Last week in this column, I celebrated Halloween with a look at the latest Yoe Books collection, GHOSTS: Classic Monsters of Pre-Code Horror Comics by Steve Banes. It features a smorgasbord of creepy comics from the 1940s and 1950s. This week I need to tell you about another treasure, a just-published comic that takes place in the 1940s and 1950s. And in stark contrast to those old comics produced domestically, this a translated European comic. I started out kind of liking it, but by the end I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.
Gramercy Park, written by Timothée de Fombelle and illustrated by Christian Cailleaux, is a comic that the rest of the world will definitely feel more comfortable calling a graphic novel. It’s tight and clever, scattering just the right amount narrative breadcrumbs to keep the reader involved. Author de Fombelle mixes intriguing characters and thoughtful dialogue that rope you in. I had planned, in fact, to just read a few pages at a time. But at one point, about halfway through, the creators had me and wouldn’t let me go.
Memories of Gramercy Park
Upon further reflection, I also miss my visits to that one part of town; Gramercy Park. I’d go there for a meeting or a lunch date every once in a while. It’s charming and exudes an old-school class in the midst of the madness of Manhattan.
I remember one business meeting with King Features (you know, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, etc.) at an ancient Gramercy Park office building. For one special weekend, my wife and I enjoyed a getaway at the Gramercy Hotel. More recently, one of my daughters had an Gramercy Park apartment for a summer. It was invigorating to see this section of town through her eyes. I even remember a Korean restaurant on the edge of it all where Vincent Zurzolo, the mastermind of Metropolis Comics, and I went to lunch one time.
But you don’t need to have ever been to Gramercy Park to enjoy this gem.
A Contemporary, European View of 1950s NYC
This graphic novel seems to flit above it all. One character tends to her bees on the rooftop of a building, and another character, a crime boss, lives in the rarified air of the upper floors of a nearby building. Oh, there’s plenty of story that takes place at ground level (and Cailleaux’s period cars look great). Throughout the story, the reader definitely feels the hustle and bustle of 1950s NYC.
There’s a film noir aspect to this story, but only with the lightest of touches. Sure, there’s a crime, and a gun, and old cars. But there’s a quiet desperation to the characters, a cornered anguish they all try so hard to avoid, that seals the deal.
The surprisingly light touch of the art is another treat. Cailleaux eschews heavy blacks with his inking. Usually that’s a bummer for me, but here it all works. This thriller has the look of an erudite The New Yorker cover come to life, complete with all the thoughtfulness and authenticity that one would expect.
The coloring deserves a nod as well. The pallet is muted and often delightfully murky. The autumn and winter scenes gently reinforce the passing of time in a lovingly measured manner. A few times I had to stop and marvel at Cailleaux’s clever colorings on the city’s buildings at different times of the day.
The brilliant writer Steven Grant was telling me just this summer, at SDCC, how he subscribes to a theory of storytelling that it is all about a bunch of characters thrown together. They circle one another and interact all through the story, and then, at the end, whoever is left ends up in a room together. The character that walks out, figuratively speaking, is the hero.
This graphic novel has a lot of that. It’s a clever puzzle that’s laid out before the reader. Little by little it becomes clearer. Then de Fombelle and Cailleaux pull the drawstrings tighter…tighter…and tighter.
I didn’t expect to be so surprised or to be so satisfied, but after finishing Gramercy Park I wanted to exclaim “Wow!” out loud. Or to have had a shot of brandy at that corner bar in Gramercy Park. That would have been appropriate too.
Gramercy Park Timothée de Fombelle and Christian Cailleaux EuroComics, an imprint of IDW Publishing HC: 96 pp, Full Color $19.99 Diamond Code: MAY190623
Available everywhere books are sold, but I bought it at Comics for Collectors, in Ithaca, NY.