Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Bowery Boys, subtitled “A New York Story,” is set in the eponymous New York neighborhood in 1853. It is an undeniably New York comic in it’s treatment of the time and place in which it is set.
The brains behind the web-comic Bowery Boys are former Marvel editorial staffer Cory Levine, School of Visual Art graduate and illustrator Ian Bertram, and colorist Rodrigo Avilés. Their chosen setting might be familiar to readers who have seen Gangs Of New York, read the book it was based on, or has elsewise familiarized themselves with the infamous Five Points neighborhoods. But this comic adds something extra to the mix. Currently about a third into their third book, Levine, Betram, and Avilés have managed to create a well-paced and, for me at least, addictive narrative that touches on several major themes of mid-19th century New York.
The story begins with a union meeting being broken up by the infamous nativist Bowery Boys gang. Events spiral onward from there into violence, death, and, for a small group of children, adventure. Although it is fiction, Bowery Boys stands on solid a historical ground of unstable labor politics, Tammany Hall corruption, and ethnic tensions, particularly anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiments. Bowery Boys also touches upon somewhat lesser known facets of its day, like the less-than-sterling conditions for prisoners on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island. The attentive reader can also find an Easter egg or two (as for example the way artist George Catlin’s 1927 painting of the Five Points intersection is worked into the comic in Book Two).
Bowery Boys is entertaining, adding several flourishes to its representation of the Bowery, such as the flamboyance of conniving gang leader Markus Welsh, the grotesquely fat and ostentatious capitalist Roderick Pastor, and a rabbi whose quarters resembles nothing so much as a wizard’s tower. This half-familiar/half-alien impression is compounded by an artistic style that mixes realistic representation with a more cartoony style, with shades of Howard Chaykin and the John Romitas. The story, unsurprisingly given its setting, is also violent. Here too, the mix of styles fast becomes evident: the violence is visceral and the artist does not shy away from blood and gore, but this is often coupled with classic comics sound effects (think 1960s Adam West Batman). Punches, kicks, and strikes with various blunt implements are drawn over single-color backgrounds (often red) for heightened effect.
As the story develops, it is striking to see how the creative team manages to create a story that includes many of the people who have been marginalized or excluded from the normative gaze on these years except, most commonly, when they have been framed in negative terms. What appears to be developing into the main cast is, somewhat unexpectedly given the grim and gritty and violent setting and story, ethnic children. At the end of Book Two, Nikolaus McGovern, the son of an Irish union organizer, Jewish boy Isaac, street urchin Paully, and her friend Ann Murphy are setting out on a path they may not return from.
The comic is not flawless in its execution or its use of the web format, which likely owes to the fact that it was originally intended for print. Book One’s page seven and Book Two’s page 18, for example, are almost impossible to read as published; the dialogue size is too small and the resolution too low to allow for a clear reading, but the creators provide readers with special linked images to make up for this. Every so often mistakes have managed to creep through proofreading (on Book One’s page 10, for instance, Isaac asks if Jews were not commanded to rest, “as Hashem rested on vthe seventh day”). But these are small (read: negligible) complaints compared to the compelling story and interesting visual play that is offered up for free three times every week.