From its description on the Vertigo website, Vertigo Quarterly is supposed to be an exciting new title that will “defy all conventions of traditional comics anthologies,” one that will “push the boundaries of short graphic fiction.” That’s a lot to promise, although one shouldn’t be surprised at a publisher hawking its wares in this manner. What is surprising is the way in which many reviewers have been echoing — buying into? — this assessment with a thinly articulated “thumbs up.” Doing a cursory search on Google for reviews of this title, which was just released April 30th, will bring you a variety of such examples, some with brief drive-by opinions that never delve into the substance, and some that apparently rely heavily upon Vertigo’s own publicity. This is unfortunate, because comics anthologies are a rarity nowadays, and any attempts to revive them should be not only celebrated, but carefully scrutinized, as well. After all, if there’s a reason why we don’t see many periodical anthologies, we should understand what makes for successful attempts or why they may no longer be viable for publishers.
A common comparison to make with the new Vertigo Quarterly, and one that many readers have recognized, is Dark Horse Presents. In its two serial manifestations — the first running from 1986 to 2000, and the second series beginning in 2011 — that anthology has been successful in introducing readers to new, as well as already-running and revived, stories and characters from Dark Horse. It’s both an Eisner and a Harvey Award-winner, and, as we pointed out in a podcast episode back in December, many of the stories from Dark Horse Presents have been included in Best American Comics volumes. But such a comparison of Vertigo Quarterly with the Dark Horse anthology doesn’t entirely stand up. The latter is in many ways a platform to launch (or promote) prospective miniseries, one-shots, and even ongoing titles, with recent examples including Resident Alien, Astounding Villain House, and Richard Corben’s string of new Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. This doesn’t seem to be the same mission with Vertigo. The Quarterly is described as a “jumping-off point for creators,” but at least in this first issue, there’s no clear indication what these writers and artists are leaping into.
None of the nine short pieces that compose the Cyan issue read as anything other than in-and-out attempts at comics storytelling. There is no “to be continued” feeling with any of the stories, so in this way, Vertigo Quarterly stands in stark contrast to Dark Horse Presents (and perhaps more in line with another recent attempt at reviving anthologies, Insect Bath from Fantagraphics). And that’s just fine. A lot can be done with a collection of narratives that are more sprints than marathons. Indeed, as I was reading this inaugural issue, I couldn’t help but think of the old Twilight Zone series that was made up of psychologically tinged and macabre stories with unexpected twists. This is the very nature of the Vertigo imprint, in fact, so such a comparison would ideally ring true. However, in the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was adept at creating brief, self-contained narratives whose ambiguities were rarely mistaken for incomplete or half-baked composition. The same cannot be said for most of the stories in this first issue of Vertigo Quarterly.
There are some, such as Joe Keatinge and Ken Garing’s “918,” Lee Garbett and Jock’s “Blue Sundae,” and James Tynion IV and Martin Morazzo’s “Once Upon the End of Time,” that more or less stand on their own and in a fairly coherent manner (although Keatinge’s “918” is almost painfully predictable). But other stories are much less successful, based upon unclear premises, with truncated or abrupt endings, or bearing a general tone that their very concepts were only vaguely conceived. For example, Shaun Simon and Tony Akins’s “Serial Artist” really captures your attention in the first couple of pages — an artist whose very craft is based upon random murders — but then concludes too quickly, and too neatly, for the narrative density that it promises. The same can be said of Amy Chu and Alitha Martinez’s “So Blue,” a story about an older pop singer having to contend with a vapid American Idol-type upstart and accidentally causing her death. Or is it really an accident? The potential here for psychological ambiguity is palpable, but Chu and Martinez never make much of it and instead, apparently opt for a quick and questionable resolution.
Other stories in the anthology are marked by similar problems. Chris Peter and Ana Koehler’s “Rebolt” had me scratching my head at its conclusion, and Robert Rodi and Javi Fernandez’s “Madame Bluebeard” — while having an intriguing premise, with a good psychological punch at the end, and possessing one of the issue’s most ambitious narrative structures — doesn’t give us much on the title character. Why does she do what she does? Rodi’s could have been a better story with more narrative space, but given its inclusion in an 80-page issue crammed with nine stories (although there are only 70 pages-worth of actual comics), I should perhaps not be as critical on his contribution given the need to condense. But even granting that limitation says something about the foundations and expectations of this new anthology.
The most outstanding piece in Vertigo Quarterly: Cyan is, by far, Monty Nero and Al Davidson’s “Much Ado about Nothing.” This eight-page story is not only built upon an intriguing premise — the very act of decoding a numeric arrangement unleashing that code’s inherent destructiveness — but is structured to reflect its very subject matter: numbers. The panel arrangement of every page visually reflects a literal countdown from seven to zero, where the “nothing” of the title becomes a shocking and twisted (yet highly effective) end point. Nero and Davidson’s is the breakout contribution to this first issue of Vertigo Quarterly. I had hoped it might be Fabio Moon’s “Breaking News of the Wonders the Future Holds,” the piece that ends this collection, but while its art is truly outstanding — as about all of Moon’s work is — there’s just not enough of the story to compel interest. The more cynical part of me reads “Breaking News” as a pretext for the page that follows, an in-house write up of Daytripper: Deluxe Edition that was just recently published.
As with Moon’s story, it is the art in Vertigo Quarterly: Cyan that shines the most. Regardless of the storytelling problems, the visuals mesmerize. You could just flip through the issue, without reading any of the stories, and see where the publisher is trying to go with this new anthology. The color tone of every story reflects the “cyan focus” of the issue, and references to blue and azure — visual as well as thematic — are littered throughout. Future installments throughout 2014 will be based on magenta (this summer), yellow (in the fall), and black (for the winter issue), and all issues taken together will reflect the four-color printing process. This is a clever way to structure a series, and the idea is captivating. I just hope that the other three issues deliver more substantive, coherent, and complete narratives than did this first Cyan issue. If so, then it would be a way for Vertigo to prove that the color arrangements for this anthology, and especially the stories in it, are something other than a quick gimmick with more visual flash than satisfying content. And at a $7.99 cover price, I hope that will be the case.
Check out these books from some of the contributors to Vertigo Quarterly: Cyan: