On a rainy night, two young gang members in black leather jackets, Eddie and Bento (aka Benny), are arguing on a bus traveling from Asbury Park to their hometown of Newark, New Jersey. Another young man seated in front of them unwisely asks them to “speak more softly.” This prompts a vicious attack from the hair-trigger-tempered Benny, despite Eddie’s attempts to rein him in. Blood is shed; Eddie and Benny are thrown off the bus and beat a hasty retreat. With this prologue, Brendan Leach ushers us back to 1961 and the criminal underworld of Newark’s Iron Bound section. In this pitiless arena, any attempt to get ahead faces obstacle after obstacle, trust comes at a premium, and good intentions are likely not good enough. Iron Bound reads like a delicious amalgam of a vintage Jim Thompson crime noir novel with illustrations reminiscent of (mutant) Ben Katchor fused with a hint of Lynda Barry’s early punky-scrawly-scratchy style.
Eddie and Bennie get into deeper trouble. Transitioning uneasily from teenage ganghood into semi-adulthood, still clad in their Iron Bound gang jackets, they work for Mr. Dore, a malevolent crime lord replete with an ugly scar trailing from his ear to the edge of his mouth. They do Mr. Dore’s bidding, which includes taking out enemies and traitors. Complicating matters are an investigating detective named Dunham, who is not all he seems to be, rival gang members from Asbury Park out for bloody vengeance, and a gang of tough girls, friends of Benny’s, who don’t take kindly to Benny’s girlfriend Genie talking to Dunham. And then there’s Eddie’s girlfriend, Gloria, who desperately wants him leave to the streets and settle down into a normal life with her.
We sympathize with Eddie throughout the story’s twists and turns, even as we see what dirty deeds he is capable of. Like all good noir heroes, he has a conscience, unlike Benny, his feral mirror image. All the principle players converge for a violent climax, a melee that takes place at an ice skating rink with no one wearing skates, a perfect metaphor for the precarious positions of all involved: the very ground they walk on could give way at any moment. Opposing sides battle for supremacy while others simply attempt to escape the chaos with their very lives.
Author Brendan Leach made a name for himself in comics pretty quickly; he’s likely best known for The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City, which he first self-published in tabloid form with a Xeric Grant in 2010. An excerpt was chosen for inclusion in Best American Comics 2011, and Top Shelf reprinted it as a book in 2012. He also published another fine solo comic book with Retrofit that year called New Sludge City, a crime tale similar in theme and subject matter to Iron Bound, only taking place in a futuristic (but no less grungy) setting.
Where Dan Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn comics evoked the Eisenhower-grey period of the late ’50s and early ’60s through an affectionately ironic lens, Leach captures the mean streets of Newark and Asbury Park in all their gritty, unromantic urbanity. His line has a sketchy, loose feel, often straying beyond the panel borders in a wonderfully uncontrolled fashion, adding to the nervous tension of the story.
Curiously, even with a story this grim and relentless, he manages to invoke some pleasurable nostalgia, presenting a bygone world of a not-too-distant past, a time when movies were shown in big, stylish theaters instead of cheap multiplexes, when cityscapes weren’t pockmarked with corporate chain stores and fast food restaurants, and a “punk” was more likely a hoodlum like Eddie and Benny than a mohawked, tattooed member of a garage band. Leach evokes the era with an assured hand, skillfully juxtaposing what seems a much more innocent time with protagonists who are anything but.
His female characters do get something of a short shrift in this man’s world. Gloria, for example, embodies the stereotype of the good girl of the era who only wants to get married and have babies. Though the character does ring true, she’s not terribly interesting. Perhaps she’s presented to serve as an example of the life Eddie could have apart from crime and mean streets: safe and cozy, but likely pretty boring. It does seem that Eddie hasn’t many good choices available to him either way. But it’s the gaggle of mean tough girls that I really wanted to see more of; they mostly just hover around the edges of the action to threaten Genie, stick up for Benny, and generally act badass, but they exude a fascination nonetheless. As interesting as boy gangs are, girl gangs are even more so, for some reason. Maybe Leach could star them in a sequel? At any rate, with this gripping, skillfully wrought noir, Leach continues his winning streak. Should he decide he wants to make crime comics a thing again he’d be well suited for the job.