Monday, August 19, 2013

Egypt, Girl, Mercy

Egypt (Peter Milligan, Glyn Dillon & Roberto Corona) - A seven-issue miniseries from the height of Peter Milligan's fertile Vertigo period in the '90s. It's a weird trip through time with Vincent Me, a self-loathing and self-absorbed loser who finds himself thrown into ancient Egypt, albeit an ancient Egypt that seems off in some pretty major ways. It's mind-bending stuff, and Milligan has a lot of fun pushing Vin through some pretty outrageous happenings, slowly transforming him into a better person by forcing him to wallow, quite literally at times, in shit, and to inhabit other roles and other identities, to see, again quite literally, through someone else's eyes.

The tone of the book is irreverent and often humorous, thanks to Vin's sarcastic running commentary, but there are also moments (and images) of startling violence or spiritual power. It's Milligan's look at the power and meaning of religion, about its capacity for misuse and manipulation by those who seek only a way to yoke the faithful, the gullible believers eager to subjugate themselves to a system where only the rich and powerful few have real rights, and everyone else is left to be trampled beneath the feet of gods. In the end, it's not religion or faith or spirituality that redeems Vin, but his own experiences and what he learns from them, his own willingness to change and to confront what's made him such a weak and flawed man.

Glyn Dillon drew the first two issues of the miniseries, and then was replaced by Roberto Corona. The artists have a similar enough style that the transition isn't jarring, but Corona's art is simpler, less detailed, tending to mute the outrageous ideas and intense emotions that Milligan is stirring up here, while Dillon's slightly heavier artwork isn't as prone to blank-faced characters and flat scenery. It's a shame that Dillon didn't draw the whole series, but the slight step down in art once Corona took over doesn't detract too much from the series' energetic oddness and compelling ideas.

Girl (Peter Milligan & Duncan Fegredo) - This three-issue miniseries was published as part of Vertigo's "Vérité" line, a brief experiment dedicated to more "realistic" titles without the supernatural or horror elements of a lot of other Vertigo offerings of the mid-'90s. It feels like a sister title to Grant Morrison's Kill Your Boyfriend, from a year earlier, another book about a lower-middle-class British girl whose boredom and disconnection drive her to let her violent fantasy life burst out into reality. As good as the Morrison book is, Milligan actually delivers an even more bracing, angrier, punkier variation on the theme, as well as a far more grounded examination of the everyday reality of the British working class. Milligan's dialogue perfectly captures a certain brand of slurred, insolent British slum dialect, and his portrait of the dysfunctional home life surrounding fifteen-year-old Simone is as unflinching and utterly realistic as a Mike Leigh film. It's a devastating depiction of a crumbling working class neighborhood where nobody has any hope or prospects, where bored teens ride filthy elevators up and down all day, puncturing condoms with syringes in a sick facsimile of a game, where everyone pours their only money into hopeless lotto tickets, where brutality and rape and ugliness are just part of the scenery.

It's no wonder, in this milieu, that Simone starts to crack, spurred on by her happier, healthier blonde doppelganger Polly. Milligan builds upon the grimy realism of the first issue by gradually letting slip more and more just how much of Simone's reality is a put-on or a fantasy or a skewed vision of what's really going on. It's interesting to compare Girl to Kill Your Boyfriend, because while Morrison, ever enamored of chaos and rebellion, makes his book's anti-heroine consistently charming and fun even as she descends into violence and anarchy, Milligan's vision is far darker and less open to the appeal of this empty rebellion.

The first issue opens with Simone preparing to burn down a warehouse where lottery tickets are stored, before jumping back in time to trace her path to this point. But when the story finally circles around to this point again, Milligan quickly and casually deflates Simone's fiery plans in a darkly humorous splash page, then has her retreat into a different kind of fantasy altogether. The point is that Simone is trapped: damned if she rebels, damned if she becomes just another Bollockstown burnout loser, damned if she just opts out and exists in a series of nested fantasies. The bleak poetry of Milligan's language and the dark beauty of Duncan Fegredo's art combine to make this an unforgettable portrait of working-class despair. The Milligan/Fegredo collaboration resulted in a remarkable body of work at Vertigo, a vital partnership on books like this one, the one-shot Face, Enigma, and assorted short stories.

Mercy (J.M. DeMatteis & Paul Johnson) - An obscure early Vertigo one-shot that probably deserves its obscurity. This is J.M. DeMatteis expressing his New Age spiritual beliefs in a particularly direct way, and unlike his similarly spiritual and really great Dr. Fate run, this comic comes off as vague, insubstantial, and devoid of real characters or plot. It's a study of a man on life support, his spirit floating outside his body and wandering around the world, watching as a beautiful woman who he calls Mercy intervenes in the lives of some unhappy, suffering people. The characters and situations are utterly generic, a fact that isn't helped by DeMatteis' avoidance of dialogue: the entire book is narrated in caption boxes by the free-floating spirit as he wonders why Mercy is helping these people.

Paul Johnson's painted art, similar in style to Dave McKean but somewhat less abstract at times, is absolutely gorgeous, and there are moments when he captures a smiling face bathed in light or a similar image of joy with such conviction that the book's hopeful spiritual theme is communicated in spite of the banality of DeMatteis' writing. These moments are rare, though, and for the most part, no matter how good this comic looks, it can't overcome the trite scenarios (a bitter married couple and an isolated, mourning old woman) that DeMatteis is dealing with. There's no specificity here, no real depth of character. Dr. Fate dealt with similar themes of spirituality, human change, and faith, but it did so (in a superhero context, no less) with real, substantial characters whose stories allowed DeMatteis' messages to arise organically. That's not the case here, as the narration simply hammers home these banal ideas about mercy and the spirit and a general message to be good and do good and be happy and so on.

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