Vertigo Comics Capsule Reviews

Karen Berger recently announced that she would step down as the editor of Vertigo, the comics imprint she has shepherded since its creation. At first, I wasn’t too concerned about this: Two decades is a long time to stay at one job, and she could have plenty of reasons to move on. We don’t know the story behind the scenes, though, and I find myself getting progressively more worried. With Hellblazer ending at issue #300, and shocking realization that that is the longest-running continually-numbered series being published by DC or Marvel today, it’s obvious that change is in the air for the big companies. Vertigo’s monthly sales numbers haven’t been healthy in a long time, and it has apparently justified its existence by finding the occasional hit that keeps selling in book format. But with superhero movies now bringing in more money than book sales could ever promise, and with TV and video game tie-ins defining more of the low-end market, Vertigo’s niche may no longer make sense to the executives.

No matter what happens, though, it’s clear that Berger’s legacy goes well beyond Vertigo. When the label started, intelligent adult comics seemed like an aberration. Now, titles like that are everywhere. In fact, the scene has grown so much that Vertigo’s specific style of literate fantasy now feels like just another niche.

While looking over the latest Vertigo series that I’ve read, I noticed some definite trends. These stories tend to be based around high concepts and rich settings, but the plots often feel like afterthoughts. Whether this is indicative of the imprint’s editorial leanings, or just a coincidence, I’m not entirely sure. Either way, though, there is still some very good stuff coming out from Vertigo. I hope that we don’t lose it.


cover to New Deadwardians #1

New Deadwardians

New Deadwardians

We’re all sick of clever twists to zombie and vampire stories, but sometimes there is still a lot of potential there. Dan Abnett’s New Deadwardians is one of those surprises. After zombies appear in the England of the mid-19th Century, the upper classes all voluntarily became vampires to avoid being hunted. Fifty years later, this new social order, and the relationship between zombies, vampires, and ordinary humans, make a perfect fit for the class tensions of Edwardian England. Our hero is a perfectly-reserved Englishman, the kind who still lies in bed all night and drinks tea although they have meant nothing over his fifty years of undeath. (“Sunlight is not a problem, provided one uses zinc paste and wears a hat. And the latter is only good breeding, after all.”) Real Victorian restraint was a reaction to the dirty world around them; Here, the upper classes truly have no emotions or feelings, and miss them, while the rest of the world is dirtier than ours ever was.

I.N.J. Culbard’s art is plain, and reflects the protagonist’s reserved viewpoint very well. Whether that is intentional or not is hard to say, as the art becomes less convincing during action, extreme body language, or even interaction. For the purposes of this story, though, it holds its own well.

While I could watch this setting unfold over many more comics, there wasn’t enough plot to fill out the eight issues this did have. It’s kicked off by a murder that threatens social order, as people thought they knew the only ways vampires could be killed. The investigation helps the story to the extent that it brings Chief Inspector Suttle, our hero, to many different corners of society, but the mystery itself is resolved by people (including the perpetrator) showing up to provide information at just the right times. The solution is much less interesting than I’d hoped for, though at least it’s better than a third-act twist implied. That fake-out threatened to undermine everything so far, and went on at least half an issue too long.

The story did get an acceptable ending, though, if perfunctory and reducing my hope for sequels to this. That’s ok, though, as I still read about a fascinating world, and saw that vampires and zombies can still be used as interesting metaphors.

Grade: B-


cover to Punk Rock Jesus #1

Punk Rock Jesus

Punk Rock Jesus

Punk Rock Jesus, Sean Murphy’s tale about a boy cloned from Jesus for a reality show, is as bold and relentless as the name implies. Some of that is good, as his black-and-white art takes the intensity of a photocopied concert flier and makes it work for comic storytelling. However, much of its daring is shown in just how clichéd it’s willing to make the characters. The chief villain goes a step further than the evil reality show hosts from other stories, and it’s difficult to see how he holds the project together and keeps the rest of the cast from leaving during the years this comic skips over.

It is still fun to watch the story unfold, but this isn’t the opportunity that Murphy seems to want for a discussion about religion. It’s an argument between fundamentalism and atheism. Despite some nods towards a middle ground, it’s obvious that Murphy (an atheist) sees things in those black-and-white terms. The leader of America’s (apparent) predominant Christian group drives around with “God Hates Fags” bumper stickers and is willing to kill blasphemers! As a view of near-future Christianity, it certainly stacks the deck. The best character in the story is a sympathetic Catholic, though: Thomas, an ex-IRA terrorist who wants to protect the second coming of Christ to make up for his past sins. His story, told in many flashbacks, is also clichéd, but the powerful emotions and competent violence are Murphy’s storytelling strengths.

Punk Rock Jesus is fun if you don’t want to take it too seriously. Like a two-minute punk anthem from a fifteen-year-old, it doesn’t understand everything it talks about, but it’s still cathartic.

Grade: B-


cover to Spaceman #1

Spaceman

Spaceman

Spaceman is also mainly a vehicle for an interesting setting, but at least here the story holds its own. This is by the 100 Bullets team of Brian Azzarello (writer) and Eduardo Risso (artist), but it replaces that series’ gritty modern-day locale with a gritty future, populated by poor scavengers living in the ruins of a better age and rich elites who profit from the lower classes. (Like Punk Rock Jesus, a reality TV show plays a major role here. But this one presents it mainly from the viewers’ point of view. It’s heartbreaking to see people who can barely feed themselves going wild with concern over the problems of their rich heros.)

As with 100 Bullets, though, one of the selling points here is the pitch-perfect vernacular dialog. Azzarello has improved on that trick, and invented a believable new language for this run-down future. Most people use a dumbed-down version of modern-day English, with words like “LOL” and abbreviations like “bizz” for work. “Brain” is an all-purpose word related to thinking or intelligence. It looked stupid when I saw a preview, but within a few pages it’s natural and helps to put you right in the mindset of the characters. It helps a lot that Azzarello deftly adjusts the dialects depending on the class of the speaker and the class of the person they’re speaking to, and also that Risso’s artwork has expressive body language and scenes to help make meaning clear.

Beyond that excellent gimmick, this is the story of a “spaceman”, an ape-like man specially bred for a mission to Mars that was shut down. This symbol of future potential now lives in filth and desperation on an Earth that doesn’t fit him, and society chooses reality TV stars as their heroes instead. It would be boring to have the comic tell us all about the subtext, but it lets that stay unspoken. Instead, this is a story of action and survival, with those ironies providing weight rather than beating the reader over the head.

Grade: B+


cover to Sweet Tooth #40

Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth

(Based on issues #29-40)

When I reviewed the first 28 issues of Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth, I was torn: the series had evocative art and powerful scenes, but also a slow pace in which entire issues seemed to be wasted. Now that the story has ended, I can say that it definitely had its great moments. However, the plot seems more unfocused than ever now that it’s all known. Too many characters in the final arcs seemed to exist just as victims to lend weight to the villain’s threat, but that character’s motivation (and ability to keep finding the protagonists) became increasingly difficult to accept. When I couldn’t believe in him, these events felt more like unfair tragedies from a story that wasn’t playing by the rules, and just made it seem that our heroes were spreading misery wherever they went. Plot-wise, the middle third of this series (in the Project Evergreen facility) turned out to be meaningless. There were some contributions to the overall story and character development, but nothing that couldn’t have been handled in a few issues. Instead, it set up long plot threads that felt pointless after everything was resolved.

Fortunately, the final issue was pretty good, and finally gave some meaning to everything that had come before. It differed in tone, and took place years later, which I would normally dislike. It fit well here, and almost got me to raise the grade for this. However, the fact that those changes were necessary shows that the issues leading up to it were on the wrong track. If you found yourself giving up near the end, then I can tell you to stick around for the conclusion. Otherwise, though, this isn’t worth it. Many individual pages show that Jeff Lemire is one of the most promising writers and artists in comics, but he hasn’t figured out how to best use those talents.

Grade: C

 
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