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[Outside the Frame] Strange Attractors by Charles Soule (Archaia)

Archaia Entertainment has a promising new comic on the horizon with Charles Soule’s Strange Attractors. The book is a love letter – partly to New York city, object of affection for so many writers and artists, and partly to math, which Soule credits with the power to keep chaos at bay. From the publisher:

A young graduate student discovers that his aging professor has been saving New York City from collapse by a series of “adjustments,” ala the Butterfly Effect, only to be informed that he must be the one to take over keeping the city alive. A grounded sci-fi thriller in the vein of Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau.

Strange Attractors (no, not this one) is written by Soule with art by Greg Scott, colors by Art Lyon and Matthew Perez, and includes beautifully intricate maps by Rob Saywitz. The story ventures into urban fantasy, in the sense that it needs the city to be its own character, another living, breathing, part of the tale. Without New York City being so intrinsically New York, there’s no story here. There’s otherwise little “fantasy” in the plot, which is very nearly science fiction. It must be, because of course such events couldn’t be occurring at this moment, keeping the greatest city in the nation alive and running… though, it could be true. Very nearly true, anyway.

It’s that doubt which puts the story into the realm of science fiction. Call it a potential future, and leave it at that.

A grad student at Columbia by the name of Heller Wilson is trying to do two things at once: graduate college, and figure out why a city that shouldn’t be able to function actually does. NYC’s infrastructure has modern technology mixed in with systems designed in the 1800s, feeds and houses millions of people in a tiny amount of space, and is built in layers upon itself, moving too quickly to ever go back and strip out what’s come before. It should have collapsed decades ago. Why didn’t it?

Soule’s theory is that someone kept NYC from falling apart. In Strange Attractors, that someone is Dr. Spencer Brownfield, a genius mathematician who might also be completely delusional. He’s had a hard life, but he is brilliant, so either one is possible, and it’s up to Wilson to decide whether or not to have faith before it’s too late.

And before learning to see the world Brownfield’s way makes Wilson crazy too.

I don’t want to give away too much of the very straight-forward plot. The story reads like a Dumas novel in that you already pretty much know what happened. You read Dumas to see how and why it happened, and the same idea applies here. Don’t expect to be surprised by the biggest arc of the plot, and instead look to the details. The ways in which changes are made. The music Heller and his friend listen to. The mistakes and near-misses and the chances to fail.

That’s where Strange Attractors succeeds.

The art is strong, with bold lines, deep colors, and an attention to detail which should allow native New Yorkers to recognize both popular landmarks and less well-known street corners. It’s got that Brian Wood kind of obsessiveness over the bits of NYC you have to be in to understand, like with DMZ and New York Four. While Wood can make you feel that he’s trying to make a point about how cool he (and you, but only if you get all the in-jokes) is, Scott’s penciling in what he needs to bring the city to life. It doesn’t feel artificial, and what you see in a panel doesn’t take away from the overall feel of the story.

I like the strong lettering style as well.

Most of all, I love the complexity maps that Saywitz created for the book:

They’re more than simply decorative. They have a place in the story, and they’re needed where they fit in the layout. They make a difference to what’s happening around them, even if it’s not obvious at first glance.

Just like Wilson and Brownfield’s “adjustments”.

The 128-page hardcover is now available to pre-order. I recommend it.

Want to know more? Listen to Soule talk about the book on the Happy Hour podcast, or read an interview with him at Newsarama.

Next week: A brief history of independent comics in the US.

Want me to review your work? I’m primarily looking for comics with a speculative fiction element, in keeping with the theme of SF Signal, but if your comic is fantasy, science fiction, horror, weird, magic realism, or some other style of “strange”, let me know! You can reach me at, or leave a comment below.

About Carrie Cuinn (25 Articles)
Carrie Cuinn is an author, editor, bibliophile, modernist, and geek. In her spare time she reads, draws, makes things, takes other things apart, and sometimes publishes books. You can find her online at @CarrieCuinn or at
Contact: Website
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