HEAT VISION

How Ho Che Anderson's Neo-Noir 'Stone' Crosses Genres

Stone Cover
WBYK/NeoText
The writer and illustrator talks about the new genre novel, complete with a preview.

The latest release from indie digital publisher NeoText sees comics creator Ho Che Anderson turn his hand to a noir revenge fantasy set in the aftermath of the “Cancelled Election.” Welcome to the world of Stone.

The new book, intended as the first in a series, is named for its protagonist, Graciella “Stone” O’Leary, a woman whose ambitions amount to wanting to use her basketball skills to make a better life for herself and her father. Things aren’t that straightforward, however, and soon Stone finds herself risking everything to escape the reach of the Martins, the city’s most powerful family — even if it means destroying the social structures around her.

Stone doesn’t just feature Anderson’s prose; he also provides illustrations for the book, as well. Anderson is known to many for his comic book work for Fantagraphics, including King, his critically acclaimed biography of Martin Luther King.  The Hollywood Reporter talked to Anderson about the new project, and also has a preview of the book — and of Anderson’s spot illustrations — below.

Stone feels like the culmination of a number of genre tropes — it’s part revenge fantasy, part condemnation of a police state and part contemporary blaxploitation movie, all at the same time… and that’s saying nothing about the main character being the descendent of Boudica. It’s something that feels very complete in and of itself, and more than the sum of its parts, which makes me wonder about its origins. Where did Stone come from?

I hooked up with the folks at NeoText through my buddy, the great cartoonist, Ben Marra, who was working with them on some material. They wound up pitching me Stone as a character we could tell a continuing set of stories about. It was an opportunity to really dive deep into genre and examine it from a deconstructionist standpoint but also from a reverential standpoint since we grew up with this kind of material and continue to love and respect it.

I got the set up and the spine of the first story, with the character of Gracie, the air tax, the flats, and the Merit Party. My job became transforming that into a finished story and rewriting every word to make it my own, fleshing out the world and the protagonist, adding new scenes and characters, and mapping out the future direction of the series overall. This was an assignment I took to with glee because I immediately connected to Gracie and her environment and her predicament and the horror of the scenario, a dark reflection of where we already are and where we have the potential to wind up.

I was excited to examine the trope of the vigilante, especially when considering their roots, appearing first during frontier times before organized policing as we know it today existed, and quickly evolving into posses designed to track down and lynch runaway slaves. Putting a woman of color in such a role is a real subversion of their origins and fertile ground for play and commentary. Early in the process I hit upon the idea of her eventually transforming from a vigilante to a revolutionary and once that idea was in place I glommed onto the notion that revolution was in her DNA. Part of her heritage is Irish, and I remembered learning about Boudica and her rebellion against the Romans many years ago in passing.

Once I dove into my research, always one of the most fun aspects of the job, Boudica’s story seemed to overlay with Gracie’s perfectly and so an ancestral connection was formed.

The book feels like a contemporary pulp, in the very best way; the writing reads fast and terse, and the illustrations add to that idea, making it feel like an updated dimestore paperback. Was NeoText’s modern pulp intent, in the front of your mind as you created the book?

We definitely took inspiration from those paperbacks of old, there’s no question.

Stone is born of a deep love of writers like Chester Himes, Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Lawrence Block, Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, to name but a few. And as an illustrator part of me was definitely channeling a lot of Robert McGinnis, Tom Jung, Renato Fratini, some Emory Douglas, even guys like Virgil Finlay and Frank R. Paul.

That said, in the writing, when it came down to the day to day work of crafting the words, I wasn’t trying to do a pastiche, I was trying to write as honestly and forthrightly as I could. It’s just after a lifetime of reading hard-boiled fiction I have that idiom on easy access.

Perhaps unavoidably, Stone is a political book; in your statement in the press release, you talk about both “conservatism rum amuck” and “the shortcomings of a smug and liberal left” — in many ways, that feels precisely in tune with the world we’re living in today, but that world is also one where expressing a political viewpoint can draw a vocal backlash; are you worried about people reacting to their idea of Stone — or being turned off of the book — by a misunderstanding of the premise, without even reading the book?

Sadly, people judging and being turned off by something without taking the time to develop an intimate knowledge and understanding of the thing is just human nature, as innate and predictable as any other aspect of our being. I take that as a given, so no, I don’t worry about it. It’s not something I can control.

The truth is we’re living in a culturally saturated world; I’m not doing myself any favors saying that but we all know it’s true. People are so indifferent to most things it would be a privilege to be involved with something that shook people up enough for a vocal backlash. I assume there will be factions who come across the book who will condemn it—and if that’s their legitimate response after actually reading it, they’re entitled to that. There are people who reject any notion of politics in their art and this book definitely won’t be for them.

Now, I have to admit, I don’t fully understand that viewpoint, to me all art is political, even art that is actively trying to avoid the subject, which is its own form of political expression. Politics inform every part of our lives to one extent or another so why you’d need it or expect it to be completely divorced from your entertainment choices is a little mysterious to me, but not everyone can or should think the way I do. For those who get angry but are actually willing to engage the book’s politics on some level, this is a good thing because at least it will have inspired conversation—and hopefully civil, reasoned, nuanced conversation if that isn’t too much to ask.

I feel like you’re traditionally a fearless creator, pursuing the work above everything else — I’m thinking about things like I Wanna Be Your Dog or King, here, specifically. It also feels like you’re able to use the stories you tell to impart the messages you’re targeting — which leads me to wonder, is something like Stone a good vehicle for you to comment on the world today because of its genre trappings, as opposed to doing it despite them?

Genre has never been a pejorative to me, I know it is to some and that’s fine, but I’ve always seen what was valuable in genre material in and of itself, and what was achievable through it.

Stone is a perfect vehicle for me in every way, because of its genre trappings, certainly, but also because its base construction is such that it would be easy to step away from its genre trappings for a time — if so desired — to tell a different sort of tale that nonetheless took place in this milieu. It’s true I’ve always just done the work that felt right at the time, come what may, and if that resulted in fewer readers, then that was a price I was willing to pay.

Having never had a mass success and thus never having achieved a legacy or a financial platform I had to maintain I’ve never felt like I had anything to lose. And we’re just telling stories, it’s just popular entertainment, it’s not like lives or bodily injury were on the line. Someone writing a scathing review and calling you a hack and an asshole isn’t really much to be afraid of. Getting shot or incarcerated for expressing the wrong belief or for having the wrong skin color or the wrong gender or sexuality is. Until that becomes a reality in my line of work I’m just gonna keep doing what I do and be grateful for the opportunity to do it.

Stone is the start of something; Rizzo, the follow-up, is already in the works, and you’ve already talked about expanding the Stone universe in text and onscreen. What makes Stone the right project for you to build out like this?

What makes this the right project to build out in this way is the depth of the character and the world we’ve chosen to place her in, which is a rich one with a lot of hidden pockets and levels to explore. Really, it’s our world in 2020, just a more cautionary, hyperbolic version, and one with a rich storytelling tradition to build off of and comment on.

In this story we can talk about the so-called upper and lower classes and detail both of their struggles. We can talk about violence, sexuality, sports, politics, gender, the military, the prison system, community-based accountability, government, dictatorship, and revolution. We can tell epic stories, and intimate ones. We can stick to formula and we can experiment. We can tell any kind of story we want in the Stone universe and have a tremendous amount of fun doing it. Can’t think of anything better than that for a storyteller.

Rizzo is not only already in the woks, it’s already been written, this time accompanied by paintings from Ben Marra, which I think fans of his work are going to really enjoy. It’s a darker more intense tale in my view — though there’s no shortage of darkness and intensity in Stone — and takes the story in a new direction while tying into the overall premise and theme, and as much as I want people to read Stone, I’m really interested in the reaction to Rizzo. I guess we’ll just have to see.

Stone is available digitally now from NeoText and Amazon. Look below for an exclusive preview of the book.

I’m…tipsy. You know what, fuck it, I’m drunk. Doesn’t take much with me, I don’t drink. A few solid belts from Olya’s flask and I’m vibing the good vibes. A cheap date and an easy lay. Oh my god, that’s awful, I didn’t say that. It’s graduation. If tonight isn’t the night to break a rule or two, then when is? I’m gonna let practice go tonight, get back at it in the morning, elbowing my way to the net through the neighborhood kids. It’ll be fine. And Papi doesn’t need to know.

It’s just past dark as I swerve home, carrying my rented cap and gown and the empty folder that someday’s gonna hold my diploma, if I cough up the thirty bucks to have it printed. Which I’m honestly not sure I will.

Music behind me, low at first, increasing rapidly to a banshee wail, some douche blasting dancehall—here we go, look at this loser, roadie speaker strapped to the roof of his jalopy waking everybody up. You can’t even afford the payments on that piece of shit you’re driving but you got money for a fucking concert-grade speaker. The trend started a couple years back, now you can’t go the night without some DJ wannabe waking up the neighborhood.

But I’m drunk. And I like this song: “Revolution-A- Come” by CountyShredda. So I raise my arms and rock my hips as the jalopy cruises by. Two boys stick their heads out the rear and beg me to join them, ‘cause you best believe they know how to treat a woman right, oh yes, sister, they can keep me satisfied all night long.

I flip them the double bird. They laugh and keep on driving, down the street and over the bridge. One of them blows me a kiss. I blow it back.

By the time I start crossing the bridge it’s mostly pitch black with the occasional pool of orange sodium vapor. You’ll be surprised to discover most streetlights don’t work in the flats.

I stop in the middle of the bridge. Noticing for the first time my stomach doing the Twist. I’ve already thrown up once recently, I am not doing it again. If this is what being drunk does to your insides, I want no part of it.

I look down at the churning river, wondering what secrets are buried beneath its waters. The hill lights, the rich people lights, reflected on its surface. Trying to pick out which of them will one day belong to me and to Papi. Why stop at one, I think. Why not take them all?

A shiver. Not cold. Something else.

Six blocks from home I run into Donnie the cop. Donnie... Faltemeyer? Is that it? Jesus, you’d think I’d remember. Donnie was two years ahead of me in high school. Played a little football, he was pretty tough.

Got a ride to JC, but rode the pine for both years. He was one of the guys Will 4 talked about earlier: got a job on the force after graduation. Just out of the academy, and a hood boy, so of course he drew street patrol, graveyard detail, in the same streets he was hoping to escape. Keeping the hill rats safe from his own kind.

Standing under a rare working streetlight, alone. A P90 machine gun with the sling across his shoulder, trying to learn how to spin his club like a majorette’s baton. And almost dropping it every spin. And I was the one who was half drunk.

“Hi,” I say, walking past.

Donnie and me, we got history. When I was in my first year in JC and he was in the police academy, we went out for a minute. I didn’t really like him, but I did like the way he looked. For a minute that was enough. Neither of us had any money, me on my ride and working the bodega, him on the tiny stipend academy boots get.

The one thing he did have was unlimited access to the police gun range and unlimited ammunition to practice with.

First time he took me was because he thought I’d be impressed. Big man with a big gun.

Put that piece in my hand and let me feel the weight. Squeeze, don’t pull, he said. Expecting me to, I don’t know, close my eyes, shoot wild, giggle like a girl, succumb to his manliness and start going down.

Instead, I outshot him right from the jump. Donnie...so, so pissed.

Same eye-hand thing that puts the ball through the net from twenty feet or drops it in off the board on a lay-up fighting between two six-foot five defenders. Plus good touch.

We went out a few more times. We had no money so it was always back to the range. Donnie wanted to beat me. I was getting off on beating him. And I was starting to fall in love with guns.

Learned to fire the P90 with single shot, three shot bursts, and full auto. Learned to fire the FN 5-7 with rapid- fire bursts. Got proficient with the Glock, Beretta, Sig Sauer, M16. They even had a Vietnam-era M60 collecting dust on a shelf. Not after I picked it up.

Always dead in the ring. Every shot. Donnie...so, so pissed.

Anyway, Donnie getting pissed all the time got boring. He...wasn’t smart. He was easy on the eyes...but crap in bed. Plus no way he was going up the hill, except maybe to body- guard some hill rat and then go home to the hood to sleep.

“Hey,” he says.

I can tell he’s stopped trying to twirl the club and is instead focusing his attention on my ass. I can’t blame him for that.

“Where you coming from, so late?” he says.

I stop. Walk back. “Is that an official question, officer?” “Why you always like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like that. Acting like you’re better than everyone. Better than me.”

OK. Is this what we’re doing?

I look at him a second, thinking about his statement. “I’m coming from school. Graduation ceremony. I, ah...I graduated. With honors.”

He stares at me. Cannot read that blank face. He nods, finally. “Congratulations,” he says.

Before I can respond a big black car pulls up — and Will 4 rolls down the window.
I look at him, at this ridiculous car, unsure I’m actually seeing what my eyes are showing my brain. I glance over at Donnie; he’s staring at Will 4 like he’s seeing the face of God. “Graciela!” Will 4 says. “I was hoping I’d find you, we’re having a celebration for the graduates up at the house.” That beautiful, airless smile. “Come with me, won’t you?”

I should run the other way, fast. But I just stand there. What the hell is Will 4 doing talking to me? Only to me?

Then I remember being paraded in front of him at the awards. And all those looks. And the way those looks made me feel.

He steps from the car and walks toward me. I stand in my spot. Donnie the cop takes several steps backward. Looking terrified.

Will 4 stops in front of me. Staring me in the eye. Smiling.

He punches me in the stomach. Really, really hard.

I double over, gasping for air, unable to catch my breath. In shock.

“You need to learn to come when you’re called,” Will 4 says.

Two refrigerator-size dudes emerge from the car, grab me, and throw me on the back-seat floor like a sack of garbage. As Will 4 and the refrigerators reenter the car and slam the doors, I look back up at Donnie. He isn’t twirling his club. And he doesn’t look terrified anymore. He’s just standing there and watching. With a tiny smile on his lips.

But I could be wrong about the smile.

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