At first sight, Peepland looks like it’s going to be a loose story wrapped around a core of titillation. Set in and around a 1980s peepshow in Times Square, the opening scene sees a bored woman behind a glass screen parading her wares for an over-enthusiastic customer on the other side. While it sets the tone of the establishment and its operations, however, it doesn’t really warn us of what’s going to follow, which is a surprisingly good slice of dynamic and unpredictable drama.
The plot revolves around the close-knit community of strippers who work in the establishment’s booths for the sexual gratification of the men outside. When the son of one of the women ends up being stitched-up for the murder of a girl in Central Park, and compelling video evidence of the real murderer turns up, there’s a brutal scramble for control: the strippers and their friends trying to get the boy off the hook; the antagonists attempting to track down and destroy the evidence and witnesses. The trouble is, the actual murderer turns out to be someone with the power and contacts to apply the right pressure in the right places, which is done using any means necessary.
One of the key elements that stops this being little more than an excuse to build a comic around naked women strippers is that writer Christa Faust has been there – she’s a former stripper, having worked in a venue not unlike Peepland. As a result she has a firm grip on the characters, and while they might be somewhat clichéd in their over-arching character types (the black, gay single mum; the drug addict; the righteous heroine), they work well as an all-walks-of-life ensemble, thrown together in a dingy world of filth and crime. The bonds between them are strong and, reading the story, you can totally get it: the world is against them and they only have each other to rely on.
The illustration is good, too. Andrea Camerini’s seedy New York is a believable backdrop for the characters to live in, and her drawings bring them to life. It’s not the kind of book you could read on a train because anyone looking over your shoulder will assume you’re reading a comic about strippers solely for the naked ladies, but this is as far away from a book of cheap thrills as you could get, despite its overly-generous exhibition of breasts.
Peepland is a story that embraces its sordid backdrop but also packs an emotional punch. It also faces the frailty and tragedy of the human condition head-on, particularly for those at the bottom of the ladder through no particular fault of their own. This all makes Peepland a unique and edgy book that’s well-worth taking a peep at.