The world of comic book/graphic novel reviewers is overflowing with apologists. You know the type; people who clearly love their hobby but seem incapable of letting the work stand on its own without ascribing every enthusiastic accolades under the sun. Everything they talk about is either a ‘modern classic’ or ‘epic’ and every artist is a ‘master’ this or ‘legendary’ that. Whatever happened to just being normal and average?
This is where something like writer/artist Jonathan Case’s latest graphic novel, The New Deal, comes in. He writes and illustrates a lightweight, breezy caper that works just fine precisely because it’s not epic, or legendary, or even that memorable. Published under Dark Horse’s Originals imprint, it’s a quick-read with few pretensions, other than to entertain and look good doing it.
Don’t let the title fool you; despite its Depression-era setting, The New Deal has less to do with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s social relief schemes of the 30s. At the center of it all are two employees at the Waldorf Astoria: Frank O’Malley, a white bellhop, and the hotel’s recently hired maid, Theresa Harris, who is black. The latter’s race matters only because she’s an aspiring actor, and has landed a role under a pre-fame Orson Welles’ Federal Theatre Negro Unit’s presentation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, an all-black interpretation of the Bard’s original known as Voodoo Macbeth.
Frank, kind-hearted but kind of a schmuck, not only helps his uncle sell apples on the side, but is secretly helping Theresa practice her lines when the two aren’t busy. He’s also gotten himself into trouble, amassing a sizable gambling debt to one of New York’s most powerful players – and frequent Waldorf Astoria guest – Jack Helmer.
Things really get interesting when Nina Booth, a bombshell socialite, shows up at the hotel. Her lavish lifestyle – and other assets- sets Jack’s tongue wagging. The trendy newcomer also make quick friends with other guests, doling out big tips to the staff and seems unusually protective of Theresa. But is Nina’s kindness a sign of a progressive nature or is there something more to this mystery woman than she’s letting on?
But trouble is brewing; when a pricey dog collar goes missing the pooch’s owner, an elderly old bitty who frequents the Waldorf, points her prejudiced finger right at Theresa. It’s a sign ‘o the times, of course, and a hasty interrogation puts the whole staff on high alert. There’s a thief on the premises, and anyone – and I do mean anyone – could be the culprit. With a setup like this how could anything possibly go wrong?
We’re not talking P.G. Wodehouse territory, but Case paints a satisfactory look at a bygone era, populating characters and settings with period-appropriate attire and styling; such things have always been his gift and he’s in fine shape here. I especially like the way he renders character’s outfits and facial expressions, allowing his outstanding drawings handle most of the story’s more colorful flavor. He generally holds to form, and the choice to render things in clean monochrome, with a hint of bluish ink wash, was smart.
With the exception of a last-minute character outfit that feels totally out of place (you’ll have to see it for yourself – seems Case still has some of the old Batman ‘66 excitement left in him) this is a great looking book.
Some might have you believe there’s more depth and complexity to The New Deal and it’s crazy caper than it might appear, especially given its Depression-era setting and wholly intentional mix of characters. There really isn’t, as these details have little bearing on the actual plot, apart from adding visual color. Despite any good intentions, I suspect their inclusion is more obligatory on the part of a modern artist to give a stamp of disapproval on the societal evils we’ve managed to – hopefully – rise above.
To be honest, they needn’t be, as Case hasn’t crafted a story with the nuance and complexity that could handle the weight. Underneath its wafer thin trappings of social class and place beats the heart of a classic cinematic caper, one more interested in playing its whimsical farce for all its worth than bleating out awkward social commentary. Sometimes a story is just a story, and better for it.