Eli Katz looks at Vertigo's Crime's latest offering: Fogtown by Andersen Gabrych and Brad Rader.
Credits & Solicit Info:
Written by ANDERSEN GABRYCH • Art by BRAD RADER • Cover by LEE BERMEJO
New from Vertigo Crime! Frank Grissel is a hard-knuckled private eye set in the very real world of 1953 San Francisco. Aided by his long-suffering secretary (and sometime live-in lover) Loretta, Grissel's search for a runaway girl winds up with his becoming a suspect in a string of gruesome murders. The case takes twists and turns through the Golden Gate's greasy underbelly: the beguiling arms of a Chinese shipping heiress (and smuggler); an unexpected reunion with the daughter he abandoned long ago; the loss of Loretta to the sadistic clutches of the high-powered "Colonel"; and finally to the horrifying, gender-bending truth.
* Vertigo Crime
* $19.99 US
* Mature Readers
On Sale August 4, 2010
"You're an over-the-hill drunk who only cares about killing the regret over every bad choice you've ever made." This is how a sex researcher describes Frank Grissel, the haggard private eye in Vertigo's newest graphic novel, FOGTOWN. Frank is similar to the PIs in classic detective fiction, such as Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. He's tough and cynical, always ready with a snide one-liner. But he's uglier and dirtier than these leading men, and much more complex. In fact, he's such a weird, tormented guy that his personal demons often overshadow the book's core mystery and transform a twisted little crime story into a truly gripping character study.
FOGTOWN, written by Andersen Gabrych and illustrated by Brad Rader, is set in San Francisco in 1953. Frank, who doubles as protagonist and narrator, explains that the city is in transition, trying to overcome its wild frontier past and turn into an overpriced, family-friendly hub. The transition, he notes, is a farce because San Francisco will always attract deviants and thus will always function as one of America's great cesspools. The book is filled with striking details that not only reinforce Frank's assessment of the city, but also create a gritty, authentic atmosphere. At one point, Frank enters a gay bar to track down a lead and on the door a sign reads that the bar "is unable to serve members of the military." It's this kind of detail that fills the backgrounds of many panels and adds a level of realism to the story.
The book's mystery, like any good mystery, begins as a straightforward investigation and quickly turns into a labyrinthine nightmare. An older Mexican woman hires Frank to find her missing daughter, who has been working as a prostitute. Frank is reluctant to take the case. Dead prostitutes have been turning up all over the city, their bodies cut up and mutilated, and he doesn't see much point in looking for a girl who is probably already dead. Soon, however, he learns that this missing girl is not the victim of any serial killer, but rather is part of a criminal conspiracy that involves some of San Francisco's wealthiest and most eccentric citizens. By the time Frank collects his first clues, the cops are already trying to arrest him and several shadowy figures have already tried to kill him.
Just as Frank is reminiscent of the old, hard-boiled detectives, this story is as complex and lurid as any found in the novels of Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald. It's packed full of double crosses and plot twists, and moves faster than a killer's knife. Every page, every panel, pushes the plot forward. There isn't one boring or unnecessary moment in this book. The action is rapid fire, never drawn out. And the dialogue is terse and often epigrammatic. "God is too cruel to believe in," says one character, off hand, in the middle of the mystery. She's murdered before she has time to elaborate her point.
If FOGTOWN were nothing more than a good page-turner, it would still be worth getting. But, as I said before, it's also an intense character study of an unusual private investigator. Here's a hero who, one minute, suffers a nervous collapse and weeps in a dark alley and then, the next minute, jumps back into action with renewed conviction. I don't want to say more about Frank than I have already, because half the fun of this book is uncovering Frank's personal secrets as he uncovers the secrets of San Francisco's elite. But what I will say is that Gabrych has taken an overused, stock character -- the unsentimental PI -- and has developed a highly original, utterly fascinating protagonist. Frank is such a rich, three-dimensional character that he deserves an ongoing series.
The art in this book is as stylish and off beat as the story itself. Rader's illustrations, cartoonish yet realistic, are like the ones you find in the old underground comics that came out of San Francisco in the 1960s. Think of S. Clay Wilson or Spain Rodriguez, or any number of artists who contributed to the legendary ZAP COMIX. Rader's work is similar, but without the manic cross-hatching or the over-the-top explicit depictions. What makes this style so effective is that it captures that retro, perverse feel of the underground comics and makes FOGTOWN look like an old, tawdry masterpiece. Plus, it visually reinforces that this book is set in and is very much about San Francisco.
While FOGTOWN draws heavily from old pulp stories, it never simply copies its sources of inspiration. It combines and reworks these old stories to produce a unique, unpredictable mystery that features an unforgettable lead character. Frank Grissel is a haunted man, who will likely haunt any reader who picks up this exciting new graphic novel.