Title: Bowery Boys: Our Fathers
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writer: Cory Levine
Artists: Ian Bertram and Brent McKee
Colorist: Rodrigo Aviles
Cover Artist: Ian Bertram
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
Bowery Boys started as a webcomic, written by Cory Levine with art by Ian Bertram and later Brent McKee. Dark Horse has collected the series in hardcover, including a new chapter not on the Bowery Boys website that ends the story. While I was impressed by the first half of Bowery Boys, I feel like the second half weighs it down, both in story and art.
Bowery Boys takes place in New York City in 1853, when ethnic tensions were high and the battle between capital and labor was at its peak. The protagonist is Nikolaus McGovern, the son of William McGovern, an Irish union leader. Opposing William is capitalist baron Roderick Pastor, Pastor’s dirty job man Markus Welsh, and Welsh’s go-to psychopath, Bo Bisbee. When Pastor frames McGovern for the public murder of Mrs. Pastor, Nikolaus needs the help of his friends Paully, Isaac, and Mary Ann to clear his father’s name.
Ian Bertram’s art is atmospheric and very impressive. One little touch I particularly like is his inclusion of shading lines that make the art reminiscent of woodcuttings. His figures have fluidity, particularly during action sequences. The action can become particularly violent, with bricks and spiked clubs smashing in people’s faces for plenty of blood. There’s a flowing, cartoon-like quality to the linework, and a fair amount of dinge during scenes that take place in the working-class areas of New York. Characters’ mere steps are enough to kick up dust in these neighborhoods. Rodrigo Aviles’ color work also contributes equally to the period and atmosphere. His palette is subdued but varied, and his interplay between light and shadow truly impressed me.
Bertram’s character design is stellar, and I especially like the way he and Levine develop characters through environment. The antagonists are particularly memorable. Markus Welsh is a tall, gaunt man who dresses well and colorfully in contrast to his long, white hair. He always makes an entrance and constantly makes flourishing gestures. Roderick Pastor is a literal fat cat, carrying his immense bulk around. His home on Fifth Avenue is referred to as “Pastor Manor,” and it is filled with disgusting opulence. His dinner table is long and covered in a gigantic spread, the entire place is decorated with animals he’s presumably hunted and had stuffed. Bo Bisbee is a muscular, chiseled man, large and handsome but with a frequent light of madness in his eyes. He keeps company with Welsh in a bar and club, the Silver Dragon, decorated with wood and a large American flag, filled with loose women and stiff drink.
When Brent McKee takes over the art, the shift is a bit jarring. His style is more realistic than Bertram’s. McKee’s work is good, but the art loses a lot of its character, and therefore so does the comic as a whole. His realism is inconsistent, sometimes shifting briefly to a style more reminiscent of Bertram. Occasionally there’s some extra roughness to McKee’s figures and environments, which adds a little atmosphere, but again, it’s inconsistent, and after Bertram fit so well, I had a hard time warming to McKee.
The plot starts interestingly. McGovern’s union is threatening to strike, but there’s a conflict between wanting to take a stand and needing payment to support families. This is on top of Pastor and his network being so powerful. Pastor has Tammany Hall and Alderman Alton Walcott in his pocket, not to mention more money than any man needs. The cast of antagonists is interesting, and there are ethnic conflicts including the Irish, the Jewish community, and those who see themselves as “real Americans,” descended from the time of the Revolution. Unfortunately, I feel the plot couldn’t stick the landing in the second half. The cast is unceremoniously winnowed down through sudden death or apathy. It builds up to a rather disappointing anticlimax followed by a denouement that didn’t give me any sense of catharsis or closure. I’m not sure if the story continues from here, but it seems as though it doesn’t. Even if it does, I don’t think I want to see what happens next.
Ultimately, despite a strong art team and a mix of good story elements, Bowery Boys tapers off and goes out with a whimper. I think it really could have been something great, but the parts simply didn’t come together for me. I recommend passing on it.