A Sickness in the Family by Denise Mina and Antonio Fuso

Posted by on December 9th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Denise Mina and Antonio Fuso; Vertigo Crime; $19.99, 184 pp.; B&W, Hardcover: ISBN: 9-781401-210816

A sense of place is vital to Denise Mina’s fiction —from her debut novel Garnethill, which wheezed with the dust of sandstone tenements, to her previous comics outing on Hellblazer, where the psychogeography of Scotland was used to typically Gothic ends.  So, it’s appropriate that her latest work for DC (as part of the Vertigo Crime imprint), A Sickness in the Family, is based upon Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the crumbling architecture of her native Glasgow becomes the city’s dark psyche manifest.  Around this scaffold, she assembles a typically grim mystery as a family finds their repressed secrets returning in a series of murders.

The story is classic Mina, albeit lacking her usual humor — the climax of her run on Hellblazer saw John Constantine atop the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, fending off demonic thugs with sweeties and porn — giving this an altogether more earnest tone.  The Usher family are falling apart as Ted and Biddy, the parents, teeter on the brink of divorce; their children unwanted (especially adopted son, Sam) and the onus of caring for elderly grandmother Martha becoming increasingly burdensome.  When Martha falls downstairs, however, into the newly acquired, and apparently haunted, basement floor of the house, the uneasy status quo breaks down completely and one-by-one the family members succumb to grisly and unnatural deaths.

The air of the supernatural strikes the wrong chord, though.  While it does play off the old Gothic trope of the return of the repressed (in terms of society’s treatment of the elderly), it clashes severely with the very real-world setting of the story and the rational motivations and actions of the characters.  The allusions to hauntings and Scotland’s history of witch-burnings seem too false, too forced against a backdrop of marriage counseling and heroin deals.  So much so, that it renders the twist ending as a complete dud.

That is not the book’s downfall, however — Mina still manages to wrangle an effectively complex plot out of the slim page count — rather it is the production that DC have slapped on her script.  It only takes a brief glance at the cover of this (and indeed the other titles in Vertigo Crime) to see that the writer is the star of the show.  Wrested from the world of “proper” fiction, Mina (along with Ian Rankin, Jon Evans and pull-quotes from Nick Pileggi and George Pelecanos) is presumably meant to lend this line some credence and bring in outside interest from the very lucrative crime-fiction market.  However, the courtship of new readers ends there — inside we find slapdash artwork and production corner-cutting that may be acceptable in monthly titles, but in a standalone graphic novel, simply smacks of neglect.

For Mina’s creation of an authentic Glasgow, she demands a lot of her artists — famously, she sent Leonardo Manco hours of video of wandering the city’s streets, so he could reference it and build a recognizable city for Hellblazer to really make the comic sing — here, however, Fuso seems content to draw generic, nondescript buildings; slap signs on famous locations in Impact font; not to mention his inability to keep a character on-model for more than a page at a time.  A few moments in the story rely on us being able to identify faces, but Fuso’s sketchy rendering — in that awkward angular style that plagues the “grim ‘n’ gritty” bunch — makes that practically an impossibility.

The final insult comes in Clem Robins’ decision to letter the entire book in the LeRoy font style of the old EC comics.  Rather than give it any edge of retro-pulp charm, though, it’s just devoid of character.  One could possibly forgive these failings if the book was rushed, but a few of Fuso’s panels are dated ’08.  It’s all-too telling that rather than use these best-selling names to diversify the market, in the way that the main Vertigo line did, they appear to be quick cash-ins on big names, trading on a false trend of retro-pulp (not since the ’50s has slapping the word “crime” on your comics lent them any cache).

In A Sickness in the Family, Poe’s “fissure of the mind” becomes a (literally) bloody great gaping hole in the floor — it’s as much a metaphor for the family’s collapse as it is for the business strategy behind this book — a stately façade with rotten innards.

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