Most people associate the Mafia, fairly or unfairly, with Italians. They picture a bunch of stocky guys in dark suits, sitting around a dimly-lit table eating pasta. It's a stereotype that's been perpetuated in movies and books. This February, however, writer Neil Kleid ("Ninety Candles," "The Intimidators") is going to introduce readers to the true tale of one of the toughest Mafia organizations that ever existed - and there won't be a cannoli in sight.
The book is called "Brownsville," and it's a 196-page graphic novel from NBM Publishing that's written by Kleid with art from newcomer Jake Allen. The story focuses on the Jewish Mafia and the men of Murder Incorporated, one of the most dangerous organizations in America during the 1930's. CBR News checked in with both creators who talked about the project and gave us a quick history lesson as a bonus. Kleid kicked things off by explaining his inspiration for the story.
"I've been fascinated by the world of the Mafia before the 1950s and I've always wanted to tell a gangster story. But I wasn't interested in creating a 'fake mob' like you see in so many gangster stories in comics; I wanted my world to be set in the actual history of the Mafia. I watched 'Lepke,' the movie about Louis Lepke Buchalter with Tony Curtis. I was captivated by the idea of this influential man controlling his criminal underworld from a series of bunkers all over New York. At the end of the movie, we meet Abe Reles and Allie Tannenbaum, Lepke's associates who end up ratting on everyone, and I felt there was a bigger story there.
"I did some research and discovered that there were all of these little hoodlums out there that all contributed to the larger story of the Mafia - and more importantly to me as an Orthodox Jew - the Jewish Mob. So I dug a little and found out about Reles, Pittsburgh Phil, Gangy Cohen, Mendy Weiss, and so on. I call my story 'The Band of Brothers of the Jewish Mafia' because it focuses and shines a light on the personalities, hopes and fears of nameless hoods you see standing in the shadows of movies like 'The Godfather' and 'Once Upon A Time In America.'
"There's a lot of history regarding the story of Murder, Inc. and the Jewish Mafia. I focused on the events that pertained to our two protagonists, Abe and Allie, and the various points in history where their stories intertwine."
When telling a story based on actual people and events, liberties are often taken for dramatic purposes or because first-person accounts aren't available. Kleid seems pleased with the balance he struck in this book, and was happy to elaborate on how he interlaced fact with fiction when crafting this tale.
"Ninety percent of 'Brownsville' relates to actual events you can read about in books. Some of the elements of the story are based on these events but contain fictionalized dialogue and suggestions of what might have happened. For instance, Allie Tannenbaum met Lepke associate Gurrah Shapiro at the Tannenbaum family resort in the Catskill Mountains, and it was there that he became enamored of the gangster life. However, there's no document of what they spoke about or what exactly happened, so Jake and I told it the way it might have happened based on character, place and time as suggested by our research.
As to his sources for these facts, the writer told us, "I researched this book for a full year, beginning with watching movies and studying the world they portrayed. From there it was reading a lot of books - from Rich Cohen's invaluable 'Tough Jews' to Burton Turkus' 'Murder Inc.' to Paul Sann's 'Kill the Dutchman.' I devoured biographies on Lepke, Meyer Lansky and old Italian gangsters in hopes of cross-referencing stories that touched on Murder Incorporated.
"I spent a great deal of time on the internet, reading site accounts of the Murder Inc. story and articles written on every aspect of the history - from Lepke and Shapiro's early days to Charlie Workman's account of the Dutch Schultz hit. I also did random Google trawls of various names, facts and figures, some of which even led me to where some of these guys are buried.
"My parents helped give me some background on what Brooklyn was like at the end of the 1950s - well past the troops' prime - but it helped set my mind's eye as to what the area and some of the buildings looked like. Jake and I sent each other photos and wanted posters we found online or in books."
At 196 pages, the book tells a lot of story in one sitting. When pressed for details about what readers will find between the covers, Kleid said, "It's the story of Murder, Inc. and the Jewish contract killers working out of Brooklyn in the early thirties. The story follows the intertwined lives of Albert 'Tick Tock' Tanennbaum, Abe 'Kid Twist' Reles and a cast of hooligans, as Louis Lepke Buchalter organized them into the deadliest hit operation in Mafia history. It's about one man, enamored of the flash of the mob, trying to please both his family and his 'Family' and eventually realizing he can't have both. And it's also about another man, fighting to get out of the tenements and make a name for himself any way possible, even at the expense of his friends."
Any story is only as interesting as its characters, and "Brownsville" promises some memorable ones. Kleid gave us some background on two of the narrative's central characters - Abe Reles and Allie Tannenbaum. From his descriptions, it's clear to see why readers should find these two compelling.
"Abe Reles was a pug of a guy from Brooklyn who fought his way up from the corners, killing or edging out anyone who got in his way. Someone once said that Reles had a face that ached to be punched. He had his friends and even more enemies, but he knew what he was doing, so guys respected him. Reles was built for killing and the Combination - a common name for the (Jewish and Italian) Five Families (that had combined into one powerful unit) - used him for that. He was hired help, a gun they pointed, and I think in the end that was one of the things that set him against them.
"Reles went by the name 'Kid Twist' after Max Zweibach, Monk Eastman's lieutenant from the days of the Five Points (one of the earliest gangs in New York whose members later rose to become some of the most notorious, wealthiest, and most powerful leaders in America's organized crime history). Rumor has it he was also given the name because it was his favorite kind of candy, and because he enjoyed strangling the life out of his victims.
"Allie was smart, and smart guys were invaluable to the Combination, what with two thirds of the muscle being just that - muscle. Our Allie was given his Mafia nickname 'Tick Tock' mainly because he wouldn't shut the hell up…like a ticking clock. Cohen, in 'Tough Jews,' notes that Allie was the wheelman on a hit against Reles back before Reles' troop got folded into the families. That, I think, is their earliest known confrontation and, in my eye, the one that laid the groundwork for their relationship."
Writing stories about characters such as these can be particularly difficult, because you are asking the audience to sympathize with "bad guys." When asked if he thinks readers will be able to feel for men who are basically killers, Kleid responded, "Sure. I think it's all in the way the characters are presented.
"How do people sympathize with Tony Soprano (of TV's 'The Sopranos') or Al Swearengen in HBO'S 'Deadwood?' What makes Michael Corleone a character you feel for when his wife leaves him? I'll tell you - it's all in the why. Why, even after all the stupid moves Henry Hill made in 'Goodfellas,' did viewers hope that he'd flush all the coke down the toilet before the feds got there? How does somebody's heart go out for Vito Corleone when he's gunned down in the street after all the bad shit he's done?
"It's the why. Sure these men are, in their heart, evil men who have done evil deeds. But in order to get a reader to empathize with that, you have to show why they're doing it - why, in their minds, these actions are acceptable. Allie and Abe do evil, terrible things during the course of 'Brownsville,' but their character and motives are portrayed in a way that you realize these are family men, husbands, sons, lovers and humans just in the way that you and I are. And who knows what we would do if ever presented with the options that they were in the early part of the twentieth century? I'm happy as hell that I never have to find out, but I can still see how they'd choose to do what they did."
As mentioned, the gangsters in this story aren't the typical Mafiosi audiences are used to seeing. There aren't any pizza restaurants or "Fuggedaboudit's" that you might find in a typical Italian Mafia tale. Still, Kleid believes that audiences will feel a familiar vibe from the characters in his story.
"There's a great deal of similarity, actually, between the Jewish and Italian gangsters. By the time Luciano created the Five Families structure, the Jews were so intertwined in their Italian colleagues' businesses that apart from speech patterns and religious background, you could hardly tell who was what.
"So what makes the Jewish revolution different than the Italian one? Well, that depends on the man and what he's looking for. You've got Jews like Lansky and Arnold Rothstein who are after the money (and in Rothstein's case the thrill, I suppose), and then you've got a Jew like Benny Siegel who (in Lansky's estimation) didn't respect money and was after flash and respect. You've got Italians like Luciano and Costello who were amazing with business as opposed to some of the Pete's who wouldn't have two cents to rub together without the tributes offered them in the Sicilian neighborhoods.
"Were they different? Not as much as we'd like. I mean, human is human and everyone wants to get out of squalor. Each group had its individual religion and each group had its individual history - but once they got to the streets of New York, a wiseguy's a wiseguy's a wiseguy."
And speaking of religion, the Jewish faith is an essential part of its culture. As the men of Murder Incorporated were, well, murderers, you might wonder how their religion factored into their gangster lifestyle. Kleid gave us his explanation regarding this conundrum.
"Well, remember that you're talking about guys to whom 'thou shalt not kill' is a thing of the past, right? However, elements of familial and communal guilt still live within their breast. One guy, Mendy Weiss, would not kill on the Sabbath no matter the cost. There was a sense of giving back to the community and seeing your 'ma' on Friday night. No one was keeping strict Kosher and studying the Talmud on Mondays and Wednesdays, but it was hard to break away from the culture of the 'old country' and where you came from.
"And remember, this was before the War when there still was an Old Country, so Jews on the Lower East Side, Brooklyn and outlying areas still felt very strong ties to where they came from. Guys like Abe and Allie had all those Hebrew lessons and laws burned into their brains, but once they disregarded the laws of society, the laws of a god they could not see, hear or feel weren't far behind."
As mentioned, Kleid is joined on this book by artist Jake Allen. This is the first time the two have paired together, and from the writer's description of the partnership, it sounds like serendipity.
"I emailed Jake and we got to talking, and he was more excited about it than I. Apparently, people kept asking him to work on superhero stuff, and he wanted a 'real world' project to work on. We clicked pretty much from the get-go, and I have to say that my working relationship with Jake is probably the purest and most collaborative creative partnerships I've ever had."
From an artist's perspective, it's probably intimidating to be approached by a writer who's looking for a partner on a massive project such as "Brownsville." According to Allen though, the decision to partner with Kleid was clear from the beginning.
"In the sea of superheroes and random short stories I was coming across, this one stood out," Allen explained. "I had never heard of the Jewish gangster before Neil. But as I started reading it I got sucked in because it was much more than just a unique subject matter: it was a story about real people who sometimes did some awful things to survive, and I still found that I cared about them. When I was working on the last few pages, I actually felt as though I was losing friends that I had known for two years."
While Allen spent over two years drawing this project though, Kleid had spent even longer researching, writing, and overseeing the final product. The scribe talked about the passion necessary for this kind of endeavor with CBR News.
"For me, it was a love of the material and belief of a story that many people don't know about but really should. As well, Jake's pages kept me excited every step of the way. As the pages rolled in, and as more and more people emailed me and hounded me about when they would see the book, I got more excited and steadfast in the viability of the book's success. I mean, you're excited to read it, right? Imagine how excited we are after three years of hard work!"
On the topic of research, we asked the team about their references. Kleid mentioned the usual sources, in addition to an unusual one: "Movies and books set in that period, mostly. Listening to and studying the way people talk and speak dialogue. Reanimated talking corpses. They don't smell as bad if you douse 'em with barbecue sauce."
Allen added his reference list to this as well: "Movies, books, Google, and brewing my own gin in the bathtub."
"Sure. I mean, I can't use slang or certain cultural references in a book set in 1931 that I could in a book set in 2006, can I?" the writer said. "I also realize that there's a certain patter - a way of speaking - that changes from decade to decade; a level of refinement of speech back then that seems to have deteriorated with time and laziness."
Regarding if any changes to his art style were needed, Allen replied, "Not so much. This is as close as it gets to my natural style of drawing. My biggest influences artistically have always been Will Eisner and Robert Crumb, who've both romanticized this era to me in numerous stories."
In an industry that favors men in tights over men in suits, you can imagine it may have been difficult to find a publisher for a book such as this. Fortunately for Kleid, he had a plan. And most importantly, it was a plan that worked. The writer kindly shared the story with us.
"Jake and I had been working for two months - the art stage, anyway - and had twenty pages under our belt when I attended SPX for the first time. I was going with the mind to sell it to someone or generate some buzz. I had some publishers in mind but didn't want to just give them a two-page pitch and some letter-sized photocopies that would end up in the garbage, right?
"Enter Larry Young.
"I walked into SPX with seven pre-sealed, pre-designated manila envelopes containing a pocket folder with two pitches, my business card, samples of past work and what I refer to as 'The Brownsville Sampler' - information about the book, the pitch, the sample pages and contact information. The only things on the front of the envelope were the name of the publisher and a small label that read 'Limited Distribution.' On Friday, I walked up to each of the targeted publishers, handed them the packet, explained who I was and told them which table they could find me at. I thanked them for listening and walked away.
"Later that day, a friend informed me that he had seen Terry Nantier, NBM's publisher, leafing through the sampler. One week after the convention, I followed up with him and he informed me that he liked what he saw and wanted to talk terms. One month later, Jake and I had signed contracts."
With signed contracts, both creators were eager and ready to work. Their collaboration process was fairly standard, so to liven things up, Kleid described the process in the voice of a Cro-Magnon (either that, or writing this book took more out of him than we suspected…).
"Neil write script. Neil bang head on wall and cry. Neil edit script and give to Jake. Jake draw. Draw, draw, draw. Jake send Neil thumbnails and Neil approve. Jake send Neil pencils and Neil approve. Jake ink and Neil make grammar/proofing corrections. Neil and Jake send to NBM and they make corrections. Neil and Jake bang head against the wall and cry. Cry, cry, cry. Jake fix and send to NBM. NBM say 'We like!' We happy. Happy, happy, happy. Neil go drink."
Allen agreed with the writer's description of events. "Neil sums that up pretty well. The only difference on my part was the isolation chamber with stacks of books and pots of coffee."
While the two have just finished this long-in-the-works project, they don't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. As a matter of fact, fans of Kleid can run out right now and grab the first issue of his new ongoing series which hit stands in December. The scribe gave us the lowdown on this project, in addition to a few others that are coming up.
"Also in February, Penguin/Puffin Graphics offers an adaptation of Jack London's 'Call of the Wild' that I did with superhot genius Alex Nino. Amazing art, crazy dog fights, Indians and wolves. Frostbite and wolf packs. You know, something for everyone.
"In June, Slave Labor Graphics releases 'Ursa Minors!,' a four-issue comedy/pop culture piss-take from Paul Cote, Fernando Pinto and myself. 'Ursa Minors!' asks the question: 'What would the average pop culture-raised, internet age, twenty-something do if granted a high-tech, fully armed robotic bear suit?' Should be fun."
As for Allen, it doesn't appear that he'll be leaving Kleid's side anytime soon. He mentioned, "I'm going to start working on Neil's 'American Caesar' next month. It's a graphic novelization of his play updating Shakespeare's tragedy in a modern day corporate setting."
"Oh, shit. I forgot about that one," replied the writer. "Neil bang head on wall and cry. Cry, cry, cry…"