Posted by on July 26th, 2010 at 9:22 AM

I have been in love with crime comics since before I was born: the first time I saw an issue of Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay as a child, I knew I had to find a way to travel back in time to those glorious pre-code days so I could read more. Ultimately, my attempts to build a time machine were thwarted by failing out of first year physics, and for many years I resigned myself to just tracking down all the precode crime I could. But beginning with the code-obliterating efforts of Frank Miller, the 1990s saw a resurgence of crime comics. For me, the best of them remains David Lapham’s amazingly twisted Stray Bullets, whose demise I am still mourning many years later, but remarkable crime series have continued to emerge over the past decade—most notably, of course, Azarello and Risso’s 100 Bullets and Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal (Rick Geary’s unique historical crime books also deserve mention, although in truth they constitute a genre unto themselves).

Given the tradition and the recent accomplishments in crime comics, there was every reason to be excited when Vertigo announced that it would be launching a new hardcover imprint, Vertigo Crime.  As Karen Berger described the series, it would be “smart, edge, sexy, crime noir fiction in graphic novel form.” What’s not to like? Several titles in, however, the series has yet to deliver on its promise, offering consistently derivative and contrived (and overpriced) titles, books that for the most part succeed neither as good crime stories or good comics. I don’t want to paint them all with a broad brush, but it is hard even to keep them straight, so lackluster has the output been in the first ten or so books in the series. Still, some are a bit better than others, and it is worth highlighting the promising highlights in the hopes that Berger and her team might begin to bring to the project some more editorial energy (they certainly have put lots of energy into the logrolling effort) in an effort to save the series from itself.

There was every reason to be psyched about Flithy Rich by Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos, one of the first entries in the series in 2009. And there were some high points to the book, most especially Santos, a Spanish artist not seen nearly often enough in U.S. comics. Azzarello, however, seemed to be phoning this one in, clutching a sheaf of well-worn cliches from every hardboiled crime novel he had ever read. It was uninspired formula stuff, too talky by half, with a punchline you saw coming before you even opened the book. Still, the best moments in the book—when Azzarello shut up and let Santos do the talking—were well worth the price of admission. And I remained convinced that good things lay ahead for the series.

The next book in the series released in 2009 was Dark Entries, and from the start I was worried about this one. The notion that a good hardboiled crime book could come out of a John Constantine story was not itself far-fetched, but the notion that first-time comics writer Ian Rankin was the one to do it certainly did. Nothing against Rankin: his Inspector Rebus novels are often terrific, and his crime novels (unlike so many Brits) have a hardboiled street edge to them. But I am growing weary in recent years of the notion that folks without any experience writing comics can jump in and write an effective script. They usually can’t, and this one is yet another case in my weary argument with editors like Berger (an argument, it should go without saying, that plays out entirely in my head).

Sure, I understand that part of the fantasy here is to pick up a new audience of mystery readers who would never think of buying a comic, and this is why Rankin’s name has to be a gazillion times bigger than artist Werther Dell’edera. But that is another pet peeve I have with this series. So far, at least, the art has had a lot more to recommend it than the writing, and in the case of Dell’edera (like Santos) there is a real pleasure in getting to see an artist, in this case Italian, too seldom seen in U.S. comics (and most recently seen in the Ajax storyarc in Greek Street).

Dark Entries starts off as on an updated premise for a haunted house mystery, set in a reality show, but it quickly devolves into the silliest supernatural spectacle in which the contestants turn out to be participating in a reality show for the infinite audience of the denizens of Hell. Whatever one might think of such a twist (and really, it is only slightly less predictable than the one in Filthy Rich) this ain’t the stuff of crime fiction by any stretch of the imagination. As a foundation for the series, it was getting harder to believe that anything good would come of all this—or that Vertigo really had any vision for the series at all.

The third entry in the series convinced me that my worst fears were indeed true. If there was a vision, it was this: find a big name author with no comics experience (this time Jason Starr), put his name in neon, team him up with a European artist (this time Mick Bertilorenzi) not well known to American readers (in this case, not known at all) and then … well, that’s about it, actually. Except that Dark Entries opened up the door for completely ignoring the conventions of crime comics and focusing on the supernatural instead, and that’s what we get with The Chill– the story about an Irish lass with the remarkable ability to send any young man who gets into her knickers to an untimely grave (with the help of her dear old pappy).

Unlike the previous volumes, this one does not even have especially compelling art going for it (it all has Spider-man Loves Mary Jane vibe to it that works well for, well, Spider-man Loves Mary Jane but not so well for noir). And the writing? Even if we get past the absurd plot (oh, those Irish lassies with their vindictive genitalia and their scary fathers), on the local level things only get worse. Here’s an example, but I could pull almost any page.

Yes, by the third installment I was nostalgic for Flithy Rich, which at least was true—tiresomely true—to the genre and written by someone who knows how to write for comics. I can’t help it: I’m starting to take this personally. There is just no way this series could be so bloody bad unless Vertigo was deliberately trying to destroy crime comics once and for all. But presumably they had sunk a fair amount of money in this (although they were making their pennies back in vastly overpriced hardcover volumes poorly printed on poor paper), so there had to be a plan, a vision. The reviews were consistently decent for these volumes, suggesting that something was in the koolaid that wasn’t making its way down the bar to me. Something was rotten, and it was clearly up to me to ferret out the truth of what can only be called a crime against crime comics.

[NEXT: Part 2, in which things get a wee bit better, sort of]

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2 Responses to “VERTIGO CRIME(S) – Part 1”

  1. Dorian Peace says:

    Regarding your criticism of FILTHY RICH: It surprises me when genre fiction is faulted for being derivative. What would you expect?

    You’re condemning Azzarello for sticking too close to genre conventions and also condemning the other two entries for veering too far off-field. Which way do you want it?

  2. Jared Gardner says:

    Ah, but that is the point, no? Good genre fiction must hew close to the line but surprise us by the subtlest of changes, by making what is by definition conventional seem somehow new, surprising. Adding demons and ancient curses ain’t playing with the proper deck. Adding nothing is just, well, adding nothing.