Wednesday, 22 December 2010


Although everybody knows the names like Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Lepke Buchalter, and Mickey Cohen, the overall place of Jews in organised crime has sometimes been overlooked. But Neil Kleid and Jake Allen's graphic novel picks a good starting place for tracing their centrality and importance: the tenements of Brooklyn, where immigrant Jews and Italians grew up side by side, strove to gain acceptance and establish themselves in business, and transformed the gangs of their neighbourhoods into the business of organised crime. It's an inner-city story: the big difference being that the Italians had a tradition of such organisation in their old country, whereas the Jews did not. But free of the shackled existence in ghettos and facing pogroms, the Jewish experience appears to have been one of taking advantage of relative freedom.

Which is what provides the dynamic tension for this novel: the way Albert Tannenbaum turns his back on his hard-working, honest father, and to a large extent on his faith, in order to make money as part of a larger, more successful family.Kleid does a nice job of integrating his story with real gangsters; it's especially good to see a prominent role for Abe Reles, 'Kid Twist', who was arguably the most brutal and most feared of Murder Inc, and who, when he started ratting out his fellows, may have marked the turning point for the Jewish mobsters, certainly as a career option. Kleid is also good on the relationship with the national syndicate, with the Capones, and between the various gangs; there is a parallel with today's drug gangs who work the 21st century equivalent of those neighbourhoods, far more viciously and violently today.

The story doesn't always flow, it's more a series of vignettes whose tension sometimes disipates, especially as Allie moves in and out of the picture. The conflict and torment of informing is probably not milked for all it could be either. But that's also down to Allen's art, which reminds me a bit of Guy Davis' on the Sandman Mystery Theatre. He gets the black and white atmosphere down, and is good on indicating relationships through his layouts, but within the frames he is much dynamic, and his figures sometimes lack enough individualisation of character. This is often a problem in a story which is largely about relationships, the constant betrayal of life in the mob, and the alienation from self which results from it. What is impressive is that when the story reaches its denouement, both writer and artist step up as well, and it delivers a punch.

Brownsville by Neil Kleid and Jake Allen
NBM Publishing $12.95 ISBN 156163459x

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