For a few months now, Titan Comics has been publishing Peepland, a crime story set in the Times Square of the 1980’s. Co-authors Christa Faust and Gary Phillips took the time to talk to us about what went into writing this series, the inspiration behind much of what we see on the pages and more.
Rock! Shock! Pop!: Christa, the brief biography on your website says that you worked in a Times Square peepshow booth and also as a professional dominatrix. Obviously it’s no coincidence then that Roxy, the heroine in your Peepland series for Titan Comics, works in a peepshow. How many of the elements that are in this series are autobiographical? And what’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you during your stint on the seedy side of life in NYC?
Christa Faust: Peepland was influenced by a combination of real life news events in New York City in the 80s and my own personal experience. Characters were based on people I knew personally as well as larger-than-life NYC fixtures like public access pornographer Ugly George. It’s deeply autobiographical, but not in the literal sense that it describes actual events that occurred in my own life. More like a love letter to my old hometown.
It’s always funny when people ask me for wild and crazy stories about my time in the booths, because so much of what others might consider crazy was just an average Tuesday for us. However, I do like to tell the story of the Pizzaman. I’ll try to give you the PG13 version.
He was this mild-mannered, middle aged guy who’d come into my booth on his lunch hour with a slice of pizza and a coke. In a rare role reversal, he’d “put on a show” for me. The show involved… how should I put this…? Let’s just say he had intimate relations with the pizza, which he insisted (in much more explicit vernacular, naturally) provided a similar tactile sensation to a certain portion of the female anatomy. To this day, I wonder what sort of woman he’d been with who felt like a slice of pizza.
R!S!P!: Gary, you’re from Los Angeles, right? How did your background or any of your own personal experiences work their way into the story you’ve been co-writing with Christa?
Gary Phillips: I grew up in South Central or now called South L.A., an area of Los Angeles made infamous in gangster rap and movies like Boyz N the Hood and even the eponymous South Central. I came of age being involved in community organizing around police abuse issues then later the anti-apartheid movement, was an outreach director for a foundation that funded community organizing in underserved areas, and so on. That background, interacting with working class folk, the police, gang members, and poor people gave me a great appreciation for our differences and those things that can bring us together. Too, you get into some noirish situations when you’re in a housing project in Watts or a church in Boyle Heights, so there was that as well.
R!S!P!: Christa, why, aside from your connection to the city, did you choose to set Peepland in eighties New York City as opposed to somewhere like San Francisco or L.A., cities that also had plenty of sex shops and sordid attractions?
CF: There is no other reason other than that intimate personal connection. I could have set it in Amsterdam or Tokyo or Nairobi, but I didn’t want to write about some random red light district somewhere, I wanted to share my own memories and experiences of the city I love. Because that place where I grew up is long gone now, gentrified into a glittery, gelded tourist trap and it felt important to capture what it was really like back then. To preserve that history for future generations.
R!S!P!: Christa, you’ve written plenty of novels over the span of your career but unless I’m mistaken, Peepland is your first comic book project. Was the transition from writing a novel to writing a comic series an easy one for you? Was it something that you enjoyed?
CF: It was a pretty steep learning curve, that’s for sure, but I had a blast. Writing comics requires a totally different way of thinking, because real estate on each page is so precious and you have to be able to distill everything down to its most concentrated essence. For example, I love writing snappy dialog, but in a comic you can’t have panel after panel of talking heads. Guy A gets to say one thing, then Guy B get to say one thing and maybe if we’re lucky, Guy A can say one more thing. That’s it. I was a tough transition for me, but I do love a challenge. And in the end it was worth it, because this story is one that really needed to be told in a visual medium.
R!S!P!: Gary, on the flipside, you’ve written quite a few comic books over the years. What made Peepland stick out, what makes it different or more interesting to write than your other projects?
GP: Nothing beats being able to riff on our own past, and as Peepland draws on Christa’s real life, how could I not jump with both feet into this project when she asked me to be on board? This was a world I only knew from the outside so of course Christa was my guide, our guide as readers, into this world and its denizens. Now we’re telling you a crime story but it’s not so much about criminal behaviors as what are the circumstances that drive our characters to do what they do. What are the repercussions of taking those steps out of line?
R!S!P!: Gary & Christa, this was the first time you guys had collaborated on a project, right? What was it like sharing the writing duties with one another, was there any trouble finding ‘one voice’ for the book?
GP: Knock on wood, but it helped that Christa had already written a spec screenplay that she gave me a copy to read and comment on that served as the basis of Peepland. From there once the opportunity to do the comics mini-series arose, we met and plotted out the main beats of the story. Thereafter, at times we’d alternate, one of us would do a draft of one of the books in the series and the other would get those pages and do re-writes. We’d always discuss would a given character act this way or more importantly, why they would act a certain way as opposed to another way. We strove to be as true to our characters as we could.
CF: I really enjoy the dynamic energy of collaboration and I feel like Gary and I have developed a unique way of seeing around each other’s corners. Also, in the case of a comic series, there isn’t really one clear narrative voice in the way there is with prose so that maybe made it a little easier to blend everything into a seamless whole.
R!S!P!: Gary & Christa, what draws you to hardboiled, noir style fiction and why do you choose to focus your writing in that arena instead of something maybe more mainstream or commercially viable?
GP: I’m going to pull my L.A. card and paraphrase what’s often been said, in the land of the harshest sunshine, that’s where you’ll find the darkest shadows. It’s where your characters exist in starkest contrast, where the pressure builds and you just have to see how they’ll react. As to commercial viability, I’m not so sure that noir is that much of a literary orphan given a quick perusal of what’s on bookshelves and on our TVs from the near future Incorporated – Mad Men meets Philp K. Dick, Sneaky Pete, Good Behavior to Black Mirror. And in this time of Trump, how do you not reel from noir to the surreal? Fiction is going to have a hard time keeping up, shit!
CF: I agree noir/hardboiled fiction, as well as an overall darker sensibility in crime dramas in general, is being embraced by the mainstream more than ever these days. As to why I choose to explore that genre in my own work, I never really felt like I had much of a choice in what I write. I develop these crushes, obsessions really, on different topics or themes and I feel compelled to follow where they lead me. I don’t think I could write a light-hearted romantic comedy with a gun to my head. But hey, maybe I could write a black comedy about a writer forced to write a romantic comedy by a mysterious armed person with questionable motives. Get Weinstein on the phone, pronto!
R!S!P!: Christa, the series offers up a pretty ‘warts and all’ look at the lives of the girls who work in the booths. The series could have easily gone for titillation but it doesn’t, it focuses more on character. Is it safe to assume that your own experiences on the job informed this? I’d imagine that working in a peepshow is just like any other job after a while – a daily grind, so to speak.
CF: Absolutely! I wanted to share all the little workaday details of the job, like the trick of sliding a folded piece of paper between the window and the frame to sneak tips. We’ve all seen plenty of stories that are set in that world, but none of them ever felt authentic to me. Mostly because the majority of those stories are being told by the guys who watched us (or wish they could) rather than by women who lived it. I wanted to tell the story from our side of the glass.
R!S!P!: Gary & Christa, real life events and characters from eighties New York City work their way into Peepland – Donald Trump, The Central Park Five, Al Goldstein - obviously that’s intentional even if the names are changed. What was the impetus behind this move? Was it just to ground the series in reality or was there something more to it?
GP: For me utilizing these real events and people, or at least pulling from these elements to inform and ground the plot and sub-plots of Peepland, better situates the overall story for the reader. We didn’t set out to be preachy or stand on a soap box and point fingers and say who is bad and who is good, but let you experience these characters as they are. Issues of racism, sexual identity and greed are real things and the more we can infuse the world of Peepland with that with which we deal with in our lives, well, that’s the price of admission to our particular grindhouse.
CF: Gary nailed it, in that we really are just giving you a window to observe the characters without lecturing you on how you should feel about them. We tried to blur the line between the kinds of characters who are traditionally viewed as heroes and villains and present a wide variety of ordinary, flawed people who are just trying to make it through their day. Good people who do something bad for good reasons and bad people who do something good for bad reasons and everybody in between.
R!S!P!: Gary & Christa, as someone who lives in New York City, one of the big things that Peepland gets right is the geography and the landmarks, right down to the subway stations, bars and stores. How important was it to you guys to ‘get it right’ in that regard? Does this come from you guys or from the series’ artist Andrea Camerini?
GP: Christa’s the architect and Andrea the builder. I’m the brick layer.
CF: The reason why we chose Andrea to work with on this project was because he’s so good at gritty, realistic city street scenes, but he’s from Italy and doesn’t know NYC like I do. So I guess I have to take credit (and blame, honestly) for being real a pain in the ass about all the period details and geography. Sure there are a still few pesky anachronisms that slipped through the net, but the feedback we’ve been getting from fellow New Yorkers has all been very positive. And I think Gary’s selling himself short there by claiming to be a brick layer. This project could never have existed without his keen eye for visual storytelling and genuine love of the comic form.
R!S!P!: Gary & Christa, in a sense, the series deals with the class war that will always exist between the haves and the have-nots. This was a big theme during the last election – Peepland doesn’t necessarily get too political but was this intentional or did it just sort of slip in?
GP: Well, as previously stated, we’re not about yelling at you through a bullhorn to get a point across. We’re here to entertain and titillate and maybe in the process, give you some food for thought. That said, you can’t help but show the disparity when you’re dealing with characters at the margins. As you mention, this last election was, at least partly, about those who felt passed over, the American Dream is slipping away, wages are depressed, your 50 and you gotta take a part-time gig driving for Uber, and getting grief from all sorts of passengers, to supplant your pay check from the big box store.
I mean I grew up in a union household, my mechanic dad, a Teamster, had a sixth grade education though my mom was a librarian. He hit that lick for some 36 years and retired with a pension and social security. We didn’t live high on the hog but we had food in the fridge, healthcare, a house and a few car – that me and pops kept running, sometimes cannibalizing parts off of one hoopty for the other. My point being, he didn’t face economic insecurity when he was old and got to go on cruises and such, my mother having died when I was a teenager. But that’s like something from a ‘50s movie, a time and condition for the worker that now faces things like driverless trucks that will displace that as a profession.
CF: Can’t add much to that, other than to say that we were really all about gritty authenticity in the telling of this story and it’s hard to be honest in portraying characters like the ones in Peepland without addressing the class, race and gender issues that affect their day-to-day lives.
R!S!P!: Gary & Christa, Peepland also deals with the issue of the police abusing their powers. Again, this is something we’re seeing in the news a lot lately. Was there ever a concern that the real life elements might get to be too much?
GP: Sadly then as now, the institution of the police and their often rocky relationship with black and other people of color communities, even given more black cops on big city forces, remains an ongoing problem. Black Lives matter being the current but by no means last manifestation of that Gordian Knot. If anything, hadn’t we looked at this issue of police accountability given where and when Peepland is set, that would have seemed odd I think.
CF: Exactly. Again, authenticity was the key for us and if people feel that a realistic portrayal of the actual abuses of police power that exist in this world (then and now) is “too much” then they should take action in real life to work on changing that dynamic. If you don’t like what you see in the mirror, it’s not the mirror’s fault.
Gary, there are a lot of male characters in the book to be sure but the females in Peepland are typically more interesting and in a lot of ways much stronger. As a writer on the series do you ever have trouble getting in the heads of the women in the book?
GP: There’s probably a joke there somewhere, but for sure Christa kept me on point and it’s not as if I haven’t tackled tough female characters in other work that I’ve done. The writers’ job is to walk in your characters’ skin, yeah? And let’s face it, writing a woman who’s swinging a pair, ahem, well, a gentleman doesn’t say, but it is a bit of a turn on to realize that kind of ballsy woman. Heh.
Christa, there are a lot of obvious punk rock elements in the book too. Does this also stem from your own background and what do you feel these elements bring to the story aside from the interesting visuals?
CF: I was never cool when it came to music, then or now. I knew other kids that dressed cool and played instruments and knew all the bands and I would go along with them to shows when I was able, but my own passion at the time was for books. I spent the majority of my awkward teenage years by myself, reading and writing. I included a musician character in Peepland, because it seemed like a good way to ground the characters in their decade. Also because the punk rock scene, at least in NYC, was kind of reaching the end of its arc in 86, and that felt particularly significant for the kind of story we were trying to tell.
R!S!P!: Gary & Christa, the series is slated for five issues – any chance we’re going to see a sequel once the series is done? There are a lot of really cool supporting characters in this book that could be explored in interesting ways.
GP: That’s what we’re hoping to do. So buy them copies!
CF: What he said! That’s the great thing about the concept behind Peepland. There’s a different woman in every booth and very high employee turnover, which provides rich potential for new, intertwining storylines. The possibilities are limitless.
R!S!P!: Thanks guys, we appreciate it!
To keep tabs on Christa Faust, check out her website here and to stay on top of what Gary Phillips is up to, his website is here!