Celebrities, extravagant parties, high-end clubs — the Los Angeles nightlife definitely serves as an exciting, glamorous and sometimes downright seedy backdrop for countless tales across all sorts of mediums. And while “Poseurs” also employs the LA lifestyle as its setting, the Image Comics published graphic novel provides a whole new perspective on it all since writer Deborah Vankin spent years of her life immersed in that world as a reporter for countless news publications.
Written by Vankin with art by comic veteran Rick Mays, “Poseurs” follows three different youths who looking for their own sense of identity and place while caught up in the Los Angeles party scene. Currently a staff writer for the “Los Angeles Times,” Vankin has acted as an arts and culture reporter for the past 10 years. Her background and experience in the area gave her a unique viewpoint for the “party-noir” graphic novel, which hits stores this week.
We caught up with Vankin while she took her dose of after work coffee to talk about how she got into comics, reality versus fiction and her enjoyment in breaking the fourth wall.
CBR News: How did you first get started in writing? Was journalism something you were always interested in pursuing?
Deborah Vankin: I’ve always been a writer. From the time that I was 5 years old, I’ve always been writing stories and songs and poems. Then when I was in my 20s, I moved to Tokyo and it was such an exciting, crazy experience. I started writing longer and longer letters back home and eventually articles. I finally decided I wanted to go back to school for creative writing and make a career out of writing. I was an intern at the “LA Weekly” while I was writing screenplays and things like that. That internship turned into an assistant position on the art staff and I started covering the kind of things that I was drawn to in my regular life. I was covering books and arts and those kind of things. That turned into a career as an Arts journalist.
How did that lead into comics, and specifically, to “Poseurs?”
The genesis of this book is that I was brought on by DC Comics to write one of the Minx books. I wrote it with my editor there and we developed it together. At the end of 2008, DC killed the Minx line, unfortunately. It was a great line. So, this book got cancelled, but Image decided to pick it up and publish it. This is my first comic book, and when we were deciding on ideas for the plot and the theme, at the time, I was the Editor-in-Chief of “Metromix LA,” which is a website and a weekly publication for young people covering food and entertainment and nightlife. I was steeped in that world of Hollywood parties and clubs and nightlife. It just seemed like a natural, provocative background for a story. It seemed such a rich, textured, colorful world and ripe for stories. That’s why I set it in that background.
The backdrop came from covering the LA Nightlife world. I informed it with my own experience covering that world. Some of the parties come from my own experiences. It lends a truism to the background. But the story and the plot came from somewhere else because, obviously, plot and backdrop are totally different things. I was reading an article in 2007 about celebrities and how they were getting paid quite a bit of money to go to parties and make appearances there so that people could say so and so was there. I thought that it was so bizarre that these celebrities weren’t really going to these parties but they were paid to be there. You don’t know when you look around which celebrity is there for real and who has been rented to be there. I fictionalized it and thought, “What if that was extended to real people? What if there was an agency that rented out real people for parties?” It seemed like a really interesting plotline and I developed it from there. The story is definitely very satirical of the LA party scene and that comes from some of my experiences from covering it. Everything is appearances and you are who you know, so it would make sense to hire attractive, seemingly smart and interesting guests for your party. That’s where I got the idea for the story. What if someone got a part-time job going in undercover as a party guest? The possibilities are endless.
So, the house guest for hire thing isn’t actually something that happens in LA? Because that was something I was really curious about.
No, I made it up. I wouldn’t be surprised if something like this really does happen, but I totally made it up. The irony of it is, when I made this up, nothing like this for real people was going on at all. Now, several years later, I think it’s come out that tabloid magazines will send fake clubbers to clubs to act like guests and try and get dirt for stories. So, it might be a little more common now, but the idea that there’s an agency dedicated to renting out fake guests for house parties is entirely made up.
What can you say about the main characters in the graphic novel?
There are three very different, very deep and rich characters. One of them is a shy young woman who wants to be a photographer and live behind the lens, looking at the world through them. She lives with her mom. She’s the main character that gets the job as the house guest for hire. She gets to try on all sorts of alternate identities for herself in this world and comes out of her shell. In that world, she meets the two other characters.
One is an Asian parachute kid. That’s actually a real phenomenon that was pretty big in mid-to-early 90s where the children of primarily rich Asian families, their parents would send them to LA, set them up in a big mansion and they would go to high school here so they could learn the language and eventually start the family business here. So, you have these really wealthy kids living on their own in LA. I actually went out to Arcadia and hung out at a school there for a little while and talked to the real parachute kids and observed what they’re like. I based my character on that. One of the things that happen to these parachute kids in real life is that they’re targets for kidnapping because they’re living on their own with a lot of money. My character wants to escape her life and wants to stage her own kidnapping. The main character meets her and they get in over their heads.
What about the third character in the book, Mac? He’s the male member of the trio?
He’s a slang junkie. He’s not the first but the ninth most prolific contributor to a fictionalized version of UrbanDictionary.com. He’s just obsessed with youth slang and words. Whereas my main character, Jenna, is obsessed with images. In the end, they kind of come together to complement each other. What’s interesting about these characters is that even though on the surface it’s about a book the LA party scene and about a kidnapping gone wrong and it has comic noir-like elements — it’s all very silly and fun — really, deep down, this is a story about identity and finding your tribe in life and ultimately about self acceptance.
This book has been described as a “party noir,” and one thing I noticed is that the characters tend to break the fourth wall, which is a standard of the noir genre. But it’s a bit different, here. Because it’s comics, they literally push away panels or even move pages themselves. Can you talk about bringing in that aspect to the book?
When it’s done in noir films, it has somewhat of a dry, ironic touch to it, and that’s what I wanted to add to the story. It’s playing off of that. But also, I’m new to comics and I was looking at the genre from the outside and I’ve always loved stories that break the fourth wall, even in comedy. So, I was commenting a little on the genre of comics as an outsider by breaking the fourth wall. That was something I had a lot of fun with when writing the book. I think if I was a seasoned comic book writer I wouldn’t have written it that way. But because I’m a first-time comic book writer, I was really playing with the genre and I thought it would be fun to have the characters step out of the comic book and have the artist draw that happening. Sometimes, I was becoming frustrated with running out of panels to tell my story, so I would have the characters comment on that.
When you look at the LA nightlife in other works, it’s usually portrayed as this scary, sometimes awful place, but “Poseurs” really gives it a different, more fun perspective. What about the LA life do you love personally and how did that inform your portrayal in the graphic novel?
I think the LA Nightlife scene is one of the most interesting in the world. Right now, LA is the center for visual arts and probably one of two centers for fashion and it’s the center for music and of course film and entertainment. When you have all that mashed together in a perfect storm, you’re going to have some really interesting parties. It’s not a dark and scary thing. It’s sort of absurd. It’s funny and it’s colorful and it’s interesting. The kids in the book get in over their head, not because the nightlife scene is scary, but because they’re trying to escape themselves and their sense of identity. It’s very much the internal chaos that drives the story, not so much the external chaos.
You’ve written many things outside of comics, but as you mentioned, this is your first foray into the field. What are your thoughts about the medium now that you’ve spent some time working in it?
I fell in love with graphic novels when writing this book. I have a newfound respect for the genre. It is so much more difficult than any other genre to write in. I’ve written screenplays, short stories and I make my living as a journalist writing non-fiction. Graphic novels are the most labor intensive art form in writing, I think. You not only have to write the entire story, but you give directions to the artist, who has to draw the story, panel by panel, page by page. It’s incredibly labor intensive and I have a new respect for it.