Head bent, sketching hit men on a title page, I do my best to let the blur of the convention fall away. A line forms: three people deep, clutching copies of my new graphic novel and waiting for my angular signature and brief sketch to scar their pure, untainted book. Using skills honed while penciling to music at drafting tables, I tune out noise to ensure each book’s owner receives a drawing on par with the level of quality poured into the book—a sequential history of the rise and fall of Murder, Incorporated—and with the research still living in my head, nothing will tear focus from the page, ink and line…
…Until a voice breaks through, stopping my pen, promising one hell of a story. A relative’s connection to one of the book’s gangsters, a momentary brush with Lansky, Lepke, Bugsy, or Waxey. Important enough to tell yet definitely not the first time it’s been told, performed with beats and banter so pitch-perfect either or both have been rehearsed several times before. A story, personal and dear, heard in the neighborhood and carried across the nation to bring a place, an act, a crime to those that have yet to cross its dark, dangerous path.
Capping my pen, I stop to listen. Hell; I’ve always got time for a story.
A personal crime story, like a comic book, is best experienced and traded (in my humble opinion). Picked up in a convention bar or at a panel, possibly accumulated while reading an interview, the personal crime story is perfect when related by one familiar with its native streets. “I knew a guy that knew a guy” proves poor comparison to Uncle Maury, black sheep of the family, who not only knew the guy but also delivered corned beef to his Flatbush Avenue apartment every Thursday afternoon. The story carries weight from the place it was born, evolving not only from those involved, but from the streets, avenues, and city around it.
Years ago, living in Detroit, my friends and I prided ourselves on the fact that we hailed from the Murder Capital of the World (spoken with Honor Capitals, as if discussing the President of the United States). Detroit was dangerous, which meant we, in turn, were dangerous despite the fact that the lot of us were, in fact, short, nervous, and Jewish. But despite the truth, when it came to tales of murder, gangland crimes, or urban intrigue, every Shlomo, Dov, and Heshy in North Oak Park, Michigan, claimed to be the god-given successor to the Purple Gang itself.
Dangerous places often breed dangerous stories, and my road to this piece leads through several: from formative the city burned on Devil’s Night (or after sporting events), to recent stomping grounds in both Manhattan and the Bronx, as well as a guarded, memorable trip to Rome. The Eternal City, specifically around the Stazione Colosseo, plays host to gangs of thieving children who distract admiring tourists by holding pieces of cardboard at waist level, hoping their unsuspecting prey stops to read the message charmingly scrawled on its surface in charcoal or crayon. The cardboard, meanwhile, pulls double duty—serving not only as billboard, but also cover for a smaller, quieter child who deftly picks the target’s pocket. Honeymooning with my wife, constantly on my toes, I made sure to keep an eye out for these clever criminals…and while our paths did not cross, I did lead my better half on a panicked, weaving escape through the Roman Metro after picking up two tails that took notice when I stupidly brandished my digital camera in the train station.
Rome, Brooklyn, Chicago, Yonkers, Jerusalem—every place I go, somebody’s got a harrowing story specific to the city I’m in. “This could only happen in Brooklyn.” The city becomes character, invisible narrator, feeding story and labeling it in a way another place, another town, could not. Brownsville and the mean streets of East New York define and inform the story of real-life hood Abe “Kid Twist” Reles much in the way that North New Jersey does fictional hood Anthony Soprano. Any story worth its salt—be it fact or fabrication—lets the local culture, history, and geography of its setting offer structure and atmosphere, allowing characters and narrative to take shape within, naturally evolving from its streets, avenues, and city blocks.
Admittedly, my favorite authors tell their stories with this immediate, personal connection—as if their uncle, brother, father, or pal had been there, walking the narrative. The author plays middleman, relating the story in turn, having spent so much time constructing specificity of place in their books that they’ve achieved literary ownership of a certain locale and, like Renaissance artists to paintings or sculptures, claim permanent ties to these dark places. Lehane’s Boston. Block’s New York. Ellroy’s Los Angeles. Even Frank Miller’s vivid Sin City—though purely fictional, Frank’s town offers a certain kind of story for a certain kind of criminal. Like Gotham City before it, Sin City comes into its own as supporting character, offering depth and tone to plot and protagonist that may seem out of place in another, less “Milleresque” metropolis.
Don’t mistake me—I’m aware that dangerous stories lurk in every corner, hardly eschewing peaceful Rockwellian suburbs for heroin-infested tenements and urban battlegrounds. I lived in Detroit and New York but also called Milwaukee home for three years, and despite the town’s reputation for cheese and beer, the “Great Place on a Great Lake” bears the stain of its most infamous son: serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, whose trial took place miles from my high school, where twenty sixteen-year-old boys scoured the Journal for news, anecdotes, or stories that offered a glimpse into the mind of a monster…a monster so close, any one of us might have fallen prey to his cannibalistic reign of terror. A monster so close that legal-minded members of our senior class attended two days of the trial. And boy, did they have some stories to tell.
Any one of us, due to our relative distance from the narrative, might have become part of Dahmer’s story—in Wisconsin, of all places, where the cholesterol count remains twice as infamous as its death count. A dark place in the heart of America, staining one of the least dangerous cities in the nation, offering personal crime stories carried from the place they were born, evolving not only from those involved but from the streets, avenues, culture, and geography.
Like Uncle Maury, the guy that knows the guy. Or Ellroy’s Pete Bondurant, large and dangerous, filling his story in a way so large and defined that he might reach out of the narrative to rub shoulders with and strangle any story that might cross his path. Pete, completely fictional, becomes seductively factual due to Ellroy’s descriptions of L.A., Chicago, Washington, Cuba, and the way each locale, so rich and detailed, informs the way he walks their streets.
The fictional becomes personal, the personal fictional. Place gives birth to narrative, narrative gives birth to character, and character is reborn in place.
And now we’ve got a story. And, hell; I’ve always got time for a story.
Tuning out the noise, hoping it’s personal and dear, born in a neighborhood and sent across the nation to bring me a place, an act, a crime whose dark, dangerous path I’ve yet to cross, I cap my pen and stop to listen.
Xeric-Award winning cartoonist Neil Kleid authored Ninety Candles, a graphic novella about life, death, legacy and comics; Brownsville, a graphic novel about the Jewish mafia, and The Big Kahn, a drama about a family secret so well-hidden even the family didn’t discover it until it was too late. He’s written for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image Comics, DC Comics/Zuda, Shadowline, NBM Publishing, Slave Labor Graphics, Random House and Archaia Studios. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and boys, working on three graphic novels, several comic books, a big boy novel and no sleep. Pray for him at RantComics.com.