In July, 2002 Vertigo launched a series of three four-part miniseries called Vertigo Pop! with the rather broad theme of “capturing the pulse of pop culture.” In practice this resulted in comics with very little in common between them, apart from the logo on the cover. July 2002 was an interesting time at Vertigo. Y – The Last Man was launching, Fables was on its third issue, and Transmetropolitan was just about to wrap up.
Vertigo Pop! Tokyo by Jonathan Vankin & Seth Fisher began the series. This is even stranger than I remembered. Steve, a lone American, has relocated to Tokyo in search of cutting edge consumer technology. But he quickly becomes involved with a Japanese teenager who is obsessed with a Japanese rock star. All sorts of complications ensue: it’s like a screwball comedy, with Yakuza (Japanese gangsters). Seth Fisher’s art is a unique amalgam of Japanese manga and American comics, and there is enough Japanese language employed in the dialog that most of the issues include a Glossary. These creative choices combine to communicate Steve’s confusion and disorientation directly to the reader. They do so quite effectively, so I have to give Vankin & Fisher points for that.
Vertigo Pop! London by Peter Milligan and Philip Bond (with additional help from Warren Pleece on issues 3 – 4) was the second four issue miniseries in this series. There is a connection with the Tokyo story, in that they both feature a male rock star, but the tone is quite different. In this one the rock star (Rocky LaMont, whose band Idle Hands is contemporary with the Rolling Stones) is sixty years old, and is nostalgic about his youth. He watches a film message from his thirty year old self, which shows him how to switch bodies with someone else. He finds a young wannabe rock star and makes the switch. Despite careful planning (done with the encouragement of his ambitious second wife), complications ensue. It seems the young protege resents having his personality moved into a much older body without his consent. Who would have thought? In the end Rocky finds wisdom and accepts the aging process, making for a much richer story. I remembered this as the best of the three, and I really enjoyed it on the second reading. Milligan & Bond: how can you go wrong?
Vertigo Pop! Bangkok was again written by Jonathan Vankin, illustrated this time by Giuseppe Camuncoli & Shawn Martinbrough. This story is so much darker than the other two that it’s hard to see them fitting under the same banner Pop! title. It involves an American tourist couple that becomes embroiled with the Bangkok sex trade. They also attempt to save an elephant, which provides additional plot complications, as well as a bit of comic relief. The plot has the same sort of twists as the others, except this one includes pedophiles, sex clubs, prostitution, kick boxing, and corrupt police. There is a serious consideration of the cultural differences between Thailand and the United States: is the sex trade actually a positive choice for young Thai women from the poor provinces? It could be argued that this is the most mature story of the three. It deals with serious social questions, and does not sugar-coat the results that arise from the choices the characters make.
DC chose to print one collection from these miniseries. Vertigo Pop: Tokyo Days, Bangkok Nights collect the Tokyo and Bangkok stories. It’s a sensible combination in a way: they were both written by Jonathan Vankin, and were both set in Asia. But they’re radically different tales. If you wanted to keep to the “pop” theme, it would have been better to combine Tokyo and London. I’ve seen commentary that questions the realism of Vankin’s stories. So it’s probably worth mentioning that he lived in Japan during the mid-1990s (as did Seth Fisher), and visited Bangkok during that period.