Vertigo Miniseries Tour Part 38: The Names; Effigy – Idle Worship; The Complete Suiciders – The Big Shake

The Names
Peter Milligan, script; Leandro Fernández, art; Cris Peter, color
Vertigo Comics, 2015

The Names was a nine-part miniseries consisting of three three-issue story arcs. The story opens with a moment of crisis, as an investment banker named Kevin Walker is forced to write a suicide note and jump to his death from a skyscraper window. His wife Katya (who everyone believes to be a trophy wife, but she truly loved him) does not believe that he was depressed, despite the faked medical records. At the same time an AI program called the Dark Loops is apparently wreaking havoc on the world financial system: no one can figure out what they are up to, or indeed understand their abstract mathematical language. So this computer system angle is introduced early on, although a lot of the action proceeds independently of it. A group secretly controlling the financial markets is enough to drive much of the action, and gives rise to the series title.

Katya persists in trying to find out who killed her husband. In the process she discovers martial arts training she had not realized she had, which gets her past several violent attempts to dissuade her in her quest. Her investigations uncover not only the Names as a group, but also an individual name she can go after: Stoker. And Stoker is very interested in Kevin Walker’s son Philip, a mathematical genius who might be able to understand what the Dark Loops are up to. The Surgeon, the psychopath assassin who forced Kevin to jump to his death, is hot on the trail of both Katya and Philip (who have begun working together to interpret Kevin’s final messages to them).

So we have Katya and stepson Philip on the run, trying to pick up on the clues that Kevin left them. Also, Philip’s mother turns out to be alive after all, and is another crazed psychopath to boot. The AI computer virus ups the ante by transmitting itself to human hosts. This creates some interesting complications, but also gives Philip a chance to use his savant-like mathematical skills to save Katya’s life. He also manages to overcome his sexual fixation on her, a quasi-incestuous angle that is the sort of thing expected from Milligan (but icky just the same). There is so much frenetic action that it almost doesn’t matter that Katya never does uncover who ordered her husband’s murder.

Fernández captures all the chase action, and creates memorable, sometimes cartoony character designs. The Surgeon is especially over the top: everything about him screams psychopath (and the fixation on cutting everything with a scalpel was an inspired touch).  The clash between the human market masters (the Names) and the artificial intelligence manipulating the markets (the Dark Loops) never quite gels: it’s an interesting idea that feels contrived. But the series is still a compelling read.

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Effigy: Idle Worship
Tim Seeley, writer; Marley Zarcone, Jesse Hamm, Jen Vaughn, Mike Norton: art; Ryan Hill, color
Vertigo Comics, 2015

Great concept behind this series: a child star named Chondra Jackson who played a space cop on the kids’ TV show Star Cops grows up and becomes a real cop in her home town of Effigy Mound, Ohio. But the show has such a rabid fan base–including conventions devoted to it–that she can’t just walk away. When she catches her first real case, it’s because it is intimately tied to the show and its fans. The community that has grown around the show on message boards, conventions, and cosplay is getting killed off, one by one.

Chondra’s mother is a piece of work: a classic stage mother living vicariously through her daughter. She even arranged to have Chondra make a sex tape in an effort to update her image (which was humiliating, and didn’t work); and now she’s trying to pitch a reality show about Chondra’s police work (without Chondra’s knowledge).

There is also a significant mystical element in the story, in the form of a religious cult based on the writings of a science-fiction writer (must be a reference to author L. Ron Hubbard and the Scientology religion he founded, although it’s probably not specific enough to garner attention from the Scientology Police). The twist is that there are real aliens involved, capable of taking over human hosts. Chondra and her partner are making progress on discovering how and why the cult is enabling the murders when the “Idle Worship” arc ends at part six.

Clearly the series was intended to go on. But instead of resolving the story line, the final issue in the collection is a stand alone. “Game Changer” (illustrated by frequent Seeley collaborator Mike Norton) tells the story of how author Larry Lauritz found himself being seen as a modern savior. Interesting, but far from a real ending. Which makes the series frustratingly incomplete. Marley Zarcone’s art works for the story. Cartoony, with minimal backgrounds. But the characters are distinctive, and he does a good job on the periodic nine-panel “talking heads” pages, where the challenge is to keep the different poses dynamic enough to create visual interest in a page of exposition with one character speaking to the camera.

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The Complete Suiciders: The Big Shake
Lee Bermejo: writer; Lee Bermejo, Alessandro Vitti, Gerardo Zaffino: artists; Matt Hollingsworth, Jordan Boyd: colorists
Vertigo Comics, 2016

This collection includes both Suiciders miniseries, beginning with “Suiciders: KINGS OF HELL.A.” It opens with the earthquake that created the dystopian city depicted in the story, labelled simply as “The Big One.” In the aftermath, Los Angeles has split in two. A walled area for the rich, called “New Angeles;” and outside the walls, a hardscrabble existence in the ruins of the old city for the have-nots, called “Lost Angeles.” Fifteen years later, a group of young earthquake survivors have banded together to resist the dominant Mulholland Corp., as well as the cops and other gangs. The series takes its title from a violent sport that began after the catastrophe.

Suiciders are martial artists that fight on TV: to the death, so the title is for real. One of the champions was Leonard, who has been running a pawn shop. He becomes a target of the Kings, and their fates become intertwined. There’s also a critic who Leonard messed with. And he also happens to be a cannibal. Somehow it all comes together at the climax. Two of the Kings manage to escape the L.A. containment zone, which was not a sure thing–despite a double-cross that should have guaranteed it–and the series concludes with the grown son of the escapees continuing the skate board expertise of his mother.

Both minseries were written by artist Lee Bermejo. He illustrated only a few epilogue and prologue pages in the first one, with Alessandro Vitti providing most of the art, and Jordan Boyd most of the colors. It’s very striking visually, full of kinetic action and creative panel placement.

The second series is simply titled “Suiciders,” and was written and illustrated by Bermejo, with colors by Matt Hollingsworth. It tells the story of one of the greatest Suiciders, a man named The Saint. It alternates between the present and his past as a new arrival in the city. It was not clear to me that they were the same person at first, but the color scheme delineated the two settings effectively. There is a point of continuity with the other series, in the form of a coyote who helps people get from the slums to the city: he physically resembles Troy, the double-crosser who sold out the gang in the previous series so he and his pregnant wife could escape.

The contrasting time frames show how the Suicider bouts evolved. The early contests in Lost Angeles are like a classic gladiator combat: two men facing each other in an arena, with basic weapons and minimal armor. In New Angeles they evolve into a televised spectacle, with elaborate body armor and weapons, plus lights and a machine which complicates the match by subjecting the contestants to random flame throwers and other hazards.

A subplot follows a paparazzi who finds himself in possession of photographs of a murder, as well as an old passport which would prove that The Saint is an immigrant, not the true blue native of his public image. Meanwhile The Saint has grown weary of the life, and an attempted murder by his manager motivates him to make his escape so he can reunite with the family he left behind to pursue his Suicider career.

Effective as the Vitti/Boyd team was on the first series, Bermejo/Hollingsworth take the art to the next level. But while the dystopian setting is well imagined, it is also a bit pedestrian. And practically everything gets resolved by physical violence, which is a comic book trope that much earlier Vertigo had managed to avoid. Nonetheless the two miniseries are a good read, and both come to a satisfying conclusion.

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