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Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. Today’s page is from Brownsville, which was published by NBM and is cover dated 2006. Enjoy!
Brownsville is a very good graphic novel from Neil Kleid and Jake Allen about “Murder, Inc.,” the group of gangsters – mostly Jewish – who ran roughshod in the 1920 and 1930s. As it’s historical fiction, Kleid has to introduce a lot of actual people in this book and make sure it’s reasonably true to life. How does he begin the book? With a nice hook!
Allen gives us a black panel to begin the book, a trope he repeats throughout the book instead of using chapter break pages. Kleid packs a lot of information into this panel. “Lepke” is Louis Buchalter, and even if we don’t know that yet, we know he’s someone important. We don’t know who sent the message, but we get the two options, and the “or else” implies that whoever is giving the message is not adverse to violence. The “walk in” part means that Lepke is outside the Pale, so to speak, and Allie follows this up in the next panel by telling us it means that Lepke needs to surrender. To whom? Well, that’s what we’re here for!
Allie shows up in Panel 2, giving us more information about the message – it was sent by the “bosses,” and we immediately recognize the code word for gangsters, even if we didn’t know what the book was about already. Lepke gives us Allie’s name, which was nice of him, and tells the reader that the bosses won’t hesitate to kill him by evoking Dutch Schultz, who was killed by Murder, Inc. in October 1935 (Schultz wanted to kill a prosecutor investigating the mob, but his bosses thought that would bring too much attention to them, and when Schultz said he would do it anyway, they killed him). Finally, Lepke tells Allie that he should go in. There’s a lot in these words – the fact that these men are gangsters, the fact that Lepke has done something to defy the mob bosses, the fact that it’s after October 1935 but presumably close enough to that time for a reference to Schultz to mean something. That’s not bad. Even the fact that Buchalter is called “Lepke” tells us that he’s Jewish – the nickname is Yiddish. Kleid gets a lot into this one page.
Allen’s wardrobe for Allie and Lepke also gives us a time frame – Allie’s coat and hat and Lepke’s spats and even his suspenders place this in the past. Allen puts Allie on the left side of Panel 2, coming in to look at Lepke on the right, which points our eyes toward Panel 3, where Allie stands on the left side of the panel. Allen puts the shadows right next to Lepke, which implies that they’re encroaching on him. The perspective also shrinks Lepke, diminishing him. The marvelous fourth panel shows him with scruff, which might be trendy these days but bespoke a lack of decorum in the 1930s – obviously Lepke hasn’t been able to make his toilette for some time. Allen once again makes good use of shadows, as Lepke’s face is bisected by the blackness, and the terrible blackness of his eyes shows us how lost he is. It’s a beautiful drawing of a man without hope. Allen has pulled all the way in, and in Panel 5, he switches back to Allie, who’s horrified. Obviously, Allie is upset because of what Lepke is telling him, but Allen subtly implies that he has seen the depth to which Lepke has sunk and it terrifies him. He’s taken his hat off and is holding it in front of him like a shield, and sweat has appeared on his brow. It seems like an overreaction to what Lepke is actually saying, but Allen has shown that whatever Lepke is saying, he looks worse, so Allie is reacting to both of those things.
Kleid and Allen don’t need to do this. This is a graphic novel, so they don’t care about making you turn the page because you’re probably going to decide to buy this based on other considerations. But just because they don’t need to do it doesn’t mean they take the first page off. This page shows a lot in just five panels, and it hints at quite a bit to come. It’s well constructed, and leaves the reader wanting more. That’s how it’s done!
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