Mystery and crime writer Gary Phillips has led an interesting life. He was involved in easing racial tensions through community organizing and policy after the 1992 LA riots.
He is a widely published novelist and author of numerous graphic novels, including recently the brilliant ‘Cowboys’, illustrated by Brian Hurtt, in which a nightclub shooting changes the lives of two undercover officers.
Gary met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about the graphic novel and crime writing.
Do you think kindle lends itself to the graphic novel and what are the differences between writing one for kindle and writing for traditional paperback?
Not sure if the Kindle lends itself well to the graphic novel format. I know from the guy now converting Angeltown: The Nate Hollis Investigations — out now from Moonstone, y’all — for the e-book format told me he’s had to break up some of the pages as Kindle scrunches graphics and so say a page with seven panels would have to be two pages on the machine, four on one page and three on the following. That suggests as a writer providing a script to the artist, I would handle the pacing different, where are the dramatic breaks, mini-cliffhangers from one page to the next, and so on, differently if I was writing for the electronic medium.
For instance I’ve talked to younger guys at the comic shop I frequent, Comics Ink in Culver City, and some have talked about they prefer the printed comic book page as opposed to say scrolling panel by panel on an iPhone. I’m sure there are others who dig it that way. Clearly the various electronic formats create a different set of challenges to storytelling. Fact, I believe there’s been a graphic novel written solely for the so-called Smart Phone. I wonder how well it did, how many hits it got — how much was cost a factor?
To what extent do you think writers are motivated by a fear of death?
That’s a great question. Yes, I do find some small comfort in the notion that when I’m gone there will be, like this image from the recent film version of Wells’ The Time Machine, this massive crumbling library of marble and Ionic columns where among the stacks of crumbling books, there will be a copy or two of my books. Of course as soon as you touch the outside of one, it’ll disintegrate into dust. But what about this age of the Kindle? How will my bid for minimal immortality be realized if my books are only in electronic format? For surely there will be this world wide electromagnetic pulse the aliens or our mad scientists unleash and all this information is wiped in the Ethernet. Then what? Man.
Do you see the struggle of Social Darwinism at work in your novels as they portray crime and to what extent do you think the same forces are at work in the police force?
That’s a pretty high-minded concept but certainly on some level isn’t the crime and mystery story about that? We know there are various levels of crime from the street hoodlum to the Wall Street insider. We also know the one as Woody Guthrie sang, can do more thievery with a pen than with a gun. But really the lowly detective is hard pressed to truly bring down the powerful. Maybe the detective, be they private or on the police force, can hope to alter events to protect an individual or a small group but it’s not realistic to think they could say bring down a massive, multi-tentacled entity say in the mold of Halliburton or a Blackwater or whatever it is they calling themselves these days.
That doesn’t mean your protagonist can’t expose the wrong-doing of such a global spanning organization, but of course they would have at their command a phalanx of lawyers and public relations personnel to spin, obfuscate and delay, for years, justice. The detective at best seeks a modicum of balancing the scales. Not that they wouldn’t want more, but I think gone are the days when at the end of the novel or the movie the hero has managed to get the incriminating evidence in the hands of the intrepid reporter and the bad guys goose is coked. These days it’s just as likely the evil corporation owns the news outlet and can kill the story that way or more likely, get a few underlings to take the fall.
Conversely, it’s still compelling to read stories of thieves who operate in their own underworld and when they clash, it’s a head up kind of confrontation be one of the thieves a crime lord or even a crooked politician. There are rules after all to screwing the public and these chaps step too far out of line.
In terms of the police versus the little guy, that’s a different story. There are far too many stories of the poor and people of color being ground up in the machinery of the criminal justice system. There are now numerous cases of men who were convicted by juries of their peers, where damning eyewitness testimony was introduced against them who now 10, 20, 30 years later DNA evidence clears them. How many studies have demonstrated the unreliability of eyewitnesses. Or the power of the police to coerce confession after grilling you over and over for hours in the interrogation room. Big dog eat little dog indeed.
Tell us about ‘The Underbelly’.
The explosion of wealth and development in downtown L.A. is a thing of wonder. However, regardless of how big and shiny our buildings get, we should not forget the underbelly, the ones who this wealth and development has overlooked and pushed out. The Underbelly is a novella with this as context as a semi-homeless Vietnam vet named Magrady searches for a friend in a wheelchair gone missing from Skid Row – a friend who might be working a dangerous scheme against major players. Magrady’s journey is a solo sortie where the flashback prone protagonist must deal with the impact of gentrification; take-no-prisoners community organizers; an unflinching cop with whom he has a past in Vietnam; an elderly sexpot out for his bones; a lusted after magical skull; chronic-lovin’ knuckleheads; and the perils of chili cheese fries at midnight.
Roland Barthes introduced the concept of anchorage, in which linguistic elements can serve to ‘anchor’ the preferred readings of an image, he used this primarily in relation to advertisements but also to comics. How much more freedom do you find as a writer when writing comics and do you think the juxtaposition of image and words allows you to do things that you cannot when writing pure text?
So, on comics, well, it’s this great bastard form of storytelling, isn’t it? relatively cheap and disposable, tales of super heroes and monsters and all manner of fantastic going-ons. Then there’s crime comics too and even mixtures where the incredible mixes with the criminal. Batman certainly embodies this has he is both costumed adventurer yet employs the classic methods of detection — computer analysis, hairs and fibers catalogued in his brain, and so on — and like Mike Hammer on steroids, can beat the holy crap out of a suspect.
Anyway, scripting comics is great because the writer gets to use visuals along with words to tell the tale. It does allow you a certain short-hand you can’t do in prose. After all in prose, you have to describe the PI’s seedy office, what the nightclub looks like in the smoky gloom and what have you. In comics these atmospheric ques are the purview of the artist and colorist. How much more then does it make the stuff in your head be realized on the page. But comics scripts like teleplays and screenplays have their limitations in the form of little room for long passages of text — dialogue in particular. This is a short hand process so the leisure you have of real estate in a prose novel is severely curtailed when the idea is to have visuals and text work in concert in comics.
It’s not inherently more freedom, rather another way to excite the senses…I hope.
Is there a particular experience that has influenced your writing?
Huh, I’d say all of it but in particular when I wrote what would become my first published novel, Violent Spring, set in the aftermath of the 1992 civil unrest, riots, uprising, describe it as you will (this the result of the not guilty verdict for the four cops who beat motorist Rodney King) here in L.A., I drew on immediate experience. I was a co-director of a non-profit begun after the riots to better race relations through community organizing and affecting policy. So I would be at some meeting in the morning in a downtown highrise talking with the so-called insiders of the city, the movers and shakers, and at night be in a meeting in a housing project (estates you call them I believe) with gang members looking to spread their gang truce — which had been formulated prior to the uprising.
Do you think political correctness is workable and has improved racial equality or is it the patronising attempt by a white liberal mentality to ease its own conscience and has it exacerbated racial tensions?
Oh what a loaded question. Like most things, and I’m not exactly sure where political correctness sprang from, though I suspect the halls of academia, the initial impulse was a good thing. Certainly it was a reaction to having others define the realities of people of color and what we used to call the Third World and now we refer to as Emerging Nations. I’m down with that. But as these matters go, some practitioners of PC-ness took themselves too damn seriously and there was a backlash. But I don’t feel PC has contributed to racial tensions. There’s plenty of teabaggers, gun nuts, GOPers and neo-nazis out there who did that day in and day out.
Do you think sexual pathology is behind extreme crime and how does it differ between the sexes?
I can’t say on the first part of your question as I’m no headshrinker. I will say as someone who utilizes pop psychology in hardboiled stories that sexual tensions, lust and mutual attraction of course play a role in the make up of the male and female characters who populate those tales. These attractions are part of what compels these folks, people who pay the gas bill and mow the lawn and do the dishes, to take a step out of line or pursue what any reasonable person –you the reader — can see is a foolish undertaking. But they are engulfed in a hormonal fog…they are in its spell and what chance do they have?
What do you think of the present administration in the US and its relationship to the pharmaceutical companies?
I don’t know what the Obama Administration’s relationship is to Big Pharma other than, like any administration, Dems or GOPers, I assume they dance to their tune to a lessor or greater degree. I’ve always been fascinated by Big Pharma concerns, their inter-locking boards, other companies their have monies in, and of course, as an example, withholding a pill that can help prevent HIV infection – or really charging way too much for it — can literally adversely affect countries in Africa. That is immense power. In the past I’ve tried to plot out a storyline involving Big Pharma with little success. The lone scientist who invents the miracle cancer drug and the scramble to either kill this guy or buy this guy off by the forces of Big Pharma. But we’ve kind of seen that. Your question has me thinking more on this…
Why did you become a writer?
I became a writer somewhat by default. When I was a kid growing up in then South Central L.A., I read comic books – still do in fact and occasional do some story writing in that medium. Anyway, me and my cousin Wayne used to trace over these dynamically drawn panels in say Captain America by Jack Kirby and put in our own dialogue. This hooked me to want to write and draw my own comics and tried to do that over the years, creating my own characters and taking art lessons and so on. Turned out I’m not much of an artist but the idea of being a storyteller – it also helped that while I played sports in school I was a big recreational reader – had me hooked. I’ve at least been able to “paint” with words.
Thank you for an insightful and wide ranging interview Gary that I hope will introduce your work to many readers.
‘Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail!’ is an anthology Gary co-edited with Andrea Gibbons. Read more and see the full list of contributors at PM Press. Get a copy there or at Amazon US and UK, Barnes & Noble, or Powell’s.