The Legend of Pinky: Book I: Uptown/Downtown (1 of 6) by Craig Johnson II. Avenue Press.
Cartoonist Craig Johnson II is on a mission. Like many a great artist before him, he’s embarking upon a epic graphic novel. He’s bringing to life something special. I had the pleasure to provide an advance review of a previous edition of Book I: Uptown/Downtown a while back. Fast forward to now, there’s been time for the project to evolve and I understand that Johnson will be rolling out Book II: Nightworld sometime soon. What I can share with you at the moment are my impressions of an extended and re-lettered version of Book I. Well, it’s a sweet read. This book is gorgeous and I’m excited to see how things go moving forward.
When I say that Johnson is on an epic journey, I really mean it. The man has got the talent and vision to do it too. A select group of cartoonists go on such a journey and it can take time. Every journey is different: determined by style, temperament and vision. Maybe it results in a lifetime’s struggle for just one perfect book or, at the very least, a number of years to get a project right. The good stuff takes years. Maybe things get a little easier, artists can quicken the pace with the more experience they get, but it still is what it is.
What I admire right away about Johnson’s work is that he gets in the thick of it, making the most of the comics medium: keeping the narrative moving; mindful of continuity; and in full control of that elusive flow that is essential. This comic is alive and kicking! It’s an honest and focused narrative and truly engages the reader. Well, those are the sort of things I feel need to be said. Page for page, this is bursting with energy and I’m confident that Johnson will continue to follow his muse.
Book I: Uptown/Downtown is all about the conflict and tension between Harlem and the Lower East Side. Johnson gives the reader a robust chronicle of the times, bringing to life the Black culture and the Jewish culture of the Roaring Twenties within the context of high-flying crime fiction. It brings to mind the immersive quality of Criminal, the great crime noir comic book series written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Sean Phillips. In The Legend of Pinky, everything seems to come back to Pinky Horwitz, a mobster on the rise who clearly has one foot planted in Harlem and the other foot planted in the Bowery. Pinky can’t help himself. He relishes the company of the ladies in Harlem and he’s loyal to his family. Plus, he has a sweet spot for Yetta, a garment workers union activist; and the guy has unresolved issues with his ex, Polly. Pinky has spread himself thin and is definitely walking a tight rope. Johnson has created a perfect anti-hero. The Legend of Pinky is many things, including a great entry point into Black history. Johnson gives the reader a fun read with this first issue and has set the stage for a whole epic story to unfold.
So, as I say, the journey is different for each of us creatives, especially those on an artist-cartoonist track. That’s what intrigues me the most: the evolution of a true gem. Sometimes my observations will stir things up, other sites will link back or there’s a seismic shift in reader response. For example, I seem to have struck a chord with my review of Arsene Schrauwen by Olivier Schrauwen. On just one day, I had a spike of over 17,000 readers after it became the subject of a discussion forum. One of the greatest comics under the radar, that certainly deserves a similar forum, is The Wintermen by writer Brett Lewis and artist John Paul Leon. I included that review in a tribute to John Paul when he passed away last year. That is a very quirky shaggy dog kind of adventure that sparkles with originality. Such is the case with Johnson’s The Legend of Pinky.