As previously mentioned, I love San Francisco, noir, and the 1920s. Speakeasies, gangsters, and flappers – these might be clichés of the era but they’re what I love best about it. Wherever they appear, I’ll spend my money. Artist and writer Dan Cooney must have read my mind and created the Tommy Gun Dolls, a new graphic novel trilogy.
Set in 1928 San Francisco, a “cross-dressing grifter” named Frankie retells one wild and crazy night through a series of flashbacks. Frankie’s outfit is particularly interesting, think Charlie Chaplin with a Tommy gun. Frankie is the closest thing we have to a protagonist, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be holding our hand throughout this. She’s crass, aloof, cynical, and with a very mysterious past.
What we do know about her (other than she likes to pickpockets on the trolley) is that she was romantically involved with Rouletta Lockhart, a burlesque singer at the Frisky Devil Speakeasy. This is where we meet the rest of the cast, Poppy, Mai and Rose. It’s here where the noir tone really shines through in a series of cinematic panels of singing, dancing, and general debauchery, 1920s style.
Rouletta is strangled by unknown assailants and her body dumped in a nearby alleyway. This doesn’t sit well with the local gangster chief, Derry Featherstone, who bribes the cops into not investigating any further. In my opinion, it’s clear that Featherstone didn’t kill Rouletta, but doesn’t want the negative press of having a corpse on his doorstep.
Featherstone reveals his brutish nature when he stomps one of his burlesque girls, Poppy, into the ground for speaking up. He’s a hateful thug, not the glamorous anti-hero gangsters in Boardwalk Empire or Miller’s Crossing.
Meanwhile, Frankie is hired by a mysterious third party to recover something Featherstone stole. It’s here where she finds out about Rouletta’s murder and becomes drawn into the mystery of who killed her. It’s here where she meets up with the rest of the girls and they begin planning a heist with plenty of tense standoffs and Tommy guns. There’s a subplot of political corruption and a hints that in the “present”, the Tommy Gun Dolls are being hunted not only by Featherstone’s outfit but also by a Chinese gang.
I won’t spoil the ending of volume 1 but it goes out with a bang. Instead, I’ll talk about the artwork, which is fantastic. There’s a realistic quality which lends well to the gritty noir feel, accentuated even more because it’s all in black and white. There’s an incredible attention to detail, from the clothes, the cars, the guns, and even to the knick-knacks and tchotchkes strewn about on tables and nightstands. Most importantly, these items don’t feel anachronistic, which means Mr. Cooney must have done his homework. I appreciate small details like that.
Speaking of Dan Cooney, I contacted him for an interview.
Dan Cooney Interview
1) What inspired you to create the Tommy Gun Dolls?
It starts with character and the main character that drives the story is Frankie Broadstreet, a grifter who rides a Penny Farthing bicycle and has a penchant for wearing men’s clothes, stems from a fusion of two real-life people: Jeanne/Jean Bonnet (1841-1876), who founded one of California’s strangest criminal gangs composed entirely of women during the gold rush era; and Louise Brooks, an American dancer and actress, best known for popularizing the bobbed haircut and starred in the German feature film, Pandora’s Box. I didn’t want to do a horse and buggy adventure set in the gold rush era and established the story in the 1920s, my favorite periods in the American Twentieth century. Setting the story during prohibition, flappers, burlesque and bootleggers inspired so much material that some of these characters and situations seem to write themselves onto the comic page.
2) What research did you do for recreating 1928 San Francisco?
It started with books, lots of books about the history of San Francisco, particularly the Barbary Coast district, the original Sin City of the West. At the time I was developing the details of the plot, I was living in the bay area and teaching at an art school in San Francisco. The building I worked in was around the corner from Burritt St, an alley off Bush Street—where Miles Archer was murdered in Dashiell’s Hammett’s noir novel, The Maltese Falcon. Hammett’s writing and his subject matter inspired me to follow his approach in crafting a mystery much the same way, use the locale as a character that enriches the story, not just as a setting for the story to take place. Lofty goals? You bet, I still have a lot to learn and love the journey I am as a writer visualizing words into a visual narrative.
3) How much of the story do you have written down? Is it constantly evolving or do you have it all planned out?
I reviewed some of the original notes I jotted down from 2005 and the structure of the story and what inspired me to commit to it are still there in Volume One. The story itself hasn’t changed, a burlesque dancer in a mob-owned speakeasy gets murdered as a grifter befriends sex workers and showgirls from the speakeasy to take on the mob to find out who killed her. The story was always intended to be told in three acts, but each arch (volume) has its own story that furthers the main plot along to the end of Vol. 3. I hinted at that ending in Volume One. There were some characters along the way I created that initially weren’t there at its inception, but only to add to the story of the main plot. I’ve always stated that I’m an artist who likes to write, my approach with each comic or graphic novel has always been plot first, but has evolved to a much bigger story that I’m excited about to tell.
4) Your art style is very realistic and I was wondering who your influences are?
Al Williamson, Leonard Starr, Stan Drake, Alex Raymond, Jordi Bernet and Hugo Pratt are just some of the main influences to the style and storytelling on a page I draw from.
Am I wrong in seeing some European comic artists like Vittorio Giardino in your work?
No, spot on—just wish I could get a hold of some of his books here in the States, the last few years I’ve become obsessed with the graphic novels from Europe, I just can’t get enough of them. I traveled to London for my first time last fall in 2017 and visited Orbital Comics where one of the store employees recommended Flight of the Raven by Jean-Pierre Gibrat. Great story, amazing art and his follow up book, The Reprieve is fantastic, highly recommended.
5) So far, other than a relationship with Rouletta, Frankie’s past is mysterious. This is especially true for the other Tommy Gun Dolls. Will future volumes show more of who they were previously?
Yes, part of the story expanded to include their past and what led them to be sex workers and dancers for Derry Featherstone, the Irish Mob Boss who runs his bootlegging outfit in the bowels of the Frisky Devil Speakeasy. Volume Two will reveal more of Rouletta Lockhart in flashbacks and how she got mixed up with Frankie. The Kickstarter campaign did well in overachieving my original goal to fund the book, but fell just short to fund a stretch goal an origin story for Frankie leading up to the events in Vol. 1. I was in a unique position to continue the funding as an InDemand campaign on Indiegogo and the prequel comic will be in full color and shipped with Volume Two as a companion piece. Double-Cross on Maiden Lane will now be over 140 pages thanks to backers funding the stretch goals for this, the prequel comic, signed arts prints and more.
6) Are there any real-life inspirations for Featherstone and his gangsters (and the Tommy Gun Dolls, for that matter)?
There was definitely criminal undertakings during the prohibition years on the West Coast, but didn’t make the headlines like Capone in Chicago and the mobsters of the East Coast. Genaro Broccolo (aka, the Capone of the West) was killed in the early days of prohibition. The Lanza and Tong families were influential in bootlegging and more during the 20s and 30s. One of the characters in Vol. One, Jerry Feri, a leading crime lord, is only shown in a panel on the front page of a newspaper for being murdered is a true story. The Tommy Gun Dolls is historical fiction sensationalized for noir aficionados.
7) Were there any specific noir films or books that influenced the Tommy Gun Dolls?
I don’t think there was one quintessential film or book that influenced The Tommy Gun Dolls, but Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for its tragic romance and commentary on the social class, The Black Dahlia, the true story of the unsolved horrific murder of an aspiring actress, true crime elements from different eras, films like Rififi, Criss-Cross, The Last Seduction, Bonnie and Clyde, and Big Bad Mama—a guilty pleasure of a cult film. I would like to add that author Max Allan Collins both excellent Road to Perdition graphic novel and the film it was based on set the bar high for me to want to tell a good crime story. His Quarry book series is a fine example of “rural noir” much like Fargo and The Postman Always Rings Twice. The story spark was the real-life woman who inspired me to write Frankie and her story grew from there influenced over the years. I actually had a banner back in 2009 promoting The Tommy Gun Dolls, but as a 1930s story. I felt it wasn’t quite ready and revised it to take place in the 1920s because it needed to be told before the stock market crash of 1929. It was a decadent decade and this story is the culmination of it.
8) What made you decide to go down the indie route?
I tried to solicit the story to a few publishers, but most I never received a response or some said it wasn’t what they think would be a viable book for them to publish. I’ve self-published before with Valentine, a contemporary story about a contract killer for hire, so the decision to publish it under my Red Eye Press imprint was Plan B and having the intellectual rights to it without any of the red tape that can make creator-owned work complicated for adaptation to television or film. What has the overall response Violent Saturday, Bound, for volume 1? I’d say it’s fairly split down the middle, with references to Boardwalk Empire, a series I purposely held off (wasn’t easy!) until Vol. 1 was sent to the printer. I knew once I sat down to watch Boardwalk Empire, I would binge the entire series, which I did last summer as I decompressed from finishing Dolls. I still have Peaky Blinders and Babylon Berlin to binge, heard good things about both series.
9) The term ‘noir’ is somewhat loosely defined. Some people say it is a style while others call it a genre. What does the term ‘noir’ mean to you?
I think it’s a bit of both, style, the way the story is presented and genre, in how it’s told. Most noir stories that I’m familiar with take place toward the end of prohibition, but mostly set in post-World War II. Contemporary noir like Dark City, Bound, Mulholland Drive, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Fargo and Memento strike me as noir films. The ingredients that make up a noir film are there, but the style is a bit more contemporary in its appearance apart from the traditional noir films at its peak.
10) Can you let give any hints as to what will happen in volume 2 of the Tommy Gun Dolls?
There will be speakeasies and banks knocked-over by the Dolls perhaps being one step closer to finding out who murdered Rouletta and why, a Mobster’s Ball, and one hell of a cliffhanger. It wouldn’t be noir without a traitor in their midst. After all, it wouldn’t be noir without a double-cross. 😉
You can buy the Tommy Gun Dolls Volume 1 here.
Volume 2 is due out in fall of 2019, which can be pre-ordered at the same Indie Go Go page.
Daniel Cooney says
Thank you for the interview, Matthew–great questions! Make it noir, suffer with style my friend.