So I love the Asburian The Gangs of New York era of American history and am sad that it isn't a narrative genre onto itself the way that westerns or prohibition-era gangster stories are. Both of those fill a specific story need about our national identity, and the Gangs era would, too, in a way that I think is very important (disenfranchised banding together for mutual survival, as key an element of American identity as those espoused by either of the other genres, both of which I do generally love). And I've wanted to do a project set in it.
My first attempt was a middle reader book which I still think is the best story I've ever written, but there was only one publisher that I thought would be a good fit for it, both because they have the capital to pay enough for folks to undertake a whole book and because they've done similar stuff in the past. But that similar stuff was a deciding factor in them not taking it on (there were other factors, too - inaccessibility of period language, for instance, something I made sure to address in this later pitch) - whereas adult and YA historical stuff had sold, their kid historical fiction had all underperformed on sales, dramatically.
Here are pages from that pitch;
I figured that if the publisher to whom I'd pitched it couldn't use it, probably no one else could, either, and so I put it aside, though, like I said, I feel like it's the finest story I've done, and hope to revisit it eventually.
So let's fast-forward a couple of years. I've got a number of friends doing work with Webtoons, and I spend a fair amount of time talking to one of the editors at C2E2. The idea of doing something serialized, an ongoing without a clear end in sight, was appealing, and the breadth of Webtoon's audience made it seem like a historical thing might have more of a chance to catch on with readers than it might as a floppy or pay-per-installment digital comic.
So I came up with an idea, whose details were streamlined dramatically through many, MANY long conversations with my friend Kyle Starks, an action comics guy who has is much better than I am at not overcomplicating characters, giving them a more archetypical starting point and allowing them to grow from their via their actions. The idea was basically to do a professional-problem-solver story, something along the lines of Burn Notice or The Fall Guy or Have Gun, Will Travel. But set in the rough and tumble Asburian New York slums.
Though I wasn't tied to a name, I settled on Truck Duffy for my protagonist. Here's a snip from the pitch:
Truck Duffy thought he was going to spend the rest of his days behind bars, but a local ward boss thought that Truck might be useful for muscle work. Truck is, after all, an ex-boxer, and at 6’7 towers over most bowery toughs. So he’s on indefinite parole, on call whenever the corrupt local politicians need him to handle something. But parole doesn’t pay, so he also takes on whatever jobs do (he’s also a glutton, and any job that will keep food coming is one he’ll consider). Trouble is, Truck has a conscience, and both his debt gigs and his paying ones often run at odds with it.
And that was the basis for the series. Each story would be serialized over the course of a month, the per-panel digital count being roughly analogous to 16-20 pages of a comic book, and would alternate between Truck doing work for the ward bosses and taking on odd jobs for the locals who have no one else to turn to.
Here are a few of the story ideas (endings removed so that if I ever find a way to do this series y'll won't already know how they play out).
House Punch Crimp: Truck is tasked with finding a missing person, a husband who never came home the night before. Truck recreates his steps and learns that he’s been shanghaied. Truck rows out to the ship where he and some other reluctant recruits are being held and frees them, but is knocked unconscious and captured himself. When he awakes, the ship is already putting out to sea, and Truck will have to figure out a way to get back.
Three Hand Buff: A black tradesman friend of Truck has been badly beaten by a white competitor, not for the first time. Knowing that if he retaliates a mob might descend indiscriminately on his block and neighbors, he looks Truck to see if he can put the guy out of commission more discreetly. Truck is initially going to just rough the man up, but then realizes that the man is a sometimes goon for his ward boss, so he needs an excuse to beat him up where it won’t blow back on him. Truck maneuvers the man and a pair of his cronies into suggesting a prizefight, three against one, bringing Truck out of retirement but giving him an opportunity to put the hurt on the guy.
Sock and Buskin: The Baxter Street Dudes, a kid gang that produces plays in the basement of a tavern, want big Truck to play Frankenstein in their production of Frankenstein vs George Washington and will pay him in as many oysters as he can he can eat for the duration of the show. A rival gang tries, as usual, to bust up opening night, and makes off with the fireworks used for special effects, so the formerly reluctant Truck, now invested in his role, has to track down the fireworks and return them in time for the performance.
Old Stroll Path: All of the shopkeepers pay the local ward bosses a weekly fee, a mix of a licensing fee and a protection racket. Last week, the collector of the fees, untouchable if you know what’s good for you, disappeared with the money. The bosses have other folks looking for him on unlikely chance he ran off, but Truck is tasked with escorting the new collector, lest he (and the boss’ dough) should meet the same end. While Truck tries to hold off members of a kid gang, the Little Forty Thieves, the collector disappears. Truck figures out that he was nabbed by the Swamp Angels, a gang that lives in the sewers and pulls victims into their lair via long hooks. Truck has to navigate the already ancient and labyrinthine sewers to find the man and retrieve the money.
The general gist with each story would be: Truck takes on a gig, does the leg work/detectiving to figure out what has to be done to proceed, makes a plan, finds plan complicated by external forces, and punches his way out, diminishing his victory and its returns by having resorted to violence, which he’s good at but doesn’t like.
The time period offered endless options for colorful characters: Battle Annie’s Mayhem Academy, where Annie would train girls as streetfighters to be hired out as strikers, political agitators, or strike- breakers; the Four Brothers, a Chinatown Tong who fought in the street on horseback with harpoons; Sadie the Goat and the Daybreak Boys, who would sail ships up the Hudson and raid farms, Viking-style, etc.
It was something I figured I could run for a long time, layering the stories beyond their episodic start (I feel like on ongoing ought to start episodic and grow organically rather than feel like the first chapter of a longer work). And I sent the pitch over to the editor to whom I'd spoken.
Well, it wasn't turned down, but the editor didn't seem to have much enthusiasm for it, and offered a noncommittal they'll-look-at-it-down-the-road-when-the-schedule-starts-to-clear, which I took as a soft no, and wrote the project off. If a publisher isn't as keen on a project as you are, it's unlikely to do well, both because they have a better sense of the inclinations of their audience and realize that this is a poor fit and because they're much less likely to put real effort into pushing said project.
Not-fantastic historical stuff is always a tough sell in the direct market, so I'm not sure if any traditional comics publisher would have interest. There's a specialty GN publisher who is focusing on historical stuff who might be interested, but given that it'd be a collection of short stories I'm not sure how well it'd fit there, either.
So for now, and, whether I like it or not, probably forever, commercial realities make it unlikely that I'll ever get to tackle a fictional project in this period. And who knows, that may change down the road - it only takes on runaway hit to convince publishers/studios/etc that a genre is commercially viable. But I was really hoping to be that runaway hit! Ha. Well, not ha. Approaching every project with an absurd degree of hubris gives you the emotional fortitude to see it through to completion and do your very best, convinced that it'll lead to commercial and critical success. The trick is shrugging it off if/when it doesn't.
So historical stuff, at least historical stuff in which the majority of the American public isn't already invested and which they're already very familiar with, is a real tough sell. So it's on the probably-forever backburner.
Which is okay. I've got other projects lined up, both in the wheelhouse of my other genre love: horror. First MARS ATTACKS, with Kyle, which comes out in October, and then a yet-to-be-announced project, another franchise. And from there, who knows? I've got plenty of spooky book ideas, and that's a genre that's a much easier sell.
Anyway, I wanted to share this with y'all, because I think it's important that those of you who are burgeoning cartoonists see that some projects never take flight, and, more importantly, sometimes you can't find a publisher for genres that you love. That doesn't mean that you have to abandon that genre outright, but you have to accept that reality and do other things while retooling that genre over and over until you figure out the way to make it more universally appealing. I haven't found that sweet spot yet, but you'd better believe I'll keep trying. And you know what? I take a lot of solace from folks who had big success in those unpopular historical genres, because few had early successes. George MacDoanld Fraser didn't publish the first Flashman Papers book until he was 44. Patrick O'Brian was 55 when the first Aubrey/Maturin novel was published. I'm 37, and not cracking the genre for 10 years, or 20, doesn't mean I would be able to still do tons of work in it. (In full disclosure, Hugo Pratt did his first Corto Maltese book at age 40, Bernard Cornwall did his first Sharpe novel at 37, and C.S. Forrester did his first Horatio Hornblower at 37, though historical fiction in Forrester's time was a vibrant genre).