So, welcome to the latest installment of The Review of Obscure Books, the now-and-then comics review column I've been doing for about 20 years now, starting way back in the heyday of rec.arts.comics. Just to calibrate properly, here's the rating scale:
- A: the creme de la creme -- the best comics ever written. V For Vendetta, Sandman, A Contract With God.
- B: solid and high-quality, with some depth, recommended to anyone looking for a good read. The better parts of 2000 AD.
- C: perfectly good entertainment, but not high art; generally recommended to those who like That Sort of Thing. Iron Man, The Flash.
- D: not really worth your time. Doesn't show up much here, because I don't usually buy more than one issue at that level.
- F: the stuff you skim off the creme de la creme, after it has rotted for a while. Secret Wars II.
I hope people find these useful, and I encourage y'all to ask questions and add your own comments -- it's more fun if we can get some discussion going. They will be in no particular order, save what I happen to have read recently. (Today will be all Vertigo comics, because several happened to be on top.) Note that I'm even further behind on my comics than I am on LJ, so I'll mainly focus on each run in general, more than individual issues, and I may be slightly behind on major changes.
Testament. The book that inspired this article in the first place, Testament is uniquely odd, telling three stories in parallel. On the one hand, there is the Bible, specifically the Old Testament; paralleling that is a near-future social-science-fiction story that is a deliberately inexact match to it; and over all of that are a collection of Gods, outside time, meddling in the affairs of humanity. Several of them have decided to shape mankind's course by creating a new kind of religion -- the faith of the Book -- and the struggle between them and the other Gods is an equal partner in the tale.
The writing is good but not brilliant; the flavor of the story reminds me more of Robert Anton Wilson's work than anything else, in the way it smoothly blends mysticism and science, hopefullness and grim cynicism. The principal focus is on the modern story, slowly falling into a dystopia that is being resisted by a few young punks who are in *way* over their heads, and who are slowly beginning to understand that they are part of a larger story. Even the SF section is very -- well, the word siderea suggested when I described it was "ceremonial", and that's as apt as anything for this story that is deeply concerned with religion and its nature. The art is solid, and matches the fluidity of the story well.
Considerable amounts of sex and violence in all three stories. An interesting read, which some people will find fascinating and deep and others will simply be annoyed by. Overall grade: B- (possibly to go up when the full scope of the story is better understood).
Demonstrating that Vertigo covers everything from the sublime to the utterly crass, we move on to The Exterminators. This is the story of a band of plucky bug-killers who are at ground zero on The War on Bugs.
Lord, how to describe this book? Our hero, Henry James, is a nice, reasonably literate ex-con who has gone into the family business of extermination. He expects this to be easy, but is quickly disabused of that, learning how deeply the battle of Man Against Rat can run. Along the way, he and his get caught up in an accidental evolution of cockroaches to the next level, as they begin to organize and wage war on the sewage treatment plants. And there's the Egyptian King who has been reincarnated and is trying to convince the roaches to follow him, and Henry's new girlfriend the literary whore (her brothel specializes in recreating scenes from great books for their discerning clients), and -- well, it's society through a pretty acid eye.
If you like Garth Ennis, you ought to check this out: it has a similar quality of good but rude writing, *tons* of violence and a good deal of sex, and a total lack of respect for everyone and everything. Hard to grade -- I suspect most people will hate it, but it's rather fun in its way. Call it a C+.
Fables is probably the best thing Vertigo is publishing at the moment: not quite high art, but a consistently great story. The premise is odd but straightforward: some centuries ago, the lands of Fable, where all the stories live, were overrun by the forces of The Adversary. Many of them fled from land to land, eventually being driven to the Mundane World. Specifically, New York City. This is the story of Fabletown, the hidden town-within-a-town in the middle of Manhattan, whose Mayor is Old King Cole, Administrator is Snow White, and Sheriff is Bigby Wolf. At least, that's the way things are at the beginning: the story moves rapidly -- actually several times faster than realtime -- and lots of changes happen over the course of things.
Compared to the deep, dark stories that Vertigo tends to focus on, this feels almost fluffy, but it's actually one of the best-written books. For all that the characters are creatures of story, they're also very human, and the book is largely about their loves, their conflicts, their hopes and fears. There's a big and complex arc here as well, as our heroes slowly discover the truth of who the Adversary is and what they're up against. After centuries of living in relative peace in Mundania, this is shaping up to be the tale of what happens when the war at home begins to heat up again.
There have been a bunch of spin-off stories over time, including one hardcover book of stories and an ongoing series focusing on Jack. (You know, Jack -- the roguish hero who always gets himself into trouble and always gets out of it again.) Consistently fun and well worth reading: a solid B.
Okay, let's start out by ignoring the Constantine movie, okay? Hellblazer is its own thing, one of the longest-running books from Vertigo and one of the most erratic.
Hellblazer is the story of John Constantine, the greatest pain-in-the-ass sorcerer there is. We're talking about a man who literally cheated death, who blows cigarette smoke in the face of demons, and who pretty reliably gets everyone he cares about killed. It is a horror comic, make no mistake, although the better stories are more about the internal struggles than the gore. The current storyline is being written by Denise Mina, who is exploring the question of what would happen if everyone became completely empathetic. If you could feel everything that those around you felt, would the result be utopia or despair?
This run is good but not nearly up to the best Hellblazer tales: it's a bit slow, and I'm getting a bit tired of stories that focus on how utterly awful Constantine's life is. Call it a C: worth reading if you like strange horror stories, but probably not to bother otherwise.
Quite possibly the hardest comic book to read is 100 Bullets. I don't mean that it's painful emotionally or anything like that: it's just incredibly dense and complex, and it doesn't provide you any of the usual crutches. The story wanders among an *enormous* cast, covering years of history and entirely lacking the usual amenities like captions. It is told entirely in the dialogue and images, and entirely eschews expository dialogue. No one tells you what's going on: you have to figure it out from context.
What's the book about? Well, that's the first mystery. At first, it appears to be an old-fashioned anthology. An old man, Agent Graves, comes up to a random person and hands them a briefcase. Inside is proof of who destroyed their life, a gun, and 100 utterly untraceable bullets. Whatever they do with those bullets will never be linked back to them. It's the ultimate test of character: when given the chance to kill the most deserving person without consequences, what do you do?
Over time, though, the true story begins to come out. The story of the mobs that rule everything, the pact they made, and their internecine struggles. And we begin to realize that the recipients of the briefcases are anything but random.
This story practically sets a new definition for Noir: it is utterly dark, and impossibly complex, but everything so far indicates that it's intricately plotted in advance. With almost 80 issues in the can, I still don't feel like I fully understand what's going on, but the web is pulling tighter. My guess, based on pacing, is that this is a 100-issue story, although I haven't seen any confirmation of that yet. Blazingly violent, full of sex and language that would make the Sopranos blush -- the only thing comparable is Sin City. Overall rating: B-, but only recommended for those who like their fiction black as night and irritatingly intricate.
Enough for now; more later. (Possibly including the rest of the Vertigo line, like Deadman and Y the Last Man...)