“I got Brooklyn in my blood, but it sure as hell isn’t this Brooklyn”, thinks Billy O’Connor walking the streets of his hometown on Brooklyn Blood‘s first page. The grizzled NYPD detective barely recognizes the place he left behind for his military career, and has a hard time carrying the psychological wounds he earned for his service. He’s suffering from flashbacks, while he and his partner Hasan are trying to solve the increasingly unsettling case of a serial killer roaming the streets of Brooklyn. A case in which something otherworldly seems to be involved, something that somehow seems to be connected to Billy’s unresolved trauma…
The jarring feeling Billy encounters walking along Brooklyn’s brownstones wasn’t unfamiliar to Paul Levitz, the writer of Brooklyn Blood. “We worked so hard to get out of Brooklyn, why are you going back there?”, the writer, editor and former president of DC Comics said to his daughter, a little over ten years ago. “It’s not the same place, dad”, she replied. And even though Levitz was unsure about the answer she gave him regarding the place he had left forty years prior, he would soon find out how right she was.
“Historically, Brooklyn has been an immigration gateway into New York. There was a time when–I don’t know the exact statistic, but it was amazing–something like 25% of all people in America had at least one grandparent who’d lived in Brooklyn for a while”, Levitz explains. “That’s still going on; there’s still a large chunk of Brooklyn that’s immigrant families and first generation families. Adopting and adapting those people’s lives into the American culture and economy, that’s been a great source of its success over the years.”
But what wasn’t there when he was a kid are the many young freelancers carving out a living in Brooklyn: “You have this astounding concentration of young people, who’ve been participating in the gig economy. Who’re creative in both business and artistic ways, and who’ve been making very modern lifestyles for themselves. And I don’t think there’s ever been a concentration like that happening before, at least not in America. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch.”
“You walk around and it isn’t the same place. In a lot of ways it’s massively better, but it’s sort of ‘where is this thing I remember?’ There’s a little bit of that in Billy”, Levitz says. But Billy isn’t just struggling with adapting to changes in his hometown. “We’ve had a lot of men and women come home from military service in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, …messed up”, he explains, weighing his words carefully. “We’ve devoted way too little resources to reintegrating them into society. The amount of support the government provides is pretty modest compared to the size of the problem. A lot of people transition wonderfully and have terrific lives, and that’s great. But there are a lot of walking wounded out there. And they’re not ready to lead ordinary civilian lives.”
One of those walking wounded is his protagonist in Brooklyn Blood, who stumbles into a murder mystery tied to the occult, and some bloody occurrences in Brooklyn’s rich history. Explaining how it all ties together would spoil the story, but suffice to say, Levitz had a great time reverse-engineering the mystery around these pieces of real-life history: “Mystery stories are stories whose fundamental reward to the reader is the puzzle. Some readers like to try and solve the puzzle before the author reveals it, some just like to read along and go ‘that was intricate, that was cool. I didn’t see it coming!’ But from a writer’s standpoint, it’s ‘how do I put really interesting pieces of the puzzle into the box?’ In the beginning there’s no picture on the box, there’s no full answer, so what can I put here that will make this an interesting journey?”
His collaborator on that journey had a strong hand in that as well, as fellow Brooklynite Tim Hamilton took on the art for the book. “We began with conversations to see if Tim was interested in doing it. He was. We talked about different locales, talked about principles, so he could think about designing them. Then I wrote a full script for the first eight page chapter.” The supplemental material in its back reveals Hamilton received those full scripts, but started sketching them in pencil in a much looser approach: “I often draw ideas first without trying to ‘fit’ them into the page. I find that trying to fit all my ideas in at step one unconsciously restricts interesting solutions. After I have some ideas I like, I then see if they’ll fit.”
Levitz: “In several instances when Tim got the script he said ‘This is fine, but can I do it this other way?’ And usually I was enthusiastic about whatever he wanted, because he has an interesting visual imagination. There were some scenes, particularly the ghost train scene, where Tim just took it a way that not only could I not visualize to ask an artist to do, but I’m not sure how to describe it, even if I had the concept in my head. And it worked wonderfully.”
In the scene, one character sees a regular train, while another sees a horrid, decrepit train full of ghouls. The moving train is built up in comic panels, alternating between the two views. “It’s a really lovely use of the medium”, Levitz rightfully assesses. “We went back and forth on ideas, some of the things he offered helped modify things at the ending along the way. Comics are a wonderful collaborative medium, and it was great to have someone raising suggestions.”
Brooklyn Blood really benefits from both creators having a strong connection to its setting, as besides Billy and Hasan, the city itself almost functions as a third character. The distinctive brick houses, their stairways and porches, its parks and streets, will all feel instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever walked along them. But among the thick patches of black, Tim Hamilton colors his own organic line work with a muted color palette full of pale yellows, sickly greens and unnerving purples, giving the city an eerie look that serves the story well.
It’s further enhanced by its breakneck pace; a direct result of being serialized in eight page chapters in Dark Horse Presents before being collected as a graphic novel. “I think there’s a great plus in setting constraints and parameters for a work, whether it’s in comics; deciding you’re going to work with the nine-panel grid for a story, or the constraints that length puts to you”, Levitz says. “The need to tell the story in eight page chunks gave it a certain velocity that I think was interesting.”
“It probably moves faster than it would have, if I’d written it as a standalone graphic novel”, he reflects. “There are some things I could’ve done with that, that may have made it better or more interesting, like breaking for a crime report for a page or two or something like that. But, I think the relentlessness of having to have meat in every eight pages; to have a punchline to the end of every eight pages; it has to move forward; you gotta see all the characters you’ve already introduced within those eight pages; that discipline, was a very healthy addition to the final work.”
Ultimately though, the story is as much about the case as it is about Billy’s psychological wounds, and the surprisingly Lovecraftian way he starts upon a path towards healing them. “I think Billy has a combination of issues; even if Brooklyn had been more familiar to him coming back, and it certainly seems to have been jarring to him, he would still be having problems to live a “normal life””, Levitz says. “Following that journey should be an interesting story. It’s certainly not a complete journey in this one graphic novel, but hopefully I’ve presented a relatively sympathetic and meaningful portrayal of him.”