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Posts Tagged ‘The Wonder City’

It seems unbelievable, but in 1954, Murray Handwerker of Nathan’s Famous leased an embalmed whale and put it on display next to his Coney Island eatery to attract customers. The seventy-ton, seventy-five foot finback was on show for two months when a heat wave struck and “A Whale in Bad Odor” began driving away customers, according to news reports at the time. Neighboring business owners called the Health Department, which issued summonses for maintaining a nuisance.  It ended up with Handwerker having to pay people to cut up the whale and tow it out to sea.

This odd tidbit of Coney Island history was one of the inspirations for “The Wonder City,” an ambitious new graphic novel by Justin Rivers and Courtney Zell that re-imagines the history of New York City starting with Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan. Subtitled “The Great Whale of Coney Island,” the first volume in a planned six-volume series is a captivating mix of history and mythology. “Where does myth end and history begin? What if there was no difference between the two?” asks Rivers, a playwright and educator whose literary influences include Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Set in New York City in 1942, the story begins with the delightfully named and drawn “gumshoe” Velma Graydon turning up at the Brooklyn home of the Tulip family. She is ready to spend a large sum to acquire the Parelzaad, a centuries-old charm that six-year-old Lizzie Tulip nonchalantly wears around her neck. Velma is told the heirloom was a gift from the girl’s Dutch grandmother and is not for sale.

But Velma is persistent and unable to let the sought-after charm out of her sight. The next day, she follows Lizzie and her brother Owen on an outing to Coney Island. The Wonder Wheel, which graces the cover of the book, and Grandma’s Predictions, the fortunetelling machine under the Wheel, play a part in the story, along with a dead whale on display as a sideshow attraction and a live whale whose appearance causes havoc in Coney Island.

Courtney Zell’s drawings have a quirky edge and convey emotion and intrigue. As the story unfolds and the mystery deepens, we learn that Velma belongs to a group called The Light Keepers who have long searched for the Parelzaad.  Velma’s research has uncovered documents that trace the charm’s origin to 17th century New Amsterdam. “My father said the charm brought prosperity to his crop,” wrote a resident of the Dutch colony in 1661. “It is our hope that you take it and bring prosperity back to our great city, the symbol of our worldly triumphs and a testament to our survival in the wilderness.”

ATZ first learned about “The Wonder City” last year via the website Kickstarter, where Rivers and Zell posted snippets of the novel-in-progress that piqued our curiosity. “The advice we’ve received from comic publishers is that the economy is bad for new comic book projects right now,” they wrote. “And the best way to get our book noticed is to self publish and get the book out there ourselves. And we’re determined to do it!” The project was successfully funded to the tune of $5518 by 62 backers, who received hand-pulled prints, signed copies of the book and the chance to be drawn into the comic as thank-yous.

The finished book was self-published this month and is on sale for $10 on the Wonder City website, etsy and Amazon.  A book release party and comic book creators meet-up is set for Wednesday, June 29, at 7 pm, at The Bell House, 149 7th Street in the Gowanus area of Park Slope, Brooklyn.

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