They get trotted out every Awards Season but does anyone truly like biopics? When they’re not condensing complicated asshole figures into tidy feel-good entertainment packages, they’re too shallow in their focus, honing in on one “milestone” in lives of titans who went through the same disappointing shit as the rest of us at any number of turns. Outside of all that Bluewater nonsense (props to somehow finding a way to cram everyone from Paula Deen to Gloria Steinem to RuPaul to, uh, William Marston into a series called Female Force, though), the biopic equivalent in comics tends to fare much better. Sure, it wasn’t that long ago we were suffering from an outbreak of whiny wanky white dude autobio fever, but we’ve also got Louis Riel and Nat Turner and Rick Geary’s Graphic Biography series. Maybe it’s the mix of text and images, or maybe it’s that there remains a lot less focus group interference in the woolly, broke confines of sequential art, but whatever it is, Nobrow’s recent translation of Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez’s Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City carries on that proud tradition.
Fittingly for a book on the life of a master builder, Moses has the exquisite flow and airy linework of an art deco architecture sketch. There’s a simplistic beauty to Olivier Balez’s art that perhaps comes from his background in children’s book illustration, working wonder in a complicated, messy story about a complicated, messy life in one of the most complicated, messy metropolises in the world. Pierre Christin, a Euro-comics vet who has written for Jacques Tardi among many others, takes an interesting approach to Moses, roughly carving out each section of Robert Moses’ life but hopping around times and setting in each chapter and sometimes even within a page. On first reading, some of the passages can be difficult to parse out, but Christin’s focus on Moses’ seemingly chaotic, multi-tiered worklife gives that approach a thematic connection, with Balez’ gorgeous, confident character designs and backgrounds keep it from ever getting too hard to decipher the narrative.
The opening sequence of the book also helps, as Christin and Balez introduce Moses in one of his rare moments of calm reflection, walking along a public beach he designed, taking notes on future projects. The child of rich Jewish parents, Moses’ otherwise brutal work ethic is seen to have originated with the competitiveness he had as a youth attending elite schools where he was an outsider despite his smarts, athleticism and prestige. An early conflict at Yale over athletic club funding sets the tone for much of what happens in the rest of Moses’ life, as his disappointment with an official’s decision over setting some funding aside for more individual oriented sports like the one Moses excelled at leads to Moses deciding to pen a scathing editorial about the situation, then setting up a new association of his own devising over which he will preside, of course.
This bullish, obstinate determination to accomplish his goals regardless of others’ opinions or feelings would lead to Moses’ decades long tenure as the master builder of New York, but Christin unflinchingly depicts how frustrating it made Moses as an individual. Christin is likewise blunt about Moses’ longstanding issues with minorities and immigrants, even towards his own Jewish community, but he also provides a journalist’s objectivity to the issue, not necessarily defending Moses’ inhumane displacement of these communities but placing it within the context of the “you have to break some eggs to make an omelette” approach Moses took to, well, everything. As Christin makes clear towards the end of the biography, Moses also hated the middle-class and the super rich, particularly the American-style aristocrats who lorded over the country from the safe haven of Long Island and his only real sympathies laid with his own vision of what a city should be. Christin agrees that Moses was undoubtedly racist and discriminatory, like so many other icons of his time, but unlike the Henry Fords of his world, it wouldn’t be fair to say he targeted any one group and even helped the communities he was accused of hating as much as he irreparably harmed them.
Moses was always a controversial figure who managed to piss off countless political legends, from FDR to Nelson Rockefeller, but he fell out from public favor in a big way in the ’60s, becoming the Big Bad personification of urban displacement. In lesser hands– like, say, Hollywood’s– Robert Moses would focus on strictly Moses’ triumphs, whether that came in the form of the George Washington Bridge or the public beaches and playground he constructed around New York, and would give him a posthumous PR makeover. But Christin and Balez are equally devoted to portraying Moses’ myriad failures, particularly the lavish, insane traffic decongestion plans he had for NYC at various points. There are some standard victorious boosterism moments, like a scene where Moses uses the drowning of a couple boys to pressure local politicians into allowing him to construct public pools throughout town or a chapter where Moses shows off the Maritime Theatre to some of “Guy Lombardo’s girls.” But these are frequently mostly an excuse for Balez to depict the chaos of Moses’ time and the amazing architecture he helped bring to the city.
Regardless of Moses’ faults as an individual, his public works are still things of beauty, even those that failed, like his World’s Fair collaboration with Walt Disney (you know, the park with the spinning globe from the start of Men in Black). Balez more than rises to the occasion in depicting these architectural triumphs, and while the New York in the pages of Robert Moses has the vintage air of Darwyn Cooke’s Parker material with its light coloring and ’50s design, this is an extremely lively book, with all the disparate strands of this urban leviathan on full display. Those Hollywood biopics, no matter how much money is spent on them, are usually stale and lifeless by contrast, carrying the glass-enclosed feel of wax museum statues, so it’s even more refreshing to explore Moses’ life within the pages of something so decidedly artful and excitable.
Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City could stand to be much thicker than its current slim form, and it does admittedly gloss over a lot of the still relevant debates over Moses’ impact on NYC today, but considered as a primer meant to inspire you to dig deeper into the master’s life, it’s hard to beat. There’s also a lot to say for its more objective approach in comparison to the Pulitzer-prize winning text The Power Broker, which erred a little too much on the side of reconfiguring Moses’ image and reads like a smear campaign at points, and its liveliness certainly makes for a more enjoyable experience than biographies like Neal Gabler’s Walt, which is similarly objective but epic in length and dry as a fossil site. Ultimately, Robert Moses continues Nobrow’s impeccable devotion to well-designed and presented works with fresh perspectives.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover