Although Peter Tomasi's latest project is set in American history, the writer says that the story is "timeless."
"It's about following dreams through incredible trials and tribulations and children trying to step out of the shadows cast by their parents and make their own mark in the world, along with watching a woman step up into the political and business arena and see that she was heard," Tomasi tells Newsarama.
Out now from Abrams ComicArts, The Bridge: How the Roeblings Connected Brooklyn to New York traces the history of New York's famous suspension bridge and the family who built it.
Set in the mid-1800's, Tomasi and artist Sara DuVall depict the life of the Roebling family, their role in the Civil War, and their design and unprecedented construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Not only were lives lost building the bridge, but many of the workers were stricken with decompression sickness, including supervising engineer Washington Roebling himself. After Roebling's illness left him temporarily blinded and unable to leave home, his wife Emily took over supervision of the bridge while learning from her bed-ridden husband.
As a result, for much of the Brooklyn Bridge's construction, there was a female chief engineer overseeing its completion.
Newsarama talked to Tomasi about the amazing story behind the Brooklyn Bridge, what makes the Roeblings seem so heroic, and how Tomasi's upbringing in New York influenced his love of history.
Newsarama: Peter, this is an amazing story. When did you first start thinking about telling the story behind the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge?
Peter Tomasi: I considered writing about it in the early 1990s but seriously started taking notes back in the late '90s, focusing on making it a screenplay. And yeah, it's definitely one of those subjects that has so much inherent drama it screamed out to me to be visualized because I knew most people didn't know anything about its construction.
Here's this iconic magnet that people from all over the world visit when in New York but they have no idea who and how made it into reality, and I believe if people learn about the Roeblings and the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, they'd have an even greater appreciation when walking across the amazing span.
Nrama: It's definitely a piece of history most people didn't know.
Tomasi: I'm sure there's a helluva lot of people who don't know the epic story about this bridge, but that's simply because unless something zeroes in on you, grabs you, and rattles your imagination, then it's tough to uncover stories like this. You have to be hooked by a character or a story angle, then you end up digging deep, so to speak, to go beyond the broad strokes and really see the flesh and bone behind each and every piece of history because it's amazing. There are countless stories begging to be told, and I'm glad I was able to help visualize this with my amazing partner in crime, Sara DuVall.
As far as I'm concerned, the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, straddling the East River in that era, with the tools and machines at hand, was like Apollo 11 going to the Moon in 1969.
And as much as this story is historical, to me, it really is timeless because it's about following dreams through incredible trials and tribulations and children trying to step out of the shadows cast by their parents and make their own mark in the world, along with watching a woman step up into the political and business arena and see that she was heard, which, of course, was very alien in her specific era.
Nrama: Some of the most amazing stories are from history. Have you always been a history buff?
Tomasi: I have as long as I can remember. First, I loved historical movies as a wee lad, then the boom was lowered because I was born and raised in Washington Heights, an area steeped in American Revolution history. To this day I know the exact moment I fell in love with history, and that was when an archeology team was working in what was once Fort Washington (a colonial stronghold that was overrun by the British and Hessians). The team discovered some old muskets, buttons, cookware, uniforms, coins, etc. I stayed by their side every day and became part of the team. They let me do some brushing on several artifacts. I was in all my eight year old glory!
Nrama: Are you into any historical subject in particular? Any other stories from our past?
Tomasi: I am focused on American and New York history. The American Revolution is at the top for obvious reasons, along with New York City and State, which is simply filled with a treasure trove of historical places and stories that boggle the mind. I love the city's history and have started to develop a project that I feel could be really special. I'd say more, but would rather keep it close to the vest for now.
Nrama: Can't wait to hear about it. OK, back to this book in particular. Why do you think the story of the Roebling family and their part in building that bridge is so compelling - or at least, compelling enough that you were moved to create this graphic novel?
Tomasi: Pure and simple, the relationships between Washington Roebling and his father, John Roebling and the marriage of Washington and Emily Roebling. It's a wonderful universal story about an overbearing and successful father and a son who looks to escape from that shadow and carve out his own life.
But tragedy hits them all in different ways and it's how they react while continuing to build the bridge under duress and horrific working conditions that amazed me and compelled me to bring this story to new audience with pictures and words. I felt a graphic novel at this juncture could really allow for readers of all ages to go back in time and inhabit the story differently rather than a work of all prose.
And I say new audience, because there are a few old wonderful books and a great documentary out there that anyone with any interest in this subject should also read, the best being The Great Bridge by David McCullough (1972) and Ken Burns' first foray into American history with his PBS documentary The Brooklyn Bridge (1980).
Nrama: Let's talk about the art.
Tomasi: Working with Sara DuVall was great. She worked over a year straight on the project. She brought history to life with her beautiful artistry. I was in constant awe of the humanity she brought to the pages along with her complete and utter professionalism. She knocked it out of the park. I would love to work with her again. And I'd be remiss not mentioning the rest of our team, Gabe Eltaeb and John Kalisz, our colorists, and the indelible lettering of Rob Leigh whom I'm sure I drove crazy with changes and cuts.
Nrama: This bridge could be described as one man's vision, but your story shows that there were a lot of players behind that vision, particularly a lot of people who made the vision a reality. It almost speaks to the strength of family, of parenting, of being a spouse, of working on a team... Do you think that's part of the story as well?
Tomasi: Strength of spirit from the Chief Engineer right on down to the water boy is a key factor in this story. Every person has a job to do and each serves the greater purpose of bringing that bridge to life, carving something out of the air from nothing over almost 14 years.
The main focus is on the Roeblings, the designers and builders, but I also wanted to make sure that we saw the bridge building from different perspectives. That one and all paid a price, that there was suffering across the board to make the bridge a reality.
Nrama: There was such a huge sacrifice for this family to make that bridge. Is that maybe what makes it heroic? The sacrifice?
Tomasi: I'm not sure you can equate sacrifice with heroism in their specific moment of time. In hindsight, yes, absolutely, but none of them had a crystal ball and saw the wave of tragedies heading their way. It was a job, a special one that they knew would make careers, but it was black and white. They signed on to build a bridge and that's damn well what they were gonna do.
Nrama: The story also made me start thinking about all the men and women who might have sacrificed (or died!) to invent and build things that I take for granted every day. When you learn about all these lives that went into one bridge, it kind of makes you realize all the lives that went into everything you drive over or see or use each day. Has the experience of researching this bridge's story kind of opened your eyes that way?
Tomasi: Without a doubt. Talk about skin in the game. The men of that era were putting their lives on the line every day. Falls, accidents, equipment mishaps, snapping cables severing limbs, etc., there was a palpable sense of danger working underneath the riverbed inside the caissons and up on the stone towers, wrapping the cables. The bridge crews literally watched men die on the bridge site. But you hit it right on the head, Vaneta, how much we take the infrastructures, above and below us, for granted, not knowing the depth of blood, sweat and tears that went into each project, the sacrifices of life and limb. I've always been the kind of New Yorker who likes to look up at the structures around me, walk into lobby, check out the details in the architecture in older buildings, the old world craftsmanship that's now a lost art. When you take the time to appreciate the work of those that have come before you, you give them the gift of immortality for a brief shining moment. I say brief, because the skylines of cities change, the old makes way for the new, and we blink and some beautiful structure of the past is here today and gone tomorrow.
So the next time you're in NYC do yourself a favor and take a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge. You'll be glad you did, because Montgomery Schuyler, a famous critic of his day, once wrote on the Brooklyn Bridge's opening day in May 1883 capturing, in my mind, exactly what the bridge means to me: "It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge."
Nrama: You mentioned another project. Does that mean you have other historical graphic novels up your sleeve?
Tomasi: I do, but again, still pretty early in development to talk about now. But I can say the next one is about New York too.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell readers about The Bridge or anything else you have coming up?
Tomasi: Well, the 200 page hardcover went on sale April 17 and also available for purchase online at the usual suspects and also digitally. And if any readers are in NYC on April 30th I'll be at the New York Public Library for a discussion about the book. Check out this link for more info about the event.