Saturday, 27 June 2009

Challenging, engrossing, surprising, deep - Vertigo comics. But are they any good?

The publisher Vertigo has brought comics some great adult fiction, including the noir crime thriller 100 Bullets, an apocalyptic drama about the last man left when all the other males die on earth (Y: The Last Man), the topical political thriller DMZ, the wonderful Fables universe, and of course, Alan Moore’s work including the freakish Swamp Thing, which explores humanity’s relationship with the earth, and comes to some strange conclusions about what makes a human.

Here’s a few I’ve looked at in the past few months.

The Sandman (1989-1996) – This is must-read fiction, fascinating and strange. I have only read the first two volumes so far, so expect me to post more on the series another time, but how can I sum it up? Basically it is a tragic epic which explores how Morpheus, the lord of dreams (pictured), is imprisoned for 70 years, and then has to regain his power to rule the land of the Dreaming and all its errant dream-creatures, and all its effects on the human world (the Waking). So there are heavy elements of horror, especially in the chapters I have read, and fantasy, too, as Morpheus, still weak from his ordeal, relies on his wits to face a demon in hell, making an enemy of Lucifer in the process. I love the way Morpheus’ quest interacts with the life of a fairly normal teenager, Rose Walker, in volume 2, and the oddball characters thrown together into the story are really engrossing to read about, especially when we know there is a bigger picture than many of them do. An exceptional, and highly literate, comic series from author Neil Gaiman.

Crossing Midnight volume 1: Cut Here (2007) – This short book by Mike Carey introduces us to Japanese siblings Kai and Toshi, and to problems far bigger than they can deal with alone, as they try to protect their family from a cold-blooded spirit who the family owes a formidable debt to. The art is impressive at times in its summery, watercolour-like inks, but other times a little too plain. But what’s most interesting is the way the story blends surprising and unusual Japanese supernatural archetypes with the idea of the all-important struggle to protect the family unit – a theme which really matters to children the age of our two young protagonists. We begin to feel for them as their separate personal quests seem to spiral out of control. One or two breath-taking moments and surreal twists stand out, however it starts to feel a little jumbled towards the abrupt ending, and I almost feel that, with a one or two less explicit images (there’s not many anyway), it could have been better aimed at a younger crowd, as a more serious book to read compared to another “Goblins vs Bat above a high school with the world in the balance” kind of comic book!

The Other Side (2006-07) – Now I don’t usually like war movies that much, finding them too relentless and disturbing. But this self-contained comic miniseries is the best kind of war fiction, and works really well, showing us at every level the differences in the two armies in the Vietnam war, how they were recruited, how they coped mentally, whether they were disillusioned with their command or not (in both cases, the answer is yes, to different extents), and what their values and attitudes to war and human life were. The latter point is quite scary – especially in the way the US army encourages its members to dehumanise their enemies, to live with their weapon, and not seek anything higher than killing the opposition.

The writer, Jason Aaron, is one of comic’s new talents, and he really cares about the subject, and I think he shows well how both sides are brainwashed in different ways. He has clearly researched well, and the feverish illustrations by Cameron Stewart clearly show the horror in Private Everette’s face, the gory zombies he imagines coming after him, or the determination and comradeship on the side of the People’s Army of Vietnam, as they head to meet the besieged US troops. It’s interesting to see the mixture of noble ambition and bizarre superstition on the side of the Vietnamese, compared to the moral collapse and bitterness depicted amongst the cynical US troops. What a way to treat a generation of young men.

The Invisibles, volume 1: Say you want a revolution? (1994-95) – Another series by off-beat comics writer Grant Morrison, it seems to be all about defying authority; subject matter that is ripe for teens and 20-somethings, one might cynically think! It actually starts with a teenager from Liverpool, who is considered “invisible” or worthless by his mother and his society partly because he and his two friends are full of anger and vulgarity, deciding to burn down a school just for the thrilling feeling of freedom (I think). So far, so A Clockwork Orange. Before long though young Dane is recruited by an anarchist group under “King Mob” who seem to fight supernatural powers and groups that try to control the world’s population. This is where it gets strange. He is then tutored by another “invisible”, a crazy homeless old man, who seems to make no sense at first but gradually helps Dane see past the current reality using what I think is a drug, and other “techniques”, so that he sees the magic in the world, and is more open to the experiences available to him. And I didn’t understand the part about John Lennon.

The second story arc concerns an Invisibles mission back in time to the French Revolution, which gets really unpleasant in places, but I quite liked the discussion between Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley showing their longing to reach for (or work towards) a better world. What do we make of all this? Well, I guess this rambling and bizarre collection is not one I really would recommend overall, although similarities to The Matrix and conspiracy culture means it does capture the spirit of some people’s anger and how they seek freedom from restriction. Also, bear in mind, Wikipedia says Morrison claims to have had a magical experience writing the comic, and based it on what some aliens told him when he was abducted. No wonder it makes little sense!

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