Cartoonist Julia Wertz has a distinctive outlook (irreverent, pithy, snarky) that has gained a loyal following of readers. With her latest work, she brings her unique style to bear on the Big Apple. It is an honest, funny, and insightful approach to learning about how cities evolve, particularly New York City, the quintessential urban mecca. Early in her cartooning career, Wertz said she resisted writing some sort of coming-of-age book set in NYC. Now, more mature, she can dish on the history of the city that never sleeps while also, inevitably, sharing something of her journey of self-discovery. It all makes for an intoxicating blend: “Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City,” published by Black Dog & Leventhal.
Wertz sets up a poignant and vulnerable starting point: the remains of the New York World’s Fair of 1964. It’s not a pretty sight. No, it’s a mishmash of faded totems to the future. Ironic stuff, indeed, irresistible to a wise-cracking cartoonist! Surely, you know that most, if not all, cartoonists have a sardonic sense of humor. And Julia Wertz is just the sort of sardonic tour guide you would want. But it’s not just about the snark–far from it. Sure, Wertz puts the 1964 World’s Fair through the wringer, deeming it a celebration of corporate-sponsored consumerism. Now, the 1939 New York World’s Fair had style but, in its own way, it too was a celebration of corporate-sponsored consumerism. This sort of comparison easily lends itself to delving deeper and therein lies what this book is about, what makes it unique and beautiful.
New York City is all about the tension between the pretty and the not so pretty. Wertz revels in this fact. It seems as if she can’t get enough. Just when you think you have this book figured out, Wertz will delight the reader with shifts in narrative, compelling visuals, and overall heart-felt enthusiasm, the sort of lust and vigor you’d expect from an Indiana Jones in the jungle except this is Julia Wertz on countless urban expeditions. She tracks down everything: bagels, egg creams, The Village Voice, railroad flats, micro-living units. It’s all here and then some.
I love New York almost beyond words. My heart goes out to Julia Wertz and her marvelous long walks spanning hours upon hours and covering multiple boroughs and miles. I highly recommend taking this book on a NYC trek of your own. It’s a hefty hardcover but, if you make it your primary item in your backpack, you’ll be just fine. You can make your own comparisons and connections guided by all the amazing drawings that Wertz has to share of bygone and contemporary New York. This book is really an inspiring combination of prose and artwork and comics. This is simply a dazzling book collecting a treasure trove of insight and information and making it all feel like a carefree conversation.
“Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City” is a 284-page hardcover published by Black Dog & Leventhal.
If you’re in Seattle this weekend, be sure to stop by and see Julia Wertz at the annual comic arts festival, Short Run, or the the Seattle Public Library. At Short Run, on November 4th, Wertz will be giving a slideshow/talk about her urban exploring from 3:30-4:30pm at the Vera Project. And at the downtown Seattle Public Library, on November 5th, Wertz will hold a slideshow and conversation with cartoonist Nicole Georges from 2-4pm.