In our current sophisticate/traditionalist coastal/heartland divide we don’t stop to think much of the outlands around New York as a cradle of America’s guiding myths and founding tragedies. But one look at midcentury morality psychodramas like the Hoboken, New Jersey-based film classic On the Waterfront reminds us of the hold the cement frontier once had on our national imagination. This, of course, was the edge of America, the boundary line between here and the harsher worlds so many had come from, and it was a cliff to either climb or hang from.
Brendan Leach reanimates this distant-feeling time like the collective yesterday it is in the masterful graphic novel Iron Bound. That’s close to the name (“the Ironbound”) of a largely Portuguese-immigrant, traditionally working-class neighborhood of Newark; New Jersey’s biggest and one of its most troubled cities (though one haunted by the overlain ghost-town of a glorious past, like the even more desperate Camden at the opposite end of the state). The real Ironbound is more on its feet than much of Newark today, but Leach’s tale and title catch it at a time when a name which might once have conveyed muscular industrial vitality, instead sounds like some sort of shackle.
Iron Bound takes place in what many remember as still being a golden age for the city, before white flight and the riots of the late 1960s turned this chic metropolis and economic powerhouse into an axiomatic urban husk and a kind of punitive social-service desert for populations of color who dared to demand better lives.
The characters in this graphic novel, though, have no idea of the city’s future and little awareness of its heritage, circling in a perpetual present of petty crime and political corruption in the shadows of the city’s prosperity. Leach’s focus, as in so much pop culture about New Jersey and, there’s no denying, so much of New Jersey itself, is trivial graft and territorial conflict, which takes on monumental importance in its characters’ lives. But the book looks down on no one; this is immediate, involved drama reported and lived from the level of its characters’ point of view.
Uncompromising honesty leaves no room for superiority, and the lack of comfort but tenacious lyricism of perspective is plain from the moment we see the cover itself, with the book’s name seemingly painted in red over a vista of the city like some celestial supertitle slammed down on the harsh movie of real life, one of the book’s street thugs placed close and in the center of that street, but with his back to us, like some ill-omened Old West gunfighter.
The plot revolves around two rival low-level mobsters in Newark and Asbury Park (a shore town shown in its own heyday here, though many gloomy decades awaited it too), as well as the young, underemployed legbreakers (and worse) that they make use of, the thugs’ conflicted girlfriends, and cops on the take triangulating between them. Everyone is compromised in this social order, and Leach orchestrates an elegant clockwork of present-day and flashback events that fill in the players’ stories, take us through their wrong turns and make us understand their motivations (if stay scared and sad about their choices). Little by little we learn what wrongs they have concealed and memories suppressed, all revolving back around like the tumblers of a jail-cell door.
The city is a permeating presence, and Leach superbly captures its atmosphere and architecture, sometimes with agitated detail and sometimes with minimal essence, the highrises’ windows seen only as dabs of light in dark skies, like predatory eyes peeking out from primeval shadows, above the neighborhoods closer to the ground.
Iron Bound’s characters bully each other a lot, but they themselves are bullied, passed by, swallowed by the city, which Leach with virtuoso instinct knows when to pull out for panoramas of, to show how the setting surrounds and supersedes the passing inhabitants of the life shown in the book, or any life.
Leach is putting us in a vanished world, and the senses are crucial to this. We feel the grit and dinginess of the urban environments, the bygone grandeur of Newark’s ambitious avenues, the sunny wonderland of the shore; we see shorthand motion masterfully choreographed, and abbreviated faces indelibly imagined; most of all we hear every moment of the narrative — the clicks of footsteps, the screeches and skids of cars, every door-jingle and blow of a fist is superbly diagrammed with sound-effects that form a sporadic backbeat to the action, a heart’s rhythm and manic ticking clock timing out the characters’ drift or rush to their fates.
There is wonderful, terrible animation in the harsh fight scenes; a Hitchcock-worthy pursuit pulling in combatants and innocents at a skating rink. The book’s epigram and epitaph may come at a point early on, when one of the story’s thugs comes to talk with a criminal contact and tells the man’s lieutenant outside his office, “Don’t get up Fred,” and Fred replies to himself after the thug has already passed, “Get up for what?” — these characters aren’t going anywhere, and the least sad ones have no plan to.
When one gang of hoods goes looking for some cannon-fodder of a rival boss, the boss, washing his hands of the nuisance, says “Newark’s not too big you can’t run into them…” and in Leach’s well-strung pattern all lives intersect and collide — but remain trapped in the circle they were made in. His frame sometimes zooms out to full-page size, but lets in a narrow image of existence, a parking lot, a dumpster, to show a universe cropped down to these characters’ grudges and defeats.
He also shows their lives often looping into a local movie-palace, and the tightly-packed throngs Leach portrays are a perceptive profile of the desire for escape. In the same year the book is set (1961) the film of West Side Story came out (though it’s not shown here); that movie couldn’t help but glamorize the strife it showed to some extent, but there’s no redeeming style to the squalor and tension of Iron Bound’s story, and no elevating message of racial acceptance; the book’s ethnic breakdown is similar to the musical’s, but there’s no particular cultural distinction to the rivals’ turf wars; it’s all Darwinian hostility at the twilight of America’s boom times, with no recognizable lesson to be learned however long its players live (though we get the feeling that most of the characters are acting out choices that have been made for them before they were even born).
We get very attached to the cast and forget we’re reading a story, and I won’t say too much about what relationships form and how their participants end up. Suffice it to say that Leach is that rare storyteller who keeps a clear eye on where human decisions lead while focusing a master’s imagination on how they might intersect and where they turn unexpectedly — and that, as it fades out on Newark’s forgotten world for good, Iron Bound stands as a brutal, beautiful reminder that history does indeed march forward — just, often, not with you.