New York has a rich tapestry of history to draw from for fictional stories, but perhaps no era is as rich as the mid-19th century. Whether it’s gang wars, the socioeconomic divide of America, labor reform or political corruption, the era and location are rife with story possibilities, which means it’s a great fit for Cory Levine, Ian Bertram and Brent McKee’s “Bowery Boys.” Their story takes all the elements of antebellum New York City and houses them inside the coming-of-age story of Niko McGovern, who must band together with a group of street youths in a life-or-death battle after his father, William, is unjustly accused of murder.
Collected for the first time in a hardcover by Dark Horse Comics in August 2015, “Bowery Boys” has been running as a webcomic since 2013, and though updates stopped at the end of the series’ third book, Levine has restarted the online serialization as the series heads to its fifth book conclusion. The Dark Horse collection contains the full five books as well as some new, extra material.
CBR News spoke with Levine, a former Marvel Comics editor, about putting together “Bowery Boys,” his partnership with artist Ian Bertram, the advantages of the digital format and why the Dark Horse print version will be the definitive way to experience the full story.
Cory, tell us a bit about “Bowery Boys.” It’s an intriguing title — what’s the concept behind the book and who are the main players?
Cory Levine: “Bowery Boys” is a coming-of-age adventure set in mid-19th century New York City. The main players are the McGoverns — William McGovern and his son Nikolas. William is framed for a murder, and it’s up to his son to clear his name and to free him. That’s the basic premise, and that’s our jumping off point.
What interests you about this particular time period in New York? Why did you think it was the best place to set your story?
A number of things led me to that place and time. First and foremost was trying to figure out what would be an appropriate setting for Ian Bertram, the artist, to draw. Ian and I had agreed to work together without having a hard and fast idea of what it was we were going to do. The story was written specifically to play to Ian’s strengths as an artist. The density of the population and the setting, and the historical time period really suited the richness of his linework. Part of it was also Ian and my mutual interest in New York City — at the time we started working together, we were both residents — and each of us has our own personal relationships with the city that we wanted to explore through the story.
I would also say the setting is really rife for comparison to multiple socio and economic concerns or themes that resonate with what we’re living through today.
Looking at the pages, it seems like you’ve done a lot of research about the time period. What kind of research went into developing the concept and setting for the series?
Yeah, it’s absolutely steeped in research. It’s something where we wanted to tell a fictional story, but we wanted it to ring true. While we’re not necessarily striving to 100% historical accuracy — we’re not using historical characters, we’re using fictional characters — we’re using a historical setting and we wanted it to feel honest and reflect the reality of that place and time. I did a lot of research on the time period and on different ethnic groups living in lower Manhattan. I think Ian and I both relied pretty heavily on Jacob Reese’s “How the Other Half Lives.” His photojournalism really informed what went into the book, despite the fact that it came later in the time period. Tyler Anbinder’s book “Five Points” was a big influence as well. I can name some other resources, but that probably gives you a good sense of where we’re coming from.
This is a project that’s being serialized online and published through comiXology Submit — so it’s definitely available to readers. What was the impetus to publish as a physical graphic novel?
I haven’t really been shy about the fact that when Ian and I started working together, our initial plan was to pursue print with this project. It wasn’t necessarily designed as a digital comic, but we’ve been very fortunate in that the landscape for publishing digital comics has changed and matured over the course of the time we’ve been working on this project. When we were initially unsuccessful at securing a print deal — in part because at the time we were relative unknowns — we were able to make ourselves known on our own terms. It allowed us to retain 100% creative freedom and preserve the integrity of the story. We were able to take it online and publish it to the web and comiXology Submit. As we got it out there and people started noticing it, the avenue for print opened up for us. It’s something we definitely want to take advantage of.
You’re a former editorial staffer for Marvel, where you worked on collected editions, so you must know a lot about the graphic novel process. How were you able to apply that specialized expertise to “Bowery Boys'” upcoming OGN?
Well, you’re right in that I was a former Marvel staffer, and I’ve worked on hundreds of collections that Marvel has published — but while I had a pretty heavy hand in designing and directing the [“Bowery Boys”] website with a really spectacular web designer named Kate McMillan, as far as the Dark Horse edition goes, Dark Horse is handling design on their end. They put out such beautiful books and they produce their work with such devotion and such high production quality that I have no reason and no interest in getting in there and monkeying around. I trust that the products they publish will be as good a physical edition of “Bowery Boys” as could be published. I don’t think anyone could do better than them.
Considering a lot of the content is already out there, is there any extra content fans could expect from the physical copy?
We haven’t finalized exactly what the extra content will be, but the plan is to include some of the development material and some of the behind-the-scenes stuff in the hardcover edition. It’s also, like I said — we developed this story and created it with the intent of it being read this way. Pursuing our digital options was something that we were fortunate to be able to do and we’ve had some success with, but was not the original intent of the story. I don’t mean to undercut the experience of reading online or reading through comiXology, but I would describe the Dark Horse hardcover as the purest reading experience, or definitive reading experience, of this volume of “Bowery Boys.”
Ian Bertram has been turning out pages pretty consistently during the course of the series’ online run. Did you bank a lot of those pages early on, or has Ian been working to the schedule of the release?
No, we built a really substantial lead on that. That’s why we were able to publish as frequently as we did. I don’t know if you’ve looked at it recently, but the website has been on hiatus for most of 2014, but will be coming back shortly with the conclusion of the story. We’ve still got a ways to go, and we’ve still got more work of Ian’s to publish. I guess this is also a good time to announce that we have a second artist coming on board to pick up where Ian left off and finish the story. Ian has had other opportunities, such as “Batman Eternal,” and he’s had to step away from the project. We have Brent McKee, a really fantastic young artist, coming onboard. A lot of his work is completed as well, and he doesn’t miss a beat.
You mentioned that this project came about after you and Ian decided to work on a project together. How did your partnership start and what’s your creative process like?
Ian and I first met in 2011. I had been talking to my friend Nick Lowe at Marvel, telling him how I wanted to write something after having edited for a long time. I wanted to put my money where my mouth is, really wanting to write a story. He very generously sent me sample pages of different artists that had submitted to him at Marvel that he really liked, whose art he really admired, but didn’t have a place for at the time in his line-up. Among those were Ian’s samples, which stood up immensely from the rest. It was the kind of art that stood out and gave you a good smack in the face. At the time, Ian was finishing his degree in the School of Visual Arts. I reached out to him, told him how I was referred to him and just asked him to grab some coffee with me to see if we had some common ground. We just took it from there. Working with him, I’m a very fortunate writer. It’s no surprise that he’s gone on to find the success that he’s had.
Not only is “Bowery Boys” a combination of mystery and action adventure, it’s also got a lot of really interesting overlaying concepts just by virtue of its setting and time period. Street gangs, labor reform, political corruption — what was the challenge for you in balancing these concepts in the story and making sure they flowed naturally?
I guess the challenge was trying not to get too bogged down in these overarching themes — the challenge was not to get distracted by them. Really, the core of the story is between a father and a son, and it’s about growing up and facing the harsh truths of adult life. It would have been very easy for me to lose that thread, but staying focused on that and having a key touchstone to come back to that runs through the entire story and really informs the characters’ decisions and informs the plot — which by extension informs those themes. You need to have that unifying thread, and it has to be human in nature, it has to come from that which makes your characters human.
“Bowery Boys” has been running online since 2013, with updates every three days until earlier in 2014. You’re already to Book Three at the moment. What’s the plan for the series moving forward?
Book Three is complete on the website, and there are two more books, which we’ll be publishing to the web over the course of the next year until the graphic novel is published. The graphic novel will contain books one through five. Beyond that, I would certainly love to continue with “Bowery Boys.” I’ve got a lot of great story ideas I’d like to pursue, new places to take these characters. If I had my druthers, I’d carry us from 1853 to 2014 with the “Bowery Boys” story. I’d love to do that, but it will depend on — we have to take it one step at a time. We have to get to the end of this first volume, and then we’ll see where we’re at and reassess. If there’s opportunities to keep doing it, we definitely will.
“Bowery Boys” is available online at BoweryBoysComic.com, and will be collected as an original graphic novel by Dark Horse Comics in August 2015.