Arts graphic novel review

Tinseltown isn’t all glamor, but we knew that

Janet Harvey makes the femme fatale the protagonist in Angel City: Town Without Pity

Angel City: Town Without Pity
Writer: Janet Harvey
Artist: Megan Levens
Colorist: Nick Filardi
Published by Oni Press
Book Market Release Date: August 29, 2017

Like the crew behind the film Hidden Figures, Harvey too writes a rarely told story: the point of view of the noir femme fatale. Seductive and cunning, this archetypal “fatal woman” manipulates characters with malicious intent with her charm. In Angel City, our protagonist Dolores Dare is not the villainess but the heroine. She reigns amidst Megan Levens and Nick Filardi’s colorful artwork, a sharp contrast to the typical black and white of noir comics.

After failing in Hollywood, Dolores becomes the enforcer for the Volante mob and Gino Volante’s woman. But when her best friend, Frances Faye, is discovered dead in a dumpster, Dolores begins investigating her death.

Angel City is gritty. Mobs run amok and this fictional town harbors selfishness and resentment. A disillusioned Tinseltown leaves its victims as relics of themselves; women and men chase after the glamor of stardom, drowning in the ecstasy of false fame. In typical 1930s fashion, misogyny and racial discrimination remain at large. To a modern reader, some of the dialogue may seem farcical, but it does well to remember a time when they weren’t.

This year, we find ourselves seeking more diverse voices in our media. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us in her TED Talk, misunderstandings arise when we are limited to the single story, a limited scope of the rich heritages of different people. Writers like Harvey are working to break the single story, and I tip my hat off to them.

While Dolores elevates the single story of the femme fatale — she feels, she cries, she fights — she, like the other characters, is not memorable in the realm of fighting, strong protagonists. Initially, her characterization feels like a sketch at best. She is the victim of excess; aspects of her character — her work for the mob, her loss of her mother and her best friend, her romance with Gino — could have fit together better.  Rather than an organic presentation, the first few issues worked toward establishing a different aspect of her character, as if listing her different attributes.

Yet I have to acknowledge that although I sincerely wanted to love this work, I felt underwhelmed. The premise promises to subvert film noir tropes, but the actual narrative draws excessively from stock elements. The villain reveal and eventual romance are predictable, and frankly, despite being a solidly written narrative, Angel City is not genre-breaking work.

A hindrance is the underdevelopment of its side characters. Although these characters develop Dolores’s characterization, they are forgettable unless in relation to Dolores. She is spurred into action when Joe Yoshimoto angrily tells her that her friend was murdered. She later rejects Gino, a mobster who provides her with wealth and a job but cannot seem to empathize with her compassion. We find her character becoming more heroic as she gets more involved but I would like to have seen the rest of Angel City’s inhabitants receive the same development. Angel City comes together at the end, a disillusioned Hollywood that Dolores is able to survive but not save.

As Dolores narrates at the end, “They say that Hollywood loves a happy ending. The good guys win. The bad guys get punished. In real’s rarely that simple.” In one memorable panel, Dolores and Joe embrace in front of the Clover Club. The two are standing on what looks like a red carpet. The lights of police cars flash behind them like those of films. Yet no matter how much like Hollywood it appears to be, this town can never hide its scars.