*City of Spies — Recommended

The appeal in this charming young adult graphic novel is how freshly it recombines familiar elements, from screwball comedies to Harriet the Spy. Evelyn dreams of being an old-fashioned superhero (like Bart Simpson does) while she’s adjusting to living with her free-spirited aunt (like Mame) in 1942 New York. Evelyn’s dad has sent her to spend the summer with Aunt Lia while he gets married again, and the poor girl just wants some stability and a decent role model.

City of Spies cover
City of Spies
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Miss Spiegelman’s bohemian apartment — when we first meet the aunt, she’s hosting a live-drawing session with a nude model — matches her devil-may-care approach to life. She’s giving Evelyn freedom, but the child would rather have more normal food and a room that had been prepared for her. Evelyn meets Tony, the son of the apartment building handyman, and soon they’re playing detective, on the trail of Nazis in period New York.

Given the era, all the cocktail party chatter is of “what’s going on in Germany” and whether spies are in their city. Since their neighborhood is German Town, inhabitants are particularly sensitive to questions of patriotism and on their guard against anything suspicious. Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan are wonderful with dialogue, sketching characters in just a few well-chosen lines. They’re not afraid to let the art take over, either, with sometimes silent panels capturing just the right mood or allowing the action to flow naturally.

The pages are dense, with from 7-15 panels each, which provide a rewarding reading experience. I spent a lot of time with this book, noticing details and getting to know the characters. The European-styled clean-line art by Pascal Dizin looks both historic (like Tintin) and modern (streamlined) at the same time.

I was pleased to see Evelyn portrayed as an artist. She draws her own comics with herself as sidekick. I’d ask for her to be the lead hero in her imaginative creations, but I suspect her dream is more to have her father, represented by a Superman-style adult, do things with her and protect her. The looser, cartoony style that portrays her creations is cute and old-fashioned, as is the fake Ben-day dot coloring of those sections.

After being disappointed with Brain Camp, by the same writers, I was leery of trying this graphic novel, but I’m really glad I did. City of Spies is an excellent read with plenty of emotion and adventure, and just a touch of romance. I felt so much for Evelyn, I was thrilled when she learned more about her family’s artistic history. There’s an undercurrent of sibling rivalry that recurs as well, fleshing out much of the supporting cast. It feels like a really good movie from the era. The creators do a terrific job of balancing the elements, too, with the personal relevations just as important as the spy suspense.

There’s a preview at the publisher’s website. They provided a review copy.

Update: I found myself thinking further about the difference between Evelyn and old-fashioned kid heroes, her lack of stable family life. The older kids, those contemporaneous to the period, had less reason to question the presence of their family structure. (Think of Nancy Drew, for example, whose father’s support and love for her is never in doubt.) Those secure underpinnings gave them more freedom to roam. Evelyn reflects the greater uncertainty of today’s world, where divorce is common and there’s less community support for families. I appreciated the foregrounding of her concerns in that area. It’s more likely kids today can relate to those worries.


One Response to “*City of Spies — Recommended”

  1. Hsifeng Says:

    Neat coincidence, that I read this review right after I finished reading When Winter Returns by Kathryn Miller Haines. :)

    Johanna Says:

    “…while she’s adjusting to living with her free-spirited aunt (like Mame) in 1942 New York. Evelyn’s dad has sent her to spend the summer with Aunt Lia while he gets married again…”

    That’s actually a surprise. I mean, absent dads are no rarity in stories set in 1940s America, but a dad being absent to get married again is a new one. Did he get a 4-F?

    Johanna Says:

    “…Update: I found myself thinking further about the difference between Evelyn and old-fashioned kid heroes, her lack of stable family life. The older kids, those contemporaneous to the period, had less reason to question the presence of their family structure. (Think of Nancy Drew, for example, whose father’s support and love for her is never in doubt.) Those secure underpinnings gave them more freedom to roam…”

    At the same time, that cuts the realism a bit (a la “if he supports and loves her so much, then why isn’t he protecting her more from all those problems?”).

    No wonder so many stories written today with kid characters and heavy conflicts have either (a) kids with absent parents being the main characters and facing the plot conflicts or (b) kids with present parents being the supporting characters because their parents go face the main plot conflicts for them and therefore be the main characters instead of the kids.

    Johanna Says:

    “…Evelyn reflects the greater uncertainty of today’s world, where divorce is common and there’s less community support for families…”

    I got the impression from your review that Evelyn’s situation also reflects the greater uncertainty of 1942’s world, where drafting was more common (even though Evelyn’s dad himself was absent for another reason) and there was less in-person paternal support for families what with so many young men getting sent away from their wives and/or children (men old enough to have adult daughters and sons were above draft age and probably only in the military if they’d chosen the officer career track no later than the 1930s, right?) to fight and possibly never come home again.




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