Gary Phillips on Crime in Stories and Pictures

Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips Image 1

There’s an infamous misogynistic cover drawn by Johnny Craig for the April/May 1954 cover of Crime SuspenseStories No. 22 for the equally infamous EC Comics. It’s a close on shot of a man holding a bloody axe, his other hand holding the severed head of a woman, her eyes rolled back in her head, drool and blood cascading from her gaping mouth. Off to one side past him we can see her corpse, though not so far up as to expose the bloody stump of her neck. This image became a key indictment against comics in the hearings conducted by Estes Kefauver’s Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Subsequently, the comic book industry, seeking to prevent censorship from without, established the Comics Code Authority to police themselves from within.

Among its tenets were, “Good shall triumph over evil,” and “Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.”

The Code is long gone and crime comics and variations thereof have returned, well, like gang busters. There’s Sex Criminals, wherein Suzie and Jon have an ability — when they have sex, time stops. What the heck, these two crazy kids do the bang-bang and start robbing banks. The late Darwyn Cooke did four of Donald Westlake writing at Richard Stark’s professional thief Parker novels — The Hunter, The Outfit, The Score and Slayground, as much acclaimed graphic novels (and an oversized 24-page comic of The Man With the Getaway Face) in a style that’s beatnik noir cool. And the Catwoman comic book series through various incarnations was a kind of hybrid book, a costumed anti-heroine who lives in Batman’s world where heists and scores figure into her stories. In a recent run by writer Genevieve Valentine, Selina “Catwoman” Kyle as head of the Calabrese crime family, sought to unite by nefarious means all of Gotham’s crime families.

That’s some rugged territory to want to stake your claim in, but when my friend, fellow hardboiled writer Christa Faust (Choke Hold and Money Shot) graciously asked me to co-write an idea that became Peepland, I couldn’t turn away. Set in the last bad old days in the ’80s when Times Square was still home to triple-X grindhouses and peep booths, our story starts with a chase through those environs and ends a week later on New Year’s day. In between are marginal characters, a headline grabbing, racially divisive murder in Central park, conniving cops and it just so happens a blowhard, self-aggrandizing real estate developer figures in the plot too.

Writing a crime fiction comic book is on one hand simpler than prose, you don’t have to spend time describing what someone looks like or what the street looks like, etc., but does require the writer to think in a different way. Like a film or television script, it’s about understanding the visual shorthand, about how the images carry the story along with the words. That also means communicating clearly to the artist what you want in a given panel and that it not something overwrought like giving this description —”She should have a growing fear in her eyes, though not fully realized, her mouth pensive and nose flaring from fear.”

Gary Phillips Image 2

Each panel is frozen action, static, but each panel also has to be used to keep us going forward. Too, there’s only so much real estate on a comics page, and your dialogue balloons and captions — which have replaced the thought balloon as a way to glimpse what a character is thinking — can’t get in the way of the main image per panel. Just as prose demands pacing, so do sequentials. Arguably techniques pioneered by Will Eisner, the artist-writer who created the Spirit among many other characters, ushered in a visual langue still employed today in crime and super-hero stories. His approach, lifted he’d freely admit from noir films, imbued his pages with oblique angles, plays of shadow and light, alternating sizes and shapes of panels to offer a sub-rosa dynamism as part of the reading experience.

That’s why I’ve been so pleased that Elena Casagrande is the artist on my solo effort, Vigilante: Southland from DC Comics. One of those hybrid, a costumed protagonist out to solve a mystery set in Southern California locales beyond the glitz. She’s in Italy, but she did live here in L.A. for awhile and what with suggesting to her plenty of photo and film and TV references (True Detective 2, Collateral, Straight Outta Compton and similar fare) she steeped herself in the look for the series and it shows in her work.

Or as ole’ Dostoyevsky said in Crime and Punishment, “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”