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They Built This City: Delving into Matt Fraction's 'Adventureman'

Comic Books

They Built This City: Delving into Matt Fraction’s ‘Adventureman’

A new series exploring Matt Fraction’s ode to cities great and small.

Of cities, the French poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote, “What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.” Matt Fraction, meanwhile, said, “I think living in a dense, urban environment…does stuff to you.”

Across time, collaborators, and fictional universes, Fraction has weaved ideas of what cities are throughout his work in a way that’s intensely interesting to me, a person who loves (and misses) visiting cities. And that’s what this series is and will be about: looking at the many cities that Fraction and his collaborators have built, and how they affect my view of these places/structures. 

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First up: Adventureman’s New York City is a place of wonder and magnitude. A place of family and, uh, adventure! They built this city to be protected. 

They Built This City: Delving into Matt Fraction's 'Adventureman'

Header/title designs by Lan M. Art by Rachel and Terry Dodson.

Adventureman fits into Fraction’s bibliography in a fun way. It was conceptualized a decade before it was ever released, with a collaborator he ended up working with again later. It’s a book that feels like it belongs in a different period of his work, but still fits nicely in the here and now, and I think at least some of that has to do with its treatment of it’s city. There are two notable ways that Adventureman talks about New York, I’ll start with the simplest; scale. 

It’s easy to say that New York City is big, and a number of facts would lead you there, but holy hell, it is so big. I’ve hardly spent any time there and have no idea when I’ll return, but it is wild confronting the ridiculous size of that beautiful monstrous city. It’s not easy to show the sense of scale, and to be fair, Adventureman still doesn’t really depict it (nothing can), but the visuals of the series do about as good a job as possible, particularly so with the tower that Adventure Inc. uses as their headquarters. 

They Built This City: Delving into Matt Fraction's 'Adventureman'

Courtesy of Image Comics.

The largeness of the building is great, and sure, it’s given weight by the lack of nearby skyscrapers, but the imagery of this mysterious yet enormous building works. It takes up most of the length of the page, thinning and stretching as it approaches the sky. It dwarfs everything on the page, amazes Claire, and foreshadows her coming strength and importance within the city. Which helps to point to how Fraction and the Dodsons are using Adventure Inc. to talk about New York, because even in it‘s oddness, it absolutely belongs there. 

Adventure, Inc, as a team and as a building, are incredible and strong and important, standing as a beacon of hope even in a literal apocalypse, so of course they belong in New York. Unlike Gotham, or even the New York of Marvel’s 616, Adventurman’s New York doesn’t feel like it needs its heroes as much as it feels like they belong there, that it is the right place for them to be. It’s not a city that needs protecting as much as it is the city where heroes belong, a significant place for Important people, the City that deserves to have Heroes. 

The implicit heroic nature of this version of New York is much more optimistic than Fraction tends to be about cities, both in New York and outside of it (which we’ll get to later). While there is plenty of time for the series to defy this, and I fully expect it to, it seems that Adventureman currently stands as a series where New York is, in fact, the greatest city in the world, and as such earns and requires the protectors within it.

***

When I visited New York City, I wanted “real New York experiences” y’know, like all tourists want. I didn’t want the visitor’s pass, I wanted to become a New Yorker, which, of course, is frankly impossible to do in 100 hours, but I’m a fool. I whined that I wanted authenticity, that I wanted unique experiences I haven’t seen on tv countless times. 

Train-to-cab, dropped our bags off in an apartment-Airbnb, first place we head to? The Empire State Building.

***

Another notable aspect of the series is the diversity of the cast. 

Matt Fraction

Courtesy of Image Comics.

The O’Donnels are made up of a widower, his seven adopted daughters, and his lone grandson, and form a cast that feels defined by their variety. While I’m not sure they work in the context of the story yet, they are awfully flat, the cast does point to a similar New York-ness as the Adventure, Inc building does. 

The promise of the “melding pot” that is America is abundantly present in the O’Donnels. They’re a family, both found and literal, all from different nationalities who meet every Friday in New York City for Shabbat dinner. To some degree they feel like they were overly designed, or grown in a lab to beat the reader over the head with obviousness, but that’s why I’m able to point to it. Adventureman is heightened, which makes it easier to tell what’s really being said. 

***

The optimistic perspective that Adventureman has with cities is a relative rarity in Fraction’s work. While this stands out, it shares similarities with another series that doesn’t interact with cities much, but feels important to talk about here because of what it does say. That series is ’FF’, which Fraction worked on with Michael, Laura, and Lee Allred, along with Clayton Cowles. 

’FF’ is never really about what a city is, never really interacts with the ideas of what a city does or can be. Instead, the heart of the series is the idea of what a family is or can be, and talks about that in a similar way that Adventurman does, and I think helps to accentuate . For me, the real connection there is the idea of found family.

Like the O’Donnels, the FF as a group are wildly diverse, expanding beyond nationalities and covering different species, even ones from other parts of the universe. Across the series, they add members, ones who are more heroic, and ones who are less so. By the end of the series, they feel like a family. 

Of course, the family of Adventurman is different. Adoption isn’t quite the same thing as a found family, even if it shares some similarities, there’s more nuance to it. They’re a much smaller family besides that, and they haven’t had the chance to fight any villains as a family yet. But, I do think that the inherent idea of found family is present in both, even while the New York’s don’t quite match up. 

What’s more, I think by contrasting the families and shared city of FF and Adventureman, it makes the creator’s, and notably Fraction’s, decisions more clear. The O’Donnel family feels like a quintessential New York family in the same way that the Future Foundation feels like a quintessential Marvel family. They belong where they belong, and highlight the uniqueness of where they live. 

***

I think it is important to note that what I am claiming to be intentional statements about cities may in this case be little more than references or vestigial pieces of Adventureman’s pulp roots.  

The diversity of the cast, the big secret base, the crime fighters, and New York as a setting are directly connected to one single pulp series, but are also hallmarks of the genre at large. I myself can even see the shared DNA of this series and Batman as a concept and idea, even with that franchise’s more limited connection to the pulp genre. I can see the argument that Adventureman really doesn’t explicitly say anything about cities. Given the context of Fraction’s other series, however, it becomes clear to me that the choices here speak to how he feels generally about cities. And regardless of that, I think there is implicit weight in the way Adventureman grates and holds it’s setting. 

With Adventureman, Matt Fraction establishes New York City as a shining beacon of heroism and importance. The Dodsons accentuate this with the way they draw the city, making it feel overwhelmingly big and important, measuring up to it’s heroes. The creators also use the diversity inherent to cities, and New York City specifically, to build a family that feels like it could only happen there, building a city where the O’Donnel family belongs, and one that deserves their protection. 

According to this series, one may assume that Fraction loves cities, especially massive ones like New York. 

Huh. That seems too simple. Hope it stays that way.

Next time: “When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.”

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