The Comixology Originals series The Panic is a different flavor of horror story. Sure, the series from writer/letterer Neil Kleid and artist Andrea Mutti tells the story of an apocalyptic catastrophe striking New York City, but it does so from the perspective of a group of subway commuters who happened to be trapped in an underground tunnel when the events occurred. The large-scale apocalypse combined with the smaller-scale claustrophobia of the action is amped up even further by the addition of elements from recent history, particularly the global pandemic and the social and political divides that have come with it.
For Kleid, the writer behind books like Brownsville (with artist Jake Allen) and Savor (with artists John Broglio and Frank Reynoso), The Panic is essentially a story about New York, both in terms of geography and the people who make it up. In the following essay, Kleid describes his view of the city, and lists a few of his other favorite New York stories. Check that out, as well as an exclusive preview of The Panic #3, which goes on sale next Tuesday, July 5th, below.
I (Heart) New York (Apologies to Milton Glaser)
By Neil Kleid
Hello. My name is Neil and though I live in New Jersey, I tell everyone that I’m a New Yorker.
I mean, in my heart it’s true. I did live in New York for nearly a decade; seven years on the Upper West Side, another two in the Bronx. I was born here, in Brooklyn. I’m a first generation Jewish New Yorker, in fact, both my parents having emigrated here to find a new life, opportunity and peace. So though we left when I was two years old, and I grew up in Detroit, I always knew—as did my family—that I’d end up back in the Big Apple.
Recently, someone asked myself and Andrea Mutti—my handsome, talented partner and co-author of The Panic, our gripping five-issue comic book thriller available from Comixology Originals that will be collected in print by Dark Horse Comics this fall—who we believed the leads were in our underground horror story. In The Panic, ten strangers are stranded together on a PATH train below the Hudson River, on their way to Manhattan from New Jersey, after a sudden and unusual derailment. Over the course of five issues, they are forced to work together in order to stay alive—emotionally navigating the moment after something terrible happens, putting aside political, racial and cultural differences to face dangers on their way to the light at the end of the tunnel. Andrea—because he’s smart—mentioned that he felt the fear, our panic ensemble faced was our story’s true lead. Truthfully, I couldn’t disagree…but it is an ensemble, and if you ask me…The Panic’s other lead is New York City.
Being a New Yorker means you have access to the city’s secret language; specific codes and attitudes that only a New Yorker can possess. It’s more than just being tough or surly; it’s not only about being able to parallel park into the tightest of space. It’s about coming together as New Yorkers in times of crisis—as happened after the Towers fell. It’s about knowing, collectively, which parts of the city (and it’s always “the city”—never “Manhattan” or “New York City”) you may want to avoid around lunchtime. You can spot the tourists a mile away (they’re looking up, right in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking you from getting to where you need to be.) New Yorkers have streets mapped in their head, as we do the subways and bus lines. We know where to get the best bagel, the best deli, the best sushi, the best everything—but we’ll happily debate you about your choices, if you’re ready to be wrong.
New York is a pulsing, moving, restless organism with a personality all its own; the perfect lead for any story—whether told on the printed page or, for an avid consumer of film and television like myself, streaming on screens both large and small. Here are a few of my favorite New York TV shows and movies, some of which inspired The Panic. Be warned—you won’t find Gossip Girl or Sex and The City on this list. Sure, you’ll find a few comedies…but for the most part, these are the films and shows that helped craft a very New York tale about horror and survival.
1. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Gripping and tense, the story of a transit policeman (or dispatcher, if you’ve seen the more recent 2009 version) forced to adopt the role of hostage negotiator when a subway train is hijacked by a group of criminals. Both films are fine (I mean, who doesn’t like Denzel Washington, John Travolta and John Turturro?) but I prefer the 1974 version with Walter Matthau simply because it depicts an older, grittier and more dangerous New York. Pelham was a huge influence on The Panic—a different kind of disaster story—particularly in its earlier form, written a few years after the World Trade Center Attack, where our inciting incident was a suicide bombing (now it’s…something else.) Notable and recognizable actors in the original also include Doris Roberts, Ray’s mom on Everybody Loves Raymond, and Jerry Stiller—of course, Frank Costanza, of Seinfeld fame, another city institution…and someone I once saw naked in the locker room at the 45th Street New York Health and Racquet Club. Only in New York, friends.
All right, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, I know it’s a huge cliche, but I’m Jewish and I lived on the Upper West Side, so even if I didn’t love the show (I do) Jerry and Larry’s show would have to make this list. You really can’t go anywhere on the UWS —or certain other areas of the city—without stumbling across a Seinfeld landmark. Tom’s Restaurant (the exterior of which was used for Monk’s the diner from the show) was blocks from my apartment. I’ve eaten at Mendy’s more times than I can count (yes, the soup is very good, Bania.) Everyone who lives in the city knows or has lived next to a Newman. So many of the show’s idiosyncratic, neurotic moments about nothing are moments that most Jewish New Yorkers are either familiar with—or have suffered through themselves. So, while it’s definitely an incredibly obvious choice, Seinfeld makes this list for the sole reason that Saul Polachek, one of our characters in The Panic, was inspired by one of the show’s masterminds, Larry David.
3. How to Make it in America
I’m going to ignore both Friends (too white, too clean), Girls (I honestly couldn’t find a character that I liked) and The King of Queens (though people think I look a lot like Kevin James) and go straight to my favorite. Only two seasons, but Ben, Cam and Kapo, the would-be fashion titans of this short-lived HBO series, are what New York (to me) is all about. Having a dream, refusing to let it go when the chips are down, never letting anyone tell you that you can’t achieve the impossible. A diverse ensemble that represents (to me, anyway) the melting pot that truly is NYC, you can’t knock the hustle of this series that will charm you to the core, inspire you to print some t-shirts and make you wish there was more to watch. Though parts of it may not have aged as well as one might like (to be fair, it’s no Entourage) when I dreamed up our diverse set of survivors for The Panic, I looked to this show—as I did Jonathan Larson’s Broadway musical, Rent—as a kind of blueprint for ensuring we were representing authentic, sensitive character depictions from all walks of life.
4. Once Upon a Time in America
Let me tell you about humility. For years, my father implored me to watch Sergio Leone’s four-hour epic 1984 crime drama and as a kid, I simply ignored his advice or asked him to leave me be. One day, after working a long shift behind the men’s accessories desk at Bloomingdale’s on 59th and Lex (I’d been unemployed for months following the Trade Center attacks, and took any job I could get so I didn’t have to move home to Michigan) I had nothing to do…and so I gave it a shot. Four hours later, I called my father to apologize. Yes, it’s a commitment (I mean, no more than many popular superhero movies these days) but it’s well worth the watch. A story about immigrants, poverty, crime, love and friendship—with a stirring, beautiful score by Ennio Morricone (I can hear it even now) it spans the length of Prohibition through the sixties, starring legends such as De Niro, Woods and Pesci, Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly, Treat Williams, William Forsythe and more. Primarily a gangster picture, Once Upon a Time is also about characters—it’s about people, their needs and desires, betrayals, love and emotion—and that’s something I desperately wanted to capture in The Panic. Sure, New York crime stories are a dime a dozen on Mulberry Street—The Godfather, Goodfellas, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos—as are televised NYC period character studies in desperation, hope and betrayal, like Mad Men, but none of them hold a candle—in my opinion—to America.
5. Boiler Room
I might easily add Margin Call (which I also love), The Wolf of Wall Street, Wall Street, Succession and others films or shows to this list—as I could Billions, a fascinating Showtime drama about hedge funds and the lawyers they love to hate—but for me, Boiler Room did it best. Like How to Make it in America, it’s about the hustle…but the hustle here is money—stocks and bonds, capitalizing on the weaknesses of others—and to me, that is a part of New York, as well. A darker part, sure…but the desperation and greed, the ambition that pushes some people to step on others…that, too, is New York. Maybe because I used to know one of the actors, but Boiler Room really highlighted what that life might do to a person—someone slightly more innocent, but who wanted the finer things in life—and really drive a wedge between them and the people they love. There are some actual shitty d-bags in our story, The Panic. You might recognize one or two of them in this movie.
6. The Incident.
Seriously, the less spoiled about this one the better. I don’t want to ruin it for you. Nicholas Baehr and Larry Peerce’s film about two hoodlums (Martin Sheen!) who strike fear into a subway car full of passengers, including Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, and Brock Peters. Our comic, The Panic, is a psychologically-charged story about a group of strangers on a train, and it deals with racism, sexism, political divides…but The Incident did it first and did it much, much better.
7. Brooklyn 99
Okay, it doesn’t have much to do with The Panic, but it makes me laugh. I think if Detective Charles Boyle had been stuck on the train with our characters, he’d either lead them out with a sing-along and a promise of the perfect meatball sandwich…or he might just be the first to die.
8. The train scene in Spider-Man 2
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: there is no longer an elevated railway in Midtown. There are a few in the boroughs, but not running through the city. The fight sequence aboard the moving train in Spider-Man 2 (the Tobey Maguire era; not the Garfield sequel), was filmed in Chicago, and let that be known (another Spidey-New York tidbit: you can no longer bring cars aboard the Staten Island Ferry, as depicted in Spider-Man: Homecoming. I do remember a time where you could, when I was younger…but these days the Ferry is simply home to tired commuters and drunken students.) That all being said…at the end of that sequence, after Peter Parker saves the day and passes out, the commuters in the lead train compartment work together to not only save him from falling but also (albeit fruitlessly) put themselves in harm’s way to protect the unconscious hero from the menacing Doctor Octopus. A nice moment, maybe slightly idealized. But it definitely informed the hope and motivations Andrea and I wanted to infuse into our fictional New Yorkers.
9. The Terminal
Wait wait wait hear me out. Yes, this 2004 movie showcasing a heavily-accented Tom Hanks stuck at John F. Kennedy Airport for nine months (based on the real-life story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport) isn’t…ground-breaking or even perfect. But it is charming, and again, shows a clear shift between the initial resentment and ridicule of hapless foreigner Viktor Navorksi by the denizens and merchant of JFK’s international traveler’s terminal…to acceptance and support when he proves himself by bettering the lives of those dealing with emotional baggage of their own (ha! I made an airport pun.) While The Panic is hardly ‘charming,” like The Terminal it shows a clear progression from a group formed of individuals coming together as one to overcome an incident, an obstacle, something preventing them from being free.
10. All In The Family/The Jeffersons
Look, at its heart The Panic is about a divided, stubborn America, and no one did cantankerous division better than Archie Bunker. Sitcoms that regularly tackled issues like racism, alcoholism, antisemitism, equality, gun control and homosexuality, Family and its spin-off, The Jeffersons were the template for real New York families with real New York opinions, often clashing over political, racial and sexual opinions, no matter how awful they might be. Decades of praise have been heaped upon the head of Carroll O’Connor for representing Bunker as an empathic bigot whose firmly right-wing opinions were famously on display, to the chagrin of the character’s family members, the cast, crew—and often, the viewers. While I wouldn’t say The Panic goes as far—or as fierce—as Archie did from the comfort of his recliner…but as the world has become a political, cultural, sexual and racial powder-keg—even just since the start of the year—All In The Family, and The Jeffersons to follow, paved the way for all kinds of media to provide a platform to shine the light on difficult, divisive conversations.
I could go on—we haven’t mentioned NYC institutions like Law and Order and NYPD Blue, nor have we highlighted Pose, the brilliantly crafted Harlem superhero drama, Luke Cage or Home Alone 2 (don’t laugh; The Panic includes a subtle, macabre take on this uneven 1992 sequel.) Our comic has so many influences—like 1995’s Kids, King Kong, Taxi Driver, Do The Right Thing, Escape From New York, Annie Hall, Dark Days (a documentary about the homeless by Marc Singer)…hell, even Ghostbusters! This list might stretch out to eternity, and in a city that never sleeps, maybe we’d even have time enough to watch them all. But the above ten are definitely near and dear to me. I hope—whether you’re local, or plan to visit—you take the time to gather some New York stories of your own. We all have them; it’s a city of a million stories, you know.
Andrea Mutti and I—co-authors of The Panic—hope that ours finds its way to yours.
Published by Comixology Originals, The Panic #3 is due out next Tuesday, July 5th.