The New Deal by Jonathan Case

The New Deal is a lovingly illustrated single story graphic novel set in mid 1930s New York City. More homage to 1940s-1950s black and white caper movies than historical piece, the plot features a mysterious set of thefts, femme fatale, and plenty of double crossing and twists to keep readers invested. But this isn’t a noir piece: author Case explores race relations during a period of time that signaled the peak of the Harlem renaissance (cue Orson Welles’ ‘Voodoo Macbeth” play). Our protagonists, a maid and a bellhop at the Waldorf Astoria, are singularly blue collar but inexorably caught up in the affairs of the wealthy. They may not always make the right decisions but you’ll root for them throughout.

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Story: Young Irish American Frank is a happy-go-lucky kind of guy who may owe some money from poker games but he’s pretty harmless. He’s a bellhop at the Waldorf Astoria and works with maid Theresa – the only African American on the staff and a very serious and intelligent young lady. Their friendship is seen as a curiosity, especially since Frank helps Theresa every night to practice lines for her small part in Orson Welles’ new play in Harlem. When a valuable necklace goes missing, Theresa was the only person working the floor at the time and is immediately blamed. But was it Frank (who is in desperate need of cash to repay a debt) who took the money – or was it the big time artifact collector guest – as suggested by the enigmatic society girl (and hotel guest) Nina? The two employees are going to get more than they bargained for as they become embroiled in the mystery at the Waldorf.

Although this sounds like yet another noir piece, really this owes more to lighthearted “His Girl Friday” than Sunset Boulevard. As such, the story is more romp than screwball comedy or hard boiled detective piece – and that’s a good thing. The tone matches the beautiful illustrations perfectly and allows the historical aspects to be grounded while still giving the reader a treat of a story. The characters are wonderfully animated, definitely distinct, but still full of that sweet innocence of the time.

Enough can’t be said about the beautiful illustrations. Done in a 1930s Eisner style, they further evoke the wonderful period of mid 1930s New York City. From how dishes are done to elevator work at the Waldorf, the historical milieu is respected but doesn’t take over the story at any time. The hallmark of a good writer is that the world supports the characters/tale but never overwhelms. The Waldorf is a character in itself here but never a major one, instead providing the nuances needed to understand and appreciation the main characters and their actions. Case made smart decisions to use the digital medium but also add in hand-done touches such as the washes (which just couldn’t be done digitally right now). It makes for a beautiful presentation that shows how much craft and care went into the book’s creation.

Where this failed for me, and this is a minor quibble, is with the important character of Nina. Admittedly, as a student of fashion history, I fell madly in love with her hats but was frustrated by her attire. Anachronistic pieces featuring rioting and inappropriate patterns, shocking (for the era) cleavage, one egregiously over the top skin tight (and not because it was bias cut) ensemble, and (dare I say it) boring shoes that didn’t match her status took me right out of the story and the period. I ended up feeling Nina was more Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan than Katherine Hepburn in Holiday. Yes, she is a high society flirt – but her wardrobe would still have needed to be more conservative. But I have to admit, she was great fun and a joy to read. Case has such a way with personalities and showing emotion that Nina’s joie de vivre was infectious. I wanted her in every scene!

Despite the reservation above (yes, I know, silly – but in a carefully researched book like this, it grated), The New Deal was a treat. Each page was a joy to read and explore and the story had a sweet beating heart. It’s a graphic novel that makes you feel warm after you’ve read it and want to read again, especially to enjoy the beautiful period details and illustrations. The cover alone was a “yes, please now!” for me the first time i saw it and the inside work is just as gorgeous. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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