At the 2008 San Diego Comicon, DC announced the formation of a "subimprint" of Vertigo called Vertigo Crime, which would, in the words of Senior Editor Karen Berger, specialize in "smart, edgy, sexy, crime noir fiction in graphic novel form." The first two Vertigo Crime books will reach stores in late August 2009, but I've got early promotional copies, and...
Dark Entries by Ian Rankin and Werther Dell'Edera. DC/Vertigo, 2009. $19.99.
Dark Entries is written by Rankin and drawn by Dell'Edera. I was unfamiliar with Dell'Edera's art--the jacket copy notes that he's "illustrated a number of American comics, most notably Vertigo's Loveless"--but I do know Rankin's writing. I've read and enjoyed a couple of his Inspector Rebus novels, mysteries with sprawling, Dickensian casts set in Edinburgh. Obviously, DC is hoping that Dark Entries will have crossover appeal with fans of Rankin's prose, since Entries' cover features Rankin's name in gigantic type, and in the same font and design as the covers of the British editions of his books:
It's easy to trace other similarities between Rankin's novels and Entries, particularly Rankin's use of rock and roll as the soundtrack for his fictional world. Resurrection Men (2003), for instance, is peppered with references to the Stooges, Led Zeppelin, Wishbone Ash, REM, and many other bands. Here's a sample bit of dialogue:
"Career opportunist," Jazz said, nodding his understanding. He went to the sink and ran his hands under the cold tap. "What was that Clash song again...?"
"That's the one. I always felt I wasn't supposed to like The Clash: too old, not political enough."
"I know what you mean."
"A good band's a good band, though." (Chapter 15)
The title Dark Entries is borrowed from an early Bauhaus single, and a character in the graphic novel brags that he can assemble "a pretty mean '80s mix-tape--Cure, Smiths, Cocteaus." The list of bands continues in "voice-over," providing a commentary on the suffering of other characters in the story (click on images to enlarge):
The man with the mad mix-tape skillz is none other than Hellblazer's John Constantine, here to provide long-time Vertigo readers with a bridge to the Crime line. The narrative begins as Constantine meets Matthew Keene, the producer of Dark Entries, a reality TV show that combines the premise of Big Brother--let's isolate sexy but emotionally dysfunctional young adults from the outside world and see what happens!--with the aesthetics of a haunted house. As Keene says, the house "has been designed with one thing in mind. Fear." The show spirals out of control, however, when the Dark Entries participants are tormented by real ghosts and horrors in addition to the ones manufactured by the show, and Keene hires Constantine to masquerade as a contestant and investigate these real-life visions.
This story would've been perfect for a couple of issues of the monthly Hellblazer book, but Dark Entries isn't worth the $19.95 hardcover treatment. My sense is that Dell'Edera is still searching for his own art style, and he's still unduly influenced by Frank Miller. One character, Stephanie, wears a bandana, and Dell'Edera draws her like a freckled Elektra:
The above scene takes place during a blackout: hence the spot blacks. When the lights come back on, though, Dell'Edera continues to ink very heavily, and his art settles into a combination of Miller's chiaroscuro and John Buscema's low-key, gestural naturalism. These influences are straight from American mainstream comics, though, and I was naively hoping that Vertigo Crime might find new ways to represent the noir aesthetic. That's been my problem with Vertigo for a long time: comics like Preacher, Sandman and Y the Last Man never struck me as sufficiently different from mainstream comics in their visuals (and, usually, in their stories) to deserve the label of a separate, "alternative" imprint.
The Amityville-Horror-as-reality-show conceit of Dark Entries allows Rankin to take some satirical (if predictable) shots at TV culture, and Rankin deftly escalates the situation into a 21st-century version of Sartre's No Exit (1944), actually quoting "Hell is other people" at one point. But about halfway through the graphic novel, the plot takes a twist so hoary and so lame that it would make Rod Serling blush with embarrassment. (If you don't plan on reading the book, and if you're curious about the twist, go here, where, appropriately enough, a beloved TV character will spill the proverbial beans.) Dark Entries never regains its footing after this seismic pratfall.
Filthy Rich by Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos. DC/Vertigo, 2009. $19.99.
I liked Filthy Rich, the other book launching the Vertigo Crime line, better than Dark Entries. Filthy Rich is a straight-up crime novel rather than an occult thriller--Rich's characters hang out in urban locales like used car lots and run-down bars rather than haunted houses--and I like my crime fiction lean and Stark (capital letter intended), without magical mumbo-jumbo. Also, Victor Santos, Filthy Rich's artist, has a goofy, exaggerated style that's more fun to look at than Dell'Edera's naturalism...which is not to say that Santos is more original than Dell'Edera. In fact, Santos is even more of a Miller acolyte. Note, for instance, how Santos goes nuts with the Venetian blind shadows, a la Miller's Daredevil and Sin City:
And like Miller, Santos will often imply a shape, rather than use a contour line to define boundaries, as with the shoulder of the woman in the panel below:
Looking beyond these Miller flourishes, I do like aspects of Santos' own style. He draws heads that are too big for their bodies, and he seems driven to fill in pages with a dense thicket of details: a black eye consists of dozens of little lines ringing the eye socket, the lead character has a cartoony chin than juts out like Bruce Campbell on steroids, and Zip-a-Tone effects thicken every page. Dell'Edera's art is a cross between Miller and John Buscema, but Santos mixes Miller with, of all people, Joe Staton, and the result is entertaining in a "What the Hell?" kind of way.
Filthy Rich is scripted by Brian Azzarello, who as much as anyone is responsible for the Vertigo Crime line: the success of Azzarello's recently completed series 100 Bullets (with art by Eduardo Risso) persuaded DC that crime comics can sell. (Yesterday, DC released The 100 Bullets #1 Vertigo Crime Sampler, featuring a reprint of 100 Bullets #1 and sample pages from Dark Entries and Filthy Rich, at the "first-taste-is-almost-free" price of one dollar.) The protagonist of Azzarello's story is Richard Junkin, a has-been football player nicknamed "Junk," but undoubtedly the book's title refers to Rick too, because he's a nasty piece of work. One of the most common characters in noir is the weak-willed man who gives into fatal temptation--think of Walter Neff abandoning caution when he see Phyllis Dietrichson's ankle bracelet in Double Indemnity (1944)--and Junk's downfall begins when he takes a job as a bodyguard for Victoria Soeffer, a femme fatale and "heiress to the largest automobile dealership on the Eastern seaboard" (38). Crosses, double-crosses, unspeakable violence and wild sex ensue, all of which I found dirty fun, but, frankly, not as cool as such recent crime comics as Darwyn Cooke's Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter or the Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips Criminal collections.
Both Dark Entries and Filthy Rich are competent, but so were several of DC's Minx graphic novels, and maybe competence isn't enough in an increasingly competitive graphic novel market. I'll definitely pick up one or two of the future Vertigo Crime books--especially Jason Starr's The Chill--but I have a feeling that this imprint might be in the morgue before too long.