Christian Cipollini is fascinating and captivating -- just like the nonfiction books he has penned and continues to write. Christian is an award-winning author, organized crime historian, and comic book creator. He's creative and systematic at the same time. Cipollini has written nonfiction crime books, including Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend, and co-authored the memoirs of cartel sicario, El Mano Negra. He has appeared on and consulted for various true crime documentary shows (NatGeo, Travel Channel, Discovery). Furthermore, his journalism has been published by Vice, The Huffington Post, and Real Crime (UK). He's a talented researcher who fully commits to the process and does not miss a beat.
So, who exactly is Christian Cipollini? Christian was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. He had a childhood fascination with history's lesser-known corners, which led to his twenty-something years focused on organized crime, politics, pop culture, and how it all intertwined. Cipollini penned his first true crime book - Diary of a Motor City Hitman - published in 2013. From there, he began appearing on and consulting for true crime documentary shows, followed by two more nonfiction book releases, several book awards, multiple speaking engagements, and a comic book series based on the life and crimes of mobster Charles 'Lucky' Luciano.
This interview will focus on LUCKY, the true crime graphic novel. It is a novel produced by Seth Ferranti, written by Christian Cipollini, and illustrated by Yevgeniy Frantsev. LUCKY, the comic book, collects the original four-issue mini-series and includes exhaustive endnotes, essays, and bonus art about the infamous gangster. We will learn about Christian's research process, his fascination with Lucky Luciano, (as well as his many personality traits), and the creative and methodical process of producing a comic book. So, let's get into it! What is accurate, and what is fabricated?
What made you want to write books about organized crime?
It's a long story that began in my youth, though I had no idea then. I've been interested in history's less-explored or darker corners since my younger days, but it took a lot of little inspiration or 'signs' over the years to finally come together. What happened with deciding to write a book myself - after some years doing freelance writing in the entertainment realm, I made some contacts in the true crime world. I landed my first interview with a former heroin trafficker, Leslie 'Ike' Atkinson, aka Sgt. Smack. At the same time, I had been collecting original artifacts, mainly press photos and mugshots related to organized crime. One such image struck me and fascinated me. It was a 1975 photo of Detroit hitman Chester Wheeler Campbell, a guy I had never heard of. Many people outside Detroit hadn't either, but his story is so unusual and intriguing, so I decided to research, and when I had enough material - I wrote the book.
What fuels your passion and creativity for your research and writing? Is it a passion for crime or history— or maybe both?
My passion was fueled in the fourth grade. True story, I knew in the fourth grade that although I sucked at many things - I could write! I had no idea what to do with that talent, but I was very aware at a young age. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized I had a skill for research; I can’t see the forest through the trees, but I can find the needle in the haystack! The crime interest was the culmination of growing up with a narcotics cop dad, having some close friends from ‘the other side of the tracks, and being a voracious reader of everything of pop culture and history - the weird, provocative, the wonderful, and the bizarre.
You have studied and researched a lot of mobsters. What inspired you to write a Lucky Luciano graphic novel?
Lucky became my most driving force and the subject of interest after discovering that much of what had been chronicled of his life and role in American organized crime history was largely incorrect, incomplete, or, in at least one case (the 1975 book "The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano") was possibly fabricated. I can't explain 'why' my interest was so drawn to him. Still, it was, and my mission became that of finding out who he was, his personality, his friends, and his actual role in not just crime history but the American history of the Twentieth Century.
“I had to make sure that the LUCKY graphic novel was done in a way that captures both the spirit of the true crime story and also be able to reach the high standards expected of the graphic novel realm,” Cipollini says. “I had two goals in my mind [when starting the project]—keep the “true” in the crime part and Lucky will NOT be written nor drawn as some mindless thug, like I had seen in 1950’s era pulp mags and comic strips.”
Can you tell us a bit about your research methods?
I usually start with a visual. Not always, but usually, I start with photos or mugshots or crime scene photos of an individual or event. I’m highly visual, so this method interests me in high gear. From there, it’s hours and hours digging into newspaper archives, reference books, court documents, and transcripts and interviewing people when possible. Also important - bouncing stuff off my esteemed colleagues and friends in the true crime circles.
Are you a comic book fan?
I have been fascinated by comics since childhood because it is a form of media where almost any kind of storytelling could be explored in such a visual way. I had a particular fascination with classic comics.
How would you describe Lucky Luciano?
Layered and complex, just like the rest of us. Lucky had strengths and weaknesses, loves and loss, and even insecurity. There are three sides to every story, including biographies. The truth is usually somewhere in the murky middle.
From a creative standpoint, can you tell us about the comic book process?
Putting a concept or adapting something into the comic book medium is easier said than done; for me, it was a learning process. It takes a team of talented people to bring the whole thing together. From the beginning, the idea was to do the Lucky story in four issues, so I had to determine what period to focus on and what years of Lucky’s life. Realistically, it would be nearly impossible to tell an entire life story. Once that determination was settled, the script is written. If I had to compare it, comic book scripts are similar - though I say that lightly - to film or t.v. Scripts, but nuanced in their way. It’s written with all audiences in mind; the creatives and the reader. Everything is detailed down to the color of the walls, the style of suit a character would wear, the point-of-view, etc., so the illustrator, the colorist, the letterer, and the editor all can work their magic. And, of course, the narrative must be clear, digestible, and entertaining. Also, the dialogue is short and sweet, as are the captions (we didn’t want to overkill on either), so everything has to tell the story visually.
How do you balance the need for detail with the desire to keep the story exciting and engaging?
That’s a great question. As a historian, I’m that guy who points out historical inaccuracies in biopics. Still, also, I’m familiar enough with the Hollywood machine to know when some things have to be cut or creative license is taken. Be it books or comic books, any entertainment media really - it’s quite a balancing act to maintain story arc, timing, and details, especially when doing a biographical or historical story. It’s a game of give and take, compromise.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write about true crime?
It’s a hot topic and consistently has a market. We are fascinated by the villains or horrified, trying to find out how such a human could be so inhumane. To write about it requires a natural curiosity first and foremost. Ultimately, most of the work is behind-the-scenes research. Writing is about a third or less of the work, but it requires putting the facts into a consumable narrative - another task easier said than done. Oh, and try to find an area of actual interest, possibly even something outside the comfort zone, but not too far. I say that because it’s best to maintain a centrist stance to some degree, i.e., don’t take everything immediately at face value or skewed bias - go with the facts first. Also, on that note, being out of my comfort zone is good because it keeps me sharp and curious, but even I have limits. I’ve done this long enough to know what I can, will, or want to explore.
What do you hope readers take away from this graphic novel?
First and foremost, I hope the graphic novel enthralls people. The story of Lucky Luciano encompasses so much more than one individual (just like all our lives) - he was one of many fascinating people during a decadent and tumultuous era of history. Hopefully, readers are entertained and thrilled by some fantastic little elements they may not have previously known. And not just the gangster’s story, we put so many cool extras into the graphic novel; original script samples, rough artwork, backstory anecdotes on some of the side characters, and original rare photos of some of them. It's definitely a collaborative process.
To keep up with Christian, follow his social media links on both Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
The LUCKY graphic novel will be pre-sold through Kickstarter from April 15th to May 15th. In addition to the graphic novel, the Kickstarter campaign will offer unique collectibles such as a limited edition hardcover, a Lucky Luciano action figure, a comic art t-shirt, and an exclusive advance digital preview of Seth Ferranti and Christian Cipollini’s upcoming documentary Dope Men: America’s First Drug Cartel (Outlaw Films). Following the Kickstarter presale campaign, the book will be available in the general market, summer 2023.