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A Seedy Tragedy

Written by Christa Faust & Gary Phillips, Artwork by Andrea Camerini

Times Square, 1986: the week beginning with Christmas Eve and running up to the New Year. Roxy Bell is performing in one of the run-down peepshows along the Deuce, when a terrified tabloid journalist runs in, and hides a video cassette containing incriminating evidence against a powerful public figure in her booth. Curious, Roxy removes the tape from its hiding place, quickly making her a target as friends around her start getting beat up. Or worse.

Collecting the five comic books of the same name, Peepland is almost nostalgic in its portrayal of the grit and the sleaze of this moment in New York City history. The mean streets illustrated in this graphic novel are more Taxi Driver than Lion King, and reading and seeing this graphic novel feels like entering a time machine. The 42nd Street depicted here precedes "Disney Square"; its geography is the older and more jagged filth of the scary, sexy Deuce.

Roxy´s dangerous odyssey leads her and her boyfriend through locations that some readers will remember (CBGB´s, Gray´s Papaya down on 6th Avenue & 8th) but which no longer exist. There is a rich cast of characters here, drawn with dignity and humanity, and each chapter of this five-part graphic novel feels like acts within a seedy tragedy. A kind of justice is restored by the time we reach the final page and the last panel, but not before others are maimed and caused to suffer first.

Before publishing her own exceptional pulp fiction, co-writer and Hell´s Kitchen native Christa Faust performed in the same kinds of peepshows that Roxy did. Collaborating with mystery writer, activist, and Angeleno Gary Phillips, the two craft an exciting narrative which leads these characters into a world of corruption which is systemic and city-wide.

First published in 2017 during 45´s occupation of the White House, the narrative of Peepland weaves elements of the horrific Central Park Five case (which occurred in 1989) into Roxy´s attempts at achieving justice before it is too late. Political corruption, class privilege, and racism are present without being didactic; then as now, this is how America works. Refreshingly, Peepland also includes honest and human portrayals of people living with AIDS (Roxy´s uncle is suffering from what looks like Kaposi´s sarcoma), punks, same-sex couples, and interracial people who just f***ing love each other. This, too, is how America is; no matter how brief they appear on their panels, Faust and Phillips treats each of them as complete individuals, with dignity.

Complementing the authors´ writing is Andrea Camerini´s art, which renders key locations in Manhattan with a kind of crumbling elegance, a trashy allure that is challenging to articulate to anyone except other New Yorkers. Whether it´s a two-faced friend getting his hand slashed with a switchblade, or a dancer removing her g-string, Camerini makes each color pulse with desperate life.

Peepland is a seedy thriller created by a talented trio of storytellers, using words and images to resurrect not just the pictures of a New York City that no longer exists, but its feeling, its jarring sounds, its pungent stench. There´s just enough danger in this graphic novel to let you know Faust, Phillips, and Camerini are not kidding, as well as enough just enough safety to let readers make it home all the way to the end.

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