The Bridge: a love letter to history, architecture, and family
Every big city has one. No matter where you live, there's no doubt that you can drive even a short distance before coming across some man-made structure that holds you in awe. Here in Texas, we have the Reunion Tower, with its spherical perch and lit up exterior lighting the way each night. Then there's the Sears Tower in Chicago, once the tallest building in the world, the Space Needle in Seattle, and the absolutely astonishing Burj Khalifa in Dubai, all examples of man's ingenuity in creating and engineering marvels.
There are buildings and sites the world over that invite residents and visitors alike to gaze upon their construction. Few cities have as many architectural marvels as New York City, with no less than a half dozen destinations that are household names whether you've visited the city or not. The Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and One World Trade Center are practically synonymous with the city itself, gracing screens in films and television and giving an immediately identifiable sense of time and place. Even the city's bridges are known by name, from the George Washington Bridge to the University Heights Bridge.
The first and greatest of these bridges, without question, is the Brooklyn Bridge. Constructed between 1869 and 1883, the bridge connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn over the city's East River. It's a marvel of concrete and steel, built at a time when even the thought of such a project was considered an impossibility. Yet there it stands to this day, as much a part of the city as the streets and walkways it connects.
But who was behind the bridge? What architectural genius (or madman) came up with the idea to connect New York by way of a suspension bridge? To answer that, we have The Bridge: How the Roeblings Connected Brooklyn to New York from comics great Peter J. Tomasi, he of almost every other great DC Comics book that you've loved over the past two decades. Joined by illustrator Sara Duvall, colorists Gabriel Eltaeb and John Kalisz, and letterer Rob Leigh, Tomasi does what he does best even in the biggest of stories: he finds the heart and humanity at the center.
For even though the book is titled The Bridge, it's actually about Washington Roebling, son of the bridge's original designer John Augustus Roebling, and his successes and failures before, during, and even after construction.
The book begins and ends with the crossing of a river, though each by different means: the former via ferry, the latter by walkway. As the story opens in 1852, we meet a young Washington, who even at a young age demonstrates a knack for architectural ingenuity. His family is arriving in New York during the icy winter, so the river is frozen over. After being stuck in the same spot for hours on end, and with a captain who doesn't seem to have any better ideas, Washington and his father take scrap metal and forge a sort of plow to help break the ice. It's here that the seeds of the bridge are planted in Washington's mind, as his father states he may need his help in constructing "an even bigger icebreaker one day."
The book is quick to let the reader know that it will take several jumps forward in time, as the next two page take place in entirely different years. In lesser hands this could have been frustrating or even felt like a cheat, but Tomasi's steady hand and narrative skills keep everything clear. While we may not stay in one spot for long before jumping forward months or even years, every scene has significance. We learn, for instance, that after settling in New Jersey, the Roebling's have opened a successful wire mill factory by 1853, just one year after the opening scene. This information is integral to where the story is headed, as are the conversations Washington and his father have with one another. There's a sense of love there, but it's not overly stated. John Roebling seems to be a man whose focus is more on business and studiousness than it is on affection and feelings. "Continue to write your mother, brothers, and sisters often" John tells Washington at one point. It's a nice enough sentiment out of context, but this was after John traveled hours to help Washington with some stomach pains he had been having. Strange that a man who clearly cares would not actually say so.
While their relationship is fairly contentious, the story never tips over into melodrama, even after John dies in the early days of planning the bridge. There are dramatic elements, to be sure, and it's not clear how much was streamlined or dramatized for the sake of storytelling, but nothing ever feels manipulative. Washington does have one angry outburst at his long dead father at one point, and a few bureaucrats and politicians enter the story to become easy villains, but the story never becomes about any of those things. They're events that happen as part of the bigger picture, just like any number of things can happen in our own day to day lives. We may face a struggle or butt heads with antagonistic opposition, yet that's not what our lives are about.
It's no surprise that Tomasi can make his subject matter engaging, but it's still worth mentioning just how engrossing this story is. It's just over 200 pages long, so not massive by any means, yet I read through the entire thing in about two and a half hours. It's quick to grab your attention, and it never lets go. That's especially telling when the construction of the bridge itself doesn't even begin until almost a third of the book has passed. That's how much we begin to care about Washington, though, as we see him fall out with his father, go to war, meet his future wife Emily, and all the while make plans for the bridge that would become his life's greatest work.
Once construction begins, though, the story takes on a whole new life. Frankly, I was shocked at how fascinating I found everything, especially given my general lack of architectural knowledge. Despite that, I found the process incredibly engrossing, from the descriptions of the caissons to the blasting of bedrock to the building of the towers and the connecting of the support wires. It's told in a believable, understandable way that feels neither esoteric nor like Tomasi is talking down to us. In fact, we learn a lot about the construction of the bridge along with some of the secondary characters, who are skilled as laborers but new to bridge construction. After all, an undertaking like this had never been attempted, so there's not any sort of precedent or previous work experience to be had.
The biggest conflict comes when Washington is struck with "caisson's disease" after working on the riverbed under the pressure of the caissons and towers above. Colloquially known as "the bends," this decompression sickness affected himself and several other men working on the project. Side effects ranged from dizziness to nausea and vomiting, and at least one man in the story dies suddenly as he's walking in the street. While Washington would live long enough to see construction completed (and even several decades beyond, as he died in 1926), his illness becomes so bad that he's eventually unable to visit the construction sites. At one point, he's even temporarily struck blind. To lessen his burden, Washington's wife Emily eventually takes on the full duties of management, taking dictated instructions from Washington and implementing them as he observes from their home.
As I said earlier, while there are dramatic elements and tragic events in the story, nothing feels like manipulative melodrama. There's never a falling out between Washington and Emily, and even when she's most upset about the situation it's because she cares about his health and wants him to be well. Tomasi has proven to be great at writing families, as evidenced by his work on Batman and Robin and Superman in particular, and he touches on similar themes here.
While the story is great and Tomasi's writing is fantastic, that's only part of the storytelling experience. Sara Duvall proves more than capable of bringing this story to life with her pencils, which is all the more impressive that this is her debut graphic novel. She's made a name for herself in the webcomic world, even fetching an Eisner nomination, so she's not exactly new to the industry, but having your name next to a great like Peter Tomasi's must be a pretty great feeling. Duvall's style is simple, using clean lines and a limited-yet-striking color palette from Eltaeb and Kalisz to tell her story. This is by no means bad, either, as the visual aesthetic absolutely works with this story.
I couldn't imagine it looking any other way, in fact, and I'm having a hard time seeing this story being as effective with a more detailed style. Each of the characters has personality, and Duvall is great at conveying emotion and meaning through even the smallest changes in facial expressions. And yet she's not afraid to go big, either, and her architecture work is just stunning. There's a page that shows one of the bridge's workers flying through the air between the two towers, supported by nothing but rope and a small seat. The joy on his face and sense of movement are perfect, and it's just one of many scenes like this that celebrate the awesome nature of the bridge.
As the story began with the crossing of the river by ferry, it ends with Washington and Emily walking across their bridge to cross that same river. It's a wonderful parallel and bookend, showing that Washington's passion for building the bridge got him started on his journey, but it was only with the love of his family that he was able to finish. It's touching without being schmaltzy, and the perfect way to conclude Washington's story.
In his introduction Tomasi states that this book was a passion project, and it shows. He handles the material with care, respect, and grace, yet unlike many passion projects there isn't the slightest hint of pretension or self-indulgence. This is simply a story that Tomasi loves knowing, and he wants us to know it too.