Posted by on July 30th, 2010 at 11:36 AM

In the most recent installments in the Vertigo Crime series, there have been signs of improvement, in large measure, I strongly suspect, because they have been bringing in comic writers instead of Real Authors. But while things are looking up, I am far from confident in the long-term viability of this series, either from an aesthetic or from an economic perspective (alright, I know nothing about how these books are selling, but my gut tells me they aren’t exactly flying off the shelves).

The Bronx Kill by Peter Milligan (Human Target, Greek Street) with art by James Romberger is a relative breath of fresh air (despite taking place largely in a city dump) because it involves precisely no instances of the supernatural and works very much within the hardboiled crime genre to which the series was supposed to be devoted. In the end, Bronx Kill is not entirely satisfying as a crime story, however, for some of the same reasons Milligan’s Green Street did not really work either. Like Greek Street the whole thing gets overly operatic and oedipal and convoluted, but unlike Greek Street it is not blessed with an artist who can bring much-needed clarity to the events and motivations taking place. Romberger’s art is energetic, chaotic, at times willfully rough. I liked it, but I needed something different both to connect to and to be able to follow this story. Still: crime, betrayal, a twist ending (which works even if you see it coming, and you will). This is what we need more of in this series.

Despite some mystical new agey elements (third eyes, visions of the future, superpowers brought about by screwdrivers to the pineal gland), Area 10 was actually the first book in the series that really worked for me, at least on the level of the script. Again, here we have an experienced comics writer at the helm in Christos Gage, but also one with experience in film and tv. Area 10 definitely has the feel of a gritty B-movie (and I mean that as a complement), complete with a pretty awesome and over the top oh-no-he-isn’t-gonna twist toward the end. Despite the mystical elements and the unaccountable scifi title, Area 10 is a hardcore serial killer crime story, complete with a detective who might or might not himself be the killer he is hunting for. Actually, we know he’s not, but there are certainly enough doubts cast as to his sanity to make us question his judgment. And unlike pretty much any other protagonist in the Vertigo Crime series so far, I actually cared about him.

The book was not helped much, it must be confessed, by some very stiff and occasionally careless work by Chris Samnee (whose superhero work I quite like). There are a couple of moments where some pretty basic continuity errors interrupt the flow of the narrative, as when, on pages 31-32 our hero goes from holding a disturbing painting to clutching his head with both hands and no painting in sigh to storming out of the door with the painting safe under his arm in the course of 4 panels. But more importantly, somehow everything here feels photoshopped and staged, making the necessarily stiff repartee of the formula feel more awkward and formulaic than it otherwise should.

But it worked. It was both true to the genre and surprising, pushing the boundaries of the crime formula without breaking them. If that is too much to ask for from everything published in this series, then frankly the whole thing should be scuttled right now. The most recent addition to the series also succeeds in ways similar to Area 10, although it also is hampered by art that does not quite serve the story being told. And The Executor is the first in the series where a non-comics writer—in this case, Canadian crime novelist Jon Evans—pulls off a seriously good script. In fact, this is the most successful story produced in the series thus far, despite the cliched protagonist being a washed-up hockey player (can’t Canadians ever think up any other vision of human tragedy than having one’s hockey career end in a freak injury?).

The Executor tells the story of the aforementioned washed-up hockey player coming to his hometown of Elora to serve as executor for his highschool girlfriend, a woman he had not seen in many years whose estate hardly seems worth the effort of administering it. In fulfilling his duties, he also begins to investigate how his ex-girlfriend’s life had changed over the years and how she met her brutal end—and his responsibilities and questions (and some well-placed clues left for him by the deceased) lead him to cross seemingly inviolable borders, beginning with that which separates Elora’s white community from the Native American reservation nearby. It also leads him into a confrontation with his own demons from his past, demons which ultimately cannot be exorcised or atoned for. The Executor succeeds because it is a well-written and taut mystery that manages to engage far more deeply than one might expect with legacies of race and violence (and repression).

Where the book did not quite work for me was in the contribution of Italian artist Andrea Mutti. If Samnee’s work in Area 10 felt photo-referenced to the point of iciness, Mutti’s work here felt airbrushed to the point where any of the edge of the black and white art was subsumed by a kind of lacy, hazy, vaseline-smeared lens that pushed the whole thing visually much closer to a movie-of-the-week feel than the hard, edgy and quite genuinely surprising script called for. There were far too many Star Wars moments with ghosts gazing down on our protagonists, beaming forgivingly. I don’t think forgiveness is really an issue here, or an option, and I felt visually that the soft-focus of the art took away from the larger demand for clarity and honesty that drove the story at its core.

But still… things are looking up. While we don’t yet have a masterpiece in the series, a book where all the ingredients come together (writer, artist, generic formula and originality) in the perfect balance, there is a sense that things are moving in the right direction. More care and attention in partnering writer with artist, a reassertion of editorial commitment to the crime genre itself, and a whole lot of good luck, and there is every reason to believe that masterpiece is coming very soon.

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