Angel City: Starlets and Crime
Janet Harvey (writer), Megan Levens (illustrator), Nick Filardi (colorist), Crank! (letterer)
October 2016-March 2017, collected August 2017
The studio-era Hollywood noir thriller mystery is a very entrenched, narrow genre. Noir as an American prose and film genre originated in that time and place with books like Double Indemnity and its film remake. That setting has been retained in a great number of works, from Blade Runner to the recent Brubaker/Phillips comic The Fade Out. In nearly all of these stories, despite the changes in settings, the protagonist remains more or less the same: a white, middle-aged, cishet, working-class man dragged into a dangerous investigation of entrenched corruption by an attractive woman with mysterious and complex motives.
In this sense, Angel City turns the equation on its head. The man drags the woman into the investigation, and he’s a person of color (Japanese-American, in this case). The woman still has complex motives, even with the classic element of being a Mafia boss’s girlfriend. But she’s the protagonist. She’s not just arm candy for the mob boss. She’s an enforcer. She passes for the setting’s definition of “white,” but she’s Jewish, a fact she feels it’s in her best interests to hide. Many of the allies she works with along the way are people of color even less privileged than she is.
What intrigues me is where Angel City chooses to stop the subversion. This is an essential element of every attempt to subvert entrenched traditions. Change too much, and it ceases to be recognizable as an example of the source. Change too little, and you’re simply reinforcing the tradition you want to disrupt. Your changes become gimmicks. This line appears to be something Harvey is conscious of. She uses many, many classic noir elements, such as the struggling starlet from the sleepy Midwest; the close connections between studio, mob, and government; and the conversation about dangerous secrets incongruously held in a diner. The story arc is familiar. Dot is conscious of the racism around her, but she’s not above it. By keeping so many important and recognizable elements but changing the players, she errs on the side of changing too little.
Levens’ slightly cartoonish art style might seem an odd fit for such a gritty work, but it fits well. She focuses on facial details and acting, allowing figures and backgrounds to remain relatively simple. She doesn’t go in for much of the expressionism of noir cinema, instead opting for open, often bright, shots. This places the story in a slightly different Hollywood than most noir stories, a Hollywood so certain of its invincibility that it doesn’t bother hiding in the shadows.Filardi’s coloring is where the book really falls down for me. Starting with the cover, he colors Dot in a way that suggests she’s a light-skinned black woman rather than a white-passing blonde Jewish woman. Inconsistent skin tones remain a confusing issue until the final issue, when Dot takes refuge in a Hispanic-owned garage. In a book where race is such an important underlying element, this is a bad look. In other respects, though, his work is great. Palette choices signal the changes from “glitter and spotlights” LA to the everyday to the dark and dangerous world of hidden violence. Stronger art direction might have helped.
Angel City doesn’t turn the noir genre on its head the way its press suggests. Rather, it forces open the door and claims a place within that genre for the groups traditionally marginalized by the tradition. It’s a tightly-paced, exciting tale that gratifies and frustrates exactly the way noir should.