Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New and Improved Vertigo?

I haven't really been busy lately, but having a car is kind of a distraction. Suddenly, instead of walking three blocks to buy a half gallon of milk, it makes more sense to drive about a mile away since, due to 48 hour parking limits, I had to move the car anyway. It's like I'm making up for leaving a lighter footprint from all those years taking the bus to get a week's worth of groceries.

But, much to my surprise, there was some news from this weekend's New York convention that I feel compelled to comment on: Vertigo will start publishing a more diverse array of graphic novels, many of which don't appear to have anything to do with the legacy of Alan Moore or Warren Ellis. This is a major (and welcome) departure for Vertigo, which seemed to be suffering from a case of arrested development given the number of revamped DC properties launched or scheduled in the last few years. This may also be good news for Rich Veitch, whose Army@Love series never took off in pamphlet format, leading to a recent hiatus. Perhaps the series will reemerge in a serialized graphic novel format.

Three graphic novels were announced with the news: Second Lives by Peter Bagge, The Nobody by Jeff Lemire, and Luna Park by Kevin Taylor and Daniel Zezelj. Luna Park sounds much more like the sort of thing I would expect to come out of Vertigo; its plot, concerning the Russian hitman and his fortune teller/prostitute girlfriend, doesn't sound too far removed from something like Scalped. Admittedly, the inclusion of Zezelj on art and the promise of flashbacks to historical Russia make this sound a great deal more interesting than what I usually associate with the imprint. But all the same, I don't think I'd be blogging about Luna Park if it was the only thing announced this weekend. (For comparison's sake: if I had only read this summary of the NYCC Vertigo panel, I probably would have concluded that the line was basically spinning its wheels, what with the announcement of a new series about a magical stewardess. In fact, I probably would have stopped reading right there. Which would have left me without a few interesting pieces of information--more on that later.)

The other two forthcoming graphic novels are far more interesting. Lemire is known primarily for his Essex County series of graphic novels, which did pretty well on the 2007 meta-list; it was particularly successful among critics writing for general-interest publications and websites, ranking eleventh with that subset of list-makers. I also seem to recall the Essex County books doing well with the mainly-interested-in-superheroes-but-also-read-other-things bloggers.

Given all that, Lemire seems like a good choice and a definite step in the right direction, both in terms of sales and quality. The only work by Lemire I've read is Tales From the Farm, the first volume of the Essex County series. I'm not sure how the traditional Vertigo reader would react to that book--Lemire's art is much more expressionistic than the even the most outre of Vertigo's current stable of artists, and the tone is much more subdued than the usual foamy style I associate with the imprint. The ending, however, introduces an element of magical realism which I imagine was a real crowd-pleaser. And if you've ever taken a gander at the illustration section of his site, you'll see that Lemire can work in a variety of styles; it looks like his inking will be a little softer on The Nobody, more in the Paul Pope-ish direction he occasionally pursued in Tales From the Farm. Given the very limited preview images available, as well as the description of the book as a modern update of HG Wells' The Invisible Man*, I think it's reasonable to assume that he might be working in the same "ground level" terrain as Pope, Paul Chadwick, or Jeff Smith. This print, in particular, probably bodes well for his association with DC (I especially like his Batman).

Publishing work by Peter Bagge also makes sense for Vertigo. Bagge is one of the biggest names from his generation of underground/alternative cartoonists, and it's certainly arguable that Vertigo's potential readership (at least in the Direct Market) is more familiar with his work than any of his peers. Bagge, of course, has published a couple of titles with DC before: Yeah! with Gilbert Hernandez and Sweatshop with several collaborators. This will be different in that (a) Bagge will (presumably) be illustrating his own stories, (b) it's being published by Vertigo rather than DC, which probably allows Bagge a fuller range of expression (ie, dirty words and nekkid bodies), and (c) it's an OGN, the success of which will presumably be measured by a very different set of criteria than his previous work. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the single Vertigo comic I've most anticipated in the history of forever.

What's interesting here is that both these projects seem to be a bit more light-hearted than what I would have expected had somebody told me that Vertigo was publishing OGNs by established alt comix cartoonists. That impression could be wrong, of course. Lemire's Tales From the Farm was pretty downbeat, but The Nobody looks to be somewhat lighter in tone based on the preview art including a promotional piece Lemire posted on his blog. Bagge's work is specifically described as a "dark comedy," which is about what one would expect. Still, I would have thought Vertigo would have sought material more along the lines of Fun Home or Exit Wounds--something with a social-political hook, the sort of thing that would rustle up some NPR coverage.

A couple other things of note: both Lemire and Bagge's forthcoming OGNs were acquired by editor Bob Schreck. Schreck is kind of an interesting figure in the comics industry, having previously worked at Comico and Dark Horse, and eventually co-founding Oni. He's also partly responsible for foisting Brad Meltzer on the comics world, so it's not like his record is exactly clean. I'd say that it's worth keeping an eye on what else Schreck brings to the imprint, but I'm not sure exactly how one would do that.

Also: the details of the aforementioned Vertigo panel make it sound like a bit of a downer, frankly. When asked if they had read various recent Vertigo books, it seems that fewer members of the crowd responded than might be considered optimal--a development which apparently frustrated editor Jonathan Vankin. In general, there seemed to be a bit of hand-wringing among both panelists and audience members that Vertigo didn't get the attention it deserved from the comics-oriented or general-interest press. I have to think that this new push towards artsier graphic novels is intended to remedy this alleged problem, but I'm not sure that the lack of coverage is really that hard to understand. Books like Scalped and Army@Love get plenty of coverage, at least on the blogs I read; perhaps there's a lesson about quality control to be learned there. I suspect that the overwhelmingly negative reaction to God Save the Queen might have poisoned the well a bit for Vertigo OGNs. Banking on proven talents like Lemire and Bagge isn't a bad response.

The question now is how Vertigo will market these new graphic novels. I'm a little put off by Karen Berger's description of Bagge's style as "kind of goofy." I mean, it's true enough in the sense that Bagge is usually trying to make us laugh. But that doesn't seem like the right way to put it when you're introducing a new creator whose work is wildly divergent from the existing house style. I would think it would be better to emphasize the humor and expressiveness in his style. To be fair, this is only a fragment of what she said; it may have sounded better in its full context. But the point stands--Bagge and Lemire work in styles not normally associated with Vertigo. I've never thought that Harvey Pekar got the attention one would expect from someone of his stature; I've seen almost no fanfare for the second American Splendor miniseries. Hopefully we'll see a bit more hoopla for these new graphic novels.

I'm a little skeptical of whether this new direction will mesh with Vertigo's traditional formula of streetwise magic and cheeky political commentary, but I'm hopeful it will. Actually, I'm more hopeful that the Vertigo will bear a closer resemblance to Top Shelf or First Second more than Vertigo c. 1998, simply because I would prefer that more resources go to support the kind of material I find worth reading. I'm almost surprised that a new line wasn't launched for this kind of thing, but I guess DC has launched a bunch of new initiatives/imprints in the last year or two. And you can't really fault them for taking a more cautious approach. I'm happy to support anyone providing a venue for Peter Bagge.

*Not to be confused with Ralph Elliot's (or Ellison's, if you want to be, you know, accurate) Invisible Man, which would be a very daring source of inspiration for a Vertigo OGN, the tepidly-received Incognegro notwithstanding.


Anonymous said...

Did you mean Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man?

This does all seem like a step in the right direction for Vertigo.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Er, yes. At least I didn't call him Harlan.

Seth said...

Army @ Love is coming back in November, billed as Season Two: The Art of War.


garrett said...

So I know Vertigo does publish creator-owned content, but I thought they retained more rights, even on creator-owned properties, than most of the independent publishers. But I might be wrong. Any idea how they compare to companies like Top Shelf and First Second in that regard?

Dick Hyacinth said...

I've heard the same thing, though I suppose they might be improving their contracts to attract more people from the alt/literary/whatever realm. I don't know if we can look to the participation of Lemire or Bagge as any kind of indicator--the former doesn't have a very long track record and (to my knowledge) has never spoken out on these issues; the latter has worked for both Marvel and DC in the past.

I would say this: if Vertigo contracts offered everything a creator could want, then I think we'd probably see Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis publishing there instead of with publishers with spottier distribution like Avatar or Dynamite. If they have changed the standard contract at Vertigo, I'd expect to see more of the British writers returning to the fold sometime soon.

Joe Willy said...

I was a little surprised at the surprise the editors felt when people in the audience at a comic book convention panel hadn't read a book, Incognegro, that really isn't a typical Vertigo book. These books are built more for the literary, bookstore crowd and to me is a sign that Vertigo/DC seem not really to get the still existing disconnect between the two audiences. I'd imagine most people at that panel where there to hear whether Preacher would get that "absolute" edition.

Jason said...

Hi Dick,
I was pretty excited when Danijel Zezelj told me about Luna Park in February.
If you shoot me over your mailing address, I'll send you a copy of DZ's graphic novel(la) Rex. It's coming out in May.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Email has been sent, Jason.

Related: if anyone else has emailed me about sending a book for review and I haven't responded, bug me about it here. The junk mail filter on my gmail account seems a little aggressive lately.

miriam beetle said...

yeah! i recently sent you an email, wanting to send you a preview copy of my gn.

my email is realgonegirlstudios at gmail.

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