The Golden Age of Hollywood was a glamorous time that gave us film icons and movie moments that became etched in the collective consciousness of what we think of when we harken back to those times. The pulp comic books of the time told another side of the city life with mobsters and tough-as-coffin-nails anti-heroes.
In Oni Press’ upcoming noir comic Angel City writer Janet Harvey (Batman: No Man’s Land) and artist Megan Levens (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and colorist Nick Filardi (Adventures of Superman) take on the seedy criminal activity of the city of Los Angeles. After the murder of her friend by the notorious “April Fool’s Killer”, Hollywood stuntwoman Dolores Dare falls in deep with the mob after she starts her own investigation. Heavily inspired by the likes of the events of the Black Dahlia murders, Harvey and company take readers on a suspenseful thriller true of the time.
Newsarama talked to Harvey, Levens, and Filardi about Angel City, which is scheduled to debut in early October, and the inspirations behind it as well as the real-life people and locations that are involved in the story and if noir type of comic books are primed for a comeback in today’s market.
Newsarama: Janet, Megan, Nick, historic Hollywood is something we don't see a lot in comic books. What was the level of research involved for Angel City like as a team?
Megan Levens: Janet always jokes that she's driving us crazy by sending us so much reference with her scripts, which couldn't be further from the truth. She does a lot of the heavy lifting looking up photos of the various locations, vehicles, and other specifics that are called out in the story, so before I even start drawing, I have a wonderful archive of visuals to work off of. For the fashion side of things, I had collected several books and files full of images of 1930s fashion back when I was working with Jamie S. Rich on Madame Frankenstein, so I just flipped ahead from the early 30s to the later half of the decade.
A few of the locations in our story still exist here in Los Angeles, such as the Chinese Theatre. So while I can go out and shoot my own reference on occasion, there is a bit of double-checking I have to do against what these buildings looked like in 1939. The main entrance to the Chinese Theatre looks much the same today but the area surrounding it has obviously changed a number of times!
Janet Harvey: I love research, and Megan and Nick have been great about me throwing a lot of historical reference material at them as I come across it! We have a Pinterest board now, with pictures of locations, movie stars, fashions, cars, ephemera, memorabilia - paper dolls, postcards, matchbooks, maps - as well as classic Crime Stories and True Detective covers. Pretty much anything and everything I come across that I think could add to the book, it gets pinned up there in no particular order. My husband's also really into hot rods and classic cars, and he's always scouring the internet for pictures of 1939 classic cars. Last week he found a complete walk around of a stock 1939 Lincoln Zephyr, photographed from every possible angle - which I'm sure you know is like, the holy grail of artist reference. Megan totally geeked out, it was awesome!
Megan is also totally on point with the 30's fashion. Dolores gets to go from day to evening a lot-and also has her motorcycle gear!-so it's important that she look the part, and Megan really gets those details correct and makes her look fly!
Nick Filardi: This is the first ever book I've done very little research on. That isn't to say that research wasn't done. I'm currently sitting on a huge file of photos and blurbs that Janet has linked to the team. She is so on top of keeping the whole team updated with locations and stuff that catches her eye as she researches that the book has been a breeze for me.
Nrama: What can you tell us about Dolores Dare and what she's like? Hero? Anti-hero? Something in between?
Harvey: Dolores starts out as an anti-hero, but I think she grows a lot, as a person, over the course of the story. When we first encounter Dolores, she's very closed off and cynical. But her journey takes her to a place where she has to stand up and do the right thing, and it turns out that the toughness and rebelliousness that has kept her alive so far, that is part of her character, is exactly what allows her to do the right thing, when the time comes. That's kind of a classic noir trope, I think. "One man stood up against a town!" And it's very moving when you see someone go through that change of heart.
Levens: I'd say she's something in between... she's a very practical woman, and to a certain extent, making her way through her life has involved looking out for herself at the expense of others. But what really drew me into the character is her compassion and caring for the people she does deem as worthy of her trust. I get a little bored with the standard "strong" female characters, who are always shown as having to be cold and masculine in order to be "badass". Dolores cries. Dolores feels fear. These things don't negate how tough or strong she is, and it's that range of emotion that makes her so great to draw.
Nrama: So Dolores is investigating the grisly April Fool's Killer, tell us, how she gets involved with that and why she takes it so personal?
Harvey: Well, not to give away the whole first issue - but the victim of the April Fool's Killer, who is found dead in the first issue, turns out to be her best friend from childhood, Frances Faye. Dolores and Frances grew up together, and moved to Hollywood together, when they were chasing their dreams of movie magic. So Frances is not just an inciting incident, she's a part of Dolores' life and really, a part of who Dolores is. It puts Dolores back in touch with her own past, and the parts of herself that got thrown away and devalued, as well. Her own hopes and dreams.
Nrama: I've heard there's actual historical figures in Angel City as well, from Eddie Mannix to Brenda Allen, and several more. Why was it important to include these characters?
Harvey: Probably just because I get excited about the research, and I want to tell you about them! Brenda Allen is quite a character. So is Aggie Underwood, and I love the way Megan has rendered them both. They have such personality, and I want people to know that these people existed. They are characters with a capital C!
Nrama: Megan, was it difficult to nail down the likenesses and architecture just right?
Levens: For likenesses, I always find it's more effective to create a stylized cartoon version of that person, rather than try to recreate a perfect photo-realistic representation. So for Brenda Allen and some of the famous gangsters in this story, they definitely were based on their real-life counterparts, but simplified and stylized so that I can draw them from any angle or in any pose. I hate being limited by photo reference in terms of storytelling and camera angles.
I wouldn't say the architecture and environments were difficult, I just had to remind myself that all the little shorthand details I've learned for drawing modern-day settings, I had to forget. I can't just draw a standard "street scene," I have to look up appropriate street lights for that time period, and what the molding or windows would look like. It's a lot of fun though and I learn a lot by researching those tiny details.
Nrama: Nick, what was your goal with coloring Megan here? Did you want to go with a brighter palette or something more pulpy?
Nick: I went through a lot of ups and downs trying to find the voice I wanted for this book. It is a noir first and foremost and the art needs to reflect that. However, I also wanted to craft something unique. Not just another almost black and white noir book with hard shadows. I tried using zip tone to reflect the era, and tried using abstract shadows to reflect art deco ideas. Both times it ended up keeping me restricted rather than opening up the look. So I abandoned the idea that the book needed a gimmick and went back to just embracing a strong idea for the color.
Noir holds a special place for me. I've been working on Powers for a long time. To me, Powers exists in a cold unforgiving New York City. Angel City exists in a more vintage, hot, Los Angeles. The photography of the time has this warmth to it. So my goal with the colors shifted into not only leaning into a noir violent book, but also a book that feels oppressively hot. The kind of heat that makes a city go a little crazy.
Levens: I have to add that Nick absolutely nailed that oppressive L.A. desert heat in his colors. Anytime he sets a scene in daylight, I feel like I need to go put on sunscreen and grumble about moving to Seattle.
Harvey: I think the tone Nick referenced for what he wanted for Angel City was "sunbleached noir." I love it. It really does get across the sense of place, and that feeling of being kind of worn out by the sun.
Nrama: Crime and noir comic books were a staple for decades. I mean you had a book called Detective Comics and you had the archetypes of the time. Though lately you've had High Crimes, Dead Letters, and even to an extent books like Selina's Big Score, how do you think the genre has evolved in the later years?
Harvey: Whoa, that’s a big question. I feel like I can’t presume to speak for how the genre has evolved in recent years-and that might be an interesting question to ask Chris Sebela, who wrote two of the titles you just referenced - but I do feel compelled to point out: you still have a book called Detective Comics. I mean, technically, it stopped publication in 2011 and started again with new series numbering, but if you want to look at how crime and noir comics have evolved, looking at Detective Comics is really an excellent case study. Batman was created in those pages, and his archetype has evolved over the years. Today he’s more reliant on gadgets and technology than he is on traditional detective work, but that noir DNA is still there, under several generations of “family-friendly” changes. I mean, Batman lives in a town that’s so corrupt and crime-ridden, the best hope they have is a vigilante who scares criminals and breaks legs. You don’t get more noir than that.
Today, I think, with some of the titles you referenced, noir is getting back to the business of noir, which is more realistic, and more grow-up.Selina’s Big Score I would almost consider a classic heist, rather than noir, whereas something like Dead Letters really goes for a classic “Kiss Me Deadly” noir vibe with a guy wakes up in a hotel room with no idea of how he got there. With Angel City, I really wanted to harken back a bit to the old True Detective magazines, and a pulp sensibility. I think Megan and Nick have really nailed that vibe and brought it up to date.
Nrama: What would you like to see readers take away from something like Angel City? Do you think noir is ripe for a comeback?
Harvey: I do think noir is ripe for a comeback, not so much because of the way crime noir has been represented in pop culture, but because I feel like the mood of our times is turning toward a much more noir sensibility. I don’t want to say cynical, because that’s not the same thing, exactly…? But Americans are being disabused of their illusions right and left. As I’m writing this, there are not one, but two, horrible police shootings in the news. On both the right and the left, there’s a real sense of distrust of the people in power. Nobody believes that Congress cares about us. It feels like justice is very far away, and the people who are supposed to protect us are either corrupt, or out of touch. The Economist is asking why millenials aren’t buying diamonds. I mean, there’s a lot to be said for escapist fantasy-and Hollywood continues to turn that out, regardless. I love a good 3-D, popcorn movie as much as the next guy or gal. But I feel like – how do I put this – there’s an audience out there that’s hungry for something else, that speaks to their experience. Noir shows a world that’s imperfect and dark, but characters can still find some hope and affection within that world. So, I guess, that is what I would like to see readers take away from Angel City.
Levens: I also feel that readers and other creators might take away that even in a very familiar genre such as noir, there are always different voices with which you can tell that kind of story. Even a setting as white male dominated as 1930s Hollywood has plenty of stories of women and minorities, and just tapping into those perspectives in Angel City has offered up something new and fresh. It's like you don't have to reinvent the wheel, you can just look at it from a different angle.
Nrama: I’ve known Megan for a while and it seems like she’s been working on this forever. What do you guys have lined up next when this is wrapped?
Levens: Gee, thanks. Well, as of this writing, Dark Horse has just announced Spell on Wheels, a five-issue miniseries written by Kate Leth, drawn by me, and colored by Marissa Louise. But I'm actually working on that series and Angel City at the same time, and the first issues of both release in October. I have my feelers out for what's next after that. I'd love to return to Buffy, or to see what other worlds are out there for me to play in!
Harvey: Honestly, between this and the movie I wrote and directed, that’s coming out at around the same time as Angel City, Scene Queen, what I have lined up next is splitting myself into two people so I can promote the bejeezus out of both of these at the same time. I hope people who think Angel City looks interesting will get out there and preorder the first issue, so that I can line something else up! In the meantime, I’ll be working on a screenplay about a brother and sister who live in a bus, and steal people’s wallets. Everyone but me thinks it’s a terrible idea for a movie, so I figure that’s a good sign.