In 1996 Vertigo began a series called Vertigo Vérité. These were all creator-owned, and emphasized realism over the supernatural elements common to so much Vertigo. The first was the Prestige format one-shot Seven Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz and James Romberger. Wojnarowicz was an artist and writer who was also an AIDS activist (he died from the disease before this book was finished). This autobiography describes his childhood as a prostitute, drug addict, and homeless person, then jumps to his adulthood after he contracted AIDS. It’s brutal stuff, but not salaciously so; it’s quite a bit less explicit than such a story could be. Wojnarowicz recounts dreams and fantasies which lend the story a hallucinogenic quality, emphasized by Marguerite Van Cook’s sometimes psychedelic colors. The final section devotes quite a bit of space to Wojnarowicz’s final diary entries, a heartbreaking recitation of his fight against illness while he feels himself fading away. Vertigo didn’t publish anything else like this until recent autobiographical OGNs like Percy Carey’s Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm and Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter.
The second Vertigo Vérité title was a three-issue miniseries by Peter Kuper called The System. Fully painted, it is commonly described as “wordless,” because it contains no dialog. But it’s not really wordless, because Kuper cheats quite a bit via newspaper headlines, television banners, ATM screen messages, and the like. It’s an urban tale inspired by a NYC subway ride and newspaper stories about a missing woman, police corruption, the World Trade Center bombing, and insider trading. Kuper’s story includes a sleazy stockbroker, a corrupt cop, a bomber, a serial killer stalking strippers, a tagger, and a political scandal. The subway acts as a connecting device, a junction point for all these disparate players. The story manages to hang together without dialog, although it’s a bit more episodic than normal. And all of the story lines are resolved in the end, with one left as a cliffhanger. This was given special deluxe treatment, similar to the Jonah Hex miniseries. The issues were printed on heavy stock, with no advertisements (not even on the covers), and carried a $2.95 cover price (other Vertigo titles went for $2.25 or $2.50 at the time). The System was collected into a trade paperback, which is presently out of print.
The third Vertigo Vérité title was a three issue miniseries, Girl #1-3 (July-Sep 1996) by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo. This is another disaffected teenager story, very much along the lines of Grant Morrison’s earlier Kill Your Boyfriend. It has a similar sense of unreality, in this case due to the Girl’s rich fantasy life. The story frequently deliberately obscures the line between dreams, fantasies, and real life. The Girl herself often has trouble telling the difference, making her an extremely unreliable narrator. She’s got some legitimate problems to cope with–poverty, difficult family life, bullying at school–but no more than the other teenagers in the story, presumably. Her response is to blame herself for two murders and attempt to burn down the local factory. The finale finds her suddenly absolved of all blame…then her mother wins the lottery! So much for “vérité:” in the end this story is just as fantastical as any other Vertigo story, albeit with a realistic setting.
The Unseen Hand #1-4 (Sep-Dec 1996) by Terry LaBan & Ilya was the only four-issue miniseries in the sub-imprint: the others were all three-issue miniseries or Prestige format one-shots. The title comes from the famous phrase by classical economist Adam Smith, explaining how supply and demand in national economies are directed by individual self interest in the pursuit of wealth. Mike Webb is an American college student who believes in economic forces…until he discovers that he is an heir to a worldwide conspiracy, an Illuminati-like secret organization which has taken its name from Smith’s theory, and has been pulling the strings of world economics behind the scenes. His dying father tells him that his birth father had planned to expose the conspiracy. He gives Mike a computer disk revealing the secrets, and sends him to Europe on a search for the sister he never knew he had. Mike heads for Moscow (his sister’s last known location) with agents on his trail. The trip takes him through war-torn Yugoslavia, where he witnesses atrocities, and discovers that there are Hand agents everywhere. He rejects the offer to join the organization, and becomes involved with a beautiful woman (who turns out to be his sister) and an organization called “True Russia” which wants to return Russia to traditional values. They purchase a nuclear warhead and find themselves pursued, so they choose to slam their truck into the Parliament building in Moscow. When the bomb fails to explode, the rebel group is destroyed, and Mike has a choice to make.
The story lives up to the “Vérité” label by virtue of the topical political content. Despite the fantastical elements, the backdrop of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the collapsed Soviet Union gives this tale a gritty realism that needs no exaggeration. At heart it is an action story; Mike essentially functions like a secret agent out to save the world single-handed. The action is intense–Mike is thrown into an adventure almost from the first page, which is not resolved until the very end–so it certainly succeeds on that level. The “True Russia” group is run by Rasputin the Third, a madman in the spitting image of the original mad monk, with his conjoined twin sticking out of his chest. They are growing an in vitro future emperor using an egg taken from Princess Anastasia, who had somehow survived the Bolshevik firing squad that killed the rest of her family. That’s one of the most prominent bizarre Vertigo-style plot twists. Another one is the incestuous relationship between Mike and his sister Miranda. Mike is ignorant of their relationship until later, but his sister knows what she’s doing. I find this so distasteful, and so unnecessary to the story, that it sours the entire miniseries for me. Why is it there, other than to introduce a shocking plot element?
Hell Eternal (April 1998) by Jamie Delano and Sean Phillips was the final Vertigo Vérité, a Prestige format one-shot which came out almost two years after the rest of the series. It’s a bleak story–the back cover blurb even describes it as “an ugly tale of brutal obsession”–about a young British woman named Anne who goes from being a Goth to a white supremacist. Or better to say she becomes involved with white supremacists; while her friends become true believers, she just kind of goes along with it. When her girlfriend (and ex-lover) Sarah and her boyfriend David decide to rob a Pakistani-owned taxi company to get money to go to America and hook up with the white supremacist movement there, it begins a chain of events that take Anne into a downward spiral. By “downward” I mean all the way down: the ending couldn’t be darker. But the story is very well told, so the tragedies are both inevitable and heartbreaking.