CCI, Day 2: City of Angels: Gary Phillips talks "Angeltown"

Fans were elated at the diverse array of projects presented by DC Comics/Vertigo at the Comic-Con International in San Diego today, from series about corporate ethics to original graphic novels with one of Vertigo's most popular characters. One project that seemed to jump out to many was "Angeltown," a 5 issue mini-series described as "gritty, neo-noir" and written by crime novelist Gary Phillips. The author took some time to speak with CBR News about the series and was happy to explain the concept.

"'Angeltown' is a private eye mini-series set in Los Angeles," explains the author. "And before I go any further, let me say that the art by Shawn Martinbrough is what brings this story alive. As a novelist, I have to rely on words to paint my pictures, to plant the images in your mind."

While he may be most known for his work in novels, Phillips is a comic book fan and explains how this medium affects his writing. "Writing for this most unique visual medium of comic books, it dawns on you as a writer there's a balancing act between the words and pictures. That the storytelling is so much about how the artist embodies the text -- panel descriptions, the action, the mood, that sort of thing -- that if they're not up to the task, then no mater what you've sweated to get down on the page won't mean jack.

"Fortunately, there's no such danger of that in this case. Shawn's work fuckin' rocks on 'Angeltown.' He has captured the look and feel of this story perfectly, and I'm sure the readers will appreciate the effort he's put into this story."

Phillips says it'll be a fast paced series and briefly introduced readers to the first story, along with the diverse array of main characters. "Okay, 'Angeltown,' and this initial story arc is entitled 'Baller,' concerns private eye Nate Hollis, a former investigator with the district attorney's office who is hired by high-priced defense attorney Monica Orozco (a former girlfriend of Nate's) to find her client, Theophus 'The Magician' Burnett.

"Burnett just happens to be the loud mouth, hot tempered all-star forward of the L.A. Comets basketball team and he's wanted for questioning in the murder of his ex-wife. A woman who's just published a tell-all book about their marriage -- a book that doesn't paint Burnett in a favorable light given, shall we say, certain escapades of a sexual nature.

"That's the plot. But 'Angeltown' is also layered, there's a lot of backstory that leaks into this present case that sharpens and defines who the characters are. The politically ambitious district attorney Sam Pope, who fired Nate, hates his guts and doesn't want him on this high profile case. Maynard Regus, a cop with his own secrets, is busting Nate's chops, and then there's switch-hitting bounty hunter Irma Ducett aka Irma Deuce, who's also horning in on things.

"And beneath all that, as a through line that will, hopefully, lead us to more stories about Nate Hollis, is he and his bar owning grandfather, Obediah 'Clutch' Hollis, an ex pro football player and Korean War vet, are still searching for the reason and the person or persons unknown who are responsible for murdering Nate's police detective father, Earl. This crime happened when Nate was living elsewhere, yet he feels the guilt, the weight of responsibility to set matters right. To not so much avenge his father's death, but to know why and to do right by him even though the last time they saw each other, they'd argued about Nate's future."

DC & Vertigo presented the series to fans as somewhat of an L.A period piece and with CBR based in the city of angels, CBR News was excited to learn if "Angeltown" would deal with the interesting period of time known as Los Angeles between 1910 and 1930. "You've hit on the thematic underpinning of the series," says Phillips. "While 'Angeltown' is set now, its antecedents are a long line of noir and crime tales centered in Los Angeles. From Chandler's Philip Marlowe (who was also at one time an investigator for the D.A.) to Mosley's Easy Rawlins (whose books offer a kind of alternate history of Los Angeles) and James Elroy's police and politics procedurals to the modern L.A. you'll find in the stories of Denise Hamilton (Last Lullaby) and Michael Connelly (The Narrows), and on the TV show, 'The Shield.'

"You see Los Angeles is actually a lot of different cities. It's the movie business and those who work in the 'industry' who live west of the 405 freeway or north of Montana in Santa Monica. It's Latino immigrant Pico-Union where those who aren't nannies or housekeepers to the folks north of Montana might work for piece rates as garment workers or for cash at car washes.

"It's the burgeoning Koreatown overlapping the edges of Pico-Union and it's where ex police chiefs - Bernard parks -- now sit on the City Council and is running for mayor, to take the job of the man who fired him as police chief. It's the videotaped flashlight beatings of alleged car thief Stanley Miller and it's a place where the population is still growing because it's still the place where you come to reinvent yourself. Where you can be parking cars one day and sell that million dollar script the next day.

"And where multi-million dollar sports stars with out-sized egos command our attention. That's L.A. That's 'Angeltown.'"

The series is drawn from a variety of inspirations and, as Phillips explains, having DC editor Will Dennis force him to think even bigger. "I guess I've spoken to the inspiration of the series. I mean, the private eye construct is a great venue to tell many stories because the PI is the man or woman who has to journey across the various social, physical and economic terrains to solve the case. We get to meet all sorts of people doing all sorts of things in the context of that.

"The project started as most of these things do: from the pitch. Will Dennis, my editor at DC/Vertigo, had read 'Midnight Mover,' an Oni Press mystery mini-series I'd done and got in touch with me asking me about other ideas O might have.

"Actually, this started out as a revival of sorts of a somewhat obscure DC character, but the more it progressed, with Will giving his on point feedback and prodding me to think about how to make it fresh and exciting, 'Angeltown' was born. Now as any writer will tell you, they have file cabinets full of notes on various storylines that for whatever reason haven't been done. That's true of 'Angeltown.' Some of its elements were notes I'd made for a potential TV series and were able to incorporate that into this project.

"And yes, the title 'Angeltown' plays on that City of Angels idea of L.A. It's about the dark and the light and how Nate Hollis navigates the in between."

If you know Phillips from his comic work, it's likely you're familiar with his Oni work but with the "feel" of Vertigo and Oni being decidedly different, some might wonder if fans will cross over to "Angeltown." "I hope the people who've read 'Shot Callerz' and 'Midnight Mover' from Oni will read and enjoy Angeltown. On one hand, it's familiar territory - another exploration of the underbelly as it were - but different too in that Nate Hollis has his flaws is part of a lineage of protagonists who beneath their cynical exteriors still believe that justice can be achieved.

"And for those who've found my previous work somewhat off-putting given the less then savory lead characters, will take a chance on Nate. He ain't all about the benjamins - making money -- Though mind you, for those who enjoy the visceral, there's a bit of skin and sin in 'Angeltown' as well.

"In both cases enjoyed the give-and-take that me and the artists and editors engage in to create a story that's compelling for the reader."

It would be wrong to ignore artist Shawn Martinbrough, for whom Phillips has a great respect and handpicked for the series. "Will and I looked at and discussed the work of several artists for this series, including Shawn. I first saw Shawn's work on one of the Batman books and if you've read recent issues of the Loser, you'll see that his command of the form has grown. With 'Angeltown,' I believe it's hit as new plateau."

So does this mean we'll see more Gary Phillips? Only time will tell, says the scribe. "Well the nature of the business is wait and see given that I'm a 'rookie' in the comic book game and ultimately it's all about the sales. Now of course, like any other creator, I'm hoping that the reader will be jazzed once they've read the first issue to stick with the book in its five issue arc. I promise they won't be disappointed.

"I've got a few other proposals that Vertigo is considering so we'll see how those dice get rolled."

If you're not sure about "Angeltown" or your wallet feels a bit light, Phillips is happy to provide a few more reasons to try the series. "If your thing is cats solving crimes and the action happening off stage, then 'Angeltown' is not for you. On the other hand, if you dig finely etched characters who clash emotionally and, at times, physically, and where detection involves knowing the human animal and not just fisticuffs and finding cliché clues (there are no names written on handily found matchbook covers or all-knowing bartenders who provide crucial information), give 'Angeltown' a go."

CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland contributed to this story.

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