Sean Maher's Quality Control

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Advance Review: BROWNSVILLE

Neil Kleid caught my attention as a writer last year when he self-published Ninety Candles, a 48-page story chronicling a comics artist’s entire life. I was impressed with the structure, the efficiency of the storytelling that somehow didn’t sacrifice any of the story’s heart – a heartfelt epic in just a few pages. I decided to keep my eyes open for his next project, and while a book or two is already on its way with his name on it, it seems like the real successor is Brownsville, a 200-page original graphic novel Kleid has created with artist Jake Allen.

Brownsville looks to be historical mob fiction that follows "the intertwined lives of Allie Tanennbaum, Abe Reles, and scores of hoods organized by Louis Lepke Buchalter into the deadliest hit operation in Mafia history, ‘Murder, Inc.’"

I got a peek at some advance story pages and I think we’re looking at something really interesting. One scene in particular is captivating: young hitman Abe Reles is, essentially, being drafted by Buchalter.

He opens the door to walk in, and the side of the door forms an artificial panel gutter between Abe’s hesitant face and the darkness on the other side, the black unknown inside the office. It’s a subtle and innovative visual cue that gets the reader closer to the character’s mindset – because we not only have the beat showing his nervous expression, but a second beat that creates a sense of mystery and menace.

Inside, an open window lets in a shaft of light that illuminates Buchalter working in a ledger at his desk, but the rest of the office remains black. It’s almost supernatural.

Then Buchalter speaks.

He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t move. He keeps writing in his ledger. And he speaks in facts: “From now on you’ll kill for the combination. No one else.” The terms are laid out briefly and broadly – “We’ll work out the rest later.”

Abe wisely sits in the chair with his mouth shut. We feel we’d do the same, and we’re relieved he has the intelligence to reply only when asked and only with the words, “Yes, Mister Buchalter.”

Buchalter stops Abe on his way out and, for the first time, looks up from his book. He stares at Abe for a moment, cold and calm. “All right,” he says. “We can work together.”

It’s chilling because there’s no indication of threat or malice or violence, and yet the shadow of such things looms unspoken and unquestioned. Buchalter doesn’t look at Abe with concern or troubled scrutiny – it’s a flat, plain stare. We have no idea what’s going on in his mind.

This isn’t a gangster I’ve seen before. He’s not flexing his muscles with Cagney flare, squinting his eyes with a sneer and a growl. He’s not the quietly masculine De Niro boss, seething with menace below his fake smile.

He’s frightening without effort.

It’s something new, to my amazement. Isn’t the gangster genre just there for stylistic exercise? I didn’t realize there was anything new to be done, not since Miller’s Crossing anyway. But Kleid and Allen appear to be challenging my expectations. The book comes in February from NBM Publishing (Previews code DEC053126) and I’ll certainly be getting a copy.


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