After diving into family history and local journalism from the early- to mid-20th century, Robert Puzzitiello began writing a series of graphic novels about his great-grandfather, detective Martin P. Cooney, a long-standing member of the Cleveland Division of Police and a notable gang-buster under Eliot Ness. His name decorated the newspapers for years, though this will be the first time Cooney's legacy and character get attention in print in nearly 40 years. "He is the essence of 1940s pulp mag and noir storytelling," Puzzitiello says.
Eric Sandy: So what brings you to the graphic novel as a medium?
Robert Puzzitiello: I've always been a fan of cartoons and movies and all that nonsense. This time last year I was starting on my first official comic book. I mean, I've always written scripts and they've all taken on life in different ways. I went to Kent State to do video production. I came to the conclusion that doing comic books might be cheaper and I might have more creative freedom, while I'm also working and making videos. I started on a non-fiction psychological thriller, and while I was doing that my family asked if there was any influence from my great-grandfather. That kind of opened the door to this project. I didn't really know a lot about him. I knew he was a cop, but the research escalated pretty quickly over these last few months.
ES: Diving into old newspapers, that kind of stuff?
RP: When I was in high school, we went to the Cleveland Police Museum. I saw the death masks of the torso victims from the 1930s, if you're familiar with that. There's already a graphic novel called Torso. That sparked my interest. Then, later, on Easter, my grandmother gave me a stack of magazines and this scrapbook. It had Plain Dealer articles and Cleveland Press articles that he was mentioned in. I claim he was kind of a folk hero, and he was. He was the subject in a lot of headlines; you were expected to know who he was and what he did. Even small stories, like one time he had a blood clot and that was in the papers.
ES: He sort of rose up alongside Eliot Ness, right?
RP: Yeah. Eliot Ness handpicked him for how well he did on a racketeering job. One of the stories involved them in a high-speed chase that ended in a shootout across from the Cleveland Police Department. The police chief was there, and it was this really cinematic, hard-to-believe thing that happened in Cleveland history. I was like, "Well, I guess I've got a lot of material to work with here."
ES: So how do you cull all of that research into a coherent narrative?
RP: It's a little tricky, because I visited the Cleveland Police Museum this summer and met with some of the curators. They showed me how to access the library database, and there are literally thousands of articles that he gets mentioned in. I usually go into a story knowing how I want it to start and how I want it to end. The beginning would be him covering over and immigrating. The end would be him retiring — something quaint, nothing tragic. My grandmother mentioned that the positions that he held were — well, she referred to him as a gang-buster. She also mentioned him being head of homicide and working with subversive and vice squad. Those are kind of the three eras of his career. I could narrow those down into a trilogy.
ES: Sounds like a lot of historical material readily available for the project.
RP: I set out to consolidate characters. I wanted everything to be as accurate as possible, but I do want it to flow smoothly. As far as what happens, those events all happened. But there are some creative liberties. I don't know everything that happened in all of these cases or what happened in between them.
ES: And each of these three books has individual stories in them, right?
RP: Each issue will probably have a one-shot contained storyline, but over the whole book there's going to be an overarching story. In the first book, Gang Buster, it's the trio of small-time burglars who get into that huge police chase. It ends in this moment that garnered him a lot of attention. I think having a shootout outside the headquarters is something that put the eye of the department on Cooney for a bit.
ES: Practically speaking, where are you at in the process of creating these books?
RP: I did some promotional materials with the illustrator I'm working with. We released five pages of this one story — the "Ace of Spades Murder." That story was in three different detective magazines and the newspapers. It was a compelling story. A gambler was shot on his doorstep — the night his child was born — and just the way the papers revealed that was cool. Cooney shows up and does his detective work. The only thing left behind at the scene was a fedora and an ace of spades card. It was one of those too-good-to-be-true stories. We sent that to the publishers. And now we're doing a Kickstarter to get people aware of this. [Ed. note: The Kickstarter goal of $1,500 was reached shortly after this interview. More information can be found at tinyurl.com/cooneycleve.]
ES: How did you get linked up with illustrator Gemma Moody?
RP: I had done everything in my power to meet an illustrator from Cleveland. Without a financial incentive, it was tough to get people to invest time in this stuff. I went onto Reddit, and there's a forum called Comic Book Collabs. I posted there, and Gemma, who's from the U.K., sent me her work that was along the noir line. She was really into it. She already had experience doing noir, and her natural go-to is very much what I seek in a comic book. I saw her work and I was like, "I have to work with this person."