It’s also somewhat of a superhero story. But, it’s not about people flying around the city wearing tights and capes. It’s about a reclusive old man and his young protégé, going around New York City performing small, somewhat mundane acts to further their own ends. Sound boring? Put those mundane acts against the backdrop of a city on the brink of destruction, and translate them into a race against the clock to complete the old man’s brilliantly intricate master plan to save New York from burning down, blowing up, or both. This is a different sort of story, to be sure. But, boring it isn’t.
Columbia grad student Heller Wilson approaches Dr. Spencer Brownfield to ask for help on his thesis. He wants to use complexity analysis and chaos theory to analyze New York’s systems—from food delivery to railways to trash pickup and more—and how they deal with disaster recovery. Dr. Brownfield famously developed his own theories on these issues 30 years ago, before being forced to resign from Columbia in disgrace. He agrees to share these theories with young Heller in exchange for help with a project of his own.
The “project” involves the aforementioned mundane acts around New York City. Things like emptying all the garbage cans along a particular route, or buying all of the Diet Coke from a store and throwing it away. But, as time goes on, it becomes clear that these individual acts are part of a larger plan, and that Dr. Brownfield’s work and Heller’s thesis are ultimately connected. Using complex math, he’s able to see how every system, every cog in the city runs. And, through chaos theory, he’s able to use these small acts to effect big changes in how the city operates, ultimately helping to improve things and prevent everything from breaking down.
The concept is similar to Isaac Asimov’s classic novel Foundation. One man has determined through mathematics the ultimate destruction of the empire (or in this case, the Empire State) and must then use mathematics to save it through a series of unrelated random actions.
The only difference is that, in Foundation, we, the audience, get to see how each action builds on another to form the bigger picture. In Strange Attractors, we never really get to see the path of any one action to its ultimate outcome. This is the flip side of not being subjected to the complex equations. Everything is very generalized. We’re told that buying all the Diet Cokes will set off a chain of events that will help the city’s systems run more efficiently, but we never see specifically how. We just need to take Dr. Brownfield’s word for the fact that he’s the only thing standing between New York and total destruction.
Still, despite this issue, the actions themselves are interesting, and we do get invested. The story manages to engage us and make us root for what Heller and Dr. Brownfield are doing, even if we don’t entirely understand it.
The artwork by Greg Scott is very good, but also somewhat odd; images are fairly detailed and realistic, but blurry, so that facial features are hard to distinguish. The lettering, on the other hand, is crystal clear, and the contrast is a bit jarring. This includes the lettering on chalkboards and computer screens within the comic. It’s as if someone put some of the panels into Photoshop and typed out equations, newspaper headlines, and other such text over the existing image.
Beneath the math and the chaos and everything else, what this story is at its core is a love letter to New York City. Writer Charles Soule admits as much in his introduction. Dr. Brownfield fiercely loves New York, and all of his calculations and actions—his entire life—is in the name of protecting his city. Heller is much of the same mind, declaring New York to be the greatest city there is, even to the point of dismissing any music not from NYC as not worth his time. Those not from New York may have a hard time wrapping their mind around these sentiments, but, hopefully, they’ll at least be familiar to them. This innate superiority of New York to all other places has been a common theme in movies for ages, from You’ve Got Mail to the more recent Friends with Benefits to 90% of Woody Allen’s oeuvre. Do real New Yorkers feel this intensely about their city? Mr. Soule does, at least.
But, even if you’re not enamored with the City That Never Sleeps, you’ll have no problem relating to and enjoying this story. The city could be Metropolis or Gotham just as easily. Even if you don’t know it personally, it’s a city in peril, and you root for it to be saved, and for those working tirelessly to save it. The genre may be unconventional and the characters not what you’d expect, but the underlying story is universal. And, that’s what ultimately makes us care about this comic.