Monday, September 9, 2013

Vertigo Voices

The four one-shots covered below were released in 1995 on the Vertigo Voices sub-imprint, a series of creator-owned one-offs that, by design or coincidence, were unified by a focus on warped psychology. Unlike some of Vertigo's other attempts at spin-off imprints or events, these one-shots were strikingly successful in creative terms, all four of them great examples of these creators at their best.

Face (Peter Milligan & Duncan Fegredo) - This book's depiction of a slow spiral into horror is really difficult to bear, and that's what makes it so great. Peter Milligan would later examine the questions about identity and appearance raised here in his Human Target comics, but whereas those books had more of a hard-boiled noir/detective genre approach, this is intense, unsettling psychological horror. A plastic surgeon moves out to a remote island with his wife to perform elaborate surgery on a reclusive artist, and, as such stories are apt to play out, the isolation reveals fractures in the surgeon's marriage even as the artist (and his clingy manservant) seem to be teetering on the brink of sanity themselves. Milligan's plotting is dense and unpredictable, and the story takes several unexpected twists and turns before its grisly ending, its instability aided by the fact that David, the surgeon, is a supremely unreliable narrator who keeps casually tossing out lies and half-truths to both his wife and the reader, contradicting himself at every turn. Fegredo's art is scratchy and gritty, with a fine grasp of gesture and body language, and when the story requires rapid descents into gore or surrealist hallucination, he's able to leap into the abyss with the best of them. It's a perfect classical horror tale, in the lineage of Eyes Without a Face and other horror movie meditations on identity, aesthetics, marriage, sexuality, and the nature of monsters.

Tainted (Jamie Delano & Al Davison) - Stunning, creepy, and psychologically engrossing, this is prime Delano, a sympathetic but unflinching case study of three people, each fucked-up and damaged in his or her own way. George, a wealthy orphan, rents out part of his big inherited house to Lisa, a nurse, and Steve, a strung-out addict. Alternating between these three characters, with special emphasis on George, Delano creates a potent and disturbing portrait of dysfunction and disconnection. George is a haunted character, cut off from sexuality, superficially a good man but obviously disturbed in some pretty deep ways — it's apparent from early on what the nature of his shameful secret past might be, but its gradual unfurling is nonetheless horrifyingly mesmerizing, leading inexorably towards the revelation that every reader suspects is there all along. George's entanglement with Lisa, a rape victim who sees her fantasy games with this damaged man as a way of re-empowering herself, only complicates the intense emotions and disquieting forebodings that wind through this tale. For his part, Davison is a perfect collaborator, giving these characters and their surroundings a weighty, fleshy realism that is occasionally disrupted in subtle ways by distortions, skewed angles, shapes warped beyond recognition, before snapping back to the hard surety of reality. He depicts slippages into fantasy or nightmare without the usual signifiers, preferring very subtle distortions until the horrifying visual symbolism of the ending. This is a great short story, drawing on familiar archetypes and ideas but presenting them with sensitivity, psychological insight, and a keen grasp of the unspeakable horrors lurking within the human mind.

Kill Your Boyfriend (Grant Morrison & Philip Bond) - This is probably the most famous of the Vertigo Voices one-shots, mainly by virtue of Morrison's name, though it's definitely nowhere near as great as Face or Tainted. Still, it's a good book in its own right, kind of a more grounded adjunct to Morrison's The Invisibles, which was running simultaneously. It's a portrait of a young girl who's bored and alienated in suburbia, and harbors fantasies of violence and sexuality which she finally indulges by running off with a bad boy who leads her on a crime spree. So it's a pretty familiar tale that Morrison is riffing on here, and he doesn't entirely transcend that familiarity, but he does imbue this book with a great deal of biting wit and a serious consideration of some of his usual themes about society and rebellion. He makes this story all about conforming to roles and expectations; the girl acts out because that seems to be the only outlet available to her, because even her most mild deviations from what's considered the norm are looked on with suspicion. Her father calls her a slut, with mingled disgust and excitement, while rifling through her frilly underwear, and those same underwear later lead the police to some negative conclusions about the girl; any girl who might want to explore her sexuality is automatically viewed with distrust. When society tries to suppress and hide all of this stuff, it expresses itself anyway in warped and disturbing ways, in violence and rage, and that thematic focus ties this book to Morrison's less realistic social commentaries in The Invisibles and The Filth. It's also a darkly charming book, thanks in part to Philip Bond's clean-lined, elegant art, so well-suited to rendering these attractive, sexy young people, as well as Morrison's habit of having the girl address the reader directly, justifying her actions in a running commentary that amounts to a shrugging admission that she had nothing better to do.

The Eaters (Peter Milligan & Dean Ormston) - In contrast to Milligan's other Vertigo Voices issue, The Eaters is less straight-up horror, despite its focus on cannibalism, and more a darkly comic satire that might be seen as the American counterpart to Morrison's maiming of British suburban culture in Kill Your Boyfriend. Milligan follows a family of "eaters" — they hate the derogatory term "cannibals" — as they travel around the country in an RV they won in a contest from an apple-pie company, killing people along the way for dinner. It's a scattershot and unrelenting satire, depicting this family as the quintessential all-American Christians, justifying their murderous appetites with questionable interpretations of vague Bible verses, while criticizing the junk-food culture and societal neglect they see all around them on their cross-country tour. They're Christian hypocrites, feeding the poor with stew made from the corpses of over-stuffed junk-food gorgers, convinced that their own lifestyle is the healthiest and the most morally correct. All the symbols of the American middle class are distorted here: religion, family, mom's cooking and apple pie, corrupt politicians, fast-food burgers and charity for the poor and homeless. The family is pursued by a vengeful apple pie salesman, who bathes every night in a bath tub full of sickly yellowish-green apple pie filling, obviously artificial and practically glowing neon, precisely the kind of mass-produced factory-made junk that this family has cut out of their lifestyle.

1 comment:

  1. Face is great, it works on so many levels in ways that it shouldn't (being so topical, and also the "post-modernist" art babble, but Milligan pulls it all off) ... and this here sounds like I'll also have to read Tainted, if I can find it.