Set in switchblade-sharp, scratchy line work and brash dialogue, Iron Bound is a breathless run through Garden State dive bars and half-empty bowling alleys. Brooklyn comics artist Brendan Leach has a New Jersey suburbs background that he ties into mangled knots with this bulky black and white pulp for NYC publisher Secret Acres, name-dropping favorite shore-town watering holes and working-in affectionate renderings of classic boardwalk landmarks where possible. He winds the clock back to 1961 and follows a pair of biker jacket-clad hoods out for a quick buck as they advance up and down the Jersey turnpike in city buses or stolen cars.
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There’s a piece of example art, a small cartoon about a man leaving work then entering into his daily commute home (but the plot twist comes as, that commute is via rocket-pack), that Will Eisner uses to make a point in his book on comics pedagogics, Graphic Storytelling. It’s a piece from Eisner’s own illustrious body of work, but I can’t get to the name right now. I could get at the name if I wanted, and writing as little as one generation ago, I probably would have needed to. And the ref is real easy to come by. The piece is more than likely referenced in Graphic Storytelling itself, and not even in the notes at the back of the book, but right there where the cartoon is excerpted. And it’s not like Eisner’s book isn’t on the shelf right beside where I write. But after Google, after Napster, after Facebook and Twitter, after everything these last few years, that’s not the way the world works anymore. Not when anyone can reach out discover the title for themselves. Not when we’re all at an equal distance to every kind of information conceivable, even if that distance is as close as “only a click away.” In this world, after everything we’ve been thru digitally, culturally, it just doesn’t work like that anymore. After everything we’ve been thru, it’s better for me to just kick back and turn up H.I.M.‘s Uneasy Listening.
Think of what it must have been like for those creators taking the very first steps into the brave new format of the graphic novel. Not Will Eisner who’s generally acknowledged as the progenitor of the format, but a little later on, think of Chris Claremont and Brett Anderson, writer and artist respectively on the X-Men graphic novel, God Loves, Man Kills which would eventually become the basis for the 2003 hit, X2: X-Men United.
Maybe NYPD Blue did it best, in those days Back When. At least Blue did it better than Homicide: Life on the Streets, when the two seemed in competition for the gritty-realism-brought-to-TV crown. It was that sense of the panoramic, but a panorama forced outwards to the edge of the scene. Each crime scene the intrepid detectives from the 15th found themselves investigating would be subjected to a panning shot, and usually thereafter a tracking shot or two to follow the detectives thru the same scene. Certain things would always hit. The old lady in her robe and slippers smoking, or maybe the Korean bodega owner, or maybe the homeless guy with the shiny, new watch.
It was a visually evocative, and ultimately, a beautiful way to tell a story. And in the Fall of 92, and for nearly every year later for a decade, it became a wonderfully elegiac way to shot New York, one that infused the TV show with that quintessential urban energy of the place itself. In the thousands of scenes that comprise the entire 12 seasons of NYPD Blue, the map and the territory become one.
Here’s one of those crime scenes I return to frequently:
In Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative that Eisner is at his most seductive. Bemoaning the loss of daily news strip comics, Eisner suggests, “There is a major structural difference between newspaper storytelling strips and comic books. In comic books, stories come to a definite conclusion, a tradition that began when the early comic books advertised that each story was complete. A book is free-standing whereas newspapers are connected to the pattern of daily life. In a daily continuity, therefore, the storyteller need only segue into the next adventure. [Milton] Caniff understood that the story had to emulate the seamless flow of life’s experiences and that the human adventure doesn’t have neat endings. His work shows us how to tell a story that could make itself part of the reader’s daily life”.