“Peepland” #1: ’80s Trash with a Side of Politics
Titan Comics’ first comics release under its Hard Case Crime imprint shows us the sleazy side of New York City in the 1980s but doesn’t fail to miss the important stuff.
Peepland is a comic book written by Christa Faust and Gary Phillips with art by Andrea Camerini and Marco Lesko. It is one of a series of new books released by Hard Case Crime, an imprint from Titan Comics, which has one intention: to bring classic, hardboiled crime stories back to comics.
Set in the 1980s, Peepland’s central heroine Roxy is a performer at a pornographic peep show, the eponymous Peepland, in a very sleazy-looking Times Square. During a night on the job, Roxy accidentally acquires a mysterious pornographic tape. The creator of the tape? Dead. Why? Well, that’s part of the mystery. Later realizing the importance of the tape, Roxy must decide how to get herself out of the mess she’s in with the help of her friends. Overall, Peepland is an interesting contribution to the increasingly expanding storytelling genre of ’80s nostalgia. But is this all the book should be reduced to?
A Comic with Sleaze in its DNA
Peepland made the rounds in both the comics and mainstream presses prior to its release on October 12. While drawing attention to the book’s ’80s nostalgia and crime noir elements, co-writer Christa Faust was deemed the biggest attraction. Faust is known for her crime novels (also published by Hard Case) which center on a character called Angel Dare, a porn star who opens up an adult modeling agency but then ends up getting in all kinds of mysterious crime-related scenarios.
Faust’s own status as a former peepshow employee who has also worked in the porn industry makes for an interesting point of discussion in these pieces. As Uproxx’s Dan Seitz summarized, “Faust’s work is notable for taking a sympathetic eye to sex work.” With than in mind, we can expect a comic with Faust’s name on it to reference issues of women’s rights, sex workers’ rights and other social causes characterized as feminist.
Her story is reminiscent of that of screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Jennifer’s Body), whose biographical narrative usually refers to her past job as a stripper and who is considered to have maintained a fresh, if conflicted feminist persona. Like Cody, media attention has possibly focused more on Faust due to her unique status as someone who has successfully moved between adult and mainstream entertainment industries. Her insight into adult entertainment alongside her status as a New York City local are considered to provide Peepland with the authenticity it needs to qualify as legitimate. To add to this, Faust says
It’s probably the most personal and autobiographical thing I’ve ever written. A love letter to the pre-gentrification New York City where I grew up.
But this focus on Faust makes it sound as if she is the only compelling thing about this book. Thankfully, this is not the case as the storytelling, characters and art all combine to offer a memorable story that defies expectations.
It’s ’80s Nostalgia Gone Mad!
Sex and sleaze play a large role in setting the tone for Peepland. You wouldn’t want to walk home alone at night in the places depicted here. The 1980s setting also contributes to this. These were times when you were more likely to discover porn in the woods than on the internet. The decade was accompanied by B-movies, exploitation cinema, glam rock and sexual scandals (or those are the elements the book conjures up). The peep show is itself a relic of a time before moving pictures were readily available, at least in the traditional sense of the word.
Peepland screams ’80s nostalgia from the garish pink neon-illuminated lettering of the credits page to the colorful rendering of lighting in the streets of New York. The names of films displayed outside a movie theater in one panel are fittingly tasteless (Kill Baby Kill; I Spit on Your Tomb) while an Alf doll appears in another. The 1980s are becoming an increasingly lucrative setting for period pieces, most notably the TV series Halt and Catch Fire (2014-) and Stranger Things (2016-).
But beyond the 1980s, these recent Hard Case books (whose other current title is Triggerman by Water Hill, Matz and Jef) also reach to the noir and hardboiled storytelling genres. American hardboiled novels (whose heyday was between 1930 and 1950) and noir films (early 1940s to late 1950s) hinged on crime, mystery and suspense. Stark visuals would accompany equally stark narrative content. Hard Case Crime comics recall a time whose aesthetics were invariably cool. The noir film genre is known for its stylish approach to gruesome crimes. Peepland, as a kind of neo-noir, adopts a similar approach, with Camerini’s art being both visually appealing and provocative.
Trash Meets Serious
There was also a cynicism at the heart of the noir genre which one can’t help but link to today’s climate of social inequality, political disenchantment and the epidemic of loneliness. In times like these, pop culture reaches back to the past in order to make sense of the present. Noir offers the flawed, reluctant hero, the corrupt lawman and the femme fatale, but how do these texts revisit these conventions to comment on now?
This is not an easy question to answer but at the very least, Peepland attempts to make some use of its sleazy setting as a vessel for characters who might be deemed equally sleazy. The setting of the peep show demands attention and that might not necessarily be good, wholesome attention. Given that misogyny and rape culture remain rampant in the digital age, it is interesting how Peepland presents these issues as taking basically the same shape back then.
In the book, the peep show performers are scorned by authority figures who should arguably be protecting them. After the death of a certain porno creator, detectives on the case go to Peepland to question the performers. It is clear from the exchange that these women have no rights in this situation. They are deemed unworthy of respect by the detectives, and so Roxy has no choice but to take action on her own terms.
Is it the purpose of the book to humanize these characters? Is this just another hooker with a heart of gold narrative? Though the danger exists, it would be simplistic to say that this is Peepland’s objective. The sheer variety of characters in Peepland means it has room to experiment with different personalities and moralities. Considering that all the characters in this book all tap into characteristics which generally involve sleaziness, it would be difficult to single one of them out as that one character who just wants to do the right thing.
The way the book has been promoted highlights she sex and the sleaze but the serious issues about socially outcast people living in 1980s New York raised in Peepland are the main attractions and the emotional core of the book. The sleaze of the book’s setting is expanded to comment on the “sleaziest” of society’s individuals. There are sex workers, women of color, queer characters, and a character who has AIDS. Where Peepland succeeds is in exploiting its setting to make sense of the lives of people who are located within sleazy spaces because they themselves are considered society’s sleaze.
Let sleaze be sleaze
In this sense, Peepland also follows a potential trend of “trash” being a venue for the discussion of serious issues. Recent film Elle has been called a “rape revenge comedy” and is directed by Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct). It left some critics confused over whether they should be lauding the film for its complex discussion about sexual assault or deriding it for its status as a piece of Verhoeven trash. In a similar way, Peepland’s use of the ’80s sleaze nostalgia might be seen as being in opposition to the serious points it raises about society’s outcasts.
The danger with nostalgia is to look at the past with rose-tinted glasses and forget about the real problems people faced. Dating was so much easier in the 1800s! I wish I lived in the 1950s because the cars were so great! While this may have been the case, it is also important to remember that not everything was always that great. The most common cause of death in the 1800s was pneumonia so that wasn’t exactly fun. Likewise, the civil rights movements hadn’t taken full effect in the 1950s, which means that while cars were indeed great, women would have been expected to admire them from the comfort of their kitchens. Nostalgia might therefore eclipse important political issues. Recent ’80s nostalgia media, including Peepland, do more. They attempt to address the issues of today through the lens of yesterday.
Trash, as culturally derided as it has always been, is a perfectly acceptable venue for the discussion of political and social issues. By default, media contain politics anyway, even when we think they don’t. So the creators of Peepland have absolutely taken advantage of the opportunities offered by the genres it reaches to — and with great effect.
Peepland #1 is available now through your local comic shop or Comixology. Peepland #2 will be released on November 23.
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