Talking Comics with Tim: Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips' new story on gentrification, Bicycle Cop Dave, which he is writing (with Manoel Magalhães as artist) is unlike any other webcomic I have read (and for those of you reading this interview at work, it is a mature webcomic [meaning not safe for work {NSFW}]). Phillips, a longtime community activist and successful mystery novelist, has teamed with FourStory (a housing advocacy site "supporting fair living conditions for everyone") on this project. I interviewed Phillips a number of years ago in connection with Angeltown at Vertigo, so it was a pleasure to catch up with him through this email interview.

Tim O'Shea: Given the nature of Bicycle Cop Dave, would it be fair to say you are a community activist on some level?

Gary Phillips: Yes, as Sarah Palin tried to punk on last year, I was once a diligent and dreaded community organizers. I’ve also been a business rep for a union, the political director for an electoral campaign and the state director for a political action committee. Certainly in some of my prose work, from my first book Violent Spring, a mystery set after the ’92 riots (or civil unrest depending on where you are on the political spectrum) to my recent Freedom’s Fight,  about black soldiers in WWII, a certain amount of social-political stuff infuses my work.

But, and this is a big, but as it were, there’s a reason I mostly write crime and mystery stories and not tired-ass, long-winded nonfiction polemics. I like my characters twisted, bent and strange doing all sorts of mischief, and not trotting out their soap boxes to jump on to give a spiel and harangue.

O'Shea: How did you get involved with FourStory?

Phillips: Through the wonderful auspices of he who is the Fourth Potentate of the Fifth Jade Jaguar Heir to the House of the Twin Moons of The Naz. In other words, my friend and fellow mystery writer Nathan Walpow, who is the EiC of fourstory. My understanding is essentially Nathan had several conversations with Jon Webb, who heads fourstory’s parent company which is a non-profit housing developer. The idea being to have a forum where various points of view about not just development, but the infrastructure of life in Southern California from housing, transportation, to pop culture could be discussed, debated and presented. So the site features an array of opinion pieces, riffs, critiques, thoughts on French fries (I recently did a piece on where the best fries were in L.A.) to fiction. Nathan and I have serialized our respective prose mysteries on the site – Underbelly and Bad Developments -- that had sub-plots dealing with a few of the issues the site looks at on the nonfiction side.

We’re serious, but we have fun, dammit!

O'Shea: Were you involved in selecting Manoel Magalhães for the project?

Phillips: Mani and I met on the internet like star-crossed lovers. Hmm, that didn’t come out right. But yeah, I actually stumbled on Mani’s work on the internet – he’s in Rio -- and really dug his craft and storytelling abilities. I contacted him and we’ve tried to get a couple of projects going before this that sputtered for different reasons. But on BCD I think we’ve found our groove thang. I know he’s also done some work on the Vincent Price comic book for Blue Water Productions, so I hope all of this helps bring him to the attention of various comic book companies here in the States. But not before we finish the saga of Bicycle Cop Dave and can’t afford him any longer.

O'Shea: How challenging is it to build a story around gentrification? Can you give folks a bit of background on the gentrification topic and how it impacts your daily life?

Phillips: Like any clogged sink fixing, lawn mowing, middle class bourgeois homeowner, I welcome gentrification as it increases my property values for Lord knows, we need them pilates studios and latte joints. Now as a mystery writer, gentrification, and what happens behind closed doors to make these development deals happen, offers colorful story material. Bicycle Cop Dave is, at least in my mind, bits of The Shield, Boomtown, my buddies John Shannon’s L.A. area detective novels (The Poison Sky, The Cracked Earth, etc.) Larry Fondation’s street-level lit (Fish, Soap and Bonds, Unintended Consequences, etc.) with a nod to Mister X, set in this changing part of downtown Los Angeles. It’s a mystery with this other stuff as backdrop, but the mini-series is about the various characters who may or may not be dealing straight up with each other. All of whom have their own agendas.

From our protagonist Dave, to his developer girlfriend Sylvia Silversmith to the Genghis Rabbit – but I’ve already said too much. You’ll have to keep reading it as new pages drop.

O'Shea: How do you write a story like BCD without preaching to your audience?

Phillips: I hope I’m not preaching. As I said, all this about a changing downtown, political machinations of City Hall, power brokers and the like are subtext and context in the story, but it’s always about the characters. Now these characters represent these different spheres and may find themselves in conflict with others in the story. But the main thing as it plays out is readers have to find whatever’s happening compelling and entertaining.

O'Shea: While this target audience for this is clearly for adults, did you have any concern with alienating potential readers with the nude scene in the opening pages of the story?

Phillips: There’s so many dangerous ways to answer that, isn’t there? Well at least you have a sense of what BCD is about from the opening page. This ain’t Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House, kids.

O'Shea: How many installments are planned for BCD and how frequently will it update?

Phillips: Right now, the first 22 pages have been completed. The initial five pages of those 22 are up as of today, 11/12/09 [as of 11/25/09 there are now nine pages up]. Two more will drop in two weeks. But response has been pretty positive so I’m already working on the second 22 page installment script.

O'Shea: In terms of narrative, what advantage is gained by making the lead character a bicycle cop, as opposed to a patrol car officer?

Phillips: Dave’s downtown is a condensed sprawl…a place where you have fancy hotel on Little Tokyo and turn a corner and you’re on Skid Row where the homeless missions are and crack dealers collect your relief check for back payments due. Or you can leave the Staples Center after watching the Lakers play, walk by sweat shops converted to tony lofts and get yourself a Korean-style bar-b-que beef taco from a lunch truck.

It’s a downtown in a lot of ways that because of all the build-up, is now easier to navigate by bicycle, and allows Dave to interact more directly with its denizens. Being on a bike also makes him more vulnerable, so Dave always has a certain wariness. But he also knows to be effective as a bike patrol officer, he has to have that rapport with people; he has to be at ease with whomever -- be it a waitress in a greasy spoon in the industrial area east of Alameda Street or a banker up on Bunker Hill.

O'Shea: How large a cast will the story have?

Phillips: There will be several characters who are minor characters in this story – and who might be main players in other stories yet to come – but I’d say no more than eight to ten are prominent in this initial arc of Bicycle Cop Dave.

O'Shea: One of the major villains in the story is a developer--is the character inspired by any real world counterparts?

Phillips: Is the major developer a villain…or is he in the mode of, oh, John Galt and Howard Roark? Merely a man who understands how to get what he wants – which doesn’t necessarily mean everyone else looses. Now, before y’all sharpen your pencils for your missives, I’m no apostle of Ayn Rand, but I do believe in doing my best to portray dimensional characters with different points of view who are neither all black nor all-white. They have good and bad qualities and we see how these qualities interact with the qualities and wants of the other actors in our drama.

O'Shea: What do you want readers to take away from BCD?

Phillips: That Dave is a bad mother…oh, sorry, getting carried away again. Like I said, I enjoy suffusing real world issues in my work but not drowning a good story for the sake of making a point. I want to give you interesting situations and plots, populate those arenas with realized protagonists and antagonists and those inbetween, shake it all up, and see what come of that.

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