Comic Reviews: April 1993
DC Comics, having recently hit a slump in sales due to the rise in comics like Dark Horse, Image and Valiant not to mention their dearth of quality material, recently relaunched many of its “mature readers” titles and is releasing new ones under the Vertigo imprint, but does the Vertigo product leave one dizzy with ecstasy or merely sick? Frankly, it depends on the comic one chooses.
Death: The High Cost Of Living
Written by Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham
For those unfamiliar with Gaiman’s The Sandman series, there are a number of pale beings referred to as “the Endless.” Among these beings is Death, whose appearance of being a young woman obscures the fact that she is, in fact, the personification of mortality.
Once every century, however, Death becomes mortal for 24 hours and wanders the surface of the earth. Such is the crux of Gaiman’s latest creation, Death: The High Cost of Living.
In this three-issue series, Death arrives on the physical plane in the current era. To ordinary humans, Death appears to be Did, a girl whose parents were killed by a negligent driver. In this guise, Did forms an attachment with a rather mopey boy named Sexton and runs across the enigmatic Mad Hettie. who recognizes her as Death and enlists her to find her hidden heart.
Seems bizzare? Maybe. From there, Death and Sexton go to a nightclub, where they take in the melodramatic surroundings and arouse the attention of a creature known as the Eremile. The Eremile, you see, covets Death’s ankh, and, by means of force, gains possession of it and leaves Death and Sexton trapped in an abandoned building.
If all this also sounds convoluted, it is. Worse, however, it is devoid of much more meaning. In the opinion of this critic, author Gaiman merely hit on the idea of using the popular Death character in a series to make money. But worse, Gaiman seems to be poking fun at those who make The Sandman so popular through Sexton: his interpretation of what The Sandman fans are like. The series seems to be a meaningless trip through meaningless lives. Message?
All this conjecture may be false, but the fact remains that the story in this series is negligible at best, and (at worst) pointless. The dialogue is stilted, the characters are wooden and the whole tale smacks of smarminess.
Even the art fails to enliven the story, as the usually reliable Chris Bachalo (Shade, the Changing Man) and Mark Buckingham, apparently uninspired by the lifeless writing, turn in flat and lackluster renderings. The black and white drawings are made worse by the annoying and garish coloring.
My recommendation for those interested in this series is to save your money unless you’re one of those pathetic individuals who finds himself sexually aroused by the Death character—or if you like the The Sandman. Me? I’d prefer to see Gaiman working on more projects like Signal to Noise, rather than pissing his talent into the Vertigo well.
(color, $1.95) Grade: D-
Written by Peter Milligan
Drawn by Duncan Fegredo
Those familiar with Irish writer Milligan have come to expect uniqueness from Millian’s comics work with Enigma. However, Milligan may have managed to outdo all his previous material.
Enigma, as near as can be deciphered, revolves around telephone repairman Michael Smith and his relationship to the mysterious superhero known as the Enigma.
Smith is stuck in a rut, so to speak, and goes through the same routine week-in, week-out. But Smith’s life is about to change, as a mysterious creature known as the Brain-Eater is terrorizing the city and the Enigma arrives on the scene to battle the monster. But Smith seems to remember the Enigma as a comic book character.
Just what is going on? Welp, two issues into this eight-issue series, and Milligan is slowly revealing the workings behind that fictional reality. Smith becomes a victim of the Brain-Eater and almost dies, while another villain, the Truth, arises to battle the Enigma. As issue two ends, the Truth has apparently dispatched the Enigma, just as Smith remembers from the comic book.
Milligan, best known in America for his work on Shade, the Changing Man, has crafted a masterful (and, in the words of the author, “existentialist”) superhero tale in the tradition of Alan Moore‘s V For Vendetta and Watchmen and Frank Miller‘s Daredevil and Batman material. Trust a good writer to prove that there is still life in the cliche-ridden work of super-heroes.
In Michael Smith, Milligan has created an extremely likable protagonist. Smith’s bewilderment and confusion work as a magnet to the similarly befuddled reader and work to make the story more compelling. As Smith strives to sort out just what is going on, so does the reader. In addition, Milligan’s fine scripting and effortless prose round out the picture.
Milligan is matched in virtuosity by artist Fegredo. Fegredo manages to blend realism with unreality with very loose lines and wonderful detail. While it would be unfair to compare Fegredo to other artists, his work blends the look of such remarkable comics talents as David Mazzucchelli, David McKean, and Bill Sienkiewicz while remaining distinctive and original.
If for no other reason than Enigma, Vertigo has justified its existence. Enigma is, with no exception, the finest super-hero title being published.
(color, $2.50) Grade: B+
Sandman Mystery Theatre
Written by Matt Wagner
Illustrated by Guy Davis
Ever find yourself getting nostalgic for bits of 1930’s creations like The Shadow? If so, you owe it to yourself to check out Vertigo‘s Sandman Mystery Theatre.
And no, don’t confuse this title with Vertigo‘s The Sandman. The title character here is Wesley Dodds, the so called ‘Golden Age’ Sandman: a gas-masked adventurer whose gimmick is a gun that dispenses a sleeping gas bullet.
As the series begins, Dodds has returned to New York to take over his deceased father’s business and to begin his fledgling career as the Sandman. At a formal party, Dodds intrigues and is intrigued by socialite Dian Belmont. Belmont is soon shocked to learn that her friend Catherine Van Der Meer has become a victim of the criminal known as the Tarantula. Belmont insists on accompanying her father, a police detective, to a precinct station where she stumbles across. .. the Sandman.
Of course, this summary fails to adequately convey the creativity and remarkable craft invested in this series. Writer Matt Wagner, best known for Grendel and Mage, has an evident love for the period and material, and it shows. Well-researched, the entire era is depicted, with gangsters, jar music, the club life, and more prominently displayed. In only one issue, Wagner has managed to drop the reader into this period and made it believable. Wagner also uses very natural dialogue or eschews it entirely in scenes. allowing the pictures to set the tone. The characters also seem very well-fleshed and distinctive.
Of course, renderer Guy Davis also deserves a great deal of credit as his drawings depict the naive time period. The buildings, scenery, cars, clothing, hairstyles, etc. are all authentic, which makes the setting genuine. As in Davis’ own Baker Street, the characters are very human-looking (as opposed to the unrealistic and glamorous beings populating most comics). The facial expressions and body language in particular are stunning. It is evident that Davis is having a great time drawing the series.
The only drawback to the art is the flat and ugly coloring by David Hornung. It is unfortunate that Vertigo seems unwilling to let Davis’ art appear in its black and white splendor.
But this is only a minor quibble. As an ode to ‘30s comic book adventures, period-piece and detective story, Sandman Mystery Theatre is a treasure.
(color, $1.95) Grade B+
Afterword: In addition to Sandman Mystery Theatre and Enigma, Vertigo does publish the worthwhile Shade, the Changing Man and Hellblazer (both previously reviewed), but the other Vertigo titles to date are merely the same stale product DC has peddled previously, albeit with mature themes.
Check out more from the SLUG Archives:
Comic Reviews: February 1993
Comic Reviews: January 1993
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