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Exploring the Places of “Displaced Persons”: A Field Trip with Derek McCulloch

by  in Comic News Comment
Exploring the Places of “Displaced Persons”: A Field Trip with Derek McCulloch

From the creative mind of writer Derek McCulloch comes “Displaced Persons,” a historical love letter to San Francisco spanning three generations and expertly weaving in elements of detective noir, psychedelic drug heist and family drama with a thin, elegant thread of time travel. McCulloch is a careful craftsman, and every detail of the graphic novel feels intentional without sacrificing a sense of mystery. Although he began working on the story over a decade ago, and gained a new artist along the way (the talented Anthony Peruzzo), McCulloch preserved what was most important to him in this book: Exploring the displacement of people in time, in life and in themselves.

I spent a Saturday rambling around the settings of the comic’s story with McCulloch, both of us traveling from our homes across the Bay in Oakland to explore the city. “Meet me at the corner of Howard and Beale,” McCulloch told me. “I’ve always wanted to tell someone to do that; it’s like something out of a detective story.”

The tone of our meeting felt inspired by the first chapter of “Displaced Persons,” which is set in 1939 and follows a private detective searching for a wealthy man’s missing daughter. In fact, the intersection of Howard and Beale probably lent themselves as the name of the title character in the 1976 film “Network.” McCulloch tells me about this as we begin walking toward the Embarcadero. Our voices muffled by the wind and streetcar bells, I use the walk to find out a bit more on the backstory of the novel.

CBR News: Derek, how are you explaining this novel to people?

Derek McCulloch: That’s a question I’ve been working on and failing miserably at for fifteen years. The best way I’ve approached it is to summarize each of the three stories individually, to say that it’s a Hammet inflected detective story from the 1930s, a drug-heist story from the 1960s and a domestic drama about real estate from the 1990s. It’s all of those things linked together by the slightest bit of time travel.

Is the time travel aspect grounded in science fiction or more so in scientific principles, like String Theory or multiverses?

Yes and no. Scientific principles, definitely not. The first time I pitched this book to a publisher was to Heidi MacDonald at Vertigo back in the early 2000s. She turned it down, of course, but the one major thing she had to say to me at the time was that I’d really have to explain why this was all happening. That comment just ate at me for years, because I very strongly disagreed with it. The example I always give is “2001: A Space Odyssey” versus “2010.” The first one gives you questions and mystery and the second one gives you answers — which one stays with you? I’d much rather be “2001” than “2010,” myself.

At the same time, I did have this voice telling me in the back of my head that she was right, in a sense. There was some piece of information missing. I worried about that for years before I finally came up with something that fits the big themes of the book and sort of provides an explanation but sort of doesn’t. You can choose to regard it as an explanation or you can choose to regard it as a possibility.

Early in the book, there’s a scene between the two detectives where they talk about always having to ask “Why?” Was that theme always part of the book or was it reflective of that process of asking yourself why?

I don’t remember if I specifically had that in mind when I wrote that, but it is kind of laying it out there, isn’t it? That there is something underlying everything, there is an answer to everything that doesn’t make sense. The structure of the book, how all of these characters and events fit together, they’re told in one linear fashion in the book but if you untangle it and see the actual trajectory of the characters, which isn’t the linear path through time, some of the things that don’t make sense make sense.

What are some of those major themes?

The major theme is right there in the title — it’s displacement. In the front and center experience of displacement of the book are the people who are moving through time. They are pulled out of their native time and deposited else-when with no memory of who they are, where they came from or why they’re the ultimate displaced persons. It’s metaphorical, in the larger sense, about how people are displaced through large historical forces, and three that I spotlight specifically in the undercurrent of the book are literally on the chapter break pages. There are these timeline charts that I call The Four Horseman charts that are about every instance of war, famine and pestilence in the 20th century. Man, those are some busy timelines. They’re very full.

So, we’ve reached the first location — the Ferry Building. What’s going on here?

The Ferry Building is prominently featured in the first chapter — the 1939 chapter. Putting it in the book was a no-brainer, partly because clocks are a prominent motif throughout the book and there isn’t a more noticeable clock in San Francisco than the one on the Ferry Building. It’s a significant historical symbol in San Francisco — during the 1906 earthquake it stopped at, I think, 5:12am and was stuck that way for quite some time through the ensuing chaos and rebuilding. During the Loma Prieta earthquake, the flag on top of the building tilted at a 45-degree angle, almost echoing the action of the 1906 quake. It’s a great visual location, it’s a great backdrop for a clandestine meeting and I didn’t think we could do a San Francisco book without it.

Your artist, Anthony Peruzzo, doesn’t live here — how are you communicating the visuals to him? What kind of reference are you using?

Anthony lives in Minneapolis. Rantz Hoseley, who I worked with on the book first, doesn’t live here either; he’s in southern California. When we were prepping the book, he came up here and did the same thing we’re doing today — going around San Francisco to the different locations, including this one. He photographed the hell out of everything. When we parted company, and by the time Anthony was on the book, my break with Rantz was amicable enough that he made his photo archives accessible to us, which was a great gesture on his part and a big help for Anthony. I also shot a bunch of video of the places we’re about to go and sent them to him.

Even though part of the novel is set in modern times, two chapters are set in the past — 1939 and 1969. How are you aging the city?

The both of us found a bunch of archival photographs and looked at period movies. Things have changed a lot in San Francisco since 1939, just by very simple geography. Buildings have gone down and come up, the shoreline’s been filled in more, streets have appeared and disappeared, freeways have come and gone. We had to pay a lot of attention to how things looked then, and then, and then, versus now.

We’ve reached our second location, Rincon Center. What drew you to this location? How does it work in the novel?

I wanted to use real places in the book, but I didn’t want to stick with real places you always see in stories about San Francisco, like the Golden Gate Bridge or Lombard Street or whatever. This is a place that I used to eat lunch at almost every week. It’s just a food court, but it has this amazing, weird fountain that looks like a magic trick. The water pours down from the ceiling in a fine circular spray and collects on the ground in this thin little puddle, less than a quarter-inch deep, and then it disappears. It’s like a magic trick. It totally fascinates me, and I always wanted to put it in a comic. I showed it to Rantz when he was here, and of course he was like, “Well, that’s amazing, but there’s nothing to draw” — like the water’s almost invisible — but that crazy Art Moderne background, he figured he could draw the shit out of that. Anthony’s reaction was exactly the same, and they both did it. The fountain’s in there, in the book, but it’s the architecture in the background that arrests your eye.

From Rincon Plaza, we head a few blocks south to a nondescript office plaza. It looks like many other professional buildings in the city, and I wonder where McCulloch found inspiration.

Our next stop is 221 Main Street, Main Tower, where I worked off and on for more than twenty years. There’s a little scene in the 1999 segment where the same two guys who have lunch in Rincon Center sit around in the plaza of the office building, talking about this and that, and I just used it as a backdrop for the scene. This scene exemplifies using what’s familiar to me. While some places are more visually arresting and this place is just concrete and planters, they’re the concrete and planters that I know.

Leaving San Francisco’s Financial District, we head to the Mission, where McCulloch explained one of the more emotional parts of the creative process for “Displaced Persons.” We arrive at a newly opened restaurant where hipsters and their dogs hang out on the patio, enjoying the sun. This establishment was once a very special place for McCulloch, but has since changed hands.

Tell me about this place. Since it’s no longer the restaurant you feature in the novel, how did you go about updating Anthony and maintaining the memories of the former establishment?

This was the biggest heartbreak of the book for me. When Rantz came here to do photo research in 2007 or so, we went out to dinner at Ti Couz, this crepe place I like in the Mission, because I had a scene set there. Rantz just went nuts documenting the place — he took pictures of everything. He did a complete 360 around the main room of the restaurant, he took pictures of the crepes and the plates and the silverware and the chairs and the wait staff, and everything. Then, years later, after he was off the book and he gave us his photo reference, the one thing missing from it were his shots of Ti Couz. I said to Anthony, “No problem, I’ll just go over there and take pictures myself,” and I went — and it wasn’t there anymore. I guess I hadn’t gone there in a while, and it had gone out of business. Then we found out it’s just about impossible to find reference for the interior of a restaurant. We had good enough reference for the outside, but he had to fake it for the interior, based on my descriptions. He did pretty well, but still, it’s a shame. And it’s a shame also, of course, because it was a great restaurant.

From the Mission, we head to Golden Gate Park for the last few stops on our “Displaced Persons” tour. The first is Stow Lake, an attraction in the park dating back to 1893. The lake is rumored to be haunted, but in the bright summer afternoon, it’s difficult to imagine anything beyond happy boaters cruising along the glassy surface.

Here we are at Stow Lake, one of the older parts of Golden Gate Park. Tell me about how this appears in the story and why you chose it.

It’s not visible from here, but over there on the other side of the lake is where the motorcycle chase in the 1969 chapter takes place. It comes to a rest somewhere here, in the parking lot at the edge of the lake, and then they run off into the woods. I had this location scripted early on and covered it photographically pretty extensively when Rantz was here. There’s a tree that plays a prominent role throughout all three chapters — it’s on the cover of the book — and I don’t remember if its based on an actual tree we saw here or a typical type of tree that comes from here, but it would be around this area if it existed.

One of the reasons this is a setting in the book is that I wanted something that existed as far back in San Francisco as 1879, and if I remember correctly, this was laid out in 1877 or thereabouts.

When you were planning the book, did you know all of these locations off hand or was it a discovery process as you scouted?

A little of both. I wasn’t familiar with Golden Gate Park and it’s specifics; I just knew that it had been here long enough. We came to the park and looked at specific things and decided to use various places — the same with Ocean Beach, where we’ll go next. There’s a house that plays a part through all three chapters, and I arbitrarily put it along Ocean Beach and made it the little stepchild of Cliff House that never really existed. Let’s go there next.

Our final two stops are in Ocean Beach, a gray, rocky, seaside sprawl curling around the coast of San Francisco like a cranky cat. Even in the summer, the waters are frigid, but the coarse sand is dotted with families trying to enjoy a bit of sun. Beneath the shadow of the Cliff House, which has perched on the Western point of San Francisco since 1858, lie the ruins of Sutro Baths. It’s easy to picture this location transitioning through each of the periods in the novel, with its weather worn façade invoking a gentler time.

Here we are at Ocean Beach looking up the beach at Cliff House to the space where the house in “Displaced Persons” would be if it ever existed. The house appears in all three of the chapters and is on the cliff overlooking the beach. Both in 1969 and 1999 there are scenes that take place in Ocean Beach, characters walking along and doing different things.

A short drive from Ocean Beach lands us at our final stop — a sign post in the middle of a traffic median featuring a large, comical dog head.

Derek, what is the Doggy Diner and how did it find its way into “Displaced Persons?”

Bill Griffith made the Doggy Diner head famous in Zippy the pinhead, but I think we’re allowed to use it too. There are a bunch of these heads in different places in Northern California. It used to be a little restaurant chain in the Bay Area, selling hot dogs and hamburgers, and their mascot was this big, insane-looking dog head on a pole. When they went out of business, different people got the heads somehow or other and did weird things with them. There’s one just sitting out in the woods in the middle of nowhere in Yorkville, up in Mendocino — it’s on the way to a place where we used to take vacations with our dog, just kind of sitting there in the grass, rusting. The spot where we show it in the book is on Sloat Boulevard, outside what used to be a Doggie Diner, which is where it was standing in 1999. The pole it was on collapsed a while back and they put the head back up in the median, where it can get a better view of the westbound traffic.

As McCulloch and I stood in the amber glow of the setting sun just outside the shadow of the dog’s head, it was easy to feel the inspirations he took from San Francisco. While much of the Bay Area is devoted to advancing technology, constantly thirsting for the coolest next thing, the places we visited have the sort of soul forged by surviving change. As the rest of the city evolves, these landmarks themselves are a sort of displaced person: a colossus of brick built to withstand earth’s tremors, a nondescript courtyard, a sprawling park where ghosts may hide in secret and a tenacious landmark out of place by the sea, each telling stories of their past to those, like McCulloch, that are willing to listen.

“Displaced Persons,” by Derek McCulloch and Anthony Peruzzo, is on sale now.

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