By Mikaël, translated by Matt Maden (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-296-0 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-297-7
Certain eras and locales perennially resonate with both entertainment consumers and story creators. The Wild West, Victorian London, the trenches of the Somme, and so many more quasi-mythological locales instantly evoke images of drama, tension and tales begging to be told. In these modern times of doom and privation, one of the most evocative is Depression-era America… specifically the Big City…
Perhaps because it feels so tantalizingly within reach of living memory, or thanks to its cachet as the purported land of promises and untapped opportunity, America has always fascinated storytellers – especially comics-creators – from the “Old World” of Europe. This inclination has delivered many potent and rewarding stories, none more so than this continentally-published yarn by multi-disciplinary, multi award-winning French-born, Québécois auteur and autodidact Mikaël (Giant; Junior l’Aventurier; Rapa Nui, Promise)
Published in Europe by Dargaud in 2018, Bootblack originated as twin albums before being released as a brace of English-language digital tomes courtesy of Europe Comics. It now manifests as an oversized (229 x 305mm), resoundingly resilient hardback edition that gets the entire story done-in-one.
We open in Germany in 1945 where a weary G.I. pauses on a corpse-covered, crow-ridden battlefield to reflect on how he got there. Once upon a time, his given name was Alternberg: after the German village his family fled to America from. One day in 1929 – even before his tenth birthday – the boy rejected that name and his family; running away from his New York City ghetto hours before tragedy erased it, making him forever an orphan of the streets.
As “Al”, he grifted and grafted with other homeless kids, mostly making money by shining shoes. His best pal was James “Shiny” Rasmussen and he adored from afar shopkeeper’s daughter Maggie. That ambitious, self-educated go-getter had no time for him, but her mute little brother William – whom everyone else called Buster – was readily accepted by the street kids who eked out a precarious living.
Their scavenging for every cent was punctuated by clashes with rival kid gangs whose members had grown up as peewee versions of their nostalgically nationalistic, backward-looking elders. Al’s guys considered themselves True Americans, with no ties to some former “old country” that had no time or place for them…
Al’s life changed again in 1935 when charismatic boy-pickpocket Joseph “Finger Joe” Bazilsky moved into the district. Soon after, Al became Al Chrysler and shoeshine shenanigans grew into errands – and worse – for local hood/entrepreneur Frankie…
Throughout those years, Al pursued Maggie, gradually wearing her down and building a rapport with his constant promises of a dream trip to Coney Island. However, just when he got close enough to learn what made her tick, another clash with the “German” bootblack kids caused the death of someone they all loved.
Al and Maggie never really had a chance, not with her home life and Joe always somehow in the way at the most inopportune moments…
Ultimately, the increasingly hostile situation escalated into crisis, inevitably drawing every player into a tragic confrontation prompting more bad decisions and wrong choices, leading to betrayal and a destiny-drenched denouement in a field that could never have been Al’s homeland…
Told in a clever sequence of overlapping flashbacks – like Christopher Nolan’s Memento – everything about this stylish Depression-era drama is big, powerfully mythic and tragically foredoomed in a truly Shakespearean manner. Packed with period detail and skilfully tapping into the abundance of powerful, socially-aware novels, plays and movies which immortalised pre-WWII America, this collection also includes a gallery of stunning art tableaus at the back of the book.
Bootblack is moving, memorable and momentous, another triumph of graphic narrative you must not miss.
© 2019, 2020 Dargaud-Benelux (Dargaud-Lombard s.a.) – Mikaël.
Boot Black is scheduled for UK release May 19th 2022 and is available for pre-order now.
Most NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing at nbmpub.com.