The Mary Sue Exclusive Interview: Introducing Oni Press’ Angel City
Say hello to Dolores Dare.
The Mary Sue is pleased to exclusively announce Angel City, a new title from Oni Press that writer Janet Harvey promises will please readers who like their feminism “with a whiskey chaser.”
Angel City’s hardboiled hero is Dolores Dare, a stunt-woman in 1930s LA who falls in with the mob. In Angel City Issue #1, coming October 5th, 2016, Dolores copes with the death of an old friend from the past, and starts her own investigation into LA’s “April Fool’s Killer.” Over email, we spoke to writer Janet Harvey, artist Megan Levens, and colorist Nick Filardi about the research that goes into writing about historic Los Angeles, why they created a female anti-hero, and the importance of not whitewashing LA.
The Mary Sue: There’s so much incredible history in LA. What has your research for Angel City looked like so far? Are there any aspects of old Hollywood you’ve been particularly influenced by?
Janet Harvey: I definitely did a lot of research into Hollywood history, and particularly the life and murder of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia. There’s, like, a whole true crime section you could build out of books that claim to reveal “the truth” about the unsolved Black Dahlia murder. But one of the most compelling theories, to me anyway, is the idea that it was mob-related. And it makes a lot of sense, because for a while there, the boundary between gangster movies and actual gangsters was pretty permeable in Hollywood. And that just seemed like a rich vein to mine for drama – that moment in Hollywood history where everything was up for grabs.
I also grew up reading trashy books like Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger, and the old True Detective magazines with their pulpy covers. And of course, you can’t talk about LA crime or the Black Dahlia without talking about James Ellroy’s books. One of the editors at Oni called Angel City “Ellroy with a feminist twist,” and I take that as a humongous compliment.
You’ll also see a lot of influence here from classic Hollywood noir, and gangster movies of the 30s. Megan and Nick are probably both really sick of me “suggesting” research and movies for them, but I just love this stuff. For me, the challenge is not to fall in love with the fly on the wall and tell you everything about what really happened, because I find the actual history so fascinating.
Megan Levens: On the artist side of things, it’s all about looking up reference for the period. Coming off of Madame Frankenstein (which is set in the early 1930s) made moving to the clothes, cars, and architecture of 1939 a bit easier. I had accumulated a stack of reference books on the entire decade of the 30s so I could finally use the later entries!
Obviously, living in LA, I see little pieces of old Hollywood history all around, but even the things that have survived this long have changed a great deal. There was a lot of research, for example, to find enough photographs of what the Chinese Theatre actually looked like in 1939…the famous facade has stayed much the same, but the area around it has changed several times! And actually all those reference photos and links from Janet were incredibly helpful in getting the setting and tone of different scenes.
My favorite thing about that era is, probably pretty obviously, the fashion and style. I’m a sucker for anything from the Jazz Age up to WWII, so while some of it was familiar, other points were fun for me to research in detail…like how the men’s suspenders attached to buttons on their pants. I had no idea!
Nick Filardi: I’ve been coloring Powers, another noir book for almost 10 years now. When I signed on to it, I watched a lot of old noir movies and have been gathering reference here and there as we went on. So much of my shadow reference comes from Hollywood noir. The one that jumps out at me is T-Men, made in 1947. Its a little later than Angel City, but is a perfect noir jumping-off point. I’ve been drawing form that pool for a long time. Powers, however, has a distinct look that was established when I started working on it. It also feels like a New York City comic. I’ve been wanting to work on a noir book that feels warmer and sun-drenched for a while now. Angel City, set in LA, is that book.
The Mary Sue: Are Dolores, Joe, or the April Fool’s killer inspired by any historic figures?
Harvey: Dolores and Joe are basically fictional, but a lot of real people are floating in and out of this book. The studio fixer, Eddie Mannix, makes an appearance. You also see a version of him in Hail, Caesar! In the Coen Bros movie, the scandals Eddie is “fixing” are pretty charming and lightweight by today’s standards: cheesecake photo shoots, a pregnant starlet that needs to get married. His assignments are much darker in Angel City.
Another colorful character is Brenda Allen, who was a notorious madam who ran a call girl racket that catered to the rich and powerful in Los Angeles. She was a power player in LA for many years, until she got arrested alongside gangster Mickey Cohen in the 1950s.
I should also mention Aggie Underwood, who will make an appearance later in the series. Aggie was the first female reporter on the crime beat in Los Angeles, and a fascinating character in real life. There were so many details I wanted to include about Aggie that we just didn’t have time for. For instance, she knits. She used to sit at her desk at the newspaper and knit. I suspect the phrase “I’m going to stick to my knitting” was coined by Aggie.
TMS: It’s awesome to see a female anti-hero (or at least, a complicated female hero) for a change. I think we’re much more accustomed to seeing men in those roles. Can you speak to that at all?
Harvey: I love anti-heroes—I just feel like I can relate to someone a lot better if they’ve gotten knocked around and disillusioned a little bit by life. To me that’s the whole point of writing, and reading. It’s to help you get inside someone else’s skin and try to understand how they became the person they are. Anti-heroes also tend to be snarky rebels who don’t go along with the status quo. And that’s something I can relate to, as well!
I like my angels with dirty faces, and that’s definitely Dolores. She starts out in a pretty cynical place, but you start to understand the reasons why she feels the way she does, and that she’s developed this hard shell because it’s the only way she can survive in the world she finds herself in. And it really gives her someplace to go in her character arc as she starts to reclaim who she is and assert herself, and try to get some justice for her friend.
I feel like, in terms of pop culture, we’ve come to expect less from women characters. It’s funny, but you take the gun molls and showgirls from the gangster movies of the 1930s and 40s—the ones who are platinum blonde and hard as nails. I’m thinking of Jean Harlow, or Virginia Mayo as James Cagney’s girlfriend in White Heat. Those were some smart, tough, ride or die dames! And they had their own stories and their own internal conflicts. Jean Harlow was definitely an inspiration for Dolores Dare. She probably dated a few gangsters in real life, too.
The story of the women who came to Hollywood in those days really isn’t told anymore—or it’s been told in stereotypes. We characterize them as hungry starlets, or victims, or hardened femme fatales, and we think that’s the totality of who they are. But it’s not, and it shouldn’t be. They were chasing the American dream, just like everybody else.
Levens: I think what’s most refreshing about Dolores, for me, is that she’s an anti-hero, but she has a lot of emotional nuance. Anti-heroes can be just as boring as the squeaky-clean heroes if they don’t have enough substance to them. I feel like I’ve seen plenty of “strong” female characters who are tough, cold, and have a troubled past, but they almost always exist on this very narrow end of the emotional spectrum. Dolores grieves, and cries, and it’s not shown as her breaking character or having a moment of weakness. That range of emotion and expression makes her a lot more interesting to draw.
TMS: Can we expect to see a lot more of Joe as the series progresses?
Harvey: Oh, definitely. Joe is the Bogie to Dolores’ Bacall. He’s a photographer for the Tinseltown Tattler, so he’s used to getting into scrapes trying to uncover the truth and he’s got some skills that complement Dolores’ skills. She’s more of a scrapper, and jumps in with her fists, whereas Joe’s a bit more laid-back, taking pictures and gathering evidence. And he keeps her honest. They’re a good team.
Levens: I’m happy to say I get to draw lots more of Joe as the story progresses. I do develop “crushes” on some of my characters, and that’s happened very quickly with Joe.
The Mary Sue: What has the collaborative process for the three of you been like so far, and how did you wind up coming together to work on Angel City?
Harvey: Our awesome editor, Ari Yarwood, gets all the credit for making that happen. She and I had a lot of conversations about what we wanted for the look and feel of the book, and when we approached Megan, we were lucky that she could fit this into her schedule. I loved Megan’s work on Madame Frankenstein, and she brings so much personality and life to Dolores. It really is a joy to see her pages. It helps that she’s also based in LA, so she knows the personality of the city really well. Megan and Nick had been looking for an excuse to work together, so Nick actually campaigned to get on the book. So yeah, basically as an unknown creator, I couldn’t have gotten luckier than to be matched up with this team.
I have to say, this is the most collaborative, open team environment I’ve ever worked in, as far as comics go. I’m used to doing work for hire, where the editor keeps everyone compartmentalized, traditionally. You submit a script, and a few weeks later somebody sends you some pages and says “here’s your comic” and you’re like “Awesome! Thanks!” For this book, these are our characters: we all have a stake in it, and everyone has a distinctive style that they bring to the table. Ari’s been a guiding hand, but she lets us talk among ourselves. And whenever they ask me for an opinion, I apparently have one. So again, I’m sure I’m annoying the hell out of the rest of the team. But we’re all working together to bring this new thing to life, and that’s really exciting.
Levens: There’s a very open exchange of ideas at every stage of the project, which I was actually used to on some level since my first two published books were creator-owned. So it’s nice to have that here, where we’re all contributing our thoughts even if it’s not what would typically be considered our stage of production.
I definitely have to second giving Ari credit for putting us all together! She’s doing a fantastic job of steering this ship and she has very much had a hand in shaping the story and characters. And after working sort of adjacent to Nick on Madame Frankenstein (where he was coloring Joëlle Jones’ beautiful cover linework), I am beyond excited to get to have him color my work now.
Filardi: Megan and I both went to the same school, so I’ve been looking to work with her for a while. I feel like when you get the same education, you end up with a similar thought pattern, and you know you can rely on someone to be engaged with what you are doing. You communicate well. Janet also might be the most involved writer I’ve ever worked with. Any reference she finds, she sends. Which is fantastic. That doesn’t happen enough. You get the best results with a project when you get to experiment as well as bounce ideas off the rest of the team. We’ve been doing that in spades. When I start a book I’m all over the place looking to make it unique and interesting. Ari, our editor, Megan and Janet have been nothing but encouraging to me as I try a bunch of techniques. I’ve tried odd painting stuff as a reference to crime noir pulp novel covers, Ziptone patterns as a reference to how actual noir comics looked back then. Shadows that feel more abstract and art deco. Sometimes when I do this kind of thing creators I’m working with are just kinda like “ok whatever, just make it look good” but Ari, Megan and Janet been right there with encouragement on the experimentation the whole time. It’s been great.
Harvey: One thing I want to mention is that it was important to us, as a team, to make this a more diverse version of LA than you’re maybe used to seeing in “historical” stories. The true history of LA is extremely diverse. I mean, you can’t really tell the story of Los Angeles without talking about the Asian immigrant families that settled there, or the Latino and African American families that have always been a big part of the population. So we did want to make sure that we were representing a Los Angeles that wasn’t totally whitewashed.
Levens: I agree with Janet, setting this story to be representational of the real LA, which we don’t always see. I think that it’s a crime noir story whose central protagonists are a woman and an Asian-American man is already pretty unique for that genre.
Angel City #1 will be available to pre-order in the August PREVIEWS catalogue #335, and will be on sale at local comic books shops, Comixology, iBooks, and Google Play on October 5th, 2016. In the meantime, you can check out our exclusive preview below.
If Angel City looks intriguing to you, Levens and Filardi recommend also checking out Madame Frankenstein, Ares & Aphrodite, Heartthrob, and Powers.
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