Comics

Published on February 24th, 2016 | by Thomas Maluck

Vertigo’s New Wave, Reviewed

Vertigo seemed to be in dire straits the past few years, recruiting fewer creative teams on fewer books and returning to the (admittedly brilliant) Sandman well. That all changed in the Summer of 2015, when the publisher announced it would launch a dozen new series by the end of the year, with interesting creative teams and conceptual pitches that ran through fantasy, horror, sci-fi, suspense, comedy, and good old weirdness. I was hyped to the roof at this news, partly to see a comics publisher swinging for the fences (a rising publisher tide lifts all comics boats) and partly to see so many original series (with the exception of Lucifer, which is a spinoff of the Lucifer series that’s a spinoff of The Sandman).

Between October and the end of 2015, all twelve series have debuted, with some up to their third issue, and others only having just begun. I have willingly thrown my wallet to the flames of idle curiosity and collected them all (see top photo), and before I go through the review gauntlet of evaluating each one, let me just say… they’re all good. I was kind of counting on some stinkers in the bunch, even if just comics I’m not personally into enough to keep buying, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised (and impoverished) to enjoy them all.

That does not mean they will each be to your (or your library collection’s) taste, though. Keep in mind that these are all for mature readers. Twelve reviews did I volunteer, and twelve reviews have been written before Wednesday, January 6, when new issues would resume in the new year. If you would like second opinions, allow me to recommend Brian McNamara and Dave Accampo’s writing over at Panels, where they have teamed up to discuss the #1 issues for each series by month: October, November, December.

Without further ado, here’s one librarian’s response to the new Vertigo wave, and why you will or won’t fall for them too. In alphabetical order…

289459._SX580_QL80_TTD_Art Ops #1-2

Writer: Shaun Simon

Artists: Michael Allred, Matt Brundage

Covers: Michael Allred

Colors: Laura Allred

Letterer: Todd Klein

Editors: Molly Mahan, Shelly Bond

Premise: Paintings are inhabited by sentient beings, and the Art Ops want to protect them from vandals.

Impressions: Does it get more Vertigo than this? This series plays with exactly the sort of off-the-wall thought experiments I relish, especially for its examinations of how we interact with art. This is a series where the Mona Lisa is replaced in-painting with a decoy model, only to run away and join a rock band, flustering the Art Ops agents assigned to protect her. The Allreds and Brundage are clearly having a blast with each page, as panel borders sometimes interact with crowd shots and pages flow easily. “More color! More life! Let’s dance!” a doctor declares, saving a man with whose arm has been town from his body by painting one into place. This series can be read as a fairly straightforward fantasy adventure with odd mechanics, but there are interesting interpretations everywhere about the nature of art and how we interact with it. The major villain of the series, who turns works of art into grotesque servants, seems to believe art is only taken seriously when it threatens the audience. This comic has already been fun enough to disprove her claim, but I would love to see that theory develop.

 

Clean Room #1-3289464._SX580_QL80_TTD_

Writer: Gail Simone

Artist: Jon Davis-Hunt

Covers: Jenny Frison

Colors: Jon Davis-Hunt + Quinton Winter

Letterer: Todd Klein

Editors: Rowena Yow + Shelly Bond

Premise: Chloe Pierce is investigating a therapist, Astrid Mueller, whose books and treatments either grant enlightenment or drive people insane. Chloe wants to investigate Astrid’s methods, such as her cult-like organization and mysterious “Clean Room” that terrifies former disciples.

Impressions: While the first issue sets up the mystique of the Clean Room and places the reader in a world where nightmares appear to manifest in one form or another, the second issue is where the premise really takes off. Davis-Hunt’s monsters are genuinely creepy, and the Clean Room as a place for bringing fears to life plays out with wicked aplomb, including Astrid as its enigmatic host. Seemingly harmless memories can be revisited in the Clean Room to find the demons lurking in one’s psyche, whether out of trauma, guilt, or full-blown psychopathy. Whatever you may know of Gail Simone’s work, strip away all the costumes and powers and consider only her treatments of internalized battles as you enter this.

289504._SX580_QL80_TTD_Jacked #1

Writer: Eric Kripke

Artist: John Higgins

Covers: Glenn Fabry & Ryan Brown

Colors: John Higgins + Sally Jane Hurst

Letterer: Clem Robins

Editors: Ellie Pyle + Shelly Bond

Premise: Sad-sack Josh is in a mid-life crisis that pelts him from all sides. He’s unemployed, engages with porn more readily than with his wife, he can’t teach his son how to hit a baseball, and age is wearing his body down. But a new pill called “Jacked” brings superpowers and rejuvenation.

Impressions: Everyday slobs existing in a world of superheroes are becoming a tired trope, but Kripke provides enough detail about Josh’s doldrum life that when Higgins busts loose with the visual splendor of what it’s like to be in a “jacked” state, readers will be happy to take another trip on Josh’s emotional rollercoaster of a new identity. Josh slamming a home run out of a batting cage wouldn’t have nearly as much impact without first seeing him and his son whiff and get offered pointers by more chiseled, tanned, successful guys. His stumbling into heroism won’t mean anything without unintended consequences, and the second issue shows how he may have bitten off more than he can chew.

 

Last Gang In Town #1289474._SX580_QL80_TTD_

Writer: Simon Oliver

Artist: Rufus Dayglo

Cover: Rufus Dayglo

Colors: Giulia Brusco

Letterer: Steve Wands

Editors: Molly Mahan, Jamie S. Rich, Shelly Bond

Premise: Hopping between England, 1977 and a near-futuristic 2018, the story follows a punk girl named Joey who spent the 70s raising hell with her band and seems to be ready to raise hell again in the future.

Impressions: Of all the Vertigo titles in this new wave, this one screams “cartoon” the loudest. Everyone is sharp, vicious, and full of expression, with unreal gestures like a mushroom cloud coming out of someone’s head to show anger or characters’ teeth going razor-sharp to show… also anger. The lady on the cover lighting her cigarette with a molotov cocktail screams edgy punk rocker, but Dayglo’s cartooning lends a ton of personality to even throwaway characters in the backgrounds. “I’m not anyone’s fuckin’ sweetheart,” Joey declares on her way out of a bar, bashing the bouncer over the head with a guitar and punting his crotch. She calls people wankers and dodges double-decker buses, but the time-hopping conceit could lead anywhere. For now, the “playful past, wisened future” angle has plenty of promise.

 

289509._SX580_QL80_TTD_Lucifer #1

Writer: Holly Black

Artist: Lee Garbett

Cover: Dave Johnson

Colors: Antonio Fabela

Letterer: Todd Klein

Editors: Molly Mahan, Ellie Pyle, Shelly Bond

Premise: God is dead, and a host of angels wants to find the murderer. They attack Lucifer, who has fallen back to Earth since his last story, and he agrees to also join the investigation.

Impressions: Am I a bad YA librarian if this is the first Holly Black story I’ve read? I liked Zombies Vs. Unicorns, which she co-edited, and now I’ve held her writing in my hands, and I like that, too. This issue sets up a lot of players for future issues, from the angelic host to Lucifer and his cat-headed butler to a wicked lady who might be hunting for Lucifer. As far as first issues go, it’s a solid introduction, but everything depends on how these pieces collide and collaborate. There seems to be a pattern of things glowing or burning on nearly every single page, and it’s a credit to Johnson and Fabela that they pull off the effect in all of the settings here. Will these supernatural people remain so bright?

 

New Romancer #1289514._SX580_QL80_TTD_

Writer: Peter Milligan

Artist: Brett Parson

Cover: Brett Parson

Colors: Uncredited (Brett Parson?)

Letterer: Todd Klein

Editors: Rowena Yow, Shelly Bond

Premise: Computer genius Lexy is working on an artificial intelligence program to match profiles on a dating site. Lexy’s also coded it to simulate the personalities of historical figures, which goes awry when her software merges with another company’s body-incubation chamber, bringing them back to life with the minds of the old romantics, including Casanova and Lord Byron.

Impressions: Is the title a take on William Gibson’s “Neuromancer?” This comic is a serious genre mashup, with touches of sci-fi, romance, and thriller, meaning it will either pay off each of those elements brilliantly or all of them will fizzle by the end of the first arc. For now, the prevailing effect is one of packed content, with the constant surprise of learning what the comic is really “about.” Lonely computer geek needs to save her employer… Lord Byron is playing ladies’ hearts without knowing how romance has changed… Casanova is back too, but seems to have changed drastically into a serial killer.

 

289469._SX580_QL80_TTD_Red Thorn #1-2

Writer: David Baillie

Artist: Meghan Hetrick

Covers: Uncredited (Hetrick?), Choong Yoon

Colors: Steve Oliff

Letterer: Todd Klein

Editors: Rowena Yow, Shelly Bond

Premise: Isla Mackintosh is looking for her sister, Lauren, and Isla’s drawings happen to come to life. While she has struggled with understanding her illustration power, she has unwittingly been giving power to a demon named Thorn, who is about to break his ancient bonds.

Impressions: Another “what of art?” title, but with a fantasy horror bend. It’s also really Scottish, down to the redheads and “bonnie wee thing” accent. A variety of text bubbles contain runic symbols, text messages, ancient manuscript on parchment, and several colors assigned to different speakers/narrators, all courtesy of Todd Klein. Hey, he letters about a third of Vertigo’s new wave, he was going to get a shoutout eventually, and this comic is a good showcase. The story and art, much like the proverbial Scottish fairy tale, is alternately charming and savage. Isla pacifies a barbarian gnome Stanash by illustrating his long-lost wife Morag, only for Morag to appear, snap his neck, and gleefully return to Isla’s notebook (Stanash had fallen for a cackling killer, turns out). The perpetually shirtless (or just nude) Thorn is a playfully nasty spirit, and it will be interesting to see how Isla resists (or succumbs to!) his charms.

 

The Sheriff of Babylon #1289489._SX580_QL80_TTD_

Writer: Tom King

Artist: Mitch Gerads

Covers: John Paul Leon

Colors: Mitch Gerads

Letterer: Nick Napolitano

Editors: Molly Mahan, Jamie S. Rich, Shelly Bond

Premise: Christopher is an officer in charge of officer training in Baghdad, ten months after the city’s fall directly after 9/11.

Impressions: “Does this place have a sheriff?” Christopher asks near the end of the first issue, signaling the void of authority or control in Baghdad. He may as well be hunting Harry Lime, for how much he’s in over his head. Arranged and revenge killings have taken place, and Chris is only becoming aware of a body found out on the street in the green zone. He still tries to give people a fair shake, as when he tries to talk down a suicide bomber, only for her to get shot down before his eyes. Every gunshot in this comic is signaled with an all-black panel containing a single “bang,” with multiple gunshots filling up the page with black panels. Gerads is absolutely killing it on art and colors, and Napolitano’s font and bubble choices convey the different languages and roles in the story well. Some of these series didn’t truly sell me until their second issues, but this is one hell of a start.

 

289494._SX580_QL80_TTD_Slash & Burn #1-2

Writer: Si Spencer

Artist: Max Dunbar

Inker: Ande Parks

Covers: Tula Lotay

Colors: Nick Filardi

Letterer: Travis Lanham

Editors: Molly Mahan, Jamie Rich, Shelly Bond

Premise: Rosheen Hayes is a brilliant firefighter with a close relationship with fire… because she’s a pyromaniac.

Impressions: I was relatively cool to this book, but Spencer’s treatment of pyromaniac addiction fanned my flames until I couldn’t wait to get the next chapters. Seriously, scroll back through these descriptions and tell me where “firefighter who loves fire” fits in, but this is easily one of my favorites. Spencer humanizes Rosheen with well-worn flashbacks that show she was committed to the life of flame from a young age, spending her formative years associating with some comparably amateur hellraisers. Lotay’s covers get across the mixture of passion, danger, and duty that makes for a unique mixture that leads directly into the payoff of Dunbar, Parks, and Filardi’s interior art.

 

Survivors’ Club #1-3289479._SX580_QL80_TTD_

Writer: Lauren Beukes + Dale Halvorsen

Artist: Ryan Kelly

Covers: Bill Sienkewicz

Colors: Eva De La Cruz

Letterer: Clem Robins

Editors: Rowena Yow, Shelly Bond

Premise: A huge pull for anyone who uses the term “final girl” in casual conversation, this series follows six survivors of separate traumatic horrors that all took place in 1987, each strongly resembling the premise to a horror movie. One of the survivors thinks she has found a common thread between them that points to a larger scheme, and soon the relatively recovering group must face their old demons.

Impressions: Did you enjoy the movie Cabin In The Woods, or the videogame Until Dawn? This ought to win you over fairly quickly. I’m a sucker for horror figures interacting and even being pitted against one another, which happens plenty enough in this series, and cools down somewhat as it follows the characters meant to seriously investigate what in the world has brought the survivors together. The Beukes and Halvorsen’s setup allows Kelly, De La Cruz, and Robins to play to whatever style fits the horror in the spotlight for the moment. Japanese “Ringu” horror? Haunted house? Swarm of bugs? Living doll? This has all of those and a few more, and when I’m not creeped out, I’m still thrilled just to see what’s next and how it’ll be incorporated with the cast.

 

289499._SX580_QL80_TTD_ copyThe Twilight Children #1-3

Gilbert Hernandez, Darwyne Cooke

Writer: Gilbert Hernandez

Artist: Darwyne Cooke

Covers: Darwyn Cooke

Colors: Dave Stewart

Letterer: Darwyn Cooke

Editors: Rowena Yow, Shelly Bond

 

Premise: Glowing spheres descend on a beachside community, weirding out its residents young and old as a mysterious woman arrives.

Impressions: Three issues in, I’m scared to see how this four-issue series ends. There have been some deliciously magical mysteries and dramas courtesy of Hernandez, but there are so many loose threads! Silver-haired lady shows up, sometimes glows, blind kids can see, people get teleported in a flash of light, men are panting over women, and I can’t see how this will all end in a coherent, satisfying fashion. And you know what? That’s okay, because Cooke and Stewart put together spectacular art in every issue.

 

Unfollow #1-2289484._SX580_QL80_TTD_

Writer: Rob Williams

Artist: Mike Dowling

Covers: Matt Taylor

Colors: Quinton Winters

Letterer: Clem Robins

Editors: Ellie Pyle, Molly Mahan, Shelly Bond

Premise: The most dangerous game, played out according to a list of Twitter followers. When a dying billionaire selects 140 beneficiaries to receive his personal fortune, someone begins killing them off to increase the payout.

Impressions: All of these series jump into their central premise fairly quickly, which speaks well to their pacing but also begs the question of which ones will get adapted into film and television. This was already optioned into a TV series before its first issue hit the stands, and it’s clear why: the setup is perfect for serialization. 140 people getting hunted for money? That’s carte blanche for diverse casting, lush locations, a range of tones – everything a production crew and writer’s room can dream. As it stands in print, Dowling’s textured art style and Williams’s colorful cast of characters -any of whom seem like they could steal the spotlight- are ready for prime time readership.

 

Epilogue: Some Stray Observations About These Series In General

-Nearly all women in the editorial department supervising a majority-male workforce.

-Many of these series contain at least one scene/panel of either frontal nudity or characters putting their clothes on post-coitus; nonetheless, none of these feel exploitative of their ladies or gentlemen (well, maybe with Thorn, but he seems to enjoy the attention as his M.O.).

-I am prepared to eat a lot of crow if these series have weak endings and the trades come out and fellow librarians have to tell me, “Wow, your taste sucks.”

-Lest anyone think I’m a Vertigo fanboy and enjoy everything they publish, let me defensively declare that Get Jiro: Blood & Sushi and The Names were both glaring disappointments from the publisher.

-Image has risen to prominence as the reputed go-to publisher for indie comics*, with their straightforward terms for creative teams in terms of ownership (everything belongs to the creators) and payout (30% to Image, everything else to the creators). Vertigo used to be in that position, and it’s interesting to see them stage a comeback, but what changed? Does Vertigo have more connections with studios to secure high-profile adaptations? Did Vertigo change its basic contract? Are they offering more money by not hiring inkers? Hmmm, just curious.

*Shorthand for “not Marvel or DC,” and with all due respect to Dark Horse, Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, Boom, IDW, Oni, Top Shelf, MonkeyBrain, and other fine publishers


About the Author

Thomas Maluck is a teen services librarian at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. After graduating with his MLIS in 2010 from the University of South Carolina, he knew he wanted to go into either virtual services or teen services, and found a happy medium engaging teens via technology and the endless ride that is pop culture. He has presented at various fan-culture and professional conventions about graphic novels, manga, and teen services, including the American Library Association's Annual and Midwinter conferences, DragonCon, NashiCon, and New York Comic Con. He served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels For Teens committee for its 2014 and 2015 lists, and has published articles in Library Trends, Public Libraries, and The Hub. He currently reviews for No Flying, No Tights and regularly blogs comic recommendations on Richland Library's website here.



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