The romanticizing of gangster life in narrative has achieved a symbiosis with American mainstream culture. The gangster lifestyle narrative, a view of a violent and subversive existence, holds a large appeal most probably due to the escapism it provides for the reader/viewer. The gangster narrative provides a glimpse into lives that transcend laws and privileges a more primitive, destructive way of being. These are narratives that can be highly stylized and sanitized, but they also have the capacity to be narratives that show the horror of life on the fringe and in the shadows of routine society.
This first volume of stories about the hit man Luca Torelli, aka Torpedo, are short stories centered on the year 1936. It is New York City before WWII, swimming in the aftermath of the jazz age, wading through the Great Depression, and unsure of what the future holds. This is the New York City of immigrants working hard for a future for their families. That work, though, is not always clean, and the narrative that emerges from this time period in both fiction and non-fiction is often depicted as being run by mobs and gangsters with agendas—everyone from shifty con men to men looking for power through force to gangs with grudges looking to control a political system in order to gain money, and with that money, to afford more power. However, many representations of the gangster in entertainment media of the earlier 20th century (especially film), in American culture celebrated, to a degree, such men. That gangster it can be argued was built up in many narratives with a more romantic view, on the idea that they are somehow all as possibly valiant as the mythological Robin Hood; they are rogues likable on the inside and merely misunderstood, shielded by that tough exterior.
Later 20th century interpretations, however, and I include Abuli and Bernet in crafting such an interpretation, is that the gangster life is not a masquerade of the “poor” trying to take from the “rich;” not a likable fella trying to make his way through a unfair world; not a poor immigrant rising up through the ranks to gain power and fulfill the “American” dream of success. Rather, the late 20th century interpretation is the individual taking all for himself. If one was to try to distill down an ethics for the characterization of the gangster/mobster/hit-man in late 20th century narratives I have to venture that the only ethic that surfaces is the ethic of gratification. That gratification is achieved through murder, theft, rape, and deceit.
The character of Torpedo is materialistic, fatalistic, self-serving—everything for him represents nothing more than objects to be consumed with no regard for anyone or anything. We get a few glimpses of who he was, how he came to be (perhaps softening the edge a bit by Abuli in the section “Good Old Days”), but the end result is that he consumes, and he consumes with little other thought than the satisfaction of his own survival (or in some cases contemplating or acting for revenge). Torpedo does a job (kills) expecting payment in gold or flesh, and he has no qualms about taking either the money owed or, in many instances, to rape wives or daughters as recompense. He has a second hand man, but it only serves as another way to hold power over another person.
Abuli’s character dialogue and narration is as rough, and sometimes ridiculous, as the character, which works as a device if not overused although Abuli walks that tightrope in this collection. For example, in the story “Every Dog Has His Day” Torpedo is roused from bed to be hired by a man for whom he holds contempt. The internal narration in the second panel of the first page states: “After every blowout someone has to clean up the shit. J.T. had the runs again and he wanted me to wipe his ass. The toilet paper was ten grand. He gave me a down payment and filled me in on the details.”
I guess the thinking here is that if the “shit” joke is popular in comedy, why not in this kind of context? I’m sure many male readers have probably chuckled at—and appreciated—such dialogue and even given someone an imaginary high five at the supposed toughness of it. Me not so much, but again I do appreciate that Abuli is trying to establish a voice for Torpedo. That voice does eventually begin to move in a slow maturation, as the writing of internal dialogue is not all bad grammar, puns, and some expletives, as great moments occur as the strips progress. For example, in another story, Torpedo is sent to kill a priest in a church. Wondering around inside briefly, Torpedo ruminates “Not a soul inside, obviously the divine wasn’t working. No altar boy, no one. Dead silence…Just the flickering candles.”
That is followed by a panel of complete silence, as Torpedo turns to look at the altar, becoming lost in thoughts that we are not privileged to hear. It are such moments that give this collection a shove towards that next step up in creating a comic character that is not one-dimensional, in allowing for an exploration of who this person might actually be. Maybe these are the moments that make the difference in trying to find something relatable with such an awful person that I have never fully grasped? I’m not willing to be all in yet, but it does raise my curiosity.
While the dialogue vacillates between adolescent musings and puns and more insightful moments, the artwork is a consistent anchor. Jordi Bernet, taking over from an extremely brief stint by the legendary Alex Toth (which is included in the book and may serve as a pickup for Toth collectors) draws New York City admirably. Bernet’s NYC bristles with energy, from the streets and alleys to the tenements and night clubs, or to the congestion of traffic on streets where diagonal stairwells hang like urban kudzu, so that one imagines kids and people on the run moving about in avoidance of this or that. Bernet’s style is just pen and ink creating the clean lined landscapes, the expressive faces and three piece suits, the violence of shoot outs, the shadows of the night and poorly lit rooms. It is a time period rendered as one that we know, that NYC just on the periphery of how we imagine it or have seen it imagined in the gangster films of Scorsese, Leone, DePalma, Coppola. The archetypes and the clichés are in place in the writing, but Bernet manages to give the artwork a tight, picturesque, and vibrant life, through facial expression, suggested movement, and good old-fashioned onomatopoeia gun sounds RATATATAT’ing in some scenes.
Reaching the end of this first volume of translated stories, I am still left (and probably will be most of my life) with questions of appeal about the gangster narrative—why do cultures gravitate towards tales of such desperate, violent people? What does it say about the American dream or even how most men dream about achieving? Abuli and Bernet take the classic gangster/underworld character and filter it through realism of the late 20th century, and I believe that most artists in visual and print mediums who have tackled the gangster genre do try to showcase that this life is not one that is for romanticizing. I believe the creators of Torpedo are lifting the façade of the romantic to display the truly grotesque of human behavior showing the real machinations of how gangster culture operated and continues to: with contempt for life in order to live for the materialistic moment.