Monday, May 5, 2014

Street Fightin' Men: Iron Bound

Brendan Leach is building up a resume of works that focus on specific urban environments in specific historical eras. Behind that urban setting lies the real theme for his comics. For example, in his first book, The Pterodactyl Hunters In The Gilded City, Leach uses a fictionalized New York around the turn of the 20th century as his backdrop. However, the story was really about a young person who desperately wants to be in on the end of an era before it comes to a close, especially because his older brother was such a key part of it. In his new book, Iron Bound (Secret Acres), Leach grounds his story in the gritty streets of New Jersey in the early 1960s, as we follow two young toughs with different goals in Eddie and Benny. As the story begins, the duo are riding a Greyhound bus back to Newark when the twitchy, angular Benny picks a fight with another passenger and winds up stabbing him to death.

There's a grimy, squalid plot involving a crooked detective and some corrupt small-time operators in Newark and Asbury Park. That plot is beside the point and acts just as a structure for Benny and Eddie to react to and be manipulated by. The real essence of the book is the relationship between Eddie and Benny and the ways in which they want to evolve. Benny is a psychopath who glamorizes the idea of being a gangster thug, but it's his inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality that make him unstable and unreliable. Eddie takes a taste of gangster life and regrets it, wishing to get out of the life, only to find that once you've eaten the forbidden fruit, it's not so easy to cross back. That first scene, though out of context for the reader, is really the scene where both men reach a crossroads in their life. Having tasted being the pawn of a manipulative gang boss, one who gave him the assignment of murder, Eddie decides he wants no more part of it. Having crossed the line into murder, Benny wants to be a player, not kept on the sidelines.

The book bobs and weaves its way through time, filling in events via flashbacks. Other characters, including sisters and love interests, are introduced to provide context and subjects of frustration. Eddie is a character who has earned the respect of others but knows that he's made a mistake he can't take back. Benny is completely incapable of owning up to his actions ("Jeez--chill out, Eddie!") and winds up nearly getting killed for his stupidity. Like a shark, he's too stupid and vicious to die. Eddie's loyalty to his friend is one of his several admirable qualities, but being loyal to a psychopathic killer is something likely to bite you in the ass, and that's precisely what happens here when it comes time for the characters to either accept or deny their roles in the scheme of things. In the end, Benny is content to be a murderous cog because it makes him feel like a big man, and Eddie isn't quite smart enough to realize that loyalty means nothing. It's a bleak ending to a bleak story, but one that rings true in every respect.

Leach brings the era to life with a scratchy, expressive line that looks like Gipi and Ben Katchor teamed up to draw a squalid tale about losers in a bygone American urban setting. The heavy use of blacks and the tastefully employed grey wash is reminiscent of Katchor, especially in the way he draws buildings and cars in a manner that feels real and authentic without going for naturalism. Benny in particular looks and acts like a Gipi character--all angles and attitude, with any semblance of an inner life left entirely opaque to the reader. If Benny is drawn like a jagged piece of glass, then Eddie is drawn all in squares--solid, dependable and even a bit slow. Their relationship is fascinating to me because the story doesn't depict it as symbiotic in any way; if anything, Bennie is a leach. His relationships with women reveal that any deviation from his desires might result in violence. Yet Eddie stands by him for no discernible reason other than history, a decision that winds up dooming him. Like in The Pterodactyl Hunters, Iron Bound is a story of two young men linked together in differing positions of power, and how those positions change by the end of the story. The tragedy of the book is that while Benny relishes flicking his switchblade into its killing mode, he really possesses no more power than he did at the beginning of the story--and in some ways, he is considerably diminished. The lesson that Eddie learned is one that Benny won't be able to process; one day, he'll just be tossed aside. The way that Leach creates a tense and exciting story without glamorizing the violence and gang lifestyle is perhaps his greatest achievement with this book.

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