DEBORAH VANKIN wants to clear up a few things. Like the City of Angels. And the Lit of Young Adults. Neither area is her native turf, but they are both her adoptive spheres, so she speaks with a transplant’s passion about Los Angeles and teen literature, expertly peeling the truth of the thing like a homegrown Valencia orange.
“L.A. is one of the biggest misunderstood cities,” says Vankin, who moved to Los Angeles more than a decade ago after spending time in Boston and New York, San Francisco and Tokyo. “People think it’s as shallow as pink palm trees. But it’s really quite a deep and complex city. ... It’s a vast landscaping of disconnected micro-cities. It’s really seductive and exciting — there’s nothing like it — and it really takes living here and savoring and exploring it.”
Vankin, author of the new Southland-set graphic novel “Poseurs” (Image Comics), speaks with similar clear-eyed passion about her demographic-busting work, on which she teamed with artist Rick Mays (Gen 13, Livewires). “My book was developed for teenage girls ... but I intended for it to be resonant with an older audience, too. So I was writing on two levels.”
A Philadelphia native, Vankin is in her hometown this weekend as a guest of the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con, where hundreds of comic writers and artists gather to peddle their wares and celebrate the art form. After covering the Lotus Land nightlife for more than 10 years, for L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, she’s adapted to this new world like a duck to Echo Park lakewater.
“I’m not one of those people who read comic books as a kid,” says Vankin, a Penn State grad who went on to study writing and publishing at Emerson College. “Now I love graphic novels, of course. I tend to be drawn to non-superhero books and illustrated fiction, like ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ and Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home’ and Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’...and Craig Thompson’s ‘Blankets’ is one of my favorites.”
Vankin, who has reviewed graphic novels for the Times’s Hero Complex blog, is quick to admit there’s much she’s still learning about the field, as she confesses to only recently discovering “Chew” — her “new favorite.” Her fandom is as ardent as her love of truth-telling, of reporting what lies beneath the surfaces and stereotypes and misconceptions.
It’s consciously ironic, then, that to tell a fictional but truthful version of a city nightlife she knows so well, she chose “poseurs” — young protagonists who traffic in artificiality and fronts and a virtual house of mirror-balls.
“The entire thing is fiction, with an invented backdrop,” Vankin says, “but I covered L.A. parties of all stripes, and I took that to stitch it together for this pastiche.”
“Poseurs” centers on Jenna Berry, a Jewish/Cherokee high school student with a date-happy cougar of a mom. Desperately seeking excitement, Jenna lands a paying gig to party at Hollywood shindigs under assumed identities and looks — a job that Vankin “intended to be satirical.”
“I wrote that [idea] many years ago, but the irony is that we’re getting closer to that,” Vankin says. Now, “celebrities get paid to go to parties. ... My fiction is becoming a reality. The marketing of the party culture and arts culture is insidious.”
In Vankin’s illustrated world, those pretty, pink L.A. palm trees are more than mere facade; her perfect-looking residents beneath the Southland fronds might also be tempted and twisted and exploited to the point of having profoundly split identities.
“I was trying to create this world of dualities,” Vankin says, “that feels both similar and a little bit off.”
To heighten that sense, Vankin tosses in only slightly veiled references to such artists as Diane Arbus and Elmore Leonard and DJ Diplo. “In writing for a younger audience, I didn’t want to feel like I had to pander down to them — they’re smart,” she says. “So I studded this with literary and artistic references.”
“Poseurs” also knowingly has a somewhat dated feel: Jenna’s friend Pouri Lin is a schooled-in-America “parachute kid” whose parents are back in Taiwan — a phenomenon that Vankin says really began to draw the media’s focus more than a decade ago. And another Jenna friend, Mac — a white Van Nuys teen trying to cobble together a vaguely cool pose — peppers his speech with a random gumbo of street and surf slang, deploying words as inextricably tied to recent decades as a pair of Hammer parachute pants. Throughout, Vankin winks conspiratorially to the reader.
In this world, even the “fourth wall,” we are reminded, is sometimes merely artifice.
Beneath the poses, though, are characters that Vankin says are resonating with both teen girls as well as readers in their 30s and 40s. “It’s a universal story about identity and self-acceptance. ...
“It’s a story about self-discovery.”
And if, along that journey, the reader also discovers some truths about Los Angeles and “young adult” literature, Vankin is only too happy to have set the record straight.