Written by Julian Voloj
Art by Claudia Ahlering
It wasn't all that long ago that I watched Rubble Kings, the excellent documentary about the 70s Bronx street gang the Ghetto Brothers. It explained the backstory behind the excellent Truth & Soul rerelease of the Ghetto Brothers album, which I enjoyed a great deal. When I saw this graphic novel, there was no way I could resist it.
This book tells us the story of Benjy Melendez, a co-founder and leader of the street gang which eventually negotiated a truce with all of the other Bronx gangs, and ushered in a short-lived period of relative peace, quiet, and social organization in one of New York's worst neighbourhoods during a time of great upheaval. For the most part, there's not a lot here that you wouldn't already know from the documentary, except for a couple of facets that shine a little brighter here.
One is the focus, both in the story and in the introduction and backmatter, on how the truce Benjy initiated paved the way for the birth of hiphop. It's hard to read this now and not think about the Netflix series The Get Down, which is set in the same era.
Another thing that was new to me was the way in which the story focuses, towards the end, on Benjy's learning about his Puerto Rican family's Jewish roots, and how learning about his roots helps centre him and give him direction in life.
The book is narrated from Benjy's perspective, and while writer Julian Voloj did meet with him extensively in preparing to write this story, he does note that there are some places where he altered details to improve the narrative flow, which is unfortunate. I'd rather be able to trust this as a straight biography.
Claudia Ahlering's drawings are often too cramped to really enjoy, and I wonder if this was originally designed for a European-sized format, and was later shrunk to this version, which is smaller than a standard comic book. It does make it hard to recognize characters in some places.
This is a decent book that helps bring more light to a fascinating story. We need more people like Benjy, who are resistant to the narrative that the world wants to write for them, and who puts other people first.