A supposedly race-motivated nightclub shooting changes the lives of two undercover officers in "Cowboys," the newest original graphic novel from mystery and crime writer Gary Phillips and artist Brian Hurtt. Hitting shelves this July as part of the DC Comics' Vertigo Crime line, Phillips spoke with CBR News about the novel, comparing "Cowboys" to contemporary cop shows like Fox's "Chicago Code" and the work of crime writer Elmore Leonard, saying the story "definitely has a contemporary cop drama feel...since it is set in the urban center and much more deals with some issues around race."
Told through flashbacks, the graphic novel "is about two undercover law enforcement officers: one is a kind of street cop's street cop, Deke Kotto," said Phillips. A black police officer, Kotto "goes undercover at the behest of his captain who is positioning himself to be the new police chief, so he has a political agenda at work to sending Deke in." On the other end of the case is white FBI agent Tim Brady, who is sent in by his boss operating off a tip. Things quickly become complicated due to the fact that, though both Deke and Tim are on the same case, neither is told of the other's presence. "For most of their case, they aren't even aware of each other, because their agencies don't talk. The police don't talk to the FBI, the FBI don't talk to the cops -- partly because they all want to maintain their own credit and control the case from their end," Phillips explained.
Switching back and forth between Deke and Tim's perspectives, the novel relies on its unusual structure to tell Phillips' story, starting with the climax and working its way backwards as readers see the decisions that set both protagonists down their respective paths. Of course, "events send them on a collision course where they more than butt heads!" the writer laughed.
Brian Hurtt, the artistic force behind comic series "Sixth Gun" and "Queen and Country," provides the black and white artwork for "Cowboys." Phillips praised the artist, asserting that Hurtt's pencils and inks gave the novel an air of realism needed to pull off the gritty cop story. "[Brian's] one of those guys who really stands out in black and white. He has a great sense of reality. There's a lot of fine artists in comics, but Brian is so good at drawing real people and real buildings and cars; all the things you need to create mood when you're talking about crime and mystery comics," said Phillips.
A prose and comics author for over 20 years, Phillips actually began his professional career not as a writer but as a community organizer working on political action committees. "These were jobs that invariably brought me into contact with people from different walks of life. I think because of [that], it gave me the sense for motivations and psychological makeup of individuals and what drives them. It made an interesting mix and I try to bring that to the page," said Phillips. "Ultimately, though crime-mystery stories are about plot and are about the nature about people who step out of line, it always gets down to the characters."
On reflection, Phillips believed part of what drew him to crime and mystery writing in the first place was the underlying sense of right and wrong, however skewed, present in the genre. "I think [crime and mystery] has always been alluring for those of us who believe that the world has a certain amount of chaos to it. But where do you find that sense of order and balance? In the pages of a mystery story, at least for that brief period of time, there can be some sense of justice, some sense of right and wrong," Phillips said. "All fiction writing, and even some non-fiction as well, it's all morality plays."
While Phillips acknowledges that crime comics have shrunk to a fairly small market from their original Golden Age heyday, he believes that enough novelists and comic book writers like Greg Hurwitz and Brian Azzarello are keeping interest in the genre alive. "I agree that from the EC [Comics] days, with those great lurid covers of people getting their eyeballs slit or hung or whatever, crime comics have waxed and waned, although there's always a niche for the material,"he theorized. "While there's not a huge audience, there seems to be a steady audience."
The writer described his process while scripting the OGN, telling CBR he didn't spend a lot of time researching FBI and police procedure for "Cowboys," he did do a lot of personal research -- i.e. buying drinks for cops.
"It's those anecdotal stories that make your characters come alive; nothing beats being able to talk with those folks, particularly if you're able to take them out and buy them a drink. The technical stuff you can get pretty much from anywhere now, from books or articles or even well-researched TV shows," said Phillips. "What really counts, because this gets us back to the notion of character, is what makes these folks tick; you only get that when you hang out with them and you see their reactions to a specific incident or case."
Unlike his previous Vertigo Crime series, "Angeltown," "Cowboys" will not be released as a serialized miniseries but as one complete graphic novel, a format he acknowledged was more akin to his normal prose style of writing. In fact, "Angeltown," originally published in five parts, is getting a second life as a black and white collection through Moonstone Books.
Featuring freewheeling detective Nate Hollis, "Angeltown" centers on the murder investigation of a black basketball player's white wife, though with enough twists, turns and oddball characters to avoid being a copy of the O.J. Simpson case. "Issues of race and social-political issues don't always show up in my stories; it does so happen that in these stories there is that undercurrent, but its not meant to be overpowering the story, its meant to be a setting for the story," explained Phillips. The collection also includes two new prose stories, "King Cow" and "Hollywood Killer," giving Philips the chance to revisit Nate Hollis and, in his words, "bring him up to date."
Pausing, Phillips chuckled and admitted that while crime and mystery has been his playground for two decades, he would love to eventually write superhero comics. "I became a writer only because I couldn't draw. If I could be like Frank Miller and write and draw my own stuff, that would just be hog heaven!" laughed Phillips.
"Cowboys" gives readers a glimpse of two officers whose lives take startling twists, perhaps echoing the twisty path that brought its author from community activism to comics. And while audiences may think they know what will happen to Deke and Tim upon reading the first pages of "Cowboys," Phillips promises his protagonists' journey will be neither easy nor predictable.
"[The title] is a reference to the fact that both these guys become cowboys; they aren't quite following their orders, they aren't quite being the good cop or FBI agent they should be because they are altered by events. When we come to them in the end, they've been through a lot and lost sight of the case and are free-falling," said Phillips. "In that regard, they have to cowboy up."
"Cowboys" is in stores July 13 while the collected "Angeltown" is slated for an early June release.