Finals (created by writer Will Pfeifer & artist Jill Thompson) is another black comedy, this time a satire of college life. The four-issue miniseries follows five seniors at Knox State University as they struggle to complete their senior projects so they can graduate. The twist is that Knox State’s motto is “Strength Through Study,” and senior projects are required to be extreme: life changing, not to mention potentially life threatening. Nancy Bierce’s Comparative Religion project involves her creating and leading a religious cult. Wally Maurer’s Film Studies project is an extreme reality film (although he spends most of the series trying to decide on his subject). Dave Oswald’s Criminal Justice project is a series of ever more daring armed holdups. Tim Pike’s Theoretical Engineering project is a time machine (which works, but with surprising results). And Gary Skelton’s Anthropology project is his personal devolution into a prehistoric man. It’s like a surreal sit-com, and it comes as no surprise that not all of the group survives to make it to the graduation ceremony. The series has been reprinted as part of “Vertigo Resurrected.”
Heavy Liquid was Paul Pope’s first creator owned project for Vertigo. It was done with two colors (blue and red), which Pope hoped would reduce printing costs, as I recall. That didn’t work out, but it gives the book a distinctive look. There were five 48-page issues, presented with two covers and no ads, a deluxe presentation that demonstrates DC’s faith in the project. The series was clearly intended to be collected from the start. Each issue contained a full chapter, but the page numbering was continuous. No need to renumber pages for the collection! Set in the year 2075, the story is technically science fiction. While there are some future technology elements (most notably “threading,” a kind of hyper-Internet service that can be activated via optical implants), the tone is gritty urban underbelly. For the most part it could be set any time after the 20th century. Our protagonist is “S,” a world-weary private detective who used to be a cop. He and some friends have stolen a large quantity of Heavy Liquid from a crime syndicate. Heavy Liquid is valuable contraband: a corrosive metallic substance of unknown origin that is liquid at room temperature, and unstable enough to use as an explosive. S has a buyer for his share, a rich collector who wants to commission a sculpture made from the metal. The problem is that the sculptor has gone underground (and she and S have a history). S spends the series on the run from the mob, trying to avoid a shadowy Government agent at the same time, all while trying to find the sculptor. In the end he completes his assignment, and finds out what Heavy Liquid is really about. Pope has told an exciting story, full of striking visual images. It would be a good starting place for those unfamiliar with his unique style.
The late 1999 Vertigo minseries Congo Bill by Scott Cunningham & Danijel Zezelj (with covers by Richard Corben) revisits the classic DC character, but I doubt it has much in common other than name. The first two issues were heavy in contemporary African political commentary, with a big focus on a secret held by one of the black ops team. No gorillas in sight yet! In a way it’s almost pointless naming it for Congorilla: he only appears on-panel at the end. And he’s really a supporting character. The story is mainly about Glass, the black ops team member with the guilty past. As usual, Zezelj never lets you down in the art department. The political focus of the story is similar to Joshua Dysart’s recent re-imagined Unknown Soldier series. But it takes place on a surface sloganeering level, never achieving the depth of Dysart’s treatment, nor a comparable integration of character and politics.
Strange Adventures is a four-issue science fiction anthology, another in the Axel Alonso-edited series. A mixed bag, as usual, but the first issue was a strong lead: stories by Brian Bolland (who also did the cover), Dave Gibbons, and Frank Quitely (written by Robert Rodi). I had a problem with the twist endings on the stories in the remaining issues: most of them just didn’t work. Klaus Janson’s “Expiration Date” was a good short one. Bruce Jones & Edvin Biukovic got an expansive ten pages for “Third Toe, Left Boot,” which built tension nicely, despite telegraphing the ending. Other standouts include “The Split” by Joe R. Lansdale & Richard Corben, and “Native Tongue” by Brian Azzarello & Essad Ribic (creepy!). At the very least you get an interesting mix of creators.