Dave Kelly and I share the same midwest suburban roots. We both grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and probably read the same Chicago Tribune Sunday funnies as kids. Since 2011, Dave Kelly and Lara Antal have helped run the independent comics publisher, So What? Press. I spoke with Kelly about the latest issue of the Tales of the Night Watchman series, paying homage to New York, and how Kelly became inspired by an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site.
If you aren’t familiar with Tales of the Night Watchman (TotNW), here’s a brief synopsis: It’s the story of Nora, a blogger working in a dead-end coffee job and her roommate Charlie. Charlie happens to be possessed (in the nicest way possible) by a spectral detective called The Night Watchman. Baristas by day, heroes by night focused on saving the city from paranormal activity.
I’ve only ever been to New York City as a tourist, I’ve never lived there, never had the privilege of being engulfed by the place. There’s something about that process, of moving to that city, it swallows you and then you emerge as someone new. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The story of TotNW takes readers on a journey through New York City. We’re given snapshots of lives in progress, momentary glimpses into the diverse population that help make the city what it is. I asked Kelly to expand on how he balances the horror in the series with these small vignettes into the lives of New Yorker’s.
It’s important to have moments of levity in a horror comic or any kind of drama. It functions exactly the same way humor does in a scary movie. There needs to be a moment here and there when you can let off steam and relax before things get worse.
I think no matter who you are, if you live in New York, you are prone to complaining. It’s second nature. But the truth is, we have it great. Everyone hates the MTA, but it’s so much better than the transportation systems in other places. Deep down New Yorker’s know how good they have it, but we just can’t help ourselves. We love to kvetch.
Issue seven of TotNW revisits the popular Gowanus Golem in ‘It Came from the Gowanus Canal, Again!’ The golem made its first appearance in 2014, with writing by Kelly and artwork from Molly Ostertag (Strong Female Protagonist). The Gowanus Golem, long thought to be merely a legend, is real and killing the locals in Brooklyn. It’s one of the most popular issues of the series and I wanted to know why.
The Gowanus Canal is one of the most contaminated water bodies in the United States. During the 1800s it was used as a transportation route for paper mills and other industrial plants. Now it is pretty much a vessel for transporting a mix of raw sewage and fetid toxic sludge. So honestly, if any kind of Golem did exist, it would probably be in that canal. The EPA designated the canal a Superfund site in 2010 after decades of neglect. So, what was it exactly that drove Kelly to write about a highly toxic 100-foot wide urban waterway?
I started visiting Gowanus when I first moved to Brooklyn. I was diagnosed with cancer the weekend I moved there. I would pass over the canal on the F-train en route to the hospital. The neighborhood felt mysterious and a little sinister. I would have good weeks where I wasn’t going through treatment and could go out and walk around, listen to music, and explore. The idea to do something about a toxic sludge monster came from that. It was a weird time.
The Gowanus Golem reminded me of a story from my youth. I grew up near Argonne National Laboratory, a science and engineering research facility. As a child I thought it was a place where untold scientific horrors emerged. That perception was fueled by the infamous white deer Waterfall Glenn, a nearby forest preserve. As legend had it, the deer were white due to the radioactive waste from the lab (this was not the reason they were white). It was one of the stories you just knew as a kid but you weren’t sure where you heard it or where it came from. Was it our love for weaving tall tales that helped propel the Gowanus Golem to popularity?
The primary reason that issue is so successful is because it’s so high-concept. The name really sells it. I didn’t expect the neighborhood to get so popular, either. It’s really become a thing lately as Brooklyn has continued to gentrify. Molly Ostertag and I had a lot of fun making it, and it turned out very well. So, in spite of the name being an easy sell, people do really enjoy the comic itself, which is the most important thing. I’m so thankful for that.
The history of the canal is fascinating. It’s been a big part of the borough from day one. It was the site of the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War. Now, in post-industrial Brooklyn, it’s the repository of the borough’s sewer runoff. There’s a lot of lore fodder for sure.
In reading TotNW I found the small moments shared between the characters to be some of my favorites. For me, it’s where the series shines. I wanted Kelly to explain the creative process behind those moments and dive into the character of Serena. Serena strikes me as someone still on their journey of finding out where they belong and how they fit in to the tapestry of a city made up of over eight million people.
Well, Serena is particularly is near and dear to me. She represents a very realistic aspect to the series. Loneliness is a big part of it. Freedom by way of aimlessness is another. Lara Antal and I both worked at Think Coffee. We met there. The reason we use it in the series as the actual café where Nora, Charlie, and Serena work is because we wanted it to be grounded in the world we live in. That’s New York to us. Working in a coffee shop. Being broke. Dreaming about that thing we’d rather be doing, like making comics.
Nora wants to be a journalist. Charlie wants to know where he came from, how he fits in this new world. Serena was fine doing her thing, but when Charlie disrupted that, she begrudgingly set herself on another path. Now, she realizes there are more options for her life. Despite her vision of herself, Serena’s loneliness ends up being the motivation for her to take the job as a porter in Issue Two.
Ultimately, TotNW is a series about being human and overcoming horrors and hardship, be they of the personal or paranormal kind. Dave Kelly and artist Brett Hobson will be signing the latest issue for Local Comic Book Shop Day on November 18, at Comix Revolution in Evanston, Illinois. Before we ended our many-threaded email chain, I asked Dave if he wanted to add anything about his work or comics and he ended on this note, which seems as good a note as any to end on.
It’s important for kids to read comics. I couldn’t imagine my life without them. The best feeling in the world is knowing that kids buy and enjoy your comics. I’m thankful this happens a lot with Tales of the Night Watchman, even though it’s not a “kids comic.” I never read comics that were appropriate for my age anyway. I read a lot of Batman in the late ‘80s, when they were really undergoing some growing pains. There was a lot of dark, weird stuff in those books, and they’re still some of my favorites. My mind got corrupted and I’ve never looked back. Thank God.
Issue Synopsis: The Gowanus Golem is back! In this follow-up to one of the series’ most popular tales, Brooklyn’s most toxic monster is after a couple thugs who are responsible for the death of a young boy. There’s only one problem: To stop him, The Night Watchman must protect one of the killers. Oh, and did we mention it’s also a Christmas special?
Writer: Dave Kelly
Artist: Brett Hobson
Colorist: Clare DeZutti
Cover Art: Tim Hamilton
Andrea Ayres writes about comics, video games, and representation in pop-culture.