Creators Corner: The Seeds of Rebirth of the Gangster: Pruning the Comic’s Family Tree of Influences
My brothers and I huddled in front of the TV, our dad sitting on the coach to save his already deteriorating eyesight the strain; but no matter where we were, all our eyes were glued on the Don.
We were in our early to mid-teens, and we were watching that great American classic, The Godfather. And whether I knew it or not, this movie would have a profound effect on me in the coming days, months and years. It’s not just that the movie walks a delicate tightrope between light and darkness, family and self-determination, sympathy and apathy, restraint and violence. And it’s not just that this was one of the few moments where my dad tossed his work obligations out of sight for a rare moment of bonding with his sons. No, it wasn’t any of those things that forged this into that nugget of gold shining in the murk of memory. What gave this movie its luster was that it sparked a desire that would never be satisfied, that could never find enough fuel for its flame: a desire that eventually launched me onto the path of writing the comic series Rebirth of the Gangster, my gangster greed so great that I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I was able navigate those dark waters myself.
Aside from the obvious debt, Rebirth of the Gangster owes much more to gangster classics new and old than I’m willing to admit, classics like The Godfather, The Big Sleep, 100 Bullets, Breaking Bad, and The Wire. But–history student that I am–I realize that sometimes the only way to move forward is to look back.
And speaking of looking back: that struggle between tradition and innovation–between loyalty and independence–is probably the biggest thread I pulled out of The Godfather when I was weaving the tapestry of Rebirth of the Gangster. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone returns home after trying to escape his family’s hold, and reluctantly grabs the reins of The Family, hoping to steer it into a new world of light instead of darkness, of legitimacy instead of lawlessness. This same struggle opens Rebirth of the Gangster and frames Marcus’s whole journey throughout the comic.
Can Marcus escape the death surrounding his family’s past? Will he give in to his dad’s obsession with image and responsibility, an obsession born out of his dad’s desire to hide the shadows of the past? Or will he repeat the same mistakes of his dad, backsliding into darkness, ironically because of his father’s impulse to keep him in the dark? Replace Marcus with Michael in those previous questions, and I could just as easily be describing Coppola’s masterpiece.
Shortly after my visit with the Don, I set off into new gangster territory: noir fiction. While I loved it all, The Big Sleep most dramatically latched its hooks into me, pulling me out of one world into the next. It awoke in me an awareness of how class and money can influence other people’s stories, and most importantly, my own. Rebirth of the Gangster is just as concerned as Chandler was with exploring how money pulls our strings. Hunter’s story is one of desperation borne out of the puppet master that is American capitalism, a desperation that sets all the crime and violence of this story in motion, which in turn intensifies the family struggles Marcus wades through.
But this clash between rich and poor doesn’t have to clutch onto the coattails of a private eye, and that’s where 100 Bullets came crashing in. 100 Bullets is one of the finest examples of neo-noir, of fiction that updates those same concerns of corruption, wealth, family, and deceit. It pays homage to the crime fiction of the past–most notably in “The Counterfifth Detective”–but it doesn’t shackle itself just to what’s been done before. Similarly, Rebirth of the Gangster hopes to explore the same issues that Chandler and other greats did, but with a tip of the hat instead of wrapping itself in the same trenchcoat of noir past. And just as importantly, 100 Bullets showed me how to take these stories and move them to a new medium, one where images and words are puzzle pieces that need to fit together to create the whole picture and where dialogue often has multiple meanings, especially when placed against an ironic or reinforcing image.
Recently we’ve been living in the Golden Age of TV, and nowhere is that truer than in the genre-defining and genre-busting recent greats like Breaking Bad and The Wire. Breaking Bad showed how an audience can love even the worst character, a character who’s sunk so low that killing children and bringing shame on his family are just means to an end. Now, Walter White didn’t start that way. Vince Gilligan and company showed how a slower pace and a relatable motivation can make the audience root for a character past the point when they’re likeable (sorry Heisenberg fans, but by the end of the show we definitely shouldn’t be rooting for Walt with all he’s done–if you’re mad, though, you’re proving my point about the power of the show).
And that tactic is exactly what I hope to use in Rebirth of the Gangster–that doesn’t mean Marcus will commit as extreme acts of violence and deceit as Walt does, just that he’s going to follow a similar path of corruption away from model behavior. Plus, similar to Breaking Bad, Marcus has a Jesse to show him the road leading to the kingdom of gangsters. Hunter is this Jesse character, but never to be one without multiple influences, I’ve written him with a hint of an Iago-esque motivation. The comic title Rebirth of the Gangster highlights Marcus’s “birth” as a gangster and descent into darkness; the “Rebirth” part is meant to also emphasize the cyclical nature of this action, hinting at the shadow family legacies throws on Marcus, Hunter and the other characters of this comic.
And speaking of other characters, while Rebirth of the Gangster focuses on Marcus at first, by the second issue its scope had already widened to capture Hunter in the all-seeing camera that is the “narrator” of the comic. Like The Wire, this story tries to capture everybody’s stories (in The Wire Freeman said it best: “All the pieces matter”). And that camera will only continue to rove in future issues, as it already has in issues three and four–tailing other characters like Detective Lorena Sanchez, Marcus’s mom Linda. With that extra scope comes a few more influences (the deportation effect on Lorena influenced by one of my former students and her struggle with religion drawn from my own; Linda stems from Gran Turino, Lady Macbeth, and The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down).
Issues five and six will widen the scope by focusing on Hunter’s mom Andrea, and Dennis, a released inmate trying to walk the straight and narrow, respectively. Dennis owes the biggest debt to The Wire, serving as a direct homage to one of my favorite characters, the great Cutty-from-the-Cut, another inmate trying to see where he fits in the game that got him into prison in the first place (and before I get Omar haters on my back, I just want to say that Omar is my favorite character, especially his line “A man got to have a code”, a line that also showcases the idea my comic follows: that everybody is the hero of their own story, guided by their own code.). And like The Wire, these characters grew like roses out concrete, showing the personal meeting the political: issues of Islamaphobia and the prison system box in Dennis and the national opioid epidemic hovers around Andrea.
Ultimately, by widening the scope of this comic, not only am I able to create something closer to The Wire, I am able to tie these distinct threads of gangsterdom into a new whole. Without these influences I never would’ve been able to create a comic that’s truly Shakespearean in its depth; Godfatherian in its emphasis on the ties of family; noiresque in its focus on rich and poor in a new light; Heisenbergian in its descent into darkness; and realistic in a scope similar to The Wire. This is a true Rebirth of the Gangster, giving new life to a genre full of classics.