For the Heartthrobs anthology, the subject is love and romance. All four issues contain three stories, giving the creators a bit more space to work with than some issues in the previous anthologies. The presentation is even more deluxe than for Gangland, the previous series. Each issue features a cover by an artist not represented in the interiors, plus a frontispiece page that functions like an elaborate table of contents, followed by creator bios written in the form of true romance histories. The first issue features an especially star-studded group of artists: cover by Bruce Timm, then story art by Brian Bolland (also the writer), Phil Jimenez (with Robert Rodi), and Tim Sale (with Steven T. Seagle). Other memorable stories and creative teams include Brian Azzarello/Tim Bradstreet on “The Other Side of Town,” a story about a sheriff’s conflict of interest; Ilya/Frank Quitely on “Romancing the Stone,” about a strange obsession; Peter Milligan/Eduardo Risso on “The Death of a Romantic,” about a lover capable of disappointing even after death; and Bob Fingerman/Pat McEown on “Kissin’ Cousin,” about a blind date gone wrong.
Jonah Hex: Shadows West is the final Vertigo Western by Joe R. Lansdale and Timothy Truman, only three issues this time. Hex joins Buffalo Will’s Wild West Show, a second-rate bunch led by a man with a pathological desire to prove himself the equal of the better known Buffalo Bill. Hex decides to help the Indian woman with a child who is half bear cub, spending most of the series on the run from a vigilante party sent from the show to kill him. In the end Hex prevails, as usual, and mother and child are reunited with a group that look like Indian animal spirits. The length makes it a bit slight compared to the previous minis, but it’s still populated with colorful characters and imaginative fight scenes.
Gifts of the Night was a four-issue series written by Paul Chadwick (creator of the series Concrete) and illustrated by John Bolton. It centers around a prince and his tutor. Every night the tutor tells a story, which the sleepy prince retells the next day as a vision seen in the embers of the fire (the “gifts” of the title). As the tutor realizes what is happening, he begins to tailor his stories to get what he wants. Unfortunately he is not the only observant one at court, nor the only one jockeying for power. Bolton’s nearly photo-realistic art is striking as always. He occasionally draws metaphors into the narrative, an effect with heightens the fantastical setting. For example, when the king speaks of a war that “bleeds this kingdom white” we see one panel in which he is bleeding from his head and hands. He’s back to normal in the next panel, so I don’t think the bleeding is supposed to be taken as “real.” In the end the tutor is forced to make a terrible decision, trading one life to save many. The short epilog describing the dark effect this has on his own life is my only complaint about the series. It seems overly dark, and too brief to earn its emotional effect. Still a striking series despite this, and one that I liked better upon rereading.
Vertigo was on quite a roll in 1999, with a wide variety of miniseries on offer. The mini The Trenchcoat Brigade (four issues, written by John Ney Rieber, illustrated by John Ridgway, covers by Glenn Fabry) reunites The Phantom Stranger, Doctor Occult, John Constantine, and Mister E, who were last seen together introducing Timothy Hunter to the world of magic in the first The Books of Magic miniseries. I note that Constantine looks much younger in this series than currently. I knew that he’s been allowed to age, but the contrast is marked when you go right from the current series back to this. I’d give it a B. It’s beautifully drawn by John Ridgway, and we learn some interesting things about the “origins” of the members of the Trenchcoat Brigade (they skip Constantine’s, since it’s been shown in Hellblazer). There is more world-building about Constantine’s family tree at the core of the tale, which is fun for Hellblazer fans, even if it has never been mentioned again (that I can recall). But you’d think fighting a world-eating demon would mean more in the end. “I just witnessed the defeat of a world-eating demon, and all I got was this crummy T-shirt.” It’s a bit like a crossover superhero event: the world doesn’t end after all, big surprise.
I was drawn to The Trenchcoat Brigade because of John Ney Rieber’s work on The Books of Magic (talk about a book that deserves the HC omnibus series treatment!). I absolutely loved that series. I found TB to be lacking, though. I figured since the books had similar themes, we’d get similar material. I’m glad I found the entirety of this series in a quarter bin!
Yeah, I think The Trenchcoat Brigade has the same problem most of the Sandman spin-offs had. The story just doesn’t seem to have a compelling reason to exist, apart from a bit of fan service for hard core Vertigo fans.