You know how it is, when you wait for years for a book or a film to come out, and then you’re all disappointed? Well, that’s not how I felt after reading Fogtown, an all-new graphic novel I’d been hearing about for a number of years. Drawn by Brad Rader, an artist who’s worked for various mainstream companies (Catwoman, Bruce Timm’s cartoons) as well as on his own gay projects, and written by Andersen Gabrych, an actor (Edge Of Seventeen, Another Gay Movie) and mainstream writer (Batman, Batgirl), Fogtown1 is part of the current wave of crime fiction at Vertigo, the DC Comics imprint that has been home to Enigma and Seven Miles a Second.
Of course, there’s a good number of crime fiction in books that showcases gay main characters, such as the excellent, and very dark, Henry Rios series by Michael Nava or the entertaining and more optimistic Dick Hardesty series by Dorien Grey. But even though crime fiction seems to know a resurgence in comics nowadays, it’s still pretty straight. Vertigo was, at its beginning in 1993, a very gay-inclusive publisher, far more than any other mainstream ones. It’s been years since there was an important gay character in a Vertigo comic, so Fogtown was doubly important for me, even before I read it, both for its main character, about whom more right below, and for its injection of queer themes in what is usually a very straight matter. Which wouldn’t be worth much if the book wasn’t any good, but thankfully, it is.
San Francisco, 1953. Frank Grissel is a hardened private detective. And not a very nice guy. Brutal, uncaring and disillusioned, he can’t even treat correctly Loretta, his secretary and long-suffering lover. When a Latina woman comes to ask him to find her disappeared daughter, he simply refuses, and it’s Loretta who makes him take the case. A dead teenage hooker’s personal belongings will lead him to a female psychiatrist with links to prostitutes, a priest who leads a mission dedicated to helping young prostitutes get out of that life, a shady millionaire with a handsome hired muscled help named Bone (Rader still has a knack to draw varied male attractiveness), and a business of illegal shipping from China. Those are definitely the ingredients for a classic noir story (well, apart from the handsome muscle), and Gabrych and Rader do play with those. But of course, this isn’t a simple variation on well-known themes: Grissel might look like a paragon of emotionless toughness, but he’s also deeply conflicted and completely closeted—and that’s not the only queer going-on. Even before the big reveal at the end (don’t worry, I won’t mention it here), there’s plenty of non-straight characters and situations throughout this book. In an interview published a week ago, Gabrych stated he’d done a lot of research for his story. And it shows, for example in the inclusion of a real-life gay bar of that time. In fact, even though the story is centered on Grissel and his inner turmoil, the book is peppered with allusions to gay life in those times and the recent past (a gay bar that’s fought to remain open, the army discharging soldiers for being gay and their subsequent life in the city by the bay, etc.)—without forgetting that it is first and foremost a crime story, with a strong puzzle structure that’s a pleasure for the reader to discover piece by piece.
Brad Rader is more than up to the task of giving flesh to Gabrych’s dense script. As can be seen in his Harry and Dickless Tom graphic novel, Rader has a variety of styles and influences at his disposal, and this time, Alex Toth isn’t too far. Rader (with artist Rivkah working on the gray tones) creates a heavy, dense atmosphere that’s worthy of the black and white films of yesteryear, with his thoughtful layouts showing that he’s an impressive graphic storyteller, especially in the smaller format of this collection (8.3 x 5.8 in., instead of the regular 10 x 6.4 in.) and thus with a low number of panels per page. As you can see from the pages below, his layouts are very varied, depicting quiet moments as well as the more rushed ones.
One thing I particularly liked was the way the faces of his characters were rendered, going from a few lines in some panels to a photo-detailed style in others, creating what I think could be seen as the equivalent of the use of out-of-focus and in-focus elements of images in film. I recommend a visit to Brad Rader’s mainstream blog for a discussion of his work on Fogtown (and there’s also another site dedicated to his gay work), with numerous pages presented with comments.
Fogtown could be seen as a deliberate queering of the crime/noir fiction genre—again, not that this hasn’t been done before in literature, but I think it’s a first in comics. It seems to me that the queering of the traditional situations is never clearer (and rather amusing, considering the stakes) than in the scenes where the detective confronts the hired muscled help, leading of course to testosterone-filled fights. All those big boys in crime fiction going at each other, why do they do it? Surely not only to show who’s top dog. Maybe to show who’s the top? Though sublimated attraction might sound like a joke, a bad Freudian textbook interpretation, it becomes deadly serious in the hands of Gabrych and Rader. And so, we get repeated meetings between Grissel and Bone, with simmering homoeroticism being seemingly brought to the fore.
I think that subversion of traditions can be linked to the puzzle aspect of the story, in that the secrets hidden by each character (in itself a tradition of such fiction) are presented in a way that the reader can only understand what was going on in a character’s particular reaction (see for example the shrink reacting to Grissel introducing himself in the page above) far later in the narration—I must admit I’d missed a lot of things during my first reading of the book.
Another aspect of that subversion is the fact that Fogtown is the kind of crime fiction where money and perversions go hand in hand. In traditional crime fiction, homosexuality would be one of these perversions. Not so here. It is one thread of a complex and very human tapestry woven by two talented artists who’ve put the queer in noir.
Let’s hope we’ll have the pleasure of meeting Frank Grissel again someday, Gabrych having stated his interest in writing his character through the years leading to the gay revolution. I certainly hope Brad Rader will be on board if that happens.