When Words Collide

Mon, August 24th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

VERTIGO CRIME

I don't know about the rest of you, but as soon as I saw the two initial Vertigo Crime releases on the comic book shelf last Wednesday, I snapped them up and put them in the stack o' things to buy. And I didn't buy a whole lot last week -- I was away with my family on vacation, but I managed to sneak away for some Wednesday comics action (and yes, "Wednesday Comics" was one of the few other things I bought on new release day on that trip).

Plenty will be written -- or could be written, if anyone wants to take up the challenge -- on the marketing strategy for the Vertigo Crime line. Announced well over a year ago at San Diego 2008, the Will Dennis-helmed line is geared toward the bookstore market with dimensions that would be right at home next to the newest Dennis Lehane thriller, and a bold cover/spine design that announces, "hey, these are books, not comics."

It's not that this hasn't been done before. The granddaddy of the graphic novel -- or the hip uncle, at least -- is the 1950 "picture novel" by Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller, and Matt Baker titled "It Rhymes with Lust." It's a "picture novel" only in the sense that St. John Publications wanted a name that made the book sound like something more than a sleazy crime comic, though that's exactly what it was.

These Vertigo Crime books aren't called "picture novels" on the cover, but they are adorned with the phrase "A Graphic Mystery" just to let you know that there's something different going on here.

But are these first two Vertigo Crime books all that different from the standard original graphic novel you might see from Vertigo or any number of other publishers? Are they going to revolutionize the comic book industry by kicking down the door to the bookstore market and giving these "Graphic Mysteries" a rightful place next to the more "respectable" authors like John Grisham and Patricia Cornwall?

No, they aren't all that different, and, no, they probably won't end up shelved next to the prose novels like they're supposed to be, but that doesn't mean that the Vertigo Crime line is doomed to failure. Because these two debut releases are pretty good, and with the bookstore market softening and an ever-rising interest in comics of all forms (just maybe not the kind that requires a regular Wednesday commitment and a deep knowledge of continuity), maybe these books can crack into public consciousness and become more than just another Paradox Press or Minx.

I hope so, because I'd like to see this line continue for as long as possible. The more original graphic novels, the better, as far as I'm concerned and though the two initial Vertigo Crime books may not quite be at the level of a new David Mazzucchelli book or even a new Darwyn Cooke adaptation, they are worth your time. I devoured both of them, and I'm eager for more. Will Dennis knows what he's doing.

So let's take a look at these two books and see what they're about and why I enjoyed them. And why I had some reservations along the way.

Though I was more interested in "Filthy Rich," the Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos contribution to the line, I read the Ian Rankin and Werther Dell'Edera "Dark Entries" volume first. Perhaps I wanted to delay my gratification, or perhaps I thought that "Dark Entries" would require less concentration -- I was on vacation, and I was tired when I picked it up of the night stand -- or perhaps I wanted to see how a noted mystery writer used Vertigo's longest-running character: John Constantine.

Before I get into the plot of "Dark Entries" let me say that I think it was a terrible idea to launch the Vertigo Crime line with a John Constantine graphic novel. I don't know the thought process behind it, and I've heard rumors that the character was going to be renamed at one point, but kicking off a brand new imprint -- an imprint supposedly geared to an audience outside the direct market -- with a character who is synonymous with either a long-running monthly direct market series or a dreadful Keanu Reeves/Shia LaBeouf movie version? Well, that seems like an act of self-sabotage.

And it does very little to distinguish that the Vertigo Crime line will be anything but more of the same old stuff. Though, to be fair, the line did launch with another book on the same day, as if to remind potential readers that this stuff wasn't going to just be a series of smaller-than-graphic novels using Vertigo characters.

Based on what I've seen from the future of Vertigo Crime, it looks like this Constantine book is an exception, anyway. The rest of the upcoming books, from the likes of Jason Starr, Chris Gage, and Peter Milligan, don't have any connection to already-existing Vertigo characters.

Still, "Dark Entries" is a weird way to help launch Vertigo Crime, and not just because of its focus on John Constantine. It's also not much of a crime book. It seems almost repurposed for the line, like it was originally intended for some other format and then folded into Vertigo Crime because it was written by Ian Rankin, a guy who already has a following in the big boy prose crime marketplace.

So let's get this straight: the first Vertigo Crime book I read wasn't really a crime book at all. And it featured a character I could read about -- have read about -- in dozens of other stories.

Yet I enjoyed the heck out of "Dark Entries."

It's nothing revolutionary. It won't blow your mind. But Ian Rankin tells a fast-paced (really fast-paced -- I read through this 200+ page book in well under an hour), suspenseful, darkly comic horror tale about a reality show gone wrong.

If you're like me, you're probably thinking, "reality show? Really? That sounds kind of…lame." And it is. That's kind of the point of this book. John Constantine gets invited -- or maybe pushed -- into jumping into a reality show because the house in which the show is set has become, well, kind of haunted. The show itself is something like "Big Brother" meets "Scare Tactics," nothing particularly original, which fits what we all know about reality television anyway.

Constantine becomes a new addition to the show, supposedly so he can help figure out what kind of supernatural forces are at work from inside the house. The rest of the players think he's a plant, there's one girl in the house who reminds him of someone he once loved, and the "bad boy" of the show finds out that Constantine cornered the market on bad boy behavior before this kid was even born. Rankin and artistic collaborator Werther Dell'Edera (who does a fine job throughout) spend the first half of the book playing around with reality show tropes and setting Constantine loose inside this made-for-the-lowest-common-denominator-tv-bubble.

We also learn a little about each contestant, and with the nature of the game and the strangely horrific occurrences that take place inside the house, we realize that this is a Constantine version of "And Then There Were None." But halfway through the book it gets a whole lot darker.

You can literally tell that the second half of "Dark Entries" is darker than the first when you pick up the book. The white pages which fill the first half are replaced by black pages. You know something's going to shift around page 100 even before you read the first page.

And the encroaching blackness is easily explained: this reality show isn't for human audiences. It's for the damned, and its players are already dead.

"Dark Entries" doesn't take itself all that seriously -- how could it, with a game show in Hell and the devil as a television producer? -- but it takes its story seriously, and as Constantine struggles with his cynical wit to overcome demonic forces there's a real sense of tragedy here. The overall concept of this book reads like a joke, but for the players -- lost souls who don't even realize where they are -- and for Constantine himself, this is emotional, painful stuff.

So "Dark Entries" isn't a crime book, and it's a foolish way to launch the Vertigo Crime imprint to bookstores, but it's a good read.

"Filthy Rich," by Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos, is a completely different kind of book. Coupled with "Dark Entries," you might say that the two books show the range of the Vertigo Crime line. Though I suspect the rest of the releases will learn far more toward the Azzarello spectrum than toward the John Constantine end of the not-really-crime-at-all genre.

This Azzarello book could be criticized on a lot of grounds -- it's too indebted to Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler, probably, and it's more conservatively structured than Azzarello's best work, and the Victor Santos art looks sometimes like a sloppy mashup of Joe Staton and Frank Miller -- but I appreciate how unrepentantly "noir" it is. It embraces both Thompson and Chandler from page one, it provides plenty of twists and turns within its relatively safe structure (even though its surprises aren't all that surprising), and Santos's art works well in the service of this hard-edged story. It only looks like Joe Staton and Frank Miller if you flip it open to check out the art. If you read the book, it becomes a Victor Santos comic, with angular characters and plenty of blackness, just like the story deserves.

Surely this more along the lines of what we might expect from Vertigo Crime -- seedy characters double-crossing each other, plenty of sex and violence, the fickle hand of fate, the dark underbelly of urban life. "Dark Entries" had most of those things too, of course, but it also had a cackling Satan, the dead watching television in Hell, and zombie killers bent on revenge.

I wouldn't call "Filthy Rich" more realistic than "Dark Entries" -- in its own way, it's as exaggerated and darkly Romantic as the Rankin book -- but its stylized in the way that crime fiction usually is. It's larger than life, even if the lives of these characters are often consumed with petty concerns and murders that gain very little.

"Filthy Rich" tells the story of Rich Junkin, a former football would-be superstar who lost everything to a knee injury and finds himself scraping away at his dignity by being little more than a small-time celebrity draw at a car dealership. He can't even cut it as a car salesman, and the only thrills he gets these days are the ones he can get with the married women who he "delivers" cars to. It's a typical down-on-his luck tragic protagonist, and, as you can imagine, he gets drawn into events that lead to murder.

That tends to happen to guys like that in stories like this.

So he's a Jim Thompson protagonist in a Raymond Chandler story, basically, with his car dealership boss hiring him to protect a wayward daughter, and, of course, everything is not as it seems.

Azzarello plays with some weighty themes in "Filthy Rich," dealing with issues of social class and trust, love and betrayal. But it's mostly just play. This is a plot-heavy "Graphic Mystery," and Rich Junkin is little more than a spider caught in an even bigger spider's web. The plot is a lot of fun, though, in that cynically dark Azzarello way. Of course, anyone who's read "100 Bullets" knows that Azzarello has the heart of a romantic behind the nihilistic visage, and that's true for "Filthy Rich" as well. A cynic isn't born -- he's made from too many unfulfilled dreams, and Rich Junkin -- so seemingly hard and no-nonsense at the beginning of the story -- is just the kind of guy who might end up a cynic when this book reaches its end.

Both "Dark Entries" and "Filthy Rich" hit the bookstore market this week, and I'll be interested to see how non-comic audiences react. Perhaps these books will be ignored like so many others before them. Perhaps they'll end up shelved away from the Manga and the "Spawn" collections, next to the Hard Case Crime and Black Lizard novels. Or perhaps they'll merely pave the way for something better to come along.

I don't know. But I know that I enjoyed reading both of these books, and I will be buying everything else that comes out of the Vertigo Crime line. Then again, I probably don't count. I already read comics.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, vertigo crime, filthy rich, dark entries, john constantine

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