnarelli loads up her spare page count allotment with 16 and 18 panels a pop, artfully depicting the tick-tock of the material in both precise increments and sequences that are more suggestive of the passage of time than what is immediately apparent. In adapting reporter Andy Newman’s account of an unlikely outpouring of neighborhood support when a young goldendoodle named Bailey went missing from a brownstone-lined block, Bagnarelli split up symmetrical grids on her pages with full-width panels both slender and tall. Compared to the textures in the pier’s wooden slats or treetops in the artist’s gorgeous Fish from Nobrow Press, the “tidy precincts” in these corners of South Brooklyn that Newman wrote about are clean in Bagnarelli’s comic, with uncomplicated apartment building facades and storefronts framed in pristine lines and set in soft colors.

New York Times Magazine Comics

Similarly warm violet tones come to the fore when the sun goes down on Harlem street scenes in UK artist Bill Bragg’s “The Window Gazers” — an adaptation of a story that’s oddly continued deep inside the magazine from the cover, a stand-in “title page” for this individual comic that is disrupted by the magazine’s visual branding and cover line, both of which are separate from the story. The reader isn’t tasked with bridging the cover and the start of the story in the online version.

In orderly six-panel grids over four pages, Bragg builds-out a wordless piece from the final grafs of Andy Newman and Cassi Feldman’s rather moving ode to the epics that unfold under window gazers all across New York City each day and night. A visualization of ideas from the rest of the story animate the busy checkerboard sidewalk below their perches, where Bragg’s sandstone pavement is bathed in pink sunset hues when a fender bender materializes in front of the bodega. The artist’s primary “characters” and apartment interiors are shaped from the story’s closing discussion of a courtship that began to evolve more than 20 years ago at West 117th Street, and Bragg’s only visual reference is a single photograph of a room in the apartment in the original piece. It’s a really clever elevation of that part of the prose, and like most of the work here, one wonders how much better things might’ve looked if the “all-comics issue” gave higher billing to the actual comics.


Images by Wesley Allsbrook, Tillie Walden, Bianca Bagnarelli. Cover by Bill Bragg. All images © 2017 The New York Times Company. Order your print copy here.