Reviews: Vertigo graphic novels round-up

We take a look at some of the collections available from DC Comics’ mature readers imprint

Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book One (Titan Books, �18.99)

Writer Alan Moore, artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben

POACHED from the UK by comics giant DC, Brit creator Alan Moore cut his teeth on what was initially a poorly-selling horror comic about a man transformed into a walking plant. After wrapping up ongoing plots in his debut issue, Moore threw everything previously established about Alec (Swamp Thing) Holland out of the window, and began to weave his own remarkable interpretation of the character, which reshaped him as a plant elemental infused with Holland’s consciousness, but never actually having been human…

It was a bold move, but it paid off admirably, allowing Moore to expand his ideas to incorporate dark denizens of the DC Universe like the Demon and the Phantom Stranger, penning truly chilling horror stories with an uncomfortable grounding in contemporary society, and also asking questions about the nature of existence and love. By the time he finished his run four years later, comics would never be the same again.

This initial volume plants the seeds of Moore’s ongoing storyline, which he begins to nurture and support while shifting the emphasis of the series away from its monster-of-the-week roots into an exploration of the true nature of American horror.

A fascinating, engrossing, innovative read, and one of the finest comics runs of modern times.

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Hellblazer: Roots of Coincidence (Titan �9.99)

Writer Andy Diggle, artist Leonardo Manco

SINCE his creation as a supporting character for the Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing in the early 1980s, urban occultist John Constantine has gone on to become one of the mainstays of the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics, with his title now the longest-running book in the line. But in developing and rounding out someone who was initially conceived as a bit player, subsequent writers have robbed John of some of the manipulative edge which made him a stand-out in the first place. Having returned Constantine to the top of his game at the start of his highly acclaimed run, Diggle now wraps up his storyline by revealing the source of his restored abilities, while also exposing the shady secrets of the savage magician Mako… Some of the best Hellblazer material for years, this collection draws on the character’s dark history as a patient in the mental hospital Ravenscar, and uses it to propel him in a fascinating new direction. Highly recommended.

House of Mystery: Room and Boredom (Titan �8.99)

Writers Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham, artist Luca Rossi et al

THERE is a house which can be reached from any number of worlds, a way-station for weary travellers where the only currency accepted is that of a tale well told. But why do some of its visitors find they are unable to leave, who plucked the house from its original plot in the realm of dreams, and what dangerous forces are intent on uncovering the truth behind its many twisted mysteries? An impressive debut volume from the acclaimed writing team behind Fables, the intriguing developments in the main plot are complemented by some nice one-off tales illustrated by a host of artists, ensuring some nice changes of pace and tone which add to the overall atmosphere of the book.

Dark Entries (Titan �14.99)

Writer Ian Rankin, artist Werther Dell’Edera

THE first in a new line of crime comics actually isn’t one itself, being more of a supernatural mystery and platform for long-running urban occultist John Constantine than anything resembling crime fiction. That said, this is still a first-rate comics debut for Rebus creator Rankin, who admirably captures the morally-dubious nature of Constantine’s character and propels him into a hitherto unexplored realm of nightmare and horror – the reality TV show. Signing up to a fear-tinged Big Brother wannabe after the producers invite him to investigate the unplanned nightmares experienced by the housemates, Constantine realises the chilling truth behind the series is far worse than even he could have predicted… A sharply-sketched satire on the reality television concept, given a dark Constantine spin, this might not be the best story to launch a series of crime fiction, but it is an excellent graphic novel in its own right.

Preacher: The Deluxe Edition Vol 1 (Titan �29.99)

Writer Garth Ennis, artist Steve Dillon

ONE of the defining mature readers comics of the 1990s is re-collected in a luxury deluxe edition. For those who have yet to sample Ennis and Dillon’s bloody epic, it focuses on the wayward preacher Jesse Custer, his gun-toting girlfriend Tulip, and the shifty Irish vampire Cassidy, who are charged with tracking down a deity missing from his kingdom. Of course, this simple premise is actually far from the whole story, which takes into account Jesse’s deviant backwoods cousins, a global religious conspiracy, the ruthless Saint of Killers, and much, much more. Not a book for anyone with a weak stomach, the carnage is Tarantinoesque in its brutality, and yet it also offers well-rounded characterisation, sharply-penned dialogue, and a lot of black humour. Highly recommended.

100 Bullets: Wilt (Titan �14.99)

Writer Brian Azzarello, artist Eduardo Risso

THE 13th and final volume in the long-running crime drama brings a resolute conclusion to the award-winning comics series which began with an attach� case containing a gun, 100 untraceable bullets, and irrefutable evidence as to how a particular person destroyed the recipient’s life. From there it spiralled into a multi-layered conspiracy involving an untouchable cartel of criminal families, a tale of bitter vengeance for the taskforce charged with policing this organisation, and unexpected personal journeys of affirmation and revelation for the characters caught up in the whole bloody mess.

Spanning 100 individual issues, all written and illustrated by the same creative team, it is a defining instalment in comic book history – an elaborately constructed, remarkably portrayed insight into a devastatingly realistic criminal world, with a pay-off which doesn’t fail to disappoint. Probably one of the greatest crime sagas of its generation – read it now as a complete whole, and find out why.

Shade, The Changing Man Vol 1: American Scream (Titan Books

Written by Peter Milligan, illustrated by Chris Bachelo and Mark Pennington

TORN from his home in the Meta dimension in order to bring Earth’s bubbling insanity under control, Rac Shade possesses the body of serial killer Troy Grenzer at the point of execution, the same man responsible for murdering the parents of Kathy George. This unlikely double act embark on an outlandish road trip across the USA in search of the embodiment of the American Scream, a spreading madness which infects every aspect of national culture, from the assassination of JFK through to Hollywood movies, while at the same time coming to terms with their own personal demons.

A journey which blurs the surreal and abstract with harsh reality, fusing satire and humour with national trauma and emotional loss, this is a remarkable piece of graphic novel fiction, and deserves its reputation as one of the stand-out experimental comics of the 1990s. Exploring the very nature of America on a variety of levels, including geographically, historically, culturally and spiritually, the na�ve Shade and the damaged Kathy find themselves thrust into the very maelstrom of the American psyche, a nightmarish encounter which leaves them forever scarred by the experience.

The Human Target (Titan �9.99)

Writer Peter Milligan, artist Edvin Buikovic

IT’S an interesting take on the bodyguard concept – disguise yourself as your client in order to flush their would-be assassin out of hiding, all the while dodging the bullets, blades and bombs meant for them. But that’s exactly how Christopher Chance makes his living, as a human target for whoever can pay his fee.

The DC character has his roots as far back as the early 1970s, when he appeared in a back-up strip in Action Comics, before returning in a more-mature Vertigo series in 1999. He is now the star of a live-action TV show coming to the UK’s Sci-Fi Channel later this year, which has already received excellent reviews Stateside, with Chance (Mark Valley) described as “Jack Bauer in a better suit”.

Renowned comics writer Milligan used the Vertigo run of the character to explore the notions of identity which must surround someone who makes their living impersonating other people, forcing his subject to ask himself some pretty cold questions about the nature of his job.

A welcome reprinting for the first two stories from the late 1990s revival of The Human Target, this will hopefully not be the last we see of Christopher Chance’s comic book incarnation.

Hellblazer: Pandemonium (Titan �16.99)

Writer Jamie Delano, artist Jock

TWENTY-five years after he made his name by launching the character’s solo title, Delano makes a triumphant return to the world of John Constantine, the manipulative urban shaman who skirts the fringes of the dark mystical underbelly of society, and it’s as if he’s never been away.

True to his stories of more than two decades ago, when the evils of Thatcherism were revealed to be fuelling the nation’s demonic takeover, Delano roots his tale firmly in contemporary Britain, using the Iraq conflict to kickstart an exploration of the evils of war and the corruption of government, with liberal doses of magic and mayhem thrown in for good measure.

Ensnared both emotionally and physically by a Muslim British agent, Constantine heads to Iraq to investigate a mysterious prisoner, but as is true with any Hellblazer story, you can be sure that John has his own agenda to fulfil.

Successfully recapturing every aspect of Constantine’s dysfunctional and twisted personality, Delano gives the manipulative mage free rein to tell the narrative through his own words and actions, leaving the reader unsure as to who is in ultimate control, writer or character.

A complex, multi-layered piece of storytelling, perfectly illustrated with Jock’s moody artwork, this is not only an admirable celebration of the Hellblazer’s silver jubilee, but one of the stand-out stories of Constantine’s long comics history.

Fables: The Great Fables Crossover (Titan �11.99)

Writers Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges, artists Mark Buckingham, Tony Akins et al

NOW in its 13th volume, and having spun off into second series Jack of Fables, Bill Willingham’s fantastic story of fairy tale characters forced into exile in modern day New York has now become a rich, multi-layered narrative with a depth of back-story that new readers will find hard to embrace without reading the previous books.

It was therefore inevitable that not only would both series crossover into one spectacular epic, but that there would be a danger of the original concepts behind Fables’ success being lost along the way.

For the first time therefore, we have a Fables story which doesn’t score a perfect 10, as the assorted characters in both series meet up to tackle a new menace which threatens not only their adopted planet, but all of reality itself.

Make no mistake, it’s still a damn good read, but it’s just not as good as Fables can be. There’s too much abstract metafiction, the characters themselves are lost amidst the constant breaking of the fourth wall and convoluted plotting, the tone is often off-kilter, and at nine issues it’s just too damn long.

Fortunately regular readers of the comics series will know things improve drastically after this storyline, but for those of us who pick it up in trade paperback form we’ve got a long wait until the next volume, and a sense of disappointment overshadowing this latest collection. In comparison to many other series, Fables is still one of the best on the market, it’s just that we’ve been so spoiled with the level of quality in the past that anything less than awesome just doesn’t pass mustard.

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity (Titan �14.99)

Writer Mike Carey, artist Peter Gross

IMAGINE if you were the son of a fantasy author even more popular than JK Rowling, and he had based and named his lead character after you. Take that concept, add the mysterious disappearance of your father and your burgeoning fame as the real-life Tommy Tucker, and then throw in some mysterious occurrences which suggest the lines between fiction and reality aren’t as clear cut as you might have thought…

That is just the start of a dangerous and remarkable journey for Tom Tucker, the inspiration for a magical boy wizard who commands global adoration as a literary legend made flesh, as he begins to discover the hidden truth behind the world he thought he understood, and how even something like the architecture of London is fused with the books and stories in which various writers used it for their muse.

Following their previous collaboration on the highly-acclaimed, award-winning series Lucifer, about the Devil’s machinations and manipulations following his retirement from Hell, Carey and Gross are now shaping a new fantasy epic exploring the very nature of fiction, and its real and imagined influence on our lives.

The Unwritten has all the makings of a classic, and hopefully strong sales will ensure the creators are given the scope to tell the story they have planned.

Northlanders Vol 3: Blood In The Snow (Titan Books, �10.99)

Writer Brian Wood, various artists

WHEN you think of vikings, is your first impression that of Hagar the Horrible? Hairy men with horns on their helmets raping and pillaging in sudden raids from longboat warships? If you’re a comics fan perhaps you’ll be drawn to Marvel’s Shakespearean-speaking Thor the Thunder God and his Asgardian comrades in arms? Maybe it’s time to think again.

Northlanders has done to vikings what TV’s the Tudors did with the England of Henry VIII, Spartacus is trying to achieve with the Roman Empire, and Deadwood managed so well with the Wild West – taking a period of history and injecting it with a contemporary feel through dialogue, character interaction and parallels to modern society.

It also differs from many comic books by avoiding a central cast, instead focusing on different groups and individuals and reflecting their lives in the harsh world of the Dark Ages.

This latest volume includes the stories Lindisfarne, where a young Christian boy witnesses the Viking invasion of the infamous coastal village first hand; The Viking Art of Single Combat, which offers an in-depth commentary on Viking warfare and tactics through the simple narrative medium of a duel; and The Shield Maidens, which explores the role of women of the period as three Danish widows face down an invading Saxon army.

The final story plays against type, as Sven The Immortal revisits the character from the original Northlanders story arc, 20 years after we last encountered him…

A remarkable piece of post-modern fiction in any medium, Northlanders stands head and shoulders above much of the usual comics output, and deserves a long and healthy run.

Sweet Tooth: Out of the Woods (Titan �7.99)

Written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire

PERHAPS one of the most unconventional recent comics release has also picked up the greatest critical acclaim, with writer-artist Jeff Lemire’s post-apocalyptic tale Sweet Tooth already considered a must-read book for many industry stalwarts.

Set in the near future, 10 years after a mysterious affliction killed billions of people, when the only children born since are a strange hybrid of human and animal, it focuses on Gus, a boy with the features of a deer.

After growing up in a woodland solitude with his father, the death of his remaining parent forces Gus to leave his shelter and make his way in the world. Rescued from vicious hunters intent on bagging themselves a hybrid by the hulking drifer Jeppard, Gus soon learns more about the brutal America in which he has emerged.

But will Jeppard remain true to his word and take him to the fabled safe-haven of The Preserve, or are his motives altogether more selfish? For the chocolate-loving Gus, nicknamed Sweet Tooth, it is the beginning of a dangerous new period in his short life…

Despite some interesting concepts and an instantly likeable protagonist, this initial collection of Sweet Tooth comics doesn’t really offer anything too far removed from other post-apocalyptic dramas, most obviously Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but also comics like Y: The Last Man and The Walking Dead, although the cliffhanger ending promises to move in some more unusual directions.

The artwork is beautiful in its simplicity, and there are more than enough questions to keep the reader entertained for the foreseeable future, but Lemire needs room to develop his ideas further if he’s going to succeed in producing a long-running hit.

Worth keeping an eye on, but yet to become a must-purchase title.

Neil Young’s Greendale (Titan �14.99)

Writer Joshua Dysart, artist Cliff Chiang

COMICS have a long history of drawing from a variety of source material, whether that be video games, toy ranges, films, TV shows, classic novels or even role-playing games, but this could well be the only book released thus far which is based on a concept album.

Music legend Neil Young’s highly celebrated Greendale album is the inspiration and guiding force behind this politically and environmentally aware coming-of-age story, almost as a comic book counterpart to the musical version.

Drawing on the rich background established in Young’s 2003 work, it centres around the small southern California town of Greendale, almost a Twin Peaks of the West Coast, and the life and family history of teenage girl Sun Green.

With her female kinfolk claiming a mysterious communion with nature, Sun has always been somewhat different, spending hours sleeping in the branches of the giant Redwood trees outside the town, and experiencing a weird link with various facets of nature and supernature.

But the arrival of a mysterious Stranger to the town brings a dangerous force of darkness and disruption, tearing the idyllic community apart and forcing Sun to choose a new direction in her life – one where she will no longer sit back in acceptance of the world’s injustices, but will actively strive to obstruct them…

A truly remarkable work of graphic literature, and one which definitely does not require any knowledge or interest in the Neil Young album which inspired it beforehand, although after reading Greendale the book you may find yourself drawn to its musical sibling for further information about this unusual town.

This self-contained novel is further proof of the strength of the comics format beyond the superhero genre, and offers a rich, multi-faceted tale which will appeal to all lovers of great America fiction.

Air: Letters From Lost Countries (Titan �9.99)

Writer G Willow Wilson, artist MK Perker

THE first few issues of any new comic series need to be able to capture the reader’s commitment and attention to keep them coming back for more, and Air certainly achieves this objective. However, whether that is more through a genuine interest in the story being told or a frustration in the lack of answers to the many questions posed by the narrative is debatable.

Flight attendant and acrophobe Blythe finds her world turned upside down when she encounters an exotic traveller who traverses the globe under an assortment of different identities. As she finds herself falling in love with the mysterious Zayn, she becomes caught up in the machinations of a brutal anti-terrorism cult, and on a quest for the forgotten country of Narimar, which disappeared from maps during the 1947 Partition of India…

What starts off as a series unquestionably grounded in the reality of a post-911 world rapidly introduces supernatural and fantasy elements which encompass everything from giant feathered serpents and ancient Aztec artefacts which could solve the world fuel crisis, through to giant floating sky cities and the return of doomed pilot Amelia Earhart…

Like the TV show Lost, the series is layered with question after question, and this first volume answers very few of them. Writer Wilson is an Islamic American author known for her work on modern religion and the Middle East, but has a nice flair for comic book writing which is complemented by strong artwork. Whether there’s enough here to sustain an ongoing narrative remains to be seen, as subsequent books are going to have to start do more than just ask further mysteries if the story is going to proceed in any sort of positive direction.

An interesting debut volume, and worth persevering with, but let’s hope Wilson starts delivering on some of the promises established here in future instalments.