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One Last Job: Jonathan Lang on the Aged Mobster, Yiddishkeit and Generational Clashes in “Meyer”

By | September 19th, 2019
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

Who was Meyer Lansky? What was his impact on the underworld and beyond? That is not the question at the heart of “Meyer,” the newest graphic novel from Humanoids’ H1 imprint. Instead, we are treated to an examination of the growing old in a field that does not lend itself to longevity and the fictional final job of the mobster’s life. Originally announced as a 5-issue series under Humanoids’ H1 imprint, “Meyer” is now coming out as a graphic novel. In preparation for its release on September 25th, we chatted with writer Jonathan Lang about Meyer Lansky, 1980s Miami Beach, and legacy.

To start us off, this is your first graphic novel, though not your first foray into comics. What about the format influenced the pacing and the contents of “Meyer,” if at all?

Jonathan Lang: Even though this is my first proper graphic novel, I would say all of my projects are written linearly as opposed to more of a serialized approach. I think that is a really specific kind of storytelling and it is a true art to both have an issue that is self-contained and part of a larger arc. Because of my film background, I tend to think of stories like stand-alone movies, sequel free, and if you were to pick up an issue in the middle of the run, it would be confusing. I try to write where a detail in issue one may not have an echo until the last issue.

For this project, I think the real difference is I had a very clear view of the ending. I knew from the outset where these characters had to arrive. It changed, of course, because of a fantastic conversation with the AMAZING editorial team (Fabrice Sapolsky and Amanda Lucido). I knew where I wanted to take the duo. Not knowing the ending has worked for me in some ways, as it allowed me to wander and explore a bit, but plotting in comics is so important. In some ways, it is the job. It is also something I really have to work hard at accomplishing.

The other approach was to try starting a scene at the emotional climax. For example, on “Feeding Ground,” we really tried the slow burn, and for the setting that made both logical and emotional sense. For “Meyer,” I tried to dunk the reader’s head into a bucket of cold water. I wanted to wake them up. That feels right when you are dealing with mobsters.

You do a fantastic job of weaving in the important moments in Meyer’s life throughout “Meyer,” allowing those unfamiliar with the man to learn about who he was. Did you find yourself drawing more and more or less and less from his past as you scripted the story? Or, put another way, was the semi-biographical nature of the work a help in the writing process?

JL: I absolutely drew on his life for scripting. It was the springboard. I have no idea if he works this way, but I have always imagined Ed Brubaker’s process as writing an incredible paragraph of prose, and then beating out the panel work visually to both support and contradict his language. This method was my approach. Meyer would monologue his life in my head, and I would jot it down as quickly as possible. I then would have an image appear, or an action sequence that would support the monologue. I just let these images appear.

In the book, there is a turtle sequence at Theater of the Sea, where it is swimming while a lot of violence occurs. I have no idea what the turtle meant at the time, but it felt right. I’ve heard David Lynch talk about just allowing imagery to creep into his work, and the process is to trust that imagery. I also very much love how a show like Breaking Bad reveals images that seem random and then infuses it with meaning. I was thinking about images such as the floating eyeball in the swimming pool, the broken plate, etc. The show is masterful at creating questions that linger through imagery and then giving them possible answers.

What got you interested in Meyer Lanksy’s life and why did you choose the tail end to fictionalize rather than when he was active?

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JL: My family is from Brooklyn. I lived there for 18 years, and in many ways, it will always be my home. I moved there because I was chasing ghosts. My family in the 1940s worked for Murder Inc., very low-level stuff that would bring in some money like running numbers from the candy store, picking up packages, etc. At that time, everyone knew someone who was involved. I also heard a lot about Meyer from my father growing up. My dad, a neurosurgeon, remembered seeing him in a hospital in Miami around 1982. He was shocked at how this little guy commanded so much respect. He was both a cautionary tale and someone to be admired. He was a proud, tough Jew who still used his brain to get ahead, but he didn’t take any crap.

I chose that period for a couple of reasons: I saw a photo of Meyer in Miami in the 1980s, walking his dog Bruiser on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach while being pursued by the Feds. I had just finished grad school and had written a dissertation about Miami Noir on film. I was searching for a Miami story, and this was the connection. I have always been fascinated by Miami during this time because I was there during the Cocaine Cowboys era. My Bubbie and Zeida had an efficiency apartment on Miami Beach. I remember hearing about the Dadeland mall being shot-up.

There was something about Miami Beach before it became South Beach. It was rundown by today’s standards. Pensioners could stay in a crummy hotel and cook on a hot plate in their rooms by the month. It was before Sunny Crockett changed the landscape. It was the perfect place to hide out. The glamorous Miami from the 1950s, the Fountain Bleu, the gambling, all of that was dead. Fictional Meyer grew out of that landscape. Imagine a former luxury resort where the paint was now peeling off the walls. And suddenly, cocaine money was building highrises. This clash between new and old Miami, between old mobsters and Cocaine Cowboys, this is what I wanted to explore. Cocaine Cowboys had no class. Mobsters did.

By setting the story in 1980s Florida, specifically Miami, Islamorada, and the Keys, you’ve created a contrast between what powered Lansky’s mobster days, the grifts and the gambling, and the new powers’ drug trade. What about this clash did you find essential to the story you’re telling?

JL: You nailed it. I really wanted to explore the clashing values of criminals. These were totally different approaches to crime. I tried to make warring tribes. Cocaine Cowboys would indiscriminately shoot-up a place. They didn’t care if they killed women, kids, whoever. There was no code. These were prisoners who were part of the Mariel Boat Lift, (see De Palma’s Scarface or Billy Corben’s Cocaine Cowboys) who were now set free in a new world. It was the Wild West.

Now, 1950s mobsters in Miami did it differently. Family mattered to mobsters. They built an industry, hotels, racing tracks; they had a sense of building a legacy. These were men behind the scenes who were using criminal money to make legal businesses. There was a clash in style as well. I grew up in a 1980s Miami where volume mattered. Flashy cars and loud clothes were the essence of new money. Mobsters were elegant, showy, but elegant. I prefer the mobsters’ taste.

A similar clash plays out between Meyer and David, the orderly swept up into Meyer’s crazy plans. Can you talk on their relationship and why you chose to have him, as a person completely out of the world of gangsters and two generations apart, to be Meyer’s foil?

JL: Meyer and David are a little like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. David is drawn to Meyer because of the financial possibility he presents. Is he telling the truth? Is he insane? He cannot help but follow this thread out of both curiosity and his materialism. David is at a point in his life that is both the most exciting and most frightening. Being a young person is hard because no one cares what you think because you have no experience, and anything is possible. All the possibility can paralyze you. You constantly compare yourself to peers who seem to have it figured out. He thinks he needs money, but what he really needs is a father.

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Meyer is at the point in his life where the window is almost completely closed. There is nothing he can do to change the things he has done. He is fighting to shape how he is remembered. A man who was able to control everything his entire life has arrived at the point we all do, regardless of who we are. All that’s left is his legacy. Meyer wants to do right, and in some ways, saving David from making the same mistakes is part of his legacy. I love mentor stories. I love father and son relationships. It was very strange writing this because I have been both David and Meyer. I couldn’t have written this story well until I became a father.

Interview Continued Beneath the Preview

Cover by Shawn Martinbrough.
Art by Andrea Mutti. Coloring by Andre Szymanowicz. Lettering by A Larger World Studios.
Art by Andrea Mutti. Coloring by Andre Szymanowicz. Lettering by A Larger World Studios.
Art by Andrea Mutti. Coloring by Andre Szymanowicz. Lettering by A Larger World Studios.
Art by Andrea Mutti. Coloring by Andre Szymanowicz. Lettering by A Larger World Studios.
Art by Andrea Mutti. Coloring by Andre Szymanowicz. Lettering by A Larger World Studios.
Art by Andrea Mutti. Coloring by Andre Szymanowicz. Lettering by A Larger World Studios.

How did you approach bringing out Meyer’s Jewish heritage while retaining his clear secular, or perhaps non-practicing, distancing from the religious aspects?

JL: Only in America, do we use the word “Jewish,” meaning like or having the quality of being a Jew. It is and was a way of passing in the new world. One did not get a choice whether or not they were Jewish. When Meyer and my grandparents arrived in this country, they were Jews. They went through Ellis Island and lived in tenements. They were hated as new immigrants like we continue to disparage those who are coming over to make a better life for their families. Meyer fought those who insulted his ethnicity, not religion. He was “culturally Jewish,” but Israel mattered to him. Celebrating Shabbat with his mother, these things mattered.

He was also smart enough to know that he couldn’t keep to his section of the shtetel. I can’t tell you how groundbreaking at the time the Italian/Jewish mob was. Lucky Luciano and Meyer crossed ethnic lines of their respective neighborhoods to partner together because it made financial sense. Being a Jew was inherent in Meyer’s character; it informed all of the choices he made later in life. He loved his grandfather, who is buried in Israel, dearly. Religion mattered to him and therefore was part of Meyer’s identity.

In this way, Meyer and I are similar. Practicing or not, you’re a Jew, whether you like it or not. Once you stop calling yourself one, usually the flames of anti-Semitism start burning high.

There’s a substantial amount of Yiddish in “Meyer,” all of which is accompanied by its translation. As someone who grew up hearing Yiddish words and phrases but never knowing what most of it meant, I was very thankful for that. However, did you toy with the idea of leaving it untranslated and having people to piece the words out from the context?

JL: I totally thought about leaving it untranslated. When one visits a new country, one has to piece out what is happening around them from interpreting signs to eavesdropping at cafés. In the past, I have tried to create that as part of the reading experience, especially in PLUNDER. A world seems more real to me when you don’t understand it completely.

However, it is admittedly, confusing. The translation was an editorial decision, and it was the right one. This book will be published all over the world and keeping unfamiliar language as clear as possible keeps readers within the world. I think of Michael Chabon’s “Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” and he created a whole new language, but he had the decency to put a dictionary in the back.

On the art side, Andrea Mutti & Andre Szymanowicz really are a dream team for the kind of rough and tumble action of a gangster story, while A Larger World Studios brings that grit, and also the glitz, to the lettering and logos. What was the collaboration process like with them?

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JL: Besides Fabrice and Amanda, Andrea was my first reader. He went through the scripts and would call me out when things were not reading. I remember him texting, “We’re making Coen Bros, not Looney Tunes. Real crime!” And he was right. He helped sequences not tip too far into slapstick. Without Andrea and Andre’s moody visuals, the action sequences would not work as well. Andrea had insights that helped me revisit whole sections. He came up with economic visual solutions. I love dialogue, especially these characters when they’re on a roll, but comics are a visual medium, and it’s essential to let the art tell the story.

Once I worked out everything, Andrea would crank. He literally can pencil two sometimes three pages a day. I have never seen anything like it. The lettering is so important, and from the jump, I had a very distinct style I imagined for scene headings. I wanted this to read like the 1950s “Greetings from Miami” postcards I used to collect when I briefly lived on South Beach in the early 2000s. Larger World Studios delivered; they made it happen.

Fabrice and Amanda kept everything moving along, which is no easy task when there are so many moving pieces. One thing I can say about everyone, and I can’t forget Shawn Martinbrough and his BRILLIANT covers, beyond the talent, everyone was nice. That matters, there were simply no divas involved. This medium is collaborative, much like filmmaking: every part matters.

Finally, where did you hear or find the proverbs that accompany each of the chapter breaks in “Meyer?

JL: I have a real soft spot for the Jewish writers who were part of the immigrant experience: Issac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud (one of my favorite writers). There is a type of wisdom that is baked into their fiction. My father gave me a book for Chanukah one year called Yiddish Wisdom (Yiddishe Chochma) illustrated by Kristina Swarner.

I would approach the book a little bit like the “I Ching.” I would flip through and pick out a proverb. It would either happen at the end of writing the chapter, as a kind of exclamation point, or before writing. I would pick out the proverb and just sit with it. What I love about all proverbs is they can both be a blessing or a curse, depending on the context. There was something about including those that shaped the reading formation for each chapter; they became a way of seeing. I also originally had Jimmy Buffet lyrics, but those didn’t make the final cut.

Elias Rosner

Elias is a lover of stories who, when he isn't writing reviews for Mulitversity, is hiding in the stacks of his library. Co-host of Make Mine Multiversity, a Marvel podcast, after winning the no-prize from the former hosts, co-editor of The Webcomics Weekly, and writer of the Worthy column, he can be found on Twitter (for mostly comics stuff) here and has finally updated his profile photo again.