Robert Moses is one of the most important and influential figures in 20th century American history but few people outside New York know his name. He was the visionary architect of New York City, the architect and city designer who erected many features of New York as we know it today – the majestic George Washington Bridge along with the Triborough Bridge and many others; he built freeways and playgrounds, art deco swimming pools and deep tunnels that are still in frequent use today.
Moses’s vision became part of the way that city planners think about spaces, deeply influencing city construction throughout America – particularly in the transition of Los Angeles into a city dependent on the car. His approach was an optimistic vision of the city and the country, a move away from the drudgery of a ground-level view of town and towards a vision of the future that embodied post-World War II dreams of a homogenized America.
But Robert Moses and his ideas were also highly controversial, especially as people became more and more aware of the way that those plans could destroy poor neighborhoods that didn’t have political clout. His ideas became caricatured as “roads, roads, roads” – or maybe his attitudes changed in that direction – and he increasingly faced fevered opposition by the people who grew to despise the Master Architect and his imperious ways. (Master Architect – sounds like a bad DC Comics villain of the 1960s, doesn’t it?)
Nobrow has a terrific graphic novel biography of Robert Moses available, newly translated and available in the US, which is written by the legendary French comics writer Pierre Christin and illustrated by the Chilean resident Olivier Balez. The book sheds light on the architect in all his patrician complexity, giving readers a nice quick overview of the Master Builder of New York. By necessity this book isn’t deep but it’s a terrific look into the life and attitudes and techniques of one of the least-known pivotal figures of the last century.
The book succeeds in part because of the lovely artwork by Balez. His art is loose and light (and wonderfully colored) and has a loose sense of slight unreality that is an ideal reflection of the life of the creative artist – in some sections early in the book, Balez uses the style to reflect projects yet to be realized. In other places he employs the style to show abstract images and the thought process that Moses went through in order to create the projects that he shepherded. In still others, he uses analogy smartly to present this story in a way that most readers can relate to. There’s a comparison to Batman here that will make any reader smile.
Just as with their recent bios of Marx and Freud, Nobrow’s book about Robert Moses isn’t the definitive book on its important subject, but it is an ideal introduction for someone who wants to grok Moses in a surface way or have a two-dimensional comprehension of his importance. The art is lovely, and the comic book approach to this story helps to present his positive and negative sides with verve and energy. The book works well as a graphic novel, using the techniques of the comics medium adroitly to present a work that is more than a simple recitation of facts.
If you care about cities, history, or smartly built biographical comics, Robert Moses: the Master Builder of New York City is a terrific read.