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The Bridge: How the Roeblings Connected Brooklyn to New York (2018)
Book Reviews

The Bridge: How the Roeblings Connected Brooklyn to New York (2018)

The remarkable history of the Brooklyn Bridge – and its creators – gives this illustrated retelling added value.

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The Brooklyn Bridge, connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn across the East River in New York, began construction in 1969 and would open to the public in 1883, years after it was originally supposed to open and millions over budget. But they did it, and even after a century of world changing history the bridge is still standing strong, The story of its creation is one of sacrifice, triumphs and fantastical feats of engineering, much of which is retold in Peter Tomasi’s inspiring graphic novel The Bridge: How the Roeblings Connected Brooklyn to New York.

Tomasi’s biggest inspirations for this illustrated retelling appear to be David McCullough’s The Great Bridge and Ken Burns’ Brooklyn Bridge (the director’s first, actually), both of which were released in the late 70s/80s, likely to coincide with the namesake bridge’s first centennial. The chances of even the brainiest history buffs among younger readers having experienced either is close to zero (a generous zero), so most will likely come to this inspiring story fresh.

The Bridge itself was originally designed by acclaimed civil engineer John Augustus Roebling, a German immigrant famous for his suspension bridges across the country, his quackpot faith in early hydropathy to cure treatable tetanus sustained on his foot while scouting locations where the bridge would eventually be built. The role of Chief Engineer then fell to his son, Washington Roebling, who would also find himself gravely ill after long hours toiling away under sea level working inside caissons (essentially giant tubes allowing men to chip away and remove debris to lay the bridge’s foundation) ruined his health as he developed “caisson disease”, or what we now call decompression sickness or, famously, ‘the bends.’

Rather than cede responsibility for the project his beloved wife Emily Warren Roebling stepped in, managing the Herculean feat of not only tending to her husband’s sickness but serving as go-between the chief engineer and the project’s concerned board of trustees and politicians. But even this wasn’t enough for Mrs. Roebling, a woman who simply would not be ignored. She would eventually learn much of the necessary mathematics and engineering necessary to practically run much of the day-to-day operations on her own.

Emily’s tenacity would earn the respect of those around her, and she would become the first person (of either gender) to cross the bridge by carriage – and did so accompanied by a rooster (for luck!). Truly, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was a family affair.

The story behind the creation and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge is absolutely fascinating, one of the peak engineering feats of the 19th century that has, quite literally, withstood the test of time and countless foot and vehicular traffic. Underneath its conventional plotting is an incredible story of ambition and personal sacrifice by talented and dedicated individuals in the service of something greater than themselves, a fact that helps it withstand the sometimes suffocating good intentions of its creator.

Tomasi, a prolific and respected comic book writer, dulls some of the tale’s historical richness by constraining it within a cliched structure that often feels in service to emotions and aspirations rather than the project’s enormous engineering accomplishments. Because of this we’re guided to root for Mr. and Mrs. Roebling throughout while jeering for the dishonest and impatient trustees and politicians, almost on cue. The Bridge plays out much like a Hollywood melodrama, for better or worse.

Though I’m largely unfamiliar with Sara DuVall’s artwork, I like how clean and compact it is. (as DuVall identifies as queer nonbinary I’m respectfully using the pronoun ‘they’). This is their first graphic novel, with coloring by Gabe Eltaeb and John Kalisz, and it’s generally very good. Their depictions of crowds and architecture are especially impressive, and goodness knows this is a story that depends on showcasing the grandeur of both. While much of the costumes and hair stylings feel period-accurate, however, there’s also an odd heightened sense of awareness that doesn’t completely gel with the underlying story being told.

Given DuVall’s love of positive and diverse storytelling it’s understandable they would use this platform to advance certain aspirational messaging within the artwork, even if it often feels like it comes at the cost of historical accuracy. The inclusion of a wide range of race, gender, and what seems to be sexual orientation into the backdrop of a (mostly) true story that took place near the conclusion of the 19th century, one inescapably linked with the aftermath of the Civil War, seems to have been a conscious decision. I wish they hadn’t, as even these small bits only detract from a story already busy serving up a very real historical corrective.

It’s a rare misstep, however, as it’s DuVall’s artwork that often salvages many of Tomasi’s more cringeworthy manipulative dialogue by simply showcasing the enormous scope and majesty of what went into the bridge’s creation, especially the more dangerous elements that killed dozens and injured countless others.

For all its romanticism, the remarkable history of the Brooklyn Bridge and the incredible role played by its creators, remains intact in The Bridge: How the Roeblings Connected Brooklyn to New York. There’s no disputing this is one hell of a story, and while Tomasi’s script threatens to derail the underlying message of sacrifice and dedication with saccharine sentimentality, DuVall’s solid artwork and genuine love for the subject save the day. Furthermore, it’s a great addition to the growing field of comics doing yeoman’s work highlighting the historically significant roles played by genuine icons like Emily Warren Roebling; now there’s a role model!