Graphic adaptation of Paul Auster’s "City of Glass" – Visual language and symbolism

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. City of Glass: The novel
2.1 The Genre of the Anti-Detective Story

3. City of Glass: The graphic novel
3.1. Structure and composition
3.2. Visual language and symbolism

4. Exploring visual language in teaching and learning situations

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

(Auster, 1985; 3)

Paul Auster’s anti-detective novel City of Glass is the story of a man, whose life accidentally angles off. More and more, he blunders into the complexity of a criminal case in search of the significant principle. Obsessively, he adapts his action to the stranger until he finally loses hisself.

Although Auster’s novel, which is based on the nature and the function of language, is rather non-visual, Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli succeeded in adopting it into a graphic novel that is more than just a translation from one genre into another. They managed to create a visual language full of metaphors, symbols and icons that add a new layer of meaning to the story.

This is the reason why I decided to pick City of Glass: The graphic novel as the basis of my term paper. This thesis will argue that a graphic adaptation of a literary work can be more than just an illustrated copy of a superior novel and worth an analysis on its own. Furthermore, I will take a deeper look at the visual language, specifically, the visual metaphors and symbols, which build up the graphic novel and how these finding can be adapted into learning situations.

First of all, I will give a summary of City of Glass: the novel followed by a definition of the anti-detective genre with the intention to point out, that the visual language of City of Glass: the graphic novel reflects this genre. Afterwards, a survey of the graphic novel as well as an analysis of its structure and composition and its visual language and symbolism is given. A brief outline of how these findings can be useful in teaching and learning situations will precede the conclusion.

2. City of Glass: The novel

City of Glass, which was originally published 1985 as the first novel of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, could be regarded as the break-through work of the american author. Frequently, the novel is categorized as a so called `anti-detective story´, `meta-detective fiction´ or `metamystery´. Starting off as a typical crime story it is comparable to the hard-boiled detective novels as Raymond Chandler’s Philipp Marlow or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade.

The novel’s protagonist Daniel Quinn, who once had been a promising poet, now writes detective stories under the pseudonym of `William Wilson´. After recieving a mysterious phone call from someone seeking a private eye named `Paul Auster´, he finds himself in the house of mentally deranged Peter Stillman. The young man had been locked up in a darkened closet for nine years by his abusive father Peter Stillman Sr., who had the intention to see whether his isolated son would learn to speak the language of Eden before the fall of mankind. After his failed experiment, he had been arrested and sent to a mental institution. Having served his sentence, Stillman Sr. is about to be released, while his son is afraid of being killed by him. Quinn accepts the assignment to shadow the father. However, the old Stillman has something other in mind than to kill his son. In a conversation Quinn finds out that he is working on recreating the language of god, yet soon after he looses Stillman’s trace. Seeking for help Quinn turns to the original Paul Auster, an author who is investigating the authorship of `Don Quichote´. More and more, the self-appointed private eye loses his grip on reality and deciedes to observe the house of the young Peter Stillman, which brings him to completely disappear into madness.

Together with Ghosts and The locked room, City of Glass forms Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, a book which volumes are linked by the anti-detective genre as well as the topics of identity, language and the loss of one’s own. Particularly, City of Glass analyses the nature of the ur-language, the formation of the gap between signifier and signified and the impossibility of bridging that gap.

2.1 The Genre of the Anti-Detective Story

As already mentioned above, City of Glass is often assigned as an anti-detective novel. The most striking characteristic of the anti-detectiv genre is, that it employs and finally deconstructs the conventional elements of the detective story. `One characteristic of this postmodern form of the genre is [...] the stimulation of the readers’ anticipation towards the belief that they have a conventional detective novel in front of them.´ (Holzapfel, 1996; 27)

Some of these conventional elements are the setting of the story, commonly in a dark, impersonal metropolis, the different representations of the characters, especially the hard-boiled detective, and most importantly, a criminal case that needs to be solved.

Therefore, City of Glass is set in New York, a city that may be regarded as the prototype of an american metropolis with a cool and rejecting charism and its protagonist Daniel Quinn, who, allthough he is not a real private eye, adopts his role of the hard-boiled detective to the greatest possible extend until he completely loses his former identity. `The decentralization, fragmentalization and fictionalization of the protagonist in City of Glass cause the detective, who in the conventional detective novel occupies centre stage, to dissappear.´ (Holzapfel, 1996; 37)

Beyond, the portrayal of the characters shows resemblance to other popular graphic crime stories. `The woman was thirty, perhaps thirty-five; average height at best; hips a touch wide, or else voluptuous, depending on your point of view; dark hair, dark eyes, and a look in those eyes that was at once self-contained and vaguely seductive. She wore a black dress and very red lipstick.´ (Auster, 1985; 21). This presentation of Virginia Stillman shows strong similarities to the characters’ illustrations of Frank Miller’s Sin City, a graphic novel series that stands out due to its film noir-style by black and white drawings with a few red accentuations.

At last, Auster toys with the readers expectations of a classical detective story, that gets more and more deconstructed in the course of the novel. In the end, there is neither a crime nor a motive. `The readers are neither presented a satifying solution of the Stillman case, nor do they get a complete answer to the question about Quinn’s identity which constantly evades a tangible shape throughout the novel.´ (Holzapfel, 1996; 37)

3. City of Glass: The graphic novel

The graphic adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli was published 1994 as part of the Neon Lit series by Avon books, a series that has been launched by famous comic artist Art Spiegelmann. After the great success of the first edition, which has been chosen as one of the `100 Most Important Comics of the Century´, a second edition was published in 2004.

Probably, the first thing that comes into one’s mind when hearing of the graphic adaptation of a novel is why one should turn a book into another book. Yet, `[...] the goal here was not to create some dumbed-down “Classical Illustrated” versions, but visual “translations” actually worthy of adult content.´ (Spiegelman, 2004) So, the ambition was to create something new and not an illustrated copy of a superior original that a lazy reader would prefer instead of reading the novel. In the following, I will argue that Karasik and Mazzucchelli archieved their aim and accomplished to create a graphic novel that can be understood and interpreted without prior knowlege of the original text. The graphic novel thrives on its unique visual language and its well-thought-out conception that I will dwell on below.

3.1. Structure and composition

One of the most noticable features is the nine-panel-grid, which is not only an element of structure but also a symbolic element that appears throughout the novel. The first pages of the graphic novel start off with a strict nine-panel-grid structure, giving a short survey of the protagonist Daniel Quinn. In a way, the strict structure reflects the structured isolation of Quinn’s life. His wife and son are dead and since he isolates hisself entirely from contact with other humans. The combination of two or more single panels presents the reader something like a dramatic pause, like the first glimpse the reader catches of Quinn (Auster et al., 2004; 5).

In the course of City of Glass,] the established structure carries several symbolic meanings. The gutter forms a window-like structure symbolizing young Peter Stillman being imprisoned in his father’s obscured room [figure 1].


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Graphic adaptation of Paul Auster’s "City of Glass" – Visual language and symbolism
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
Graphic Novels
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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1002 KB
graphic, paul, auster’s, city, glass, visual
Quote paper
M. A. Alisa Westermann (Author), 2009, Graphic adaptation of Paul Auster’s "City of Glass" – Visual language and symbolism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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