Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Only Crime Is the Cover Price.

I was as excited as anyone, if not more so, at Vertigo's announcement of its new crime imprint, Vertigo Crime: a line of original hard-cover graphic novels specifically within the noir/mystery/crime genre. And despite uncharacteristic optimism on my part, right up until the first two books were delivered to my store, I was pretty damn disappointed.

Crime fiction comes a very close second to comical books when it comes to my personal favorite media (rounding out the list are cave paintings and smoke signals). And probably the very best part of the super-hero speculation market bottoming out in the late '90s is that other genres began to thrive. Yes, superheroes still are king, but the spate of quality horror, sci-fi, western, and crime comics over the past ten years is proof that this is not an unchallenged monarchy. Yes, yes, a lot of it is crap; 90% of everything is. But guys like Brian Azzarello and Ed Brubaker have helped to truly blaze the trail of crime comics today (I'm not gonna cram 100 Bullets or Criminal down your throat now, although your throat would certainly thank me later).

At one time, I was a registered Communist. But then I figured out that people really pretty much suck, and that put the kibosh for me on any notion of workers (or anybody) uniting. But Marxist theory still manages to color a lot of my thoughts on art and artists, particularly (and naturally, I'd say) as concerns the business aspect. I really wish I could ignore all this stuff and just accept the creation for what it is, but sometimes what it is truly seems to me to be a cynical jab at a genre I dearly love strictly for the sake of a buck.

This is not to impinge the creative impulses of the writers and artists involved, as much as it may sound otherwise. I like to think of it more as a calling on the carpet of Vertigo and its editors and what I see as a concession to their parent company that they make all too eagerly. What do I, an industry outsider, know of the machinations of Time/Warner's editorial policy? Fuck all. But I'm the one plunking my hard-earned money down to read this stuff, and I am well able to tell you just how worth it I think it is.

Here's what all this babble boils down to: Vertigo are a buncha pussies. I've said as much before, but right now, I don't feel like I can belabor this point. Back when Vertigo was just starting--before it was a specific imprint even, but really just a "Mature Readers" warning on the covers of Swamp Thing, Sandman, Animal Man, et al--they were really taking some risks, hiring these heretofore relatively unknown writers and artists to tell some realistic, oftentimes discomforting stories. Now, they hedged their bets by generally relegating these creators to characters that had no real following, that were B-list at best. It would still be most of a decade before DC or Marvel let guys like Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison near their real money-makers. But in my opinion, this kind of editorial limiting turned out to be a plus because by kinda forcing (and hell, I'm not altogether certain these nutty European dudes weren't queueing up for these also-ran characters) these guys to work with unpopular characters, they had a lot more room to explore, a lot more stories to tell.

But now here we are today, in a much unfriendlier economic environment. I will allow that Vertigo is already an imprint of DC Comics, which is itself a subsidiary of Time/Warner, which is conglomerated with whichever faceless, soulless corporation it's conglomerated with these days. Therefore, I'm well aware that the bottom line is always gonna be profit, and so creativity is often (if not always) going to take a backseat to this motive.

But do they have to be so fucking obvious about it?

The only realm wherein Vertigo is getting any real trouble from Marvel MAX (its direct rival) is in the crime genre. Criminal is an obvious feather in Marvel's cap, and I would argue that Incognito acts in much the same way, even if the story premise is fairly different. Also, the gravy train that Garth Ennis made of The Punisher puts much of Vertigo's output to shame. But that's about it, that's almost the entirety of Marvel's muster on this front. Vertigo, though known for more of the mystical magical Gaiman-esque stuff, has also produced some masterful crime/crime-related comics, 100 Bullets not being the least of them. But there was also the Gary Phillips-penned mini Angeltown, Andy Diggle and Jock's The Losers and Peter Milligan's revamping of Human Target (both woefully cancelled a few years ago), and the fortunately still rather successful Scalped. So clearly, Vertigo is capable of making some good creative decisions.

But I would say upon launching this admittedly ambitious crime imprint that now is the time to take some real risks. Publish some classic noir stuff. And not classic in the sense of the same ol' thing, or anything like that. But classic in the sense that 100 Bullets was a classic almost from its initial pitch: tough guys, bullets, tits, and swear words. How hard could that be?

Well, instead the first two releases were boring rehashes of Vertigo's flagship character and of its top-selling crime title, respectively. Dark Entries, written by Ian Rankin and illustrated by Werther Dell'Edera, is toted to be a classic haunted-house tale (as espoused on the cover by Warren Ellis, if memory serves)(I've already re-sold my copy, so I don't have one to hand). Yeah, that sounds good, I guess. But couldn't I just read one of the million fucking other classic haunted-house tales Vertigo has published in its nearly twenty year history? Do I really gotta cough up twenty bucks for a hard-cover that I finished over lunch?

Oh, but it's a Hellblazer story, you say, with that John Constantine character. And I say, re-read the last paragraph, but substitute the phrase "classic haunted-house tale" with "John Constantine story," and I'll meet you in the next paragraph.

Filthy Rich, Vertigo Crime's second offering (which came out the same week as the first--thanks, Vertigo! I didn't need to buy groceries this week anyways!) was a bit more satisfying, but I still felt a bit cheated. It was written by Brian Azzarello, whose stuff I will probably always read. The guy knows his crime, and he writes cracking dialogue. But the art by Victor Santos...I dunno, I feel like I may be going out on a limb with this, but I'm gonna do it anyways: Santos is a fine artist in his own right, and his style certainly fits well with this genre. But for my money, his similarity to long-time Azzarello collaborator and co-creator of 100 Bullets Eduardo Risso is simply too close for comfort. It could most definitely be argued that the use of negative space, black-and-white, and a lot of pictures of guys lighting cigarettes are simply part of noir-comic art, of which Risso has done tons. So naturally, there's gonna be some areas of comparison. But if you also factor in the notion that since 100 Bullets concluded not too long ago and Vertigo has lost a major money-maker in that book, it's also completely possible that they're trying to recoup that loss by proffering up this substitute, that I would at my most charitable describe as weak.

And the future does not look too bright. The next offering from Vertigo Crime is a book by reputed crime novelist Jason Starr. This may raise some eyebrows amongst my fellow crime cronies, but I really haven't liked anything I've read by Starr so far, so I fear no end to my trepidations with this line of books. The next two books, though, are written by two of my favorites, Peter Milligan and Christos Gage. But at twenty bucks a pop? My comics budget is stretched thin enough. Had I reason to believe that my investment would be worth it, I'd find the money somewhere. But so far, I've been disappointed in this line, even if not with the works of Milligan or Gage. So it seems I'm not immune to the profit-motive either. Thing of it is, I don't have the backing of one of the wealthiest entertainment conglomerates in the world.

And that's my base-line complaint: can't Vertigo afford at least some balls? Yes, I concede that the business of business is business, but with this business, isn't the smart investment quality product as opposed to tired "legacy" characters and in-house rip-offs? Especially from a line that has thus far produced some of the highest quality output of the past two decades, and with the money and marketing to get those books into the hands of folks who'd never cross the threshold of a geeky-ass comic shop, am I asking too much of them?

Believe it or not, dear reader, I'd rather light a candle than curse your darkness.
Fortunately, there are other books out there worth your time and money. Just a couple weeks ago, Dark Horse Comics released the anthology Noir. For a mere $12.95, you get stories by such heavy-hitters as David Lapham, Jeff Lemire, and the team that brings you Criminal, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. That story alone is worth it as introduction to that fine monthly. There's also The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics. I'm not a hundred percent on the availability of this tome at your local shop as it is at least a year old, but I'm sure the magical internets can produce you a copy if you simply ask. I haven't had a chance to dig into this giant myself, but it's on the TBR stack as we speak, and its beautiful Jordi Bernet cover beckons me daily, as do promises of stories by Alan Moore, Will Eisner, and Dashiell Hammett, author of what I consider the finest crime novel ever, Red Harvest. This book has a cover price of $17.95, yet easily outweighs both the twenty-dollar Vertigo Crime books put together.

So be a good Commie, and only buy crime comics with the Jimmy the Worm hammer-and-sickle seal-of-approval. And I'll see you all down at the Hugo Chávez rally this weekend.