Robert Moses was never elected to a major office in New York City, but he completely altered the topography of the metropolis through three decades of construction projects. Skilled at amassing power and harnessing the necessary resources for his parks, pools, bridges, tunnels, and above all expressways, his legacy continues to shape the city we know today in ways both good and bad. A new comic book turns this dramatic narrative into an anti-hero tale.
Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City by French comics writer Pierre Christin and Chilean artist Olivier Balez was released in November by Nobrow. Richly illustrated by Balez with the ruddy colors and loose lines of a mid-century book, Christin’s writing propels the story of an idealistic reformist turned the “master builder” of the five boroughs. Moses gradually concentrated positions in public works like New York City Parks Commissioner, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chair, and leader of the State Parks Council — at one point holding 12 offices simultaneously. Projects such as Jones Beach State Park aimed to add vibrancy to city life through publicly accessible recreation, while more disastrous initiatives like a proposed highway through Washington Square Park had his ruthlessness for construction colliding with activist Jane Jacobs.
This is all thoroughly chronicled in Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a huge work of non-fiction in both its depth of research and its length — around 1,200 pages. The Robert Moses comic book is much slimmer, at just over 100 pages, and should be read as more of an introduction to the spirit of Moses rather than the “graphic biography” billed on the back cover. The highlight of the book is the art by Balez. He lovingly captures all the details of the sprawling swimming pool projects Moses built, from Astoria Pool to McCarren Park, and, in a split panel, compares him to Batman doing good and bad from his Randall’s Island “lair” — the Administration Building he built to serve as his center of operations.
However, the text calls the location of Moses’s headquarters “Randall Island,” and that’s where things start to break down. While Robert Moses is a beautiful book, it could have used more thorough editing to sharpen all its New York details. Poor “Staten Island” is referred to as “State Island” on the map of Moses projects right inside the front cover, and the line that the New York City panorama from the 1964 World’s Fair “gathers dust in a tiny deserted museum” might make the staff of the Queens Museum weep.
Still, it’s exciting to see characters like Robert Moses getting the comic book treatment. When Moses died in 1981, his New York Times obituary called him the man who “played a larger role in shaping the physical environment of New York State than any other figure in the 20th century.” The extent of his influence over the shape and character of the city remains unknown to many, and this book is a visually compelling introduction to that complicated legacy.