Painting a different picture of paparazzi

Image: With their new graphic novel, Stephen John Phillips and Steven Parke want to pioneer a new art form.

October 27, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

A paparazzo as hero?

Perhaps anti-hero would be the best way to describe Jake "Monster" McGowran. Chronically unshaven, unashamedly opportunistic and unapologetically uncouth, McGowran is the in-your-face protagonist of I, Paparazzi, a graphic novel written by Pat McGreal and illustrated by two Baltimoreans, photographer Stephen John Phillips and graphic artist Steven Parke.

"Pat, I know, got really interested with paparazzi with the Lady Di thing, which basically made them out to look so terrible," Phillips says from his Towson home. "I remember him saying, `You know, they're not really all bad.' "

That idea may prove a hard sell, especially given the paparazzi's reputation as meddlesome pests who stalk celebrities, aiming cameras at them and then selling the most embarrassing pictures to whichever tabloid is willing to shell out the most bucks. Come to think of it, though, that characterization makes them the perfect 2lst-century version of the hard-boiled, self-absorbed private eyes who were a staple of 1940s film noir.

But its choice of protagonist isn't the only mold I, Paparazzi breaks. In form, it closely resembles a comic book; it was published by Vertigo, an arm of DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman. And yet it's decidedly for adult readers (comics aimed at older audiences aren't exactly a new idea, but one a lot of people haven't gotten used to yet).

The language is decidedly raw. There's plenty of partial nudity (think of it as the graphic equivalent of Steven Bochco's NYPD Blue).

While its story is told in comic-book style, there's nary a drawing among its 96 pages, just photographs. And yet they aren't exactly photographs, but photo illustrations, combining people shot in the studio with backgrounds gathered from all over. Although set in New York, some of the backgrounds were shot in Baltimore.

"I get people who look at it and say, `Wow, it looks just like a comic book,' " Parke says from his home in Northeast Baltimore, "and others who insist it's nothing like a comic book. I was glad to see it, because it really woke things up. I do think, in many ways, this is breaking new ground."

This kind of project is new territory for Parke, who has spent the last seven years as photographer, designer and one-man art department for the artist once and again known as Prince. Phillips has been working in the comics field since 1995, first as a cover artist and, most recently, teaming with McGreal for Veils, a piece of historical (graphic) fiction, set in the late 1890s, in which the daughter of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire falls for a powerful sultan and ends up essentially running the country.

"I came from a fine arts background; I did the gallery thing for the past 20 years," says Phillips, who teaches photography, digital imaging and photo illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "Six years ago, I sort of stumbled into this, and I'm having a much better time; I'm having so much fun."

Both Phillips and Parke like to think they're helping to pioneer a new art form. I, Paparazzi should prove just the beginning.

"Hopefully, it can appeal to people who aren't comic fans, or people who are no longer comic fans," Parke says. "There's a lot of good literature in comics today. You know, it's not just for kids."

Comics Expo

What: 2nd annual Baltimore Comic-Con

Where: Sheraton Baltimore North, 903 Dulaney Valley Rd., Towson When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow

Admission: $5

Info: www.comicon.com/baltimore

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