As far as prolific comic tropes are concerned, gangsters are right up there with flowy capes and an abundance of pouches in ’90s titles. But this month, Humanoids unveils a different kind of gangster tale with Meyer, written by Jonathan Lang and with art from Andrea Mutti. Described as a “Breaking Bad style imaginary biography of the legendary Jewish mobster,” the book follows a fictionalized version of the infamous Meyer Lansky as he sets forth on one last con alongside a young half-Cuban/half-Jewish orderly named David. Less a hard-boiled crime thriller, Meyer is both funny and thoughtful, a story about aging, self-fulfillment, friendship, and legacies.
Before the book hits shelves next week (September 25), we spoke with Lang about Lansky the character, musical inspirations, truth in fiction, and the role of gangster as hero (the book’s part of Humanoids’ H1 imprint, which means Lansky’s technically now a superhero. Booyah.), among other topics.
AiPT: What was it about Meyer Lansky, or his mythos, that first attracted you?
JL: Meyer was not someone from the pages of history. He was a presence that hung over the home, a collective memory. Meyer Lanky was a figure that was both mythic and very real. I had family members in the 1940s in Brooklyn who did some low-level jobs for Murders Inc. on the side: picking up packages, running numbers from candy stores, etc. This sort of activity was not uncommon, and everyone in the neighborhood knew someone involved. I also heard a story from my father, a neurosurgeon in Miami, seeing Meyer in a hospital around 1982. He was visiting his son. All of the nurses and doctors hustled when Meyer asked something, and my father was awed by his presence. He was a man who said very little, and despite his size commanded respect.
AiPT: How much “truth” do you think exists in your story? Does that matter at all, or are you just trying to nail something essential about Lansky?
JL: I would say some facts are indisputable. Meyer helped the Navy during World War II. Meyer wanted to go to Israel. These are the lynchpins in the narrative that set up his character’s narrative drive. Then, there are anecdotes that are reported from a book I used that Meyer Lansky II (now a friend through the project) told me Meyer himself had disavowed. But there was a fundamental truth in there that I distilled. The idea that Meyer was a proud Jew who “kept things under his hat”; this was fundamental to his character. He was stylish without being flashy. The mysterious, understated elegance is all Lansky. You can see that in a photo, even one where he is in cuffs on the way to court. Him being unknowable is part of his appeal.
AiPT: The book makes great use of Lansky’s Jewish-ness, which feels slightly underrepresented in comics. How important is Judaism to “your” Lansky and why? Is it about heritage or is there something about being an outsider that speaks to the whole dynamic?
JL: Meyer’s Jewishness is essential to the character. It shaped who he was from the very beginning. He had to fight Irish bullies as a kid because he was called a “dirty Jew.” His relationship with Lucky Luciano, a Jew and Italian working together, that was something that was outrageous, revolutionary at the time. They both had crossed ethnic lines and formed a forbidden friendship that lasted a lifetime. His Jewishness in the book, allows him to not only shape his worldview but build a bridge to David Greene. They may be from totally different generations from separate parts of the world, but they are both tough Jews who can’t deny their identity. Lansky’s need to hide, to keep his business close to the vest, I believe this is residual paranoia from being a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. There was an awareness of “don’t let the neighbors hear you.” I think he carried that idea with him his whole life and was probably the root of his need for secrecy.
AiPT: When reading this, I felt a lot of influence from pulp novels and the works of Elmore Leonard. Did you pull from anything specifically in crafting the story?
JL: There is absolutely a pulp influence, but it’s from a Miami crime writer who is criminally overlooked: Charles Willeford. He has a trilogy of books about an aging detective named Hoke Moseley. The best known is Miami Blues. What I took from Willeford, and Tarantino has talked about this as well, is adding personality to criminals. They don’t only talk about hits. Their lives are as trivial as anyone’s. Also, Willeford is a master of violence tipping from the terrifying to the clumsy. He was writing specifically about the time period and locale I covered. The way he writes about malls or convenience stores that I remember triggered my memory and inspired me. Those books were the fuel for my writing engine.
AiPT: I’m always interested when creators take a “bad” person, or even someone misunderstood, and make them the protagonist of a story. (Most recently, I’m thinking of something like Black Mass and Whitey Bulger.) Do you think presenting Lansky this way “rehabilitates” him or is that not always the case with works of fictionalization?
JL: I never view criminals through the lens of good vs. evil. I try to look at circumstances from which the criminal was coming. There’s a sociological theory, Merton’s Strain Theory of Deviance, that says deviants want the same things as everyone else, the American Dream, but due to blocked opportunity, the criminal finds a way to get what they want. I think this is why audiences root for the bad guy in general. John Dillinger became a folk hero robbing the banks that were repossessing homes. Ideally, I hope thinking about the “origin stories” of criminals allows us to investigate the systems they come from. What does Lansky’s rise in the Lower East Side say about the immigrant experience? What was it like to be a Jew in America before 1960? Clearly, something is broken with capitalism, and if locking people up wasn’t big business, we as a culture might examine the cause rather than the symptom.
AiPT: I like the idea of the playlist you put together for the book. What song(s) do you think best describe this book, or maybe your idea of Lansky as the protagonist?
JL: I have to choose one Yacht Rock song, and one Rat Pack song as the soundtrack is mainly about warring tribes. Essentially, I think the best buddy comedies are love stories. Characters who need each other, who can’t stand each other at times, ultimately heal each other. David and Meyer’s relationship is a father/son relationship at the heart of the story. The Jimmy Buffet song, Captain and the Kid, hits on two levels. The music feels so Islamorada to me; I can imagine having a drink on the dock watching the sun go down. It is also so specific about a mentor relationship and infused with both nostalgia and pathos. I imagine David and Meyer riding home to Miami together, or back to the shore after their adventure. For Lansky as the protagonist, it’s Sinatra’s I’ll Never Be the Same. If you’re talking Rat Pack in any way, you cannot exclude the Chairman of the Board. In The Wee Small Hours is the quintessential heartbreak album, perhaps across all genres. The opening strains move like heavy footsteps home after a final goodbye. Sinatra’s genius is the limitless scope of his feelings. Whose highs are higher or lows bottom out with such intensity? Meyer has left a part of himself behind in Islamorada; a part of him has died. This dirge is for the old ways of seeing.
AiPT: Are there other comics or that went into inspiring Lansky? Something that you think fits the vibe or aesthetic? The book feels akin to the hardboiled crime stuff from Brian Azzarello (but in the best way)
JL: I reread Matz’s The Killer to try to capture the existential dread and the boredom of violence. Murder is a job for our killer. I feel Meyer treated crime as a business from the very beginning. He took no great pleasure in doing what needed to be done. I also looked at Brubaker/Phillip’s Kill or Be Killed. While totally different subject matter tonally, I am always inspired by how Brubaker and Phillips play with images and text. For my money, Brubaker is the best writer in comics and seeing the tug between thought and action during violent sequences, allowed me to really think about pace.
AiPT: Lansky’s part of the H1 imprint/umbrella, isn’t that right? Is it weird to be in the same realm as their new, ongoing superhero series? Why is Humanoids in general such a great publisher for something like this?
JL: If he is in the realm of superheroes, his phone is off the hook. I believe he stands alongside heroes in his own way, but he has two powers. The most important one: invisibility. Hiding in plain sight, being untraceable, this is a power we have forgotten about. Secondly, I believe that his sechel, his wisdom, and cleverness gained through experience, help him get out of any jam. Humanoids allowed me to tell the story I wanted to tell. They wanted authenticity above all else. Their eye towards the international market forced me to tell a story that was both personal and universal. Their editorial team (Fabrice Sapolsky, Amanda Lucido, Mark Waid) made sure I kept to the guardrails and made sure the story moved briskly. Though I still haven’t held the published book in my hands, they create beautiful art objects. They were a dream to work with. I would work with them again without hesitation.
AiPT: What’s the story or message you’re hoping to portray with this book? It feels very much like a great meditation on friendship and aging and even how we write (or don’t, for that matter) our own personal life stories.
JL: You nailed it. This is a story about legacy, and how the things that we say and do, which may be inconsequential to us in the moment, matter a great deal. This story is also about identity; how what we have does not make us who we are. The plot is essentially a treasure hunt. For each tribe, what treasure means is quite different. The Cocaine Cowboys are after wealth, buying acceptance, in a new world. For Meyer, he knows that regardless of material wealth, criminals are always viewed as such. He never sees himself as a criminal but as a businessman. Ultimately, financial success never brought him any closer to acceptance. I think what he really craved was to be accepted by his grandfather, who was buried in Israel. His quest is a way of repenting. Meyer rewriting his legacy is his Yom Kippur; he is suffering for forgiveness.
AiPT: Andrea Mutti’s art is really stark; it definitely fits the pulp novel vibes I mentioned earlier. How important is it to the tone you’re setting, or even in helping you write all of this?
JL: Andrea’s, Andre’s (colorist), and Shawn’s (cover art) work was incredibly important. I always saw this as a Miami Noir, and without the art grounding the story in realism, the violence, the outlandish action simply would not work. I often think of the Coen brothers’ films like Blood Simple or Miller’s Crossing and how they are able to balance the tone of the cartoonish and straight noir. What keeps their work grounded has been their cinematography, the color pallet they use. Over-the-top characters don’t work unless you buy the reality of the world.
AiPT: I really love David as a whole. Why was it important to make or portray him the way he is, i.e. half Jewish and someone on the “early” path of that criminal life?
JL: Meyer and David are a case of the unity of opposites. They are generations apart, experientially, totally at odds. So there needed to be a tendril connecting them that was larger than any experience. Judaism is the link that bridges those gaps. In terms of the criminality, I like to think of something I call “the window of possible futures.” At David’s age, anything is possible; all paths are open, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. He literally could be anything. Meyer is standing on the opposite side, but his window is barely open, all he can do is reflect. Meyer is what David could be; if he continues down the road, he is on. All Meyer can do is shout at David across this closing gap. If Meyer is to do one good thing, to redeem himself in his own eyes, he has to get through to this kid. In some ways, David reminds Meyer of one of his best friends, Bugsy Siegel. He is unwittingly handsome, driven. Meyer couldn’t save Bugsy. Maybe he might be able to save David. Perhaps that’s the only way he can save himself.