Smash Pages Q&A: Gary Phillips

The crime writer discusses his latest comic, ‘The Be-Bop Barbarians,’ and more.

Gary Phillips is best known as one of the great crime writers of his generation. His Ivan Monk mystery novels stand out as one of the best series of the 1990s and he’s written many others including The Warlord of Willow Ridge, High Handand The Underbelly. He’s written many short stories and edited anthologies like the recent Culprits: The Heist Was Only the Beginning and The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir.

He’s also been writing comics for years. From Shot Callerz and Midnight Mover at Oni to The Rinse and High Rollers at Boom to Angeltown and Cowboys at Vertigo he’s written some of the best crime comics in the 21st Century. He wrote a webcomic Bicycle Cop Dave, which was collected in Beat LA, with Christa Faust he wrote the debut series for the Hard Case Comics imprint, Peepland, and wrote the relaunched Vigilante at DC Comics. His new graphic novel, which is out now from Pegasus Books, is The Be-Bop Barbarians.

While his comics tend to be crime stories, The Be-Bop Barbarians is different, but readers of his novels will find it familiar. One of Phillips’ great strengths as a writer is the way he is able to use fiction to incorporate historical details and history as it is lived in a way that provides a fuller understanding of the present. The Be-Bop Barbarians is about three African-American cartoonists living in New York in the 1950s and though they’re vaguely based on real life figures, Phillips uses them to talk about the comics business, to discuss politics, and get an understanding of the historical moment and the progress that has been made.

I’ve read your work for years and The Be-Bop Barbarians is different from most of your comics work, which haven’t tended to be crime stories. You talk a little about this in the introduction, but where did the book start?

I had known about these three folks for a while. In particular I was thinking about Jackie Ormes, who’s the inspiration for Stef Rawls. Jackie is in the Eisner Hall of Fame. She’s the first black woman to have her own comic strip. There’s a great biography about her. I didn’t want to do a biographical comic because as I said a great prose biography has already been written about her, so I thought about her as a template for this character. From there as I talked about in the introduction, I got fascinated with Matt Baker, who was one of the first black comic book artists to come along. He had a short life because he had a heart condition and died fairly young. The character of Clint is a lot different than Matt Baker although there’s all these interesting discussions swirling around Matt Baker. He apparently burnt the candle at both ends, he would work hard and play hard, and that probably didn’t help his health. That was interesting idea for the kind of character that I made Cliff into. I knew I had to round it out with a more grounding figure. I’d always known about the real life Oliver Harrington who did some comic strip work, but was mostly known as a political cartoonist and writer. I thought these three would be interesting to play off one another.

What made this idea a comic as opposed to a prose novel or story?

That’s a very good question. That’s something I think about a lot now. On the one hand, my love of comics is such that you can never beat text and pictures. You can’t. It’s such a great visceral medium. I thought that if I could made it a comic the artist – in this case Dale Berry, who did a hell of a job – could do a lot of things visually that would take you forever and a day to write in prose. It’s a book about three people who are visual artists and it suggests that it should be in a visual medium and just so you can show them sitting at their drawing table drawing. It’s just so clean and efficient an image as opposed to writing a page or more of them sitting down and what they’re drawing.

How did you and Dale Berry connect?

I’ve known Dale for a while and we would run into each other at this or that convention or comic con. Dale is also a writer as well. He does the series Tales of the Moonlight Cutters. I was familiar with his work and he has a great sense of time and place. I mainly thought of him because I wanted the book to have this fifties style in the work and he turned out to be the artist for the job. I should give props to our colorist J. Brown who also did some finishing inks. Together I think they made this book look lavish and gave a real sense of the setting and the time period that I wanted to bring the reader into.

I also kept thinking about how we talk about and think about the 1950s as this very gray and repressed period and color helps bring out how vibrant that period was.

That’s a good point. God knows we’ll look back on this period of time and laugh. [laughs] But you’re right that both things can happen at the same time. Look at the difference between watching reruns of the Donna Reed Show and Mad Men. Both shows arguably show you that period of time but one goes behind the facade and looks at this period through a different kind of lens. You have be-bop jazz, this hard driving sound that tried to capture feelings and emotions and race relations. That’s partly what drove some of these jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins to do what they did. You have these cracks in the social veneer in terms of race policies. All of these things are happening at once.

It’s a different kind of comic for you, but it’s still a book about crime. In your books you’re interested in different kinds of crimes and how they interact and feed off each other.

Well, I hope so. Really, that’s the nature of crime fiction. I was answering questions for something else about why does crime fiction draw me back and I suppose it’s because I think that it is a way in which to show the various psychological states of your characters. You can take a character – not to give anything away because I want people to read the book – but Stef in the story goes through a certain transformation. Things are revealed to her that have been simmering below the surface and other things happen because she’s ambitious, because she wants to be her own person, but there’s a price she has to pay for that. She’s willing to pay that price. I thought it was interesting to have that character, particularly a female character, who is somewhat the girl next door but she’s somewhat not.

All of them has flaws. Ollie is the most upright cat but even he is seduced as it were by a certain level of fame that he gains – and his fiance calls him out on that. That’s part of the fun. These crime elements that are there in the story and our characters have some interaction with. Or the crimes they commit aren’t necessarily crimes of material possession like ripping off the loot, but are crimes of the soul. [laughs] Maybe that’s the true crime fiction story as well. There was an old Cagney film where he’s going up the steps of the church and he’s machined gunned and dies on the steps and his girlfriend is cradling him as he’s dying and a guy says, who is he? She says, he used to be a big shot. [laughs] That’s our fate. That’s the lesson of all crime fiction. Crime does not pay.

How did the book end up published as an oversized European album?

It’s funny you should say that because Pegasus is mostly primarily a prose publisher. They publish an eclectic range of material. I had met Claiborne Hancock, the publisher, and at that point I think they had done one other graphic novel which was a European graphic novel that they had translated into English. In fact they have another one from Europe about black soldiers in World War II, which they’ve now translated into English. That was the format they had a grasp of and were used to, even though they’re an American company, and was what they gravitated toward.

You’ve worked with a lot of fabulous artists over the years including Shawn Martinbrough, Brian Hurtt, and others.

Elena Casagrande. We did the Vigilante reboot together, which unfortunately went through a lot of problems, but she’s terrific. She’s Italian, in Rome, and she was actually pregnant while drawing the book, which was part of the reason it got behind. Then it got cancelled but they collected it. It was wild.

And when Cowboys came out, the Vertigo Crime line had either just been canceled or was about to?

I am happy to point out that me and Max Allan Collins were the last to come out and we helped kill that line. [laughs]

What do you like about working with artists and what makes for a good working relationship?

As long as I’m as clear and efficient as I can be in translating what’s in my head to the script page for the artist. Obviously sometimes you get feedback or pushback. Something you describe either doesn’t work or doesn’t work that way or they see it in a different way. I just find it I’m still jazzed when I get to see those sequentials. I’m old enough that I started in the days of fandom when you used a mimeograph and if you were big time you’d off-set print. You have people like Jim Starlin and George R.R. Martin who started in fandom. That was my gateway into writing because it turned out that I was a terrible artist. [laughs] But then and now I’m still a

All these decades later I am still so jazzed when something that’s been in my head is realized on the page. Beyond just words on the page that there’s this visual representation of the idea, of the story. Hopefully it’s cohesive enough that it draws in the reader, but I’m still a kid when I get to see those images. They still knock me out. Some of those pages will give me a jolt because they’re how I saw it but better than how I saw it. You can’t beat that feeling.

You’re too young to know the fifties, but you’ve written about the period in a few books and how we continue to deal with what happened then. There are obvious reasons why you or any storyteller would be interested in the period, but what do you remember about how people used to talk about the period has really stayed with you?

It’s also thinking about my parents and my parents’ friends. My dad was from a little town in Texas and my mom was from a little town in Oklahoma and they met out here in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Thinking about the city I’ve grown up in, Los Angeles, where I’ve more or less lived all my life, I’m still constantly interested in the idea that there are these histories to be excavated in this city. I guess that’s true in any city but in particular Los Angeles. Los Angeles is known as a place where you reinvent yourself. We’re the home of the dream factory. Silicon Valley is in the Northern part of the state but they’ve migrated to the Southland as well. Los Angeles is where noir was birthed and where all these cultures have come together, to clash and to meld and blend.

All of that is to say that a lot of that was starting to leak into the consciousness into the 1950s. All of that stuff was always there, but it was starting to be more expressed in the fifties, and especially towards the late fifties. It is an interesting period. Anytime you do a historical piece, on the one hand you want to set it in that time period and those sensibilities. On the other hand, there’s no way to not in some way alter the viewpoint because you’re looking back on it from sixty-seventy years down the line. You can’t help but bring that knowledge and those ideas that you now have, and maybe even a secret history that’s been revealed all these years down the line. Of course that’s going to effect how you put your characters through their paces. Not wanting to create anachronisms so that people will act a certain way and have a certain kind of knowledge and perspective. You don’t want them to sound out of place, out of time, but you still want them to somewhat knowledgable and conscious about the time period we’re in.

When we write historical fiction, we always see the present moment reflected in that period we’re writing about.

You’re absolutely right. You can’t help but either link that past to the present or understand that there are echoes from the past that resonate in the present. Also presumably human nature – whether greed or lust or desire – seem to be human constants.

One of the threads running through the book is Ollie running into a white man he knew when they were both soldiers in Korea. In the army Ollie was a Sergeant but now the white man who had to report to him is now a cop, and it’s hard not to read that scene and that exchange as very timely given the current administration.

That’s interesting. Honestly, this is how long the story has been with me. I think I wrote the first outline six or seven years ago. But it gets us back to the point of how there are certain universalities of human nature, or the idea that there are certain things in a historical context that repeat themselves. Henry Louis Gates is doing this doc about Reconstruction after the American Civil War. It’s a fascinating period that I have a little knowledge of, but at that point the radical Republicans were pushing black rights and trying to make up for slavery in some ways. As they pushed black rights, there was a white backlash. The klan was created in 1866 as a reaction to this. In the end, Reconstruction is destroyed. So you’re right. It’s not as if we haven’t gone through these periods before. There are certain advances are made in society, but then there’s a backlash to those advances – partly fueled through fear and partly fueled through economic uncertainty. And what happens when those things clash. You get that personified in Ollie and Hammond.

Just the way the characters are dealing with police brutality. You manage to show how these issues and problems are still with us, but also how things have changed. How what we’re dealing with today is not what these characters were facing in the fifties.

Exactly.

You mentioned that you’re working on another comic and you’re always working on a few projects. Is there anything you want to mention?

Like any journeyman writer I can’t jinx it until I sign the contract, but I will say I have taken a historical character and in the vein of our old west heroes and villains – Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett – I have re-imagined this historical figure in a more pulpish mold and have set him loose in a novel and hopefully as well as in a graphic novel. I’ll just say that until the ink is dry on the contract.

You were joking earlier about the Illuminati, and you did of course edit The Obama Inheritance about conspiracies.

(laughs) I pitched The Obama Inheritance during the run-up to the election. At the time like everyone else I thought the other candidate was going to win. What did any of us know? I thought it would be this quaint little nostalgia book about all of these crazy right wing theories about Obama. Now we look back and laugh at them, and who knew there would be more crazy insane lunatic stuff that’s been on the fringe that’s now accepted as gospel by not only members of the administration and perpetuated by members of the administration, but by people who actually know who to chew gum and tie their shoelaces. [laughs] As a fiction writer, how do you keep up with this stuff?

I know this book is about the 1950s, but we need a more positive note to end on than that.

It is about the fifties, but here’s our positive note. In the end, there is some hope in the book after all they’ve been through. The ones who are left standing have to keep going forward. And be-bop continues, baby. The beat goes on.

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