2 out of 5
Having proven, with Rivers of London, that they’re capable of successfully porting book authors to comic authors by pairing them with a guiding-hand co-author, Titan Comics smartly looked to their acquired pulp novel outlet – Hard Case Crime – for their next stream of mini-series. The first of these, Walter Hill’s Triggerman, worked, I’d say, largely because it wasn’t exactly co-authored, but rather adapted by Matz, who’s already an established hand at this crime comic biz. Soon after, Christa Faust – who’d released some fun books via HCC, combining her background experiences (and peripherally related knowledge) with pulp savvy – started up Peepland, paired with Gary Phillips, who’s certainly written his share of street-level crime comics.
As per the afterwords in some issues, Peeps 80s Manhattan setting and its private-booth performer lead, Roxy, strike pretty close to autobiographical details, and the story is dotted with timely references to ground that sensation even further. The punky leanings, amoral drug use displays, and very sex-positive characters would likely seemed forced coming from many authors, but – and I’ll credit Christa for this, based on her books – Faust’s treatment of all of this is very natural; she’s not showing off or preaching, just showing us the characters and world as she sees it / remembers it. Similarly carried over from her novel writing, and supported by Phillips’ part in this, is Peepland’s understanding of its genre: There’s humor here, and some deserved comeuppances, but no one in noir / pulp can escape unscathed, and that’s well tied in to the legacy of its city setting.
So if there’s a main thing I appreciated here, it’s that I felt this was a justified reason for making this a comic and not a book: The look – the world – is just as much a character as anything else, and pen and ink (or their digital variations) can bring that history alive and embellish it however works best for the story.
Unfortunately – as you glance up to double check that two star rating – the underlying legitimacy doesn’t end up making for a very entertaining comic book.
The first issue kicks things off generically, with our lead coming into possession of a VHS tape containing footage some people are willing to kill for, but that’s okay: This stuff thrives off of tropes, and is enriched by the writer’s quirks and ability to twist and turn things. By transposing the setup to the sex industry, Christa does just that. But then her book writing instincts take over, and our story and pacing get clogged with way too many extras. What would be a sensible character / focus shift for a new chapter in a book is a page by page stop / start pacing in a comic, and despite Gary’s guiding hand (or, who knows, maybe the comic script was all him and Christa wrote full script), none of those stops end with appropriate punctuation, and none of the starts assert themselves in a way that makes you believe they’re relevant. With omniscient narrators / internal monologues, such transitions make more sense in text, but it’s generally disruptive in a comic, or at least in a limited series where you don’t have the room to explore these asides as much.
Besides being immersion breaking, this technique also mortally wings the primary plot of the tape, despite all the bits and pieces essentially being related. We circle back around to Roxy’s attempts to do right by the material only after threading through the various subplots, making it hard to add any urgency to the looming threats on her life since we’re just sort of checking in. You can perhaps extrapolate from that that all of the various threads’ conclusions are, as a result, underwhelming as well.
And to the art. I’ve praised the setting itself, but while Andrea Camerini’s figurework competently establishes the characters, I unfortunately never really felt transported to 80s Manhattan. A lot of this could be on Marco Lesko’s colors, which are way too bright given the fringes on which the story operates, but the pencils / inks themselves are very “clean,” making the locations feel like the re-presentations they are instead of decades-lived-in spaces. Peter Milligan did a punky Hellblazer flashback arc with Simon Bisely, and while I’m not too keen on either creator, somewhere between Bisely’s excessively stylized look and Camerini’s energetic but emotionally flat panels lies, perhaps, an ideal medium.
None of this turns me off Faust’s writing, or would prevent me from checking out another comic from her, or whatever else is to come from HCC’s comic imprint. There’s a solid template here, it just needs to be backed up with awareness of how to mold it into what works for the format.