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When I first moved to New York in the 1990s, the city was at the tail end of a massive transformation from the crime-infested, bankrupt poster child for urban decay that it was for the 1970s and 80s into the tourist-mecca Disney-fied metropolis it is now. I was lucky to catch the last few bits of authentically crappy Manhattan that existed. Peepland #1, set in 1986, take place firmly in the days of crack, AIDS, and a Times Square populated by strippers, dealers, hookers who haunt grind house theatres, peepshows and squalid tenements. It’s a grim and grimy setting for a grim and grimy story, and the issue acts like the opening chapter of a solid noir novel. Writers Christa Faust and Gary Philips, along with artist Andrea Camerini, have created a tough, no holds barred opening chapter that plunges the reader into a bleaker era populated by tough survivors doing what they can to get by.
“Peepland” is part of Titan Comics’ new Hard Case Crime imprint. Hard Case is a paperback publishing line that specializes in rare, unpublished or unusual crime and pulp novels by authors both legendary and up and coming. Faust has written some of the hardest hitting Hard Case books, and Phillips has a following all his own as a respected crime and graphic novel writer. This punk-rock net-noir doesn’t disappoint, putting the reader hip deep in the sleazy and treacherous world that Manhattan was during this period. Our main character is Roxy, a peepshow dancer who finds herself embroiled in a dark mystery. But most of the issue deals with putting the reader inside that world of NYC 1986. For those who prefer their crime more Agatha Christie than James Ellroy, you’re probably going to be scandalized.
But if you like your streets mean and your alleys dark with something more than night, Peepland certainly delivers and pushes the boundaries. The issue does little more than establish intrigue, atmosphere and character, but it does so well. Aside from Roxy, we also meet the supporting characters who will no doubt figure into the ongoing story. There’s some hard boiled dialogue, as is to be expected in this kind of noir, and it’s handled well by and large, though you just have to accept the stylization and not expect realism exactly.
Camerini’s art is perfect, not shying away from depicting 80’s Manhattan in all its decrepit glory. The story has a ton of explicit material going on, but the story and art never veer into the shamelessly exploitative. Rather, the art establishes right off the bat that this book is not going to look away for the sake of decorum. But it keeps things looking as real, and therefore as shabby and vaguely gross, as life could be for those struggling to get by. But this is still New York City, the one that never sleeps and is in all the songs, and Camerini’s art also contains that undeniable energy and pulse of the city, the beat it still has to this day that makes it unique.
I really liked Peepland #1, and I also really like this new imprint Titan is publishing in partnership with Hard Case. Comics and crime have always gone together, and it’s great to see a new line focusing on delivering hard-boiled, pulpy diversions into the darker side of life. If the creative team can keep the story feeling as unique and uncompromising as this first issue, I’m sure they’ll have a success. 8.5/10