Have you heard about Hard Case Crime’s plans to publish comic books? The company, known for its throwback pulp and noir novels – and great cover art – is to release the first issues of Peepland and Triggerman in October. Both look brilliant and both will impress anyone who loves American classic crime fiction. Triggerman offers a 1930s gangster vibe, and Peepland is set in the neo-noir world of punk-era New York. Peepland is written by Christa Faust, an author who has first hand experience of the sex club scene in New York, and Gary Phillips, an LA hardboiled crime author who’s also got plenty of comic writing experience under his belt. The art, meanwhile, is done by Andrea Camerini and there will be all sorts of alternate covers for you to look out for. To find out more about Peepland and how it was created, we decided to have a chat with Christa and Gary, and this is what they said…
How did the Peepland project come about?
Christina Faust: I’d had this idea on the back burner for years. I had worked in the Times Square peep booths back in the late 80s and wanted to set a crime series in that place and time because I’d never seen that world portrayed in a way that accurately reflected my own experience. I’m primarily a novelist, but I knew this was a story that needed to be told in a visual medium, and comics seemed like the most accessible option. Gary and I have been friends for some time and so he was the first person I thought of to help make that happen.
Gary Phillips: I’m very pleased that Christa asked me in on Peepland. I’m a native of Los Angeles but have watched many 80s crime films set in New York City such as Ms 45, Fear City and the Pope of Greenwich Village. So having a hand in the production of this miniseries has been my way to pay homage to those films. Too, Christa and I are both prose crime fiction writers and strong believers in having tangible copies of books – the heft and smell of the ink on paper, you can’t beat that.
And what do you think crime fiction lovers will love about Peepland?
CF: I think because Gary and I are both voracious crime fiction readers as well as writers, we are telling the kind of story that we like to read. A complex, gray-shaded story in which there are no clear-cut heroes, just ordinary janes and joes trying (and often failing) to make it in a sleazy and ruthless, urban world where the odds are stacked against them
GP: We’ve got a compelling set of diverse characters who for the most part are just trying to get along in the harsh circumstances they find themselves in when our story opens. Some of them have sins from their past they can’t escape But crime fiction works best when it’s about what does a person who doesn’t have Special Ops training or is a master of kung fu, what happens when that woman or man is put under pressure, how do they react, what do they do to get out from under?
Tell us about the main characters to look out for, and what they’re up against?
CF: Well, all of the characters are based on real people I met while working in the peep booths. The central main character Roxy Bell is definitely semi-autobiographical, a scrappy, jaded, teenage tomboy trying to figure out her own slippery sexual identity while making a living in the ultra-feminine world of adult performers. The theme of blossoming sexual identity is a strong thread through many Peepland characters, including a single mother test-driving her first same-sex relationship and a baby butch driven by the need to prove her fledgling masculinity on the wrong side of the law. We also include our own versions of some infamous real life characters on the NYC porno scene like Al Goldstein and Ugly George.
GP: There’s also two real life incidents that shadow some of the characters in the story as well, the infamous Central Park Five case in which five young men were railroaded into prison for a crime they didn’t commit, and a particular headline grabbing incident back then of a preppy type and a young woman who died during supposed rough sex. These incidents are not shoehorned whole into the storyline, but re-imagined in the context of Peepland.
And what is the setting like? Why did you choose this setting?
CF: The vintage Times Square setting is like one of the main characters itself, and this story simply couldn’t be told anywhere else. It was a unique time and place that has since been tragically replaced by a generic Disney-fied shopping mall for tourists, but I grew up there, just a few blocks west on 45th Street and 9th Avenue. Times Square was like my third parent, or maybe more like a wild, promiscuous and badly behaved older sibling. It’s in my blood. As sleazy and gritty and dangerous as it was, it was home and I will always love it, warts and all. This series is my love letter to the place that shaped me and made me the person I am today.
Christa, I’ve read you have a fascination with the punk scene and 80s neo noir. Gary, you are a guy who writes hardboiled crime. Tell me more about what you think each of you bring to the table for Peepland, what interests each of you about the project, and what your ambitions are for it?
CF: I wouldn’t say I have a fascination with 80s neo noir, so much as I came of age in New York City during that time and wanted to share my own real life experience with people who were too young to remember. And because, like Gary, I’m also a hardboiled crime writer, that’s the kind of story that I naturally gravitate towards. As far as the punk scene, I was never cool enough to be part of any music scene growing up, but I watched it all from the outside and snuck into all kinds of shows whenever I was able. There is something unique and fascinating to me about that nihilistic, they’re-gonna-drop-the-bomb-any-day-so-fuck-it attitude of Reagan-era punk and hardcore and that makes it feel so right for Peepland.
GP: Again, I think we both understand that crime fiction is about pushing the characters against the wall and seeing what they do. Some dig deep and find within themselves a raw kind of bravery they didn’t know they had. Others might fold and still others might be the clever ones, the ruthless ones who pretend to do one thing but are plotting, laying out in their mind their next 10 steps and could be you find yourself as their fall guy or gal. In comics and prose the characters live and die on the page and we the writers put on their skin, live in their head and do our best to show them flaws and all. That sometimes they like us seek redemption or other times, seek gain… and what if those currents are running in the same person? What then?
What’s it like working together?
CF: I had this bare bones concept going in, and then the two of us sat down together over coffee and donuts and hashed out a more detailed outline. When it came to the execution of the script, it was more of a tag team deal where each one of us would take a turn in the ring and then tag the other in. But I have to be real here and admit that I never could have done this without Gary. I’d never written a comic script before and working with him on Peepland was like a fast-forward master class that threw my ass right in the deep end. I like to say that he’s the wily veteran while I’m the mouthy rookie and together, I think we added up to more than the sum of our parts.
GP: Having never worked together before, it was surprising to me how we managed to stay in sync and hammer out the story. Knock wood and all that for our possible future endeavors.
Who are the artists and how do you feel they’ve captured your story visually?
CF: I’ll start by saying that interior artist Andrea Camerini is a goddam saint for putting up with my helicopter parenting, control-freak nitpicking and 80s G-string fascism. I will also say that he has knocked it out the park, particularly with his gritty realistic vintage NYC street scenes. Because the setting was so important to me, and because it’s a real place where I grew up, I wasn’t going to be satisfied with stylised, generic approximations. I wanted the real thing, and he delivered.
GP: Comics is a visual medium. The covers, and we have a very cool line-up of variants, and the sequentials have to grab the potential reader right off the bat. Too, bear in mind Andrea is as much a storyteller in this effort as me and Christa are. The goal is to be as seamless as possible so that the reader can be absorbed into the arena that is Peepland.
It’s pretty lurid stuff. For you what’s the right amount of sex and violence in a comic and how are you handling the subject matter in Peepland?
CF: Well, for me, the sex in this story wasn’t just thrown in there to titillate and shock the reader. It’s an integral and even boring part of the daily grind for women like me who have worked in the adult entertainment business. We didn’t show full on hardcore in our depiction of sex work and other sexual situations, because even though that was certainly part of our real daily lives back then, I feel it would have distracted from the story. Everyone already knows what human anatomy looks like and how it functions, but not everyone knows how we were able to sneak extra tips using a folded piece of paper or how that job made us feel. Those are the kind of realistic details I wanted to focus on. Also, whenever people ask me about how much sex or violence is appropriate in any form of art, I always say if it can be cut out without affecting the story, it should be. If you cut the sex and violence out of Peepland, you have no story.
What other projects have each of you got planned that we should look out for?
CF: I’ve been working on the third and final book in the Angel Dare series from Hard Case Crime for way too long now, so if it doesn’t kill me and I ever actually finish it, you’ll have that to look out for. It’s called The Get Off and it’s set in the world of rodeo bullfighters, the guys who protect the riders from their bulls after they’ve been bucked off.
GP: I’ve got my first ever Sherlock Holmes story in Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, have a solo miniseries I wrote from DC Comics, Vigilante: Southland, a street level, crime fiction infused costumed hero tale, and in keeping with the retro theme, co-edited 44 Caliber Funk anthology.
What each of you would pick as your all-time favourite classic crime novels?
CF: So hard to pick just one, but I’m gonna go with my first. Dig That Crazy Grave by Richard Prather.
GP: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.
Issue 1 of Peepland goes on sale on 12 October and you can pre-order your first three issues digitally below. Classics in September 2016 is sponsored by Bloomsbury Reader.