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.
Most of the action in Iron Bound boils over with smashed car fenders and swollen knuckles in Newark, specifically in the neighborhood for which the book is named, an area east of downtown, where lower-rung gang kids make collections for a man they call Mr. Dores. Lamps perched atop wobbly, sketchpad-esque posts dot the city’s empty streets in Leach’s graphic novel, with rain and transmission fluid puddling in front of apartment buildings that look as if they’re held together with tape. Staff at the grandiose Paramount Theater screens the new Clark Gable film for hordes of teen girls, while the artist’s greaser toughs prowl Market Street in their hulking late ’50s Plymouth Belvedere.
With a harrowing 20 percent of Newark’s modern-day gang killings owing to drug deals, the city is bleak enough on its own, but the heat in Iron Bound eventually spills into similarly troubled central Jersey coastal town Asbury Park, where a real-life murder-fueled drug trade — tucked away from the now-tidy, picturesque boardwalk — garnered the city a second place position on the list of New Jersey’s violent crime-riddled towns in 2012 (topped only by Camden). Leach plants goons Eddie and Benny on boardwalk benches, which always seem to lend a sinister atmosphere to the setting of a crime story — from publisher Vertigo alone, see Seaside Heights in David Lapham’s Silverfish or Coney Island in Kevin Baker’s Luna Park. Near the iconic Wonder Bar’s front door, Leach’s thugs wait for the ideal time to pounce on barkeeps for Dores’s protection money.
There mostly isn’t room for Iron Bound‘s broken-down hoods to evolve in the book. We get the sense that there’s hope for Eddie, but Leach doesn’t lend any pages to character back-stories. Everyone is fittingly little more than a sketch, with their motives as paper-thin as the busted neon signs that dangle over the novel’s taverns. Rodent-faced Benny Chagas is the least cool-headed of the pack, as he hassles passers-by for no real cause and needs little reason to slip his car keys between his fingers or draw his knife and start swinging.
Outside of the tense flashbacks (in which Leach breaks from harsh blotting and smearing to cushion with blurry greys), where ill-fated conversations grow less controlled with each panel, Iron Bound‘s brawl scenes are among the book’s best-told moments. The punch-ups are crazed and somewhat fragmented, with the artist’s aggressive strokes — not unlike Jeff Lemire’s in Lost Dogs — setting an air of chaos, if also presenting a less than clear picture.
Leach uses tightly closed spaces well in establishing angst and alienation, and Benny’s temper explodes on a bus, in dark, cramped bar rooms, and more. All of Iron Bound‘s grit and grease makes for a fast read, as this grainy-paged pulp speeds down the turnpike toward its inevitably bleak showdown.