Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Graphic Lit: A Vertigo round-up

The past year saw the debut of several new titles from DC’s Vertigo imprint. In fact, most of them have already had their initial issues collected in handy trade paperbacks. Will any of these series grab hold of the comics-reading public the way “Sandman” and “Preacher” did? Let’s take a look.

“DMZ: On the Ground”
by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli
128 pages, $9.99.

Wood indulges in his love for both New York City and politics in this new series, which imagines the U.S. torn apart by civil war, with the Big Apple operating as ground zero.

Into this war-torn city comes Matty Roth, an aspiring photojournalist who quickly ends up behind enemy lines lost and alone. Making wine out of sour grapes, however, he settles in and begins reporting on the devastation and conflict he sees.

The series starts awkwardly, with lots of ham-fistedness and cliched characters, but once Roth digs in his heels things improve considerably. If the “DMZ” matures, and there’s no reason to suggest it won’t, this could be Vertigo’s strongest and most interesting series in quite awhile.

“Loveless: A Kin of Homecoming”
by Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin
128 pages, $9.99.

Having had great success with the crime genre in “100 Bullets,” Azzarello tries his hand at Westerns with this ongoing series, about a former Confederate soldier who returns to his home town, finding very little in the way of a warm welcome.

Azzarello’s ability to create strong, iconic characters seems to have deserted him here. Even worse, the constant use of flashback to explain the back story is awkward and confusing. As nice as it is to see DC try to bring back the Western, I don’t think they’re going to succeed with this outing.

“Testament: Akedah”
by Douglas Rushkoff and Liam Sharp
118 pages, $9.99.

In “Testament,” futurist pundit Rushkoff explores our relationship with the Bible, suggesting there are more parallels between the ancient world and our own than we might think. Here, for example, an Abraham-type character must decide between sacrificing his son to the Big Brother-styled military or rebelling against his employers. Meanwhile, a trio of supreme beings look on and attempt to influence the proceedings.

Unfortunately, Rushkoff seems more interested in pushing his metaphors (some of which seem awfully forced) than in creating interesting characters or covering up plot holes. Sharp’s art is nice and I like the way he shows the gods’ influence by having them “guide” characters around the edges of the panels, but that’s about all I have to recommend.

“The Exterminators: Bug Brothers”
by Simon Oliver and Tony Moore
128 pages, $9.99.

It’s the Orkin man versus mutated cockroaches in this horror-tinged thriller, as a group of eccentric exterminators, find themselves up against some dangerous bugs, and bump up against some rather repellent people as well.

This is the sort of thing filmmaker David Cronenberg used to do, only much better. Not that “The Exterminators” is awful; it’s just more gross than scary and takes far too long to develop its plot. This first volume is all set up, with little payoff beyond getting to see an army of roaches tear apart the occasional deserving victim. For some, that last sentence might be enough of a recommendation.

“American Virgin: Head”
by Steven T. Seagle, Becky Cloonan and Jim Rugg
112 pages, $9.99.

Boasting one of the more interesting premises of the year, “Virgin” follows the exploits of youth minister and chastity advocate Adam Chamberlain. When his beloved betrothed, a Peace Corps volunteer, is killed by terrorists in Africa, Chamberlain heads to Mozambique to retrieve her body and in the process begins to doubt his cherished beliefs about god and sex.

Obviously Seagle’s goal is to explore the contradictions found in fundamentalist religious dogma, suggesting not too subtly that what one holds to be the undeniable truth is actually dependent upon his or her own permeable cultural values.

The problem is the book veers too wildly between parody and drama to sustain that sort of meaningful analysis. There are too many moments that ring false, as when Chamberlain chastises African boys for being naked.

Cloonan’s artwork is really lovely though, and probably the best thing going for the series so far. Perhaps if Seagle can find a consistent tone, the writing will equal the art.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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