The following is an interview with Jonathan Lang, writer of the upcoming original graphic novel, Meyer, which will feature artwork by Andrea Mutti and will be published by Humanoids. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Lang about the inspiration behind the graphic novel, his creative process in working with acclaimed artist Andrea Mutti, what he hopes that readers will take away from the book, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the upcoming release of your original graphic novel, Meyer, through Humanoids later this month! For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you tell us about the premise of this graphic novel?
Jonathan Lang: Thank you so much! It’s been gestating for 20 years, so to have the story come to life is genuinely a dream come true. Meyer is an imaginary biography about famed Jewish mobster, Meyer Lansky. Towards the end of his life, in the early 1980s, he is hiding out in a retirement home in Miami Beach. Like most in their twilight years, he is looking back towards his life and thinking about his legacy. For him, that means passage to Israel. A plane has gone down in the Florida Keys, and he must recover documentation before the plane is seized by Cocaine Cowboys trying to recover their shipment. It’s a race to the Florida Keys filled with murder, mayhem, and friendship.
BD: What was the inspiration behind this story?
JL: Meyer Lansky was a figure that always held sway in my house. I had family members back in Brooklyn in the 1940s who used to work with Murders Inc., very low level, running numbers and such. My father, a neurosurgeon, also saw him once in a hospital around 1982 and was blown away by his aura. Physically, he was a smaller man, and every nurse and doctor in the place hopped to attention. Meyer was basically a tough Jew, the kind of man who simply defied Jewish stereotypes of being bookish mama’s boys. He was a great American success who used his mind to get ahead, but he didn’t take any guff from anyone. And man, did he have style.
I also used to volunteer at a nursing home in Waltham, Massachusetts, while at Brandeis University. I used to visit a man named Fred Flagg, who was 101 years old and had graduated from Tufts first medical school class. He told me a story once about when he was a boy; he saw the headstone of an infant in a Boston cemetery. The inscription said, “If I was so soon to be done for, why on Earth was I begun for?” As a scientist, he had been trying to find an answer to that question all of his life. Somehow, that sense of existential curiosity, as well as the nursing home, connected in my mind. What if I was visiting a man in a nursing home who was actually Meyer Lansky in hiding? And then just my love of Miami and Islamorada specifically. I’ve been trying to tell a Florida Keys story for years.
BD: Meyer deftly weaves various literary genres and styles together, from noir and action/adventure to historical fiction. How would you describe your approach to combining these devices into a wonderfully cohesive and thrilling story?
JL: Thank you; that was definitely something I tried to be conscious of. Audiences and readers are incredibly sophisticated in terms of genre expectations, even if it doesn’t happen consciously. As such, successful storytelling must rely on mixed genre at this stage. I never really saw his biography as something separate from genre, since, essentially, noir and action/adventure molded this character. In many ways, the genres are simply an extension of Meyer himself. He is a man marked by contradiction and like the immigrant experience, his identity, as I imagine it, is a collision of cultures and values. Meyer is trying to tell you the best parts of his life even as he is forced to continue to do things he finds unsavory. The core of his drive has and always will be not just survival, but thriving. My approach to combining the devices was never trying to treat them as such. Meyer’s narrative, and the genre conceits used, were an outgrowth of his character and his personal journey.
BD: What can you tell us about your creative process in working with artists Andrea Mutti and Shawn Martibrough?
JL: Working with Andrea was a continual source of inspiration and an education. I have always viewed an artist as the director, as he spends the most time on the page. What works in a script may not necessarily work on a drawn page. Andrea kept me honest. He let me know if a gag had fallen flat or if something wasn’t reading. He was a second set of eyes. I learned so much from him. And more than anything else he is a beast at the table and a FANTASTIC cheerleader. He would send me one, sometimes two, completed pencils per day. It was like I won a contest where every morning I’d open my inbox, and there would be new art I couldn’t imagine. He would text me photos of him and his family fishing and truly forged a friendship with me that was authentic. He supported me. He believed in the work and made me work harder and up my game. His sense of pacing perfectly kept my comedic/nostalgic impulse in check. I love writing dialogue, and he and Fabrice Sapolsky (editor) stopped me from putting so many talking heads on the page. They were kind of like Billy Wilder giving his famous directorial note on the set of Some Like it Hot, “faster…faster.” So, I shifted tone at times and thought more about action set pieces.
Shawn was a dream to work with. He just was able to synthesize all of these contradictory, bizarre ideas into an iconic visual representation. And meeting him at SDCC this year was equally inspiring. He is such a kind and generous person.
BD: What do you hope that readers will take away from Meyer?
JL: First and foremost, I hope they are entertained. This book was so much fun to write, and I hope that comes across in the reading experience. I also hope they are intrigued enough to learn more about Meyer. He is such a fascinating figure, this pull of power and invisibility. The defacto impulse now is to be seen, to shout from the rooftops. Meyer’s drive is rooted in the kind of Jewish paranoia brought over from Eastern Europe about not letting the neighbors hear you. It is also a book about hometown pride for me. Growing up in Miami and spending so much time in Islamorada, I have tried for many years to write a South Florida story. I wanted to see the landmarks that mattered to me, the local color, depicted on the page.
Also, something in all of my work that is central is the role of the criminal. Crime is a symptom of the system that birthed it, and the criminal is usually not the root; they are the most visible expression to suppress to keep the system in place. I don’t necessarily have sympathy for all criminals, but I do think we need to question existing systems and why people commit crimes instead of simply making them disappear. Deviance is often more complicated than simply having a disorder.
BD: What makes Humanoids the best home for this project?
JL: Quite simply, who the hell else would do this book? I am joking, but H1 really is a home for telling intensely personal genre stories, where the creator is front and center. There isn’t any posturing from the creators I have met. They are truly the source for their own singular tales. The H1 team thinks about the global market in a way that no other publisher I worked with has. Thinking globally forces you to create work that is universal, to strip away what might not translate. What is left is something that can be read by anyone and ideally stands the test of time. And finally, they give you time. This is so rare in comics, as everyone is fighting to hit deadlines. Making something good takes time. I would love to work with them again. They are so supportive.
BD: Are there any other projects on which you are currently working that you are able to share with our readers?
JL: I am currently working on a couple of stories that I am trying to make even more personal than this. One is a powers story. The others are South Florida stories: one involving a kidnapping and the other is a YA horror story during Halloween. I am also working on a sci-fi/horror story I’m co-creating with Matt Triano, an incredible artist and storyteller. There are a couple of screenplays, an animated project; however, any writer will tell you: You spend equal time pitching as you do actually writing. It may be a shorter distance for some from conception to publication, but I am continually asking myself what’s next and how can I grow from this project.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Meyer?
JL: Meyer is a really complex guy. There isn’t a go-to biography that is 100% accurate. I relied on one called Meyer Lansky: Mogul to the Mob by Dan, Eisenberg, and Landau. They had access to Meyer like no writers before, as he was willing to sit down for interviews. I later learned from Meyer Lansky II (his grandson and a new friend I met through this project) that he actually hated that book and completely disavowed the project. I hope to learn more about Meyer through Meyer II, as he has hundreds of unpublished letters and photos of Meyer. We have talked about possibly collaborating and making something, or even giving talks together; Fact vs. Fiction. In some ways, only getting glimpses of the man are what you need to know about him. Once you start seeing the strings of the puppet master, the show somehow loses its magic.