Crooked political machines, race-tinged violence, rampant disease, and a gross disparity of wealth: just another day in Five Points in 1853. “Bowery Boys,” a new comic written by Marvel editor Cory Levine, inked by South Williamsburg resident Ian Bertram, and colored by Rodrigo Aviles, brings the dirtiest, bloodiest corner of 19th-century Manhattan back to life. The story follows a father and son through the Lower East Side as they brace for an impending labor strike, and is being released for free online in serial format at three pages a week. We caught up with author Cory Levine to talk about online publishing, “Gangs of New York,” and the ends of the subway lines.
Your storyline is very political; it’s been compared to OWS. Is there any purposeful connection to our current political atmosphere?
I find 1850s New York to be an almost exaggerated version of contemporary New York — the crowds and the filth and the corruption and issues of immigration. A lot of the thematic content in the story is as apropos now as it was then. Class division in this country is the main thing that influenced us, and we did think about the OWS movement and the general disparity of wealth – it’s certainly relevant. But the through-line of our story is more personal: although we start off pretty broadly, we zero in more on the father-son relationship.
How do you handle comparisons to “Copper” or “Gangs of New York”?
It’s such a historically rich period of time, and I think we all used it to draw parallels to what’s happening today. I don’t shy away from those comparisons; there are worse things than to be compared to a Scorsese movie.
It’s definitely a period piece, but are you including any historically accurate events? Is the strike that everybody’s worried about based on a real event?
The story is based in fiction. I would say that the world that we’re building is almost an alternate reality of New York at the time – we weave in historical fact along with the fiction, but many liberties have been taken. I didn’t want to be confined by demanding a rigorous historical accuracy for myself.
When you walk through the LES now, do you see anything that’s reminiscent of those days?
I live in Astoria, so it’s pretty hard for me to get over there. I would say current Chinatown is the closest thing to what we’re writing about that still exists in New York. The Lower East Side is pretty gentrified, as a lot of former enclaves of immigrant communities in the city are. These days, you have to travel a little further out towards the ends of the subway lines to experience that type of immigrant community.
Why the neutral color palette in the art – grays, tans, smoky blues?
We encouraged Rodrigo to use a desaturated color palette. Part of it was to be more reflective of the historical time period and how it’s been portrayed in the media – we didn’t want to tell a story about the era with a neon color palette. Part of it has to do with the treatment of Ian’s line work – it’s so detailed and lush, we didn’t want to draw attention away from that. It’s also to distinguish ourselves from what’s available in the American market. We’re not a superhero comic and we’re not trying to be.
We’ve been influenced by comic book art in Europe, which is viewed differently by both its creators and its audience. American comic books are — or were, it’s getting better — generally considered Pop Art: disposable and mass-produced for a broad audience and for kids. In Europe, comic books are generally regarded as a high form of art: published in hard albums with big beautiful pages. Not to be dismissive of or to undercut the incredible comic book artists in America. But comic books here are published in little pamphlets for 3 or 4 bucks. They are not regarded with the same reverence.
But you are releasing the comic for free online. Isn’t that also irreverent?
We still hope to get into print. But the market is dominated by Marvel and DC, and then the smaller companies below them. For us, to try to get into comic book shops or book retailers when we’re rookie creators without a lot of cache, it’s a pretty steep uphill battle. We’d be put on a shelf next to Spiderman and then we’d expect your average comic book customer to budget for us instead of for something that they know better, and that is a lot to ask.
Releasing it online provides a more even playing field, and broadens our reach. The comic market has an estimate of 200,000 regular readers. That’s relatively small. Certainly with respect to the virtually infinite audience that we could reach on the web.