Vertigo's new crime line is arrestingly good

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

Aug. 11, 2009 -- I was working the night shift when two gorgeous lookers appeared at my desk. They looked like trouble, but as Sam Spade said, “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”

These tomatoes weren’t dames; they were the first two graphic novels in DC’s new Vertigo Crime line. Filthy Rich and Dark Entries ($19.99 each) are roughly digest-sized, B&W hardbacks due Aug. 19 (in comics shops) and Aug. 25 (bookstores). And DC has launched this adult line with the enthusiasm of a leg-breaker shaking down a blind newsie.

Filthy Rich is the story of a washed-up athlete who likes to drink, gamble and play stud to rich, bored housewives, but isn’t very good at his real job: car salesman. But the wealthy car-lot owner likes the marquee value of his name, and gives him another job he might be better at: Bodyguarding the boss’s sexy, hard-partying daughter, and keeping her name out of the newspapers.

What could possibly go wrong?

Heh. This being the noirest of noir fiction, almost nothing goes right. There’s sex, drugs and videotape. Also booze, violence, betrayals, double-crosses and just about everything else one associates with hard-boiled, brass knuckles crime fiction. The circuitous plot will leave you wondering if any of this cast of losers can grab the brass ring until the last page – and in the meantime, there are lots of R-rated goings-on as distractions. Or are they plot elements?

Filthy Rich benefits from having writer Brian Azzarello at the helm, who honed his noir chops on the award-winning Vertigo comic-book series 100 Bullets, which recently hit its 100th – and final – issue. In fact, the last 12 issues were recently collected in trade paperback, 100 Bullets Vol. 13: Wilt. The whole series comes highly recommended, but be prepared to read this tricky story of shifting alliances, double-crosses and ruthless scheming more than once.

In Filthy Rich, Azzarello is ably abetted by artist Victor Santos, thrice voted Spain’s best comics artist. He depicts the mean streets of Jersey – and its meaner inhabitants – just the way we expect them: Dark, edgy and brutal.

While Filthy Rich features entirely original characters, Dark Entries leads with Vertigo’s flagship character, John Constantine. I’ve never forgotten how one character described the English working-class trickster, who is a far more interesting than the Keanu Reeves movie would suggest: “I’ve never known if Constantine is a dangerous magician masquerading as a thug, or a thug masquerading as a dangerous magician.” He’s both, of course, which is why this irreverant, blue collar, chain-smoking smart aleck is always underestimated by his opponents – until he pulls the rug out from under them.

In Dark Entries, Constantine is roped into a reality-TV show akin to CBS’s Big Brother to de-spook a haunted set. This being a Constantine story, though, I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that there’s more to this than meets the eye, and even the producers have ulterior motives. He joins the cast, a seemingly random group of contestants – all of whom have bitter, dangerous secrets of their own.

What ensues is complicated mayhem in the guilty-fun Hellblazer manner. Note when the pages and gutters between panels go from white to black; it’s a clever visual cue that reality TV can be more of a horror than you’ve ever imagined.

Speaking of visuals, Dark Entries is illustrated by Werner Dell’Edera, familiar to fans of Vertigo’s Loveless and Marvel’s Punisher War Journal and X-Force. Perhaps because I am familiar with his work, I prefer it to that of Santos – I can distinguish between individual characters more readily. With casts these large, that’s an important skill.

Given the presence of Constantine, Dark Entries is technically a horror book. But the festivities are orchestrated by crime novelist Ian Rankin, author of the “Inspector Rebus” series, who overlays the genre he’s mastered with Constantine’s hellish world – and it turns out they’re not so dissimilar as one would think. In “horror noir,” a term I just made up, the bad guys simply play for higher stakes.

With these two disparate entries, Vertigo Crime promises to be a bit more than its series title suggests. DC says future volumes will offer “everything crime and mystery fans crave: the police procedural, the murder mystery, the sci-fi thriller and straight-up hard-boiled, classic noir.”

That sounds jake to this typewriter jockey. It’s not necessarily “the stuff that dreams are made of,” but it might spawn a nightmare or two.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 54

Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on August 13, 2009 at 2:23pm
These sound great, Cap! I'm really looking forward to them.

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