A Strong Woman for a Harsh World: Janet Harvey dishes on Angel City (Interview)
A hard-boiled tale in an unforgiving time describes the new series, Angel City, by Oni Press. The book, which debuts October 5th, is set in 1930’s Hollywood. It is a time of bright lights and the allure of glamour in tinsel town, but a layer of organized crime and corruption lay just under the shiny exterior. Angel City lives in between those worlds. The world of Angel City is rooted in the traditions of film noir and classic detective stories, yet the characters have to face the realities of the time period. Angel City doesn’t gloss over the social issues of the era. Writer and creator, Janet Harvey creates a world that faces these issues and weaves an exciting story along the way. Geeks World Wide had the opportunity to interview writer Janet Harvey about her new creation.
Geeks World Wide (GWW): You have talked about your influences around Angel City, film noir and detective comics, how is this series is a period piece and how is this series a modern tale set in a time period? How are you using LA in the 1930’s to tell a meaningful story to a modern audience?
Janet Harvey (JH): Well, I’m using a lot of tropes from the detective/noir genre, and it’s a detective story, but I try to turn those expectations on their heads and come at it from a fresh point of view. I think people are responding to Dolores because she feels like a real, relatable human being, and not just a “strong female character.” She kicks ass, sure. But that’s not where her character begins and ends.
(JH): As far as her personality goes, I’m definitely drawing a lot of inspiration from women in my family, especially my grandmother, Rita. She was made of steel and took absolutely no guff from anyone. She was about 5 foot 4, I think, but she was pretty intimidating! Grandmom grew up in the Depression, like Dolores did, and I think that whole generation just learned to be very tough-minded and practical, out of necessity, and they valued that. They didn’t value things like expressing your feelings. It’s not that they didn’t feel it, they just didn’t see the point of talking about it. So that’s what I drew from when I was creating Dolores. I thought that, the way Dolores came up, she would just learn to dust herself off and move on. She has a lot of spunk, but she’s not very self-aware or reflective.
(GWW): Janet, you’ve mentioned the diversity of LA during the time, how have you researched the period?
(JH): It’s been a really neat, interesting journey because I’m an East Coast girl myself, so the East Coast immigrant experience – the Irish and Italians – is something really familiar to me, and that’s been done to death, really, in plays and stories. It’s something our culture has focused on. But you have a different population of immigrants on the West Coast. You have bigger populations of Mexican Americans and Asian Americans, and the history of African Americans there is not as well documented. LA is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. So it’s not like the people weren’t there, but you have to dig for the stories. So I’ve been reaching out to friends, and scholars, who have expertise in this area or can direct me to people who do.
One of the real joys of doing this research has been discovering the work of Luis Valdez, who wrote Zoot Suit, and founded El Teatro Campesino. His work is amazing, and he should be up there with Sam Shepard and Eugene O’Neil in the pantheon of American playwrights. He really writes poetically about the Mexican American experience in Los Angeles. I’ve also been digging into the history of East LA and Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights has a history of being a multi-ethnic neighborhood. In the late 30s, you would have found all kinds of people there: Jewish, Mexican, Asian, and African American all living together. There’s a new documentary about Boyle Heights called East LA Interchange that talks about this. I don’t think it’s out on Netflix yet.
(GWW): The 1930s saw corruption and organized crime in LA and Hollywood. You’ve already started laying the groundwork for story arcs related to these realities of the period. How are you navigating historical accuracy with creative license?
(JH): Well, I’m using a number of “real life” characters as players in the drama – Bugsy Siegel, Aggie Underwood, the MGM “Fixers” Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix. But I’m mashing up a lot of incidents and rumors that may not have all happened at the same time. For instance, the murder of Frances is pretty obviously based on the Black Dahlia murder, but the actual Black Dahlia murder happened much later – in the mid 40’s. Readers may get a thrill of recognition from the names, but the characters aren’t always who they were in real life. Eddie Mannix, for instance, is called a “Refrigerator in a suit” and is basically portrayed as Strickling’s thug. In reality, Mannix was an accountant who was sent out west to make sure Mayer wasn’t stealing from MGM. So he wasn’t dumb. But he was also a thug in a suit, and that’s the part I chose to focus on!
(JH): That’s a big question, and an important one, but it’s difficult to answer without giving away plot points of upcoming issues. In a general way, though, I can say that issues of gender and race are definitely present in the lives of the characters, and in the way other characters relate and react to them. In the first issue, for instance, when Dolores offers to help the two corrupt cops find Frances’ killer, they initially laugh her off and say “yeah, we’ll call you if we’re shaking down any dress shops.” Because that’s the way they see her, as someone who is only good for certain jobs. Later, when we meet Rita, who’s an African American actress, we’ll see that she only gets considered for certain parts. To get better parts, she starts presenting herself as Cuban because “Cuban” sounds exotic. Joe is Japanese American, and if we get to tell further stories about him we’ll start getting into the time period of World War II, and how anti-Japanese sentiment affected Japanese Americans in this country. So they’re all navigating this world where they are not the “default,” and that definitely shapes their perspective. But it will also figure into what happens in the story down the line.
Racial segregation also plays into the story in a more practical way, too… because as a writer, you have to think to yourself, in a segregated society, how do these people even have an opportunity to meet and talk to each other? It wasn’t like they were all hanging around on set laughing together, like the cast of a multiracial CW show. So you have to find the places where the boundaries are permeable, but it’s also plausible for the time.
(GWW): We still live in a world of racial segregation and gender discrimination, do you see Angel City as an opportunity to hold up a cultural mirror and provide commentary? If so, how?
(JH): Oh, absolutely. We’ll be dealing with some pretty heavy issues as the story arc goes on, including police brutality, and questions of consent and rape, and how the police respond when it’s reported. In a lot of ways, it’s easier to talk about this stuff when it’s framed in a story about the historical past, because we have this cultural idea that we’ve left the worst of our discrimination issues behind us, and that things are so much better now. So we can look at a movie where slaves are being whipped, or people are getting hoses and dogs turned on them at Selma, and we’ll say “Wasn’t that terrible, what a dark chapter in American history, thank you for turning a mirror on our society, here is an Academy Award.” But try to point out that the police are rolling up on civilians with tanks in suburban St. Louis, and spraying people with tear gas in their own back yards, and all of a sudden you’re exaggerating, you’re a troublemaker.
(GWW): You’ve mentioned your desire to create strong female characters, what can readers look forward to as you develop Dolores and her supporting cast?
(JH): Readers can look forward to the women being strong, the men being strong, everybody getting into fist fights, people riding on elephants, putting out cigarettes in each others drinks, more fist fights, gunfire, riots, switchblades. It’s a lot of fun.
There is a lot of characterization and drama to look forward to in Angel City and having read the first issue, Janet Harvey’s creation does not disappoint. Angel City #1 hits comic stores and digital outlets on Tuesday, October 5th.