The New Deal
By Jonathan Case
Amidst the social strata of 1930s New York, a black maid and a poor white bellhop challenge contemporary norms and their own better judgment as they consider a heist that may very well change both their lives forever.
Frank O’Malley – Being in debt ain’t so bad when you have opportunities to make it back. Whether it’s selling apples with his uncle on a street corner, or snatching the occasional unguarded cigarette case, Frank knows a thing or two about making a buck. Theresa tries to keep him honest, but he tries just as hard to bring her around to his side.
“A lot of rich people are born takers, but every now and then you meet one who knows how to share it around. That’s how I’d wanna be.”
Theresa Harris – Starring in Orson Welles' Harlem production of Macbeth, the subtext of Theresa’s ability not only to act, but to lie, is one of the most compelling elements of The New Deal. She immediately gains the trust of the reader, and then begins to subvert that trust throughout the book.
“My mama said I was a natural-born liar.”
Nina Booth – A Gatsby femme if there ever was one, is there more to Nina than her than her dreadful parties, or is she just a woman living out the last of her wealth?
“If you gossip, make sure it’s in front of a rich man.”
Jack Helmer – Though there are a lot of disaffected wealthy characters in this story, few of them so succinctly epitomize their collective detachment better than Jack. Blind to his boorishness, deaf to his overbearing words, he’s not sure what the next thing is, but he’s quite sure he’s already late for it.
“It looks just like it did. After twenty or thirty thousand miles and the sweat and the filth and the grubbing around – It’s just the same.”
“Theresa, save me, tell me something interesting.”
“Nina, don’t torment the poor girl anymore.”
“I’m sorry, are you a poor girl?”
“They’re all poor. New York Negros pay twice the rent of whites. Roosevelt’s only making it worse on them.”
“I adore FDR, do you know he has an elevator just for his car?”
The Waldorf-Astoria, Park Avenue’s most prestigious, and at times at times in its history infamous, grand hotel is the sprawling backdrop for Jonathan Case’s multi-layered period graphic novel The New Deal. Case’s work has recently appeared in more mainstream avenues such as Batman ‘66 and Before Tomorrowland. He goes the creator exclusive route here with Dark Horse and does not disappoint. Already known for his nods to old film and Hollywood and an art style that somehow blends simplicity with sophistication, The New Deal deftly touches on social issues, light-hearted comedy, and a dash of pulp, all within a very manageable 100 pages.
The Harlem Renaissance entered its prime during the mid-thirties, and African American people, like Case’s main character Theresa Harris, for the first time found themselves empowered within their own communities to be creative and inspirational. Frank O’Malley, the bellhop whom Theresa shares the stage with for most of this book, also empowers himself, though by decidedly more dubious means. Indebted to a low level crime boss, Frank gleefully, and at times amusingly, negotiates his way about the rich and famous people he’s servicing all the while looking for his next score.
That opportunity manifests in Nina Booth, a Fitzgeraldian socialite staying at the Waldorf and suffering the incorrigible plight of the wealthy, bad company.
Theresa and Nina form a friendship wherein the older and more socially capable Nina mentors Theresa, and through her support, Case slyly scratches away the Waldorf’s pretty veneer and gives his readers a look at the racist underpinnings of depression era New York.
But it is in Frank and Theresa’s relationship this book find something different and ultimately makes even the somewhat twist of an ending just an amusing sideshow to a wonderfully wrought picture of real world New York. Frank is gleefully unaware of just how taboo his friendship with a black woman is, and it is in that innocence Case finds the humor, the love, in this book. What Case does so well is to not impose modern standards of political correctness or highlight social justices, but he also doesn’t dwell on the issues of racism or class division. Like the hotel itself, they just simply exist in The New Deal, as they did for his characters in this time period, a stark backdrop behind a lighthearted romp of a story, and somehow Case is able to pull it all together.
None of this works without the art, and Case’s ability to blend period realism and unmatched character expressions are perhaps the main joy of talents. Depression period stories, in comics and film, rarely spend time with non-depression subject matter. The New Deal revels in it and this unique perspective is just one of a dozen reasons this book delights.
J. J. Sinisi
CLICK HERE FOR COMIC
It’s been a very long time in coming, but I’m very happy to FINALLY release the third installment of my webcomic crime shorts Streelight Stories.
For this installment I have called on the artistic talents of newcomer Xavier Bermeo (find him on twitter @Xavierbermeo) and man did he not disappoint. One of the trickier aspects of creating the art for this genre is the strict 9x9 grid This Desperate City crime comics are written in. Reminiscent of silver age comic books, part of the reason these stories adhere to this format are to help produce a more noir, older feel to the tales. Selfishly, it also presents a larger canvas for storytelling on fewer pages.
Xavier did a wonderful job of sticking to these restrictions and still creating a unique and ultimately gritty interpretation of the writing.
As for the story, the Force of Mortality is a concept I ran into some time ago and wrote a short story about. The concept is striking, this idea that once you reach seven years old, the chances of you dying increase by 9% every year. Frightening, but ultimately astonishing that we all live as long as we do despite this revelation. I could never get that short story to work the way I wanted it to, and that was because it was waiting to be turned into a comic strip all along.
One quick note on formatting, Weebly, the website I use, automatically shrinks the images when I upload them. I am in the processes of working with them to adjust this, but the comic may be slightly difficult to read here. The story is also posted on the Desperate City Facebook page so feel free to read it there as well: www.facebook.com/thisdesperatecity/
Below I have also posted the final script to the comic, you’ll notice nuanced differences between this and the final pages, a product of dialogue spacing and also tweaks after seeing the final product.
I’m proud of this one guys, so please enjoy and a huge thanks to Xavier for his contributions as well!
Get it in gear,
TDC Street Light Stories #3:
Story By J. J. Sinisi & Art By: Xavier Bermeo
Panel 1: Close up of tense knuckles gripping steering wheel.
NARRATION: Sal Dobkin’s mind tallied calculations. A forty-three year old man was about 324 times more likely to die than the average seven year old.
Panel 2: Pull back a little. Looking over his shoulder, out at the windshield and the wipers swiping the rain. But the rain doesn’t exactly look like rain. Instead, they are numbers, raining in buckets.
NARRATION: The Force of Mortality.
Panel 3: Pull all the way out of the car. It eases down a suburban street, raining numbers.
NARRATION: His daughter Clara, a career woman in the field of risk management, had enumerated its precepts to him months ago.
NARRATION: Since the accident he couldn’t stop ruminating on it. It consumed him.
Panel 4: The car stops in front of a big attractive suburban house. The rain slims to little ones and zeroes, falling from the sky and fading before the ground.
NARRATION: He’d dream in the cold morning about his wife Sandra, sheathed in numbers. She was thirty seven when she passed. That wasn’t fair. His father appeared too, glasses a tilted figure eight atop his nose, a ninety year old man at his death, defying the odds.
Panel 5: Low shot from behind, out of his back pocket we see a hammer hanging to the side. Beyond that is the mail box in the background, a faded 44 on the post.
NARRATION: His dad’s number was probably even higher, given his time in the service.
Panel 6: Dark shot of Sal walking up the walkway of the house. The house is large in front of him, he is nearly a silhouette. All around him, the numbers fall like rain.
Panel 7: Sal’s feet, he walks up a little step in front of the door.
Panel 8 (and 9 combined): Glen Anderson opens the door. He’s a perfectly average middle age white guy. Receding hairline, thin but not fit, wrinkled but not old. The back of Sal’s head is visible, curly gray hair. He’s wearing a collared shirt, as is Glen. They are two normal men on a normal night.
SAL: You’re forty three right?
GLEN: What are you doing here, Sal?
SAL: Just answer the question.
GLEN: I don’t have to talk to you. You’re not even allowed to be here. That’s what the court said
Panel 1: Glen’s older wife Linda, her hair teased to an anachronistic up-do, peers over his darkened shoulder from inside the house.
LINDA: Is that him? Who is it Glen?
GLEN: It’s no one honey.
Panel 2: Close up of Glen’s feet, now facing Sal’s feet, similar perspective from before.
GLEN: What are you doing here, Sal?
SAL: We need to talk.
GLEN: No we don’t, that’s what the court is for. You’re not allowed to be here.
Panel 3: Pull back again. Looking from over the hood of Sal’s car. They are small. The rain slows.
GLEN: Sal, go home. I don’t want to call the police.
SAL: The police? Who’s the criminal here?
Panel 4: Close up of Glen, just a touch of Sal’s shoulder in the foreground. Glen looks incredulous and slightly annoyed.
GLEN: It’s called a restraining order for a reason. It’s better for everyone if we don’t have a repeat of last time.
Panel 5 & 6: Double wide panel. Flashback. A cop is holding an enraged Sal back. He’s lunging and punching Glen in the face. Glen is recoiling, blood flying from a cracked lip.
NARRATION: Last time, at the courthouse, Sal lost his composure.
NARRATION: Last time, he hadn’t thought through all of the possible outcomes. A good accountant always looks at all the numbers before making a decision.
Panel 7: Sal points a finger into Glen’s chest, a fire brewing behind stormy eyes.
SAL: One in ten thousand. You took away 9,999 other possible outcomes from her when you ran that red light.
Panel 8: Glen smacks away Sal’s hand. He’s heating up as well. The rain is just a patter, incidental numbers bending around their argument.
GLEN: You don’t think I live with that every day, you angry old fuck? You don’t think every night I go to bed I can’t feel the force of the car hitting her?
Panel 9: Very dark panel, we see nearly nothing of Sal’s face. Just enough to understand the storm has hit, this is his last bit of quiet before the explosion.
SAL: She was seven, Glen.
Panel 1 & 2: A pretty little girl riding her bike, her hair in a neat ponytail, streamers from the sides of her handle bars. Blurry but looming behind her is Glen’s SUV, the GMC logo is close enough to make us wince.
NARRATION: At seven years old, she should’ve been further from death than at any other point in her entire life.
NARRATION: Every year after birth, a person’s chance of survival increased before peaking at seven and then sliding by 9% each year after.
Panel 3: Black panel.
SAL (off panel): Jesus Christ!
NARRATION: But at seven, she should’ve been the safest she’d ever be. That’s what the damnable numbers promised.
Panel 4: Sal, looking down, eyes dark, the hammer raising in his hand.
SAL: I was a CPA for forty years, Anderson, you know that? Forty years. Numbers define me.
Panel 5: Close up of Glen’s petrified eyes.
GLEN: Honey! Call 911!
Panel 6: Silhouette of Sal brining the hammer down over his Glen’s head. Glen’s arms come up to block it, but it still connects. The rainy numbers have returned, silhouetted as well, little ones and zeroes accenting the panels.
SAL: How about 324? How about 10,000?
Panel 7: Over Sal’s arm, raised with the hammer about to bring it down over Glen’s head, Linda, Glen’s wife, stands pointing her shotgun at Sal, and therefore at us. We’re all staring down the barrel.
NARRATION: But Sal had overlooked the one thing a CPA never forgot, complete all of the calculations.
Panel 8: The blast hitting Sal in the chest, his blood and the explosion of force is all numbers, shooting in every direction.
NARRATION: If Anderson’s number was 324, then Sal’s sixty-seven years put his at 540.
NARRATION: He should have known better.
Panel 9: Sal’s body, his chest caved in with sliding numbers, slumped over Glen’s body, bleeding from the head.
NARRATION: He should’ve known the numbers would never let him get away alive.
The Fade Out
By Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
An actress strangled. A writer suffering from PTSD. A bungalow owned by a production company in its last gasp before the end of the studio system. The executives don’t care what happened, but maybe the writer does, and maybe he’s determined to find out, even if it means exposing his darkest secrets to a late 1940s Hollywoodland gripped by the Red Scare.
Charlie Parish – What war does to a man. A once promising screenwriter whose creative voice was silenced by the horrors of WW2. Already wracked by soldier’s guilt, he must find a way to cope with his complicity in letting the studio cover up Valeria’s death, knowing he was passed out drunk in the next room when it occurred.
“Well, I like you just fine. It’s just, I liked her too.”
“No … Not even close.”
Gil Mason – Another writer and early victim of Hollywood’s Red Scare, Gil was tagged as a commie and run out of town. He finds a way back in through his friend Charlie’s writer’s block. He needs to stay invisible. But spiraling alcoholism prevents his righteousness and talent from finding a better life.
“They take everything from me – Now they rape and kill this girl and --”
“They didn’t take everything from you, Gil.”
Victor Thursby – Studio head and possible sexual deviant with an eye for talent and a desire to keep his pictures on track and free of tabloid attention. His motives and morals remain hidden, perhaps even to himself.
“Why would you do that to yourself? You look like a child … Christ.”
Phil Brodsky – Head of the studio’s security, Brodsky understands a thing or two about discretion. In covering up Valeria’s death as a suicide, he is also charged with keeping everyone quiet, and he’ll do anything to keep the crickets chirping.
“Well think about that a bit harder next time, Asshole. You know how the old man feels about sympathizers.”
Valeria Sommers & Maya Silver – Two sides of the same coin. Valeria was murdered and Maya will replace her on set. Maya struggles to be something more than a sex toy for powerful men to get ahead, and within her trials, Valeria’s own tortured past is revealed.
“I don’t want to be famous, Charlie.”
“Then why’d you run off and join this circus?”
“Christ … I can’t even remember anymore.”
“Worse than the sick realization that someone was strangling this girl while he was passed out just twenty feet away, [is this]: He can’t call the police.”
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips create another interesting, well wrought noir comic with absorbing characters and an original plot. The headline itself seems trite now. How do these two continuously challenge not only a comic genre that borders on hackneyed, but also push themselves to further heights?
Their latest work, The Fade Out, does just that. 1948 Los Angeles is perhaps the most overused setting in all of noir, but it’s also one of the most inspiring, and Brubaker skillfully renders it as the major set piece for the extensive research he has compiled on the era. No grizzled Marlowe-esque P.I.’s sleeping with dames, no drunken but good-hearted Bud White types on the beat, steaming for a fight or an arrest. Not here. The Fade Out steps away from the comfortable trappings of the police/P.I. procedural and embraces the murder mystery, delicately excluding the need for cops by putting his would-be hero in a compromising position from the onset, preventing him from relying on anyone other than himself to solve the inexplicable death of an up-and-coming starlet.
Appropriately, and unsurprisingly, Sean Phillips has cast the authenticity of 1940s LA as a major character. Nestled between the subtle dialogue panels and crying women, he delights viewers with cable cars, signage, and the pleasant accouterments of everyone’s favorite time in Hollywoodland. The suits, the dresses, the night clubs and drunken brawls, they are all here, and given loving treatment by one of the few masters of minimalism in comics today.
In some of their previous partnerships, we’ve seen Brubaker and Phillips tackle the modern crime tale in Criminal and combining the dark supernatural with noir in Fatale. Throughout both, we see strong characters and acute realism, but also, growing complexity. Brubaker’s yarns have always been interesting and multifaceted (See: Captain America), but it is a wholly different thing to touch on a multitude of characters, each with very limited panel time, and have the reader understand their value to the plot and at the same time, have them interesting enough to keep exploring. No doubt, Phillips’ closely rendered portraits help aid their urgency within the plot. At once repulsed and intrigued by Victor Thursby’s secret passage into his stars’ changing rooms, captivated by a two page flashback where Valerie and Maya commiserate on the audition process even though the reader knows one will die and the other will benefit, it is in these moments, the subtle characterization interspersed between the blood and fists that Brubaker’s universe comes alive.
The book’s only limitation is the same as Fatale’s. The episodic nature of single issues lessens the impact of key scenes and reveals without extensive re-reading. If only the entirety of the book could be eaten in one gulp, the way a proper pulp was always meant to be consumed. Understanding the economics of it all, it’d still be nice if twenty four issues of Fatale or the extent of The Fade Out were available in one sitting.
As it stands, we’re left waiting, wanting, trying to make sense of just who is that man standing with Ronnie Reagan, what does Clark Gable have to do with all of this, and of course, how and when will Gil and Charlie’s secrets unravel their friendship and ultimately their lives? Oh, and the murder too of course.
As with some of TDC’s previous reviews, those who are fans of the genre but not of comics would do well to see what the pillars of the community are doing. Creativity in the noir genre doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Not if Brubaker and Phillips have anything to say about it.
J. J. Sinisi
A hired professional killer teeters on the edge of moral corruption and must try to stem the loss of his humanity against a backdrop of deceit and corruption.
“If you ask me, every man, at every moment of his life, whatever he does, should be ready to face death.”
“I like her. She’s good for me. Asks no questions, has no expectations. No idea what goes on in her head. Suits me just fine.”
“Are you telling me you whacked this guy before you read his damn notes? Before you even knew he was a cop?!”
“You were right. It wasn’t easy.”
“If you really think about it, we’re all murderers one way or another. Any life, whatever it is, requires a kind of permanent violence to take its place in the world; it can only blossom at the expense of other living things.”
Any story of a professional hitman is a sexy one. Indeed, on a boring plane ride out of South America and back to civilization, The Killer and one of his few associates, Mariano, discuss the assassin’s place in pop culture. Mariano, Godson to a cartel kingpin, laments the treatment of drug dealers in movie culture. They are the dirtbags, he says, and it’s the hitmen the masses go wide eyed for. The Killer’s response? The difference between real life and movies is that in real life, the hitmen don’t always die in the end.
It’s an interesting revelation and one which defines a book that attempts at all times to circumvent the preconceived notions of a genre replete with every size and shape of hired professional murderers. This is not a hitman who plays by a set of rules he never deviates from. Nor is he someone who won’t target innocents, or who cares about the well being of non-combatants. Expedition of the job is of utmost importance, second only to survival. At various points, the easiest and smartest way out of a situation, be it to prevent getting caught or simply helping a cover story, is the route taken. If a hit needs to be made an example of, he’s shot in the bed with his lover, and she is off’ed too, because, well, witnesses. In the climax of the first issue, The Killer attempts to snipe a target, and his scope is repeatedly filled by obstacles: body guards, wives, friends, innocents on the street. He shoots his way through all of them to resolve his prey.
“Man’s history is just an endless list of atrocities and we’re not even through with it.”
The difficult part for the writer in all of this, and one that Matz handles with startling ease, is making the reader actually care what happens to this deplorable man. To open, we find a professional unraveling, unable to decipher friend from foe, no longer capable, or willing, to make any decision that doesn’t directly relate to his survival and finishing a job. Indeed it is the main character’s attempt at healing, of unwinding and resetting, that draws the reader further into his mind and ultimately, forces the most basic question of the book to surface. Do we hate this man for his depravity, or can we empathize with his feelings if not his actions?
The Killer opines about conquistadors and European aggressors and about the subjugation of the Native Americans and about crocodiles. Killers, all of them. Loners. Survivors. Being well learned and self aware gives him the vision to see his kind has existed from before recorded history and will live on after all of the other sheep have been led to the slaughter.
“Sometimes I think it’d be fun to shoot them all. But that’d be dumb. I mean, where’s the profit? Shit. I’m losing it again.”
Though this book is up to four collections long, I encourage you to take it a little at a time, as each volume provides a glimpse into the building up or breaking down of The Killer’s mental state. His girlfriend, whom initially seems like nothing more than a secondary character bound to be shot in the wrong firefight, actually serves a much greater role. She becomes us, the lucid and very curious side of the regular person who is both intrigued and at times frightened by the implications of this man’s very existence. Through her eyes, the eyes of his protégé Mariano, and other friends and enemies, the various collections of this book gain their distinct identities and should be handled as wonderfully contained yarns, yet episodic in nature.
“In this job, the toughest part is the loneliness. You can meet people but you can never get too close … But I don’t know how different it is from regular people’s lives.”
Though it comes as no surprise, the art compliments the story’s erratic state of mind. Paris is at all times lovingly detailed as only someone with intimate knowledge of its side streets and byways, or with meticulous care for his craft, could possible execute. I suspect Luc Jacamon has ample stock in both. Particularly striking are his lighting choices, monochromatic pallets help understate quiet moments and highlight the few times love and lust supersede the heavy dose of death this book brokers in.
Ultimately do we cheer for this man to succeed, or do we quietly hope for a dramatic downfall? Matz makes sure neither of those questions is easy to address, and yet both are easy to answer. Yes and yes. We want to see more, we want him to avenge his double crosses, to sniff out the traps, and similarly, in some way, we hope he gets his in the end. Because if he does, we get to go to bed at night thinking justice trumps all, and we have nothing to do with any of the horrible things we’ve all endorsed just by living and surviving.
“There is a God for everyone. There is a fair reward and the same punishment for all, paradise and hell.”
J. J. Sinisi
After contemplating shooting a target instead of investigating him, an elite four member NYPD Task Force quickly realizes they are better at murder than any of them could’ve thought.
“It’s not like your blind. You know you’ve taken this giant Godamned step, outside the law, outside everything. You start to see how you could lose touch with life, with regular life, the way regular people live it.”
What makes Garth Ennis’ latest criminal endeavor so enthralling isn’t the tired ground of good cops gone bad. It’s the subtly in this story, the way Eddie’s wife’s unkempt rose garden reflects his withering marriage, it’s an uncared for dog after its owner is blasted to pieces, it’s the remarks of an aging police chief who’s ready to retire but must step ever so delicately around corruption rumors; and throughout, it’s the perfectly layered sense of old Irish fortitude that still pervades the NYPD.
Red Team has something few comics in this genre do, an appeal to a wider audience. This book (7 issues in total) can and should be handed to a non-comic book fan who likes a good crime story, a good cop story, any fan of NCIS or its multitude of television clones. It’s a dialogue driven narrative that forces the reader to see not only the possible merit in killing criminals, but also how things can go exactly as planned and why sometimes, that’s the worst thing that could happen.
Led by Duke and George, two battle hardened warhorses, Red Team is one of many NYPD task forces, made up of elite detectives who inspect the worst of crimes. Clinton Days is a Teflon scumbag who, despite an intensive two year investigation, successfully manipulated the legal system to slip from the noose and stay free on NYC’s mean streets. Moved by frustration, by anger, by the imbalance the scales of justice place on the accuser, Red Team contemplates the unthinkable. They will murder Days. They will decide his sentence.
The striking thing about this book is how intricately the characters know their world, and how easily Ennis is able to convey that minutia with limited words and a flowing storyline. All four members are well aware of the power vacuum they will create on the streets if Days is gone. They are aware of how easily this all could slip from their control. They set up rules. No speeches. Only the worst. Nothing inside their current jurisdiction. They are conscious of not only doing what they perceive as the right thing, but also of how getting caught is as simple as the wrong word to the wrong punk.
What’s more, they discover early on, they are really good at this. The city has taught them well. They know the best way to commit murder, and once learnt, the only thing holding them back is the loose moral constraints they seem begrudgingly tethered to.
From the slow boil first issues, through the moral arguments of pedophile priests and accidental manslaughters of its middle acts, straight through to the fantastic and well earned climax, Red Team makes no excuses and does not lean on righteousness. What they are doing is wrong and they are willing to go straight to hell to get the job done.
This level of moral fortitude is exactly what is missing from other good crooked cop storylines. Vic Mackey’s enthralling run against the department in The Shield was thrilling for sure, but his cocksure attitude and conviction of his actions are nowhere to be found in the murky Hudson waters of Red Team. There’s no fooling this team about how deplorable their measures are. They just know they pulled the short straw to get it done.
Craig Cermak’s art though is really what makes this comic so exceptional. Script-notes are included in most of the issues, and it becomes hard to count the number of wordless panels Ennis assigned to his artist, with plain direction such as: [Trudy in the interrogation room again, rolling her eyes in derision. Not impressed] or [She leans her head on one hand, looking wearily at us]. Not only is Cermak successful in his adoption of Ennis’ vision, his set direction and character placement helps a heavy dialogue comic effortlessly flow.
Suggest this for a friend. Give it to your uncle who always loved those Pacino movies but has never picked up a comic. This is the kind of book that makes your job easy when someone insists comics can’t be engaging and gripping and disturbing and all the other adjectives this medium is sometimes excluded from because of Batman’s popularity. Red Team gets in the muck of cops and robbers. Don’t be afraid to stay with them until they try and get clean again.
Review by JJ Sinisi
J. J. Sinisi is a professional out of New York but spends what little free time he has strolling dark alleyways creating crime fiction. His work has appeared at Spelk Fiction, Yellow Mama, Spinetingler Magazine, Near to the Knuckle, Dead Guns Press, All Due Respect, Thuglit, Dark Corners, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Heater, and he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Short Story contest.