The Language of Angeltown
Review by Robert Lee

When I first heard about Angeltown, the recent five-issue mini-series by DC/Vertigo, I felt I could really get behind the idea of a modern day black detective/hardboiled tale. After all, I'd cut my teeth reading fiction the likes of Chester Himes and his strong black detectives; Coffin Ed and Grave Digger and more recently Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins and Raymond "Mouse" Alexander.

A preview of Shawn Martinbrough's art work was also very promising, the style seemingly perfect for the story. And since it was also being released by DC's highly successful Vertigo imprint, I was expecting another hard-hitting gem along the lines of the 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso.

Meanwhile, writer Gary Phillips has already proven his hardboiled cred with strong stories like The Jook, featuring ex-football star Zelmont Raines and the dirty cop drama Bangers. (And I'm not even going to mention Ivan Monk).

In other words, I was strapped in and primed for something really special to play itself out in Angeltown.

Instead, I found a lot of dialogue that seemed forced and never quite rang true. Right from the start, the characters -- even the minor ones -- -were never believeable, their actions often in complete contradiction to their dialogue.

For example, the very first scene has a pair of LAPD cops worrying about disturbing the rich owners of a house where a crime has apparently just been committed. But just one panel earlier one of them had kicks open the door like it was nothing. It gets worse:

Male Cop: “If the occupants are just doing the nasty, we're gonna be embarrassed. That screaming the neighbors heard could be the mademoiselle riding the hard one.”
Female Cop: “Just 'cause you didn't get any this morning, don't get all jumpy.”

That kind of dialogue is just not right for two beat cops going into an unknown situation with potential conflict. And if bothering the occupants was such a worry, why did they then kick open the patio doors? A broken window could have been more believable an act if they were that concerned.

That was just the first of many such inconsistencies I spotted in the writing. In another scene LAPD Sergeant Manard Regus is in a nursing home sitting with his father when he answers a cell phone call from Nate Hollis, the private eye hero:

“I don't need you to tell me how to deal with Hollis (the main character). I said I'd see to it….what the fuck, do I stutter?”

This line just doesn't sound credible coming from a character who appears to be in his mid-forties. When writing characters of a certain age group, to keep in line when trying to show the character’s age and background as being authentic, there has to be a certain boundary a writer has to set for that character. It would be like having a fictional story with Martin Luther King Jr. hanging out on the block screaming “LET’S GET DRUNK!”. Just wouldn’t fit the character cause you’ve already have an idea of what he would, or should be like, and what he would say. It was little things like that that hindered the story for me.

Phillips has a solid writing style as he's shown in his fiction works, and usually gives his characters a lot more depth. This time, though, he should have paid a little more attention to the language, trying to make the slang sound more authentic. As it is, it sometimes sounds just a little off.. For example, Duddly, a basketball player on the LA Comets, boasts that “them Mufus all the time kissing my ass, that's why. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

Hollis replies“That's great, Duddly. Look, I'm a private detective and I've been hired to find Theophus (the secondary character and the motivation for the plot).”

"Written" dialogue sometimes can read as being written, and sound off when spoken out loud or even just read. A different (and in my mind better) way of phrasing Duddly’s boast would have been, “there’s lip prints all ov’a my ass from them kissin’ it so much that’s why. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

If Phillips focused more on character development, perhaps he could have gotten away with such dialogue. But too often the dialogue is distressingly similar amongst the characters, regardless of who is speaking. Maybe it's a regional thing -- dialect and slang tend to be unique to each region of the country with a few commonalities within, or maybe it's just Phillips' style, but whatever it is, it didn't work for this story.

for example, in China, the variations in its spoken languages are dependant on tone; the highs and lows of words spoken can change words' meanings; while in Japan, for example, tone has nothing to do with meaning, but with the intention of the words being said. The same thing applies to slang in different urban regions of the US. Phillips may use the local slang that is common to his urban region making it more applicable to there. However, while interesting for a style, it limits understanding if you’re not from that region.    

Writers often fall into a strange place when trying to write hard-boiled dialogue, and rely too heavily on profanity. The 'F' word is used profusely, and almost always too self-consciously, trying too hard to give off the impression of 'hard '. If using it goes towards the character's personality and state of mind, a variation on that theme would work much better. An innuendo used at the right moment, for example, “Look's like someone's been smokin' somethin' more'n weed up in this bitch,” could infer many things, depending on the situation in which it's used. It sounds more natural in the flow of dialogue than it would out of context

With slang, there's an inner beat, a rhythm to it that has to feel natural to the writer's work, to flow into a story and into the character's dialogue. Often, it's what you don't say that makes hardboiled. Things that are implied. How one does that in comics is by letting the artist's images do what mere words can't, such as a scene where Hollis is trying to pump info out of a girl named Toasty. Meanwhile, he's being observed by two thugs in a car parked across the street. The dialogue between the two thugs could have been totally left out here and the image alone would have given more weight to the presence of the bad guys.

Ninety percent of the panels seemed to have some form of dialogue in them, instead of letting the characters fill the void and the art itself move the story forward. Use of multiple copies of the same images or the lack of dialogue in a panel can give a rhythm a flow, and heighten the importance to the moment. Action scenes don't need to have dialogue to be understood, as demonstrated later in a fight scene between Hollis and the two thugs.

Martinbrough's art, particularly in his use of shadows and his strong ability to convey emotion through his characters was a saving grace in the series for me, although I feel it should have been used more to help show the personalities of the characters. His choice of viewpoint -- for example, the fight scene where our perspective is from behind the bad guy weilding a large butcher knife, harkens back to the horror films that used that same camera angle, and like Martinbrough, keep the bad guy in stark shadow, and reveals the determination on Hollis' bloody face, his teeth gritted, ready to take that knife away from the villain. And Martinbrough's use of white space for backgrounds, as opposed to using color, really brings you into the world of Angeltown -- for example, in a scene where Hollis speaks to Toasty, Matinbrough uses both white space and shadows (in this case Toasty is in silhouette) -- truly adds to the scene.

So what's the final verdict on Angeltown?

On the positive side, there's good solid art that both matched and brought the reader in the world of Angeltown, a potentially interesting main character whose background -- grandfather owns a bar, father was accused of being dirty cop, I felt was rather sketchy and not fully explored by Phillips, a good supporting cast whose personal stories would be interesting to read about and a great visual sense, worth perfect use of "camera" movement to show action and stillness when necessary.

But frankly, the lousy dialogue -- especially in the way of slang usage -- mars this story. It's hard-boiled language that too frequently just simply tries too hard -- over usage of foul language that didn't go to the showing of the character's personality., compounded by the mismatched and indistinct voices that failed to truly differentiate between the characters. The result of all this was dialogue that too often seemed more "written" than "spoken," and therefore came off as flat. It was also disappointing that too often the artwork was not allowed to stand alone and speak for itself, insisting that there be dialogue of some kind within.

Regrettably, then, I can't put Angeltown the same league as 100 Bullets. I won't say that Angel Town is the worst attempt at a hardboiled crime comic I've seen, but it's not one the best either

Angeltown
(2004-05, DC/Vertigo Comics)
5-issue mini-series
Written by Gary Phillips
Art by Shawn Martinbrough

Review respectfully submitted by Robert Lee, June 2005.


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