October 7, 2015

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The New Deal by Jonathan Case



Written and Illustrated by Jonathan Case
Published by Dark Horse Comics
I'm going to preface this review with the fact that I'm not, by any definition, an expert on the decade featured in this piece and the racial and class issues that were prevalent at the time. It would be nice to be able to say that these problems no longer exist, but that would be an endlessly na├»ve statement that wouldn't sit well with anyone. Most people use entertainment as a vice or simply as a method of escaping from their problems. Every now and then, something comes along that dares to ask the questions that need to be asked to keep making progress. Eisner award winner Jonathan Case (Comic Book Tattoo, Green River Killer, The Guild) has returned with his new graphic novel The New Deal that follows two members of staff at a high-end hotel as they struggle by and attempt to make a living in a world that's geared against them. When a new guest checks into the hotel, neither of their lives are going to be the same again.
The first of many exceptional things about this book is the naturally flowing conversation that connects everything together. I've always been one who is impressed by films and other spoken media that can capture the intricacies of  human interactions so that not only does it sound like realistic speech, you can get actively engaged in every word that comes out of the characters' mouths. The very first panel of the book shows the words of the male lead, Frank O'Malley, imposed on top of the New York skyline. Purely from the pauses in the speech and the words used, you can pinpoint him cold-selling to strangers on the street and constantly getting rejected.

A scene that could easily becomes a superfluous, introductory moment stands out and gives a fantastic first impression. Case also uses his natural speech to fill out the world around our two main characters. For the remainder of the book, there are conversations being carried out that add the little details that are required to make a world feel comprehensive.
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The second protagonist of this story is the hotel maid, Theresa, who is the only black worker in the entire hotel. Back in the 1930s, it was far more socially acceptable to discriminate against someone purely because of their race. Case approaches the subject delicately by utilising antiquated reactions to her presence to make it clear which side he agrees with. By understanding the power of the words, he knows how to get his message across without needing to slap you across the face with it.
However, there is far more to the character than just her race. When we first see her, Case quickly introduces her passion in life: stage acting. After a demonstration of her abilities, where the body language demonstrates a complete transformation into her character, you feel like you've just seen a glimpse into the core essence of the character. From the many interactions and conversations with Frank over the course of their adventure, you get a real sense of where she's been and some of the history that's influenced who she is today. The ability to infer past events is a far more subtle skill that can be difficult to execute, but Case sticks the landing and tantalises the reader with its potential.
The story behind the relationship between Frank and Theresa is kept deliberately ambiguous. The unusual mix of formality and deep friendship seems to stem from Theresa's insecurities and ensures that it's very difficult to diagnose everything that’s happened between them. They go through a lot in the course of the adventure that the book takes them on, but the strength of their connection is obvious. The potential for a romantic connection between them is mentioned in passing, but luckily isn't the force that drives the characters through their individual journeys. The first two chapters focus entirely on one character but, as the book continues, the two storylines eventually merge and lingering plot points start to come together.
A direct comparison between the two character progressions again highlights the privilege that race can afford you. Both protagonists are poor and down on their luck, but only one of them is immediately accused when a theft occurs. The inclusion of this kind of commentary highlights the depth of this work. The comparison between their two plights reminds the reader how difficult it was at the start of the 20th century, and arguably right now, for people who aren't white.
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Living and working in an environment of like-minded people where gender, race and class are unimportant can blind you to the fact that there are still places out there where the kind of discrimination seen in this book is still prevalent. All you need to do is look at the news cycle to see that racial prejudice still exists; Case carefully conveys the importance of remembering the plight of minorities in the modern day. It's very disappointing to look at a piece of historical exploration based 80 years ago and not be able to say that something like this couldn't happen today.
Case's art is sequentially minded and flows as naturally as the conversation that he scripts. Not only are the transitions from page to page seamless, the detail he adds to the faces is magnificent. You can read a character’s emotions from the tiniest of facial tics combined with the positioning of their body. Including details like this allows your subconscious to perform the analysis and fly through the book on the first read, but also includes the depth that prompts further reads. The creative decision to not fully colour the book might detract from the experience for some people, but the inclusion of the blue/grey shading on particular objects in the scene stops the book from the incomplete feeling that occasionally accompanies black and white pieces . Somehow, with hardly any tones, you can fill in the majority of the colours subconsciously and give the world your own life.
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The situation between our two hotel workers and the new guest the sets off this whole adventure is introduced very gradually. With the individual character-focused chapters at the beginning, the guest is introduced into a prominent position in both of their lives where she has a chance to demonstrate her kindness and generosity. Quantifying the degree to which she is aware of her actions and knowingly guiding the two protagonists to where she wants them is difficult and is most likely kept deliberately ambiguous.
As the overall story continues to unfold, it takes you down an unexpected and yet entirely welcome path. The exciting situation in which our two hotel workers find themselves is just grounded enough that it allows you to live vicariously through them. This wouldn't be possible without the empathy that flows throughout the narrative and the natural relationship between the two leads. The strength of their interactions are maintained and fit perfectly alongside the art to keep it all flowing from one scene to the next. There are some moments of excitement and moments of complete and utter panic; throughout it all, you are completely gripped and need to discover the final fates of these characters.
Case’s idea to set the book in one of the decades that many people idolise as a golden age for the American culture was a stroke of genius. By grounding the story in the lives of these two minimum-wage workers shows the enormous differences between the two classes. Beyond the shallow material possessions, the topics of conversation demonstrate how enormous the difference is between what they consider the important things in life: passion and dreams are pitted against fashion and propriety. As with the racial issues that existed in this era, it would be fantastic to say that these differences are no longer a problem. However, with the global corporations that currently exist, it wouldn't be hard to argue that the divide today is larger than ever before.
With all of the mindless entertainment that exists nowadays (which there is absolutely nothing wrong with) it makes a change to read a book that will unquestionably make you think. With the amount of technological and social progression in recent years, it's inspiring to be able to look at previous generations and be able to say “Thank god we don’t live in that world anymore”. It's therefore eye-opening to read a book like this and see scenes that are unfortunately reminiscent of the world still around us today. With phenomenal scripting and an engaging plot tied together with expressive art and an important message, you really should look into buying this book. If nothing else, it will remind you why it's important to pay attention to the world around you. I can only hope that 80 years from now, people will be able to look back at the world contained in this comic and not recognise a thing.