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A View From The Cheap Seats:
Vertigo and Deep Space Nine At Ten By Rich Watson
This month marks two significant tenth anniversaries, both near and dear to my heart, and perhaps, to yours as well. Both landmarks are of spin-offs of established media entertainment franchises, created specifically to establish their own unique identity and broaden their respective fanbases. Both have suffered from misperceptions as to their intent and direction. Both expanded from their initial premises to embrace other ideas, no matter how radical. And while one no longer exists in its original form, both continue to enjoy a degree of success and popularity, even if they haven't really caught on to the general public.
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HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR. VERTIGO:
The first ten-year milestone is of DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. I stopped reading comics sometime during the first couple of years of high school. They were getting far too expensive (not that they're any cheaper now) and my interests were changing. I was just discovering rock and roll, for one thing, and once I got my own Walkman - not to mention MTV - I was all about music during this period. I had a girlfriend who was more into comics than I was (she was a huge Love & Rockets fan), but for some reason it never rubbed off on me. In college I did a World War One graphic novel for a term project sophomore year, and that helped to rekindle my interest. When Superman #75 came out - the widely publicized death issue - I got caught up in the hype along with everyone else. I vividly remember waiting on line with friends outside Forbidden Planet in New York, talking about the book and eager to see it for ourselves. So now that I was buying comics again, what else was there to get?
I think I was already beginning to have an awareness of comics as more than just superheroes even before Vertigo started. I remember seeing the Brendan McCarthy covers of the pre-Vertigo Shade the Changing Man and thinking they were really cool. I remember the Art Spiegelman exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art displaying his pages from Maus. I remember not thinking twice about even doing a war comic. And once I started going to conventions, I remember beginning to be aware of self-published comics and how many of them approached all sorts of genres.
So Vertigo came at just the right time for me. And I have to admit, I had never read anything quite like those early Vertigo books before: Death: The High Cost of Living, Kid Eternity, The Last One, Enigma (I could write an entire column on Enigma). Sure, I may not have understood some of the concepts being explored (Grant Morrison's Sebastian O was over my head, for example), but the stuff I did grok was utterly mind-bending and funny and spiritual and more than a little profound. And one title that had all of this in abundance - and the one I quickly grew very attached to - was Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo's Shade.
There was the art: twisted perspectives that can turn an ordinary hallway into something bearing the semblance of life to it. The idiosyncratic choices of composition, where the cropping of a face can provide subtext. The bizarre, contorted panel shapes used to express the power of the Madness. The design of Shade himself - the celery-stalk hair, the elongated nose, the Gustav Klimt-like design of the overcoat. All of this and more gave the title a unique and dynamic look that greatly contrasted the Image style, which was at the apex of its popularity at the time.
And as for the writing... Well, people are finally beginning to discover Milligan's greatness with Marvel's X-Statix series, but those of us who have followed Milligan throughout the past decade, mostly on Vertigo books, are well acquainted with his clever turns of phrase, his double entendres, his satirical and at times caustic wit, and above all his wonderful characterization. All of this and more was on display in Shade, a book that dealt with such themes as abortion, capital punishment, sex, magic, personal identity, and much more. DC is finally putting together a trade paperback of the first six issues. With any luck, more will follow, especially if it sells briskly, so do yourself a favor and give this book a try.
Chances are you are already familiar with Vertigo classics like Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, etc. There are, however, lots of hidden gems throughout Vertigo's run that, for whatever reason, have been largely forgotten or overlooked. The following are some of my favorites:
The only thing House of Secrets had in common with the old DC horror book was the name. This new version carried a fascinating premise: a haunted house inhabited by a supernatural court of spirits from different time periods, which tries living souls for the secrets they keep. Steven Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen did some truly remarkable, and at times experimental, stuff during this book's short-lived run (25 issues - the first five available as a TPB - plus a 2-issue Prestige mini-series). Rain, the main character, was one of the most complex characters I've seen in a Vertigo book; she was full of contradictions and used lies as a barrier to protect herself from the secrets she didn't want to face. Seagle's stories were always varied and never stuck to any single formula, as best exemplified by the done-in-one issues (the multiple-track "Blueprint" stories, the "Other Rooms" stories, the totally off-the-wall "Plyck"). It took me awhile to get used to Kristiansen's art, but what impressed me about it the most was his versatility; the way he could make each track of the "Blueprint" stories visually distinctive, for example. And his painted work - on most of the covers and the Façade mini-series - was quite stunning. This was a complex and thought-provoking book that was never afraid to play around with people's expectations, and I still miss it, long after it prematurely finished its run.
Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo have collaborated on a number of books and stories in addition to Enigma. One that is especially worth hunting down was a graphic novel called Face. This was a dark comedy about a plastic surgeon that gets offered the opportunity of a lifetime when a reclusive painter recruits him to work on his face. When the two can't agree on what constitutes beauty in general, however, things take a turn for the bizarre - and beauty turns into a four-letter word. This would make a perfect David Cronenberg film. Milligan touches on lots of themes here: celebrity, art criticism, the finer points of surgery, obsession, and of course, madness. Fegredo is in rare form here, too, from the twistedly sublime opening page of David, the surgeon, cutting up his own face (in glorious detail) to the horrific reprisal of that scene at the very end.
When it comes to Garth Ennis and Vertigo, you already know about Preacher and Hellblazer. You probably know about War Story (the first mini-series as well as the current one). You may even know about Unknown Soldier. You might not know about a mini-series from several years ago called Pride & Joy, with art by John Higgins. This was about an Irish-American criminal who betrayed his boss during a heist years ago, and now, years later, his boss is out for revenge. That's only part of the story, though. It's really about fathers and sons, and how the perceptions of the one can be trumped by the reality of the other. Higgins' art, as always, is solid; never flashy, but always clear and precise (if a little stiff sometimes). This is a quieter book than Ennis' other ones (relatively speaking, of course - we do get a disembowelment scene in addition to lots of gunplay and cursing) and it's written with a great deal of sensitivity towards the familial relationships. It's well worth seeking out.
Bill Willingham's currently got a smash hit series in Fables, but before that he did a miniseries called Proposition Player that showcased much of the same wit and charm that has made his fairy tale fantasy series so popular. A proposition player, in Las Vegas parlance, is someone who works for the house and sits in at card games in order to attract high-stakes gamblers. One night Joey, the title character, in order to prove a point, cons people into gambling away their immortal souls. This attracts the attention of the ultimate high-stakes gamblers - heaven and hell. Suddenly Joey gets caught in a massive bidding war over the "souls" he's won, and the big prize is dominion over the afterlife. Willingham mostly plays this for laughs, from the loudmouthed heavenly emissary Bill, to the demonic femme fatale Hell Mary, to the pantheon of gods from bygone eras convening in Joey's apartment. Through it all, Joey comes across as shrewd and clever, given the circumstances (if not always likeable), and one can't help but wonder how he'll handle each new situation. The art, by Willingham, Paul Guinan and Ron Randall, is light, yet intricate and full of funny sight gags. I suspect it won't be long before Vertigo decides to come out with a TPB of this, to capitalize on Fables' success.
There are other hidden gems, as well - the horror anthology Flinch, Milligan's satire of American life The Eaters; Ed Brubaker's futuristic sci-fi series Deadenders; 4 Horsemen by Codename: Knockout writer Robert Rodi (a former Cheap Seats Top 10 pick), and more. Most of the time, I've found, I'm usually willing to give a Vertigo book a try even if I've never heard of either writer or artist or both, because their hits far exceed their misses.
There's stuff I'd like to see more of, naturally, but perhaps the one thing Vertigo - and DC in general - needs to do better is to let the outside world know about these books. To give just one example: I briefly mentioned Garth Ennis' War Story books. I just read his latest one, Condors, about the Spanish Civil War, and I was so impressed with it. It might be the best of the series to date. Why is there no hardcover collection of the first War Story series? (I'm normally not a big HC advocate, but if ever any title deserved the treatment, it's this.) Surely there's an audience for books of this high caliber, especially now? And there's no shortage of war films these days, from the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers to Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan and more. Rarely do you see a major marketing blitz for a Vertigo book - or even a DC book - like what Marvel does with books like The Call of Duty or Alias (say what you will about Marvel, but they know how to promote themselves). Vertigo could use a little of that every now and then, because it's frustrating to see such an inspired body of work like War Story go unnoticed. I was so disappointed to see DC vice-president Dan Didio say in a recent Newsarama interview that he valued monthly comics over trade paperbacks and that spontaneous TPB purchases is not a long-term goal for the industry. If he really believes that, someone needs to make him look at some sales charts over the past decade.
People were saying that Vertigo "returned" last year thanks to big hits like Y and Fables, but as far as I'm concerned, they never went away. And from what I've read about their plans for this year, there'll be even more to look forward to. Vertigo serves a vitally important function in that they approach all kinds of stories from all kinds of genres. Sure, the adult content in some of their books is higher than others, but I've found time and again that underneath the sex and violence of some titles (which, I admit, has the potential to turn off some people who don't want that in their comics), more often than not, lie valuable insights and perspectives that have something important to say about who we are and the world we live in, the same way the best films, television shows, and books do. This is something to remember the next time those who claim to uphold "community standards" and jeopardize people's livelihoods threaten the rights of comics. This is only the beginning for Vertigo.
TO BOLDLY GO:
The second anniversary this month is of the television show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Long-time readers are familiar with how much this show means to me, but I couldn't let this month go by without talking about it one more time - and by extension, the Trek franchise in general.
DS9 came along right when I was beginning to become a Trek fan. Seeing the sixth movie, The Undiscovered Country, got me interested in classic Trek as well as The Next Generation and I quickly got hooked. I remember reading a little bit about what DS9 would be like prior to its launch and most indications were that it would be grimmer than its predecessors.
At one point the role of Commander Benjamin Sisko was going to be played by a white actor, if I recall correctly. Naturally, I'm glad it wasn't. Without getting too far up on my soapbox, let me say that as a black viewer, to see a (relatively) major television show with a black man as the lead meant a great deal to me - and still does. While Kirk and Picard are dynamite characters and I enjoy seeing them in action all the time, I felt like I could be Sisko in my imagination. He had Kirk's two-fisted man-of-action fire yet was a family man, devoted to his son and the memory of his dead wife. He was in a unique quandary: thrust into the role of Bajoran Emissary by circumstance, yet still bound by his duty to Starfleet. He learned to walk the tightrope between both worlds, even growing to care for Bajor as a second home. The Dominion War placed him center-stage, and as a result he was placed in situations where he had to choose between the lesser of two evils. And all the while he had to cope with the needs and demands of a number of alien races with varying agendas, both benign and malevolent. Avery Brooks brought a powerful and dignified conviction to his role. His tenderness could be every bit as compelling as his toughness, and he made Sisko's humanity shine brightly amidst an alien environment.
The supporting cast has to rank among the greatest in sci-fi television history. Soldiers and civilians; rogues, madmen and fools; political schemers and revolutionaries; super-powered entities and artificial ones; the very old and the very young - DS9 had it all. And even the ones we only got to see for a brief time were generally well defined and unusual in some way. The important thing to remember about the characters is that many of them were not part of Starfleet or even the Federation, and were therefore not bound by their moral code. Set opposite the Starfleet characters, this made for some striking contrasts.
Some fans still criticize the episodes for betraying the spirit of Gene Roddenberry's original dream, forgetting that what DS9 actually did was to show the flip side of that dream. Earth may have gotten its act together and created a brighter future for itself, but that future still had to be defended, mostly by forces from without - and sometimes from within too. And of course, there are always going to be those in the galaxy that don't share the Federation's ideals, even if they don't hold open hostilities against it. DS9 examined these issues and more, and among the most memorable story elements - the Maquis, Section 31, the Bajoran religious hierarchy, the Cardassian and Klingon governments - were the ones that had the most shades of gray to them.
DS9 lasted seven seasons, and although the odds of a feature film reuniting the cast are slim to none at this point, the adventures have continued in the new series of novels from Pocket Books. Picking up where the final episode left off, these new novels are written with the intent to continue the story, so that events and characters carry over from one novel to the next, like Peter David's New Frontier series of Trek novels. Colonel Kira is in charge of the station now that Sisko has gone off with the Prophets, and she's surrounded by a new crew of returning characters and brand new ones. The new novels focus around Bajor in the aftermath of the Dominion War, and where exactly their future lies. It begins with the two-part miniseries Avatar, by S. D. Perry, which introduces the new characters and sets things up for future events. If you miss DS9, I highly recommend these books...
...It's probably the best new Trek material around right now. With the lackluster Enterprise limping along ratings-wise and the very disappointing showing of the film Nemesis at the box-office hurting the chances for another movie, the Trek novels in general (not just the DS9 ones) are without a doubt the best place to satisfy one's Trek craving right now. There's a petition going around the Net right now calling for Rick Berman and Brannon Braga's removal from the Trek braintrust (yes, I signed it), though I suspect it would take a truly massive number of signatures for Paramount to even begin to entertain the possibility. It's depressing. While I can still get excited about a new Trek movie, it seems that the rest of the world no longer can, and any way you slice it, that spells trouble for the franchise. As harsh as it may sound, maybe the failure of Nemesis will be the wake-up call Trek has needed for a long time, and if Berman and Braga are not willing to do what it takes to provide it, then perhaps the time has come for them to go. In the meantime, I will continue to read the Trek novels - where the creative spirit that birthed Star Trek lives on.
OFF THE RACK:
I got some comics recently from a couple of fellow New Yorkers. Kirk Abrigo's Samurai Guard [link] is a full-color (!) tale of ninjas and samurais battling it out on an island run by shoguns. The detail in costumes and settings is remarkable, and in addition to the customs and traditions observed by the characters, makes for a convincing backdrop...with at least one exception. While I've seen magic and demons in samurai stories before and I recognize that it's part of the tradition, what on earth are machine-gun toting soldiers doing in this book? If this is meant to be a mixing of genres, like in Scion, for example, it's not played up enough (the soldiers appear in only one scene in issue 3 and they could've just as easily have been carrying swords). Most of the fights look more like a series of poses and aftereffects than actual combat. The coloring looks very artificial. I don't get a sense that the highlights follow the shape of the form, but rather that they're a bunch of spotlights that don't effectively indicate light sources. The biggest problem I had, however, was the writing. The exposition comes across as forced and unnecessary. Do we really need in-depth character profiles of all five shogunate members in a short (3 pages) scene, or adversaries reciting their entire shared history to each other when they meet? This book has serious potential, but it needs to be streamlined down to something less unwieldy...
...like Darryl Hughes and Monique MacNaughton's GAAK: Groovy Ass Alien Kreatures [link], for example. In this one, four suburban pre-teens' lives are forever changed when a most unusual UFO crash lands in their area and its passenger begins to wreak havoc on the local townspeople. The kids are stereotypes, but they're presented amusingly and with a great deal of attention to clever (sometimes a bit too clever) dialogue. There is quite a bit of fun in Hughes' script (loved the prank played on the main character, Zach, by his little brother). Even the NORAD military types are written very over-the-top. MacNaughton, also known for her sci-fi series Arrowflight (which I've reviewed here before) has greatly improved her layouts. The story reads very clearly, particularly in scenes like the bicycle chase - a difficult sequence that she pulls off very well. While I suspect that this book is for the Harry Potter audience, I have to admit I'm a bit uncomfortable with having the word "ass" as part of the title. At the very least, it should not be on the cover. That's bound to be an automatic turn-off for parents. The language throughout the book doesn't get worse than "damn" and "ass," which is about right for the 10-13 age group, I suppose. Parents should use their own discretion, however.
I don't know what's going on with DIY. I've e-mailed Pulse webmaster Steve Conley and he hasn't given me much in the way of an explanation, even though I handed in the first article long ago. Stay tuned.
A graduate of New York's School of Visual Arts, Rich Watson has been a self-published cartoonist since 1993, and whose output includes the superhero drama CELEBRITY and the romantic fable RAT: A LOVE STORY. He currently resides in New York and gets his comics weekly from Jim Hanley's Universe and Midtown Comics. Talk to him and comment on his column by visiting his message board.