Hard-boiled pulp noir gets an overtly gay twist in the new, gritty graphic novel Fogtown. Part of DC Comics’ Vertigo Crime line of compact hardcovers, created by the out team of writer Andersen Gabrych (Batman, Catwoman) and artist Brad Rader (Catwoman, Harry & Dickless Tom), Fogtown takes place in 1953 San Francisco, as the smog-soaked city finds itself in the midst of a conservatives-led, “family-friendly” clamp-down on all things queer and sleazy. Weathered and deeply closeted P.I. Frank Grissel (who screws but, tellingly, never kisses his gal Friday) takes on what appears to be a simple missing person case but ultimately gets sucked into a sinister, twisted and very queer underworld conspiracy.
Based in Los Angeles, Gabrych, also known for his acting appearances in films like Edge of Seventeen and Another Gay Movie (and he performs live every other Thursday at Hudson Theatre’s Sit ’N’ Spin) and Rader, a storyboard artist for animated TV series including King of the Hill, took time to discuss the project.
How did you both come to work on Fogtown, which I understand Andersen initially pitched as a 12-issue miniseries?
Andersen Gabrych: I was told that Vertigo was looking for crime series, and I love film noir. Nothing is ever really said out loud and I always thought they were so gay, so why not write one where all the things vaguely hidden in noir come out? These [detectives] barely fuck their secretaries and aren’t around too often. I thought, these guys are fucking queer. So I wrote a story where the guy is queer.
Brad Rader: Well, in 2006 I published my graphic novel Harry & Dickless Tom and premiered it at Comic-Con and Bob Schreck, whom I had worked with on a Dark Horse series called The Mark, was group editor with DC at the time. I grabbed a copy of Harry and handed it to him and he said, "this is just what I was looking for! I’ve got this new project called Fogtown and it deals with a middle-aged, hard-boiled detective who gets involved with transsexuals and teen prostitutes. Does that sound interesting to you?" It’s almost typecasting because Dickless Tom is like a hetero truck driver who wakes up and finds a vagina.
AG: I didn’t start writing it until I knew that Brad would be the guy involved. A non-gay artist wouldn’t have been able to capture the nuance of it, and he seemed to really appreciate that beefcake magazine world going on at the time in the 1950s.
What was your first impression of Andersen?
BR: Well, he’s handsome, personable, intelligent. Willing to negotiate in terms of the writing. He had been warned by Bob that I tend to bring a lot of myself to the projects I work on and expect a lot of input. He was totally fine with that, and it cut both ways. Andersen had a lot of ideas about casting and whom he wanted the characters to look like. For instance, one of the characters, this murderous priest, I wanted to base off of middle-aged Spencer Tracy. And Anderson wanted him to be based on himself. I don’t know what his motivation was.
AG: [Laughs] I probably sensed I wasn’t going to be writing comics more regularly and out of vanity I wanted a little piece of me to exist [in them]. It was vanity.
Frank looks a little like George Clooney.
BR: We were basing him off this bare-knuckle martial artist fighter dude.
AG: Randy Couture—because he’s hot.
The story takes place during a strangely repressive period in San Francisco’s history. What sort of research did you do, and could you talk more about this period?
AG: I did really hardcore research, actually. My cousin’s husband is a SF historian and Dashiell Hammett scholar, so he really helped out. The reason SF first became such a gay mecca, besides the mining town and Barbary Coast stuff, was during WWII, which was the first time gays weren’t allowed in the military. If they found out you were gay [and you served] in the Pacific Rim you were sent off to SF with a public notice on your head, so nobody went back home. They just stayed there. SF was a very open city much like Amsterdam is now, but they clamped down on the whole city and everything went underground. The Korean War was coming to an end and SF was pressured under Oakland and Berkeley to clamp down on all the gay activity. Oakland and Berkley newspapers at the time were very anti-SF, with headlines like ‘The Gay Menace.’ SF was called The Barbary Coast. Rough, drugs, whores, it was a sailor town, and that point was when it changed. That’s where [our book] begins. And if it’s underground, somebody is making a buttload of money on purpose.
Did Vertigo have any issues with the sexuality or degree of explicitness with which it was portrayed?
AG: There wasn’t any issue as far as the gay stuff, but there was an issue about how graphically I had written other things. I like filth [Laughs].
BR: We have a shot of Frank after he had sex, and I asked the editor can I show his male parts and Bob said, sure, this is adult. And then he called back and said uh-uh, we have to pull back from that … but without appearing prudish or contrived. So I put Frank’s hand over his crotch itching his balls so you can’t see anything.
There’s an organization and annual publication devoted to gays working in comics called Prism (prismcomics.org). Is there a gay comics scene in L.A.?
BR: There is. Every August they do a thing called Hard Heroes in Silver Lake. Basically it's for guys who get up in superhero drag and they have a contest and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence emcee it and some artists have tables around to sell their wares and do sketches.
Andersen, when you worked on Batman did you ever discuss or consider gaying-up the Batman and Robin aspect?
AG: Not at all. Personally, I’m very opposed to any gaying-up of the Batman and Robin mythos. I am firmly opposed to that speculation in general. That’s where the right starts to attack a gay agenda. There’s a love between men and boys who try and teach them. It’s apprenticeship and has nothing to do with sexuality. When we start making every relationship between a man and boy who are close [gay], suddenly we’re under the crosshairs for every attachment ever. Then you can’t go and play softball with a guy. I did a piece in a book called Dirty Laundry about how all the sudden the gay perspective has changed how we view those kinds of relationships. Men need to pass some things to boys and that has nothing to do with sexuality.
What else do you guys have in the works? Andersen, I understand you would like to do a sequel that follows Frank and—not to give too much away—a new male partner of his.
AG: I co-wrote and co-directed a film called Bright Day. The thing about the Fogtown miniseries [I initially pitched] was there was more detail I could put into it. I like the serial aspect so I’m hoping they let me do another. I envision a very long arc for Frank to take him up to the second gay revolution. That was my overall vision.
BR: Right now I’m working on a FOX TV series called Bob’s Burgers, created by Loren Bouchard. And you can check my websites flamingartist.com and raderofthelostart.com.
Fogtown (Vertigo Crime, $19.99) was released on Aug. 10.