Eric Drooker is a painter and graphic novelist, born and raised on Manhattan Island. He's the award-winning author of Flood! A Novel in Pictures, Blood Song: A Silent Ballad, and Howl: A Graphic Novel.
"Flood! is a prophetic book."
"From its initial hurried dart through stairwells to its dreamlike subterranean journey, from its drift through a rain-filled skyline to its apocalyptic finale, Eric Drooker's novel in pictures is a stirring work of sequential art worthy of its praise and accolades.”
I have a precarious relationship with place. When I moved to Boston in 2004, people asked me, “Are you from New York?”
New York was the first real city I’d ever seen. We’d visited at least twice a year since I was eleven or so, but I couldn’t say I was from there. “No, I’m from Pennsylvania.”
“Oh, you’re from Philly?” they’d ask.
I’d grown up an hour north of Philadelphia, but had only ever visited once. Even then, we didn’t see much of the city and, although other people I knew would have answered, “Yes,” Philadelphia felt too far away and too large to know in any qualitative capacity.
“No, I’m not from Philly.”
“Oh.” Here, they’d pause, confused. “You’re from the south, then?”
Whitehall — the runt town where I spent my first nineteen formative years, an exurb known for having malls long before malls where thought of as malevolent, malls so regionally popular that the gentleman who interviewed me at the only college my father had allowed me to apply to (back when I still thought I might go to college at eighteen) said, “Oh, the Whitehall Mall!” in tones of such reverence and beloved recognition that I internally cringed while outwardly beaming because I wanted to make a good impression — is north of the Mason-Dixon line.
“No. I’m not from the south.”
Where then was I from? My hometown felt defined more by the corporations who rented its land than the physical plot itself. That bothered me for years because I wanted its geography to be a static certainty. I wanted it to be clear, if not to me, than to everyone else, that I was from a place that felt definitive. But I couldn’t even articulate that until I started thinking about it in reference to other places. New York was my only other point of reference. Though it was two hours away, it felt close and familiar enough to use as a gauge for my disdain over everything that Pennsylvania wasn’t. I didn’t want to live in New York (and wouldn’t, for years), but it served as my model for what a place should make you feel: alive and worthwhile, despite the wretched things that often happen in a city.
In the year before I left Pennsylvania, when I was steadfastly, seriously preparing for what I unironically thought of as “the rest of my life,” I first read Flood! A Novel in Pictures. A book entirely dependent on place, Eric Drooker’s biography of New York begs the reader to inhabit it. A white ladder leads from the edge of the first frame to the roof of a shadowy building, either an entry for the reader or an exit for the protagonists, or both, a link between them and us. Thereafter, we’re among Drooker’s denizens. In his New York, the setting feels indicative of all human life while remaining distinctly itself. It only makes sense that we follow a single figure who could be us or anyone or everyone. A single panel filling an entire page — seventy-five percent of which is brick wall, the remaining quarter the interior of an apartment — shows the figure asleep in front of a television. He sleeps and wakes in front of a monitor before eventually leaving for work. Surely we recognize the activity if not the figure.
When he arrives to work and finds the place has been shut down, our protagonist becomes a tourist in his own city. He walks aimlessly for pages and Drooker’s backdrop becomes the focus as the figure falls away. The place is what matters and the place includes all the parts of Manhattan that people love and fear — the seedy districts, the glitz, the drugs, the promiscuity, the anonymity, the beggars, the duality, the dark. What joins it all together is the rain. New York has distinct scents in the rain. In the summer, it smells of garbage and kosher salt; in the winter, it smells of wet wool. Even the street grates smell in the rain. The rain, natural as it is, clean as it theoretically should be, always leads to people smells. It always smells like industry or commerce, transit or waste. Traces of people. Therein lies the connection. People fill the streets of New York and, therefore, the pages of Flood!. They’re plotted within the grid of each series of panels until they look, on one page, as if they’re each stuck inside a building, one person per each individual window of a looming, blackened skyscraper, each of them divided and reduced, made smaller and weaker until they all blend together as part of the city itself.
That’s what I wanted from a place. To be so deep in it that it practically swallows me, which is where the main figure ends up. At the end of the first half, he gets caught up in his own subconscious desire to have a city that accepts and welcomes him, then wakes up to find the city he’s in is not the city he has in mind. It’s more dangerous, more unfortunately threatening and lonely. But in the second half, the figure becomes the artist at his desk, drawing what we assume is the book we hold, enfolding us once again into the book and, by proxy, into the city.
In Luc Sante’s introduction to Flood!, he mentions that “the book comes directly out of a historical moment — the upheavals of the city of New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s — that marked [Drooker], and me, and a few million others forever, but Flood! has wings that send it soaring above and beyond that moment.” Flood! A Novel in Pictures’s strengths remove the book not just from time, but from place. Somewhere in the middle, the story becomes less about New York and more about America, and one city’s consumption of its citizens is simply one part of several identical parts where we all become consumed by one place or another.