The first Vertigo Quarterly was Vertigo CMYK (2015), an anthology which used color as an organizing principle. The second series used sound effects (SFX) to inspire the large cast of contributors. Begun in 2015 and concluded in 2016, it never received a collected edition: an indication of the fading fortunes of the imprint (which did continue to exist until January 2020, when all ongoing projects were moved to the new DC Black Label imprint, taking over its role as DC’s “mature readers” brand).
In general I found SFX to have far less power than color in shaping creative short stories, although of course there were exceptions. Perhaps because the sounds are already common in many comic book stories?
Pop! opens with “EKOH,” written and drawn by Nathan Fox (who was also responsible for the cover art and logo for all four issues), with colors by Lee Loughridge. It’s a wild psychedelic story (reminiscent of Paul Pope) about a mysterious procedure called EKOH and a menacing creature called Blackmass it inadvertently created. The first installment raises far more questions than answers, but fortunately there will be two more parts in later issues of the series (although there was no indication of that in the concluding panel). “Little Medals” (Jim Zub, writer; Matt Rockefeller, artist; Clem Robins, letterer) follows a young woman through her day, as she receives constant social media points for her activities. Similar to the Black Mirror TV series episode “Nosedive” (which was produced roughly contemporaneously), but in this case the points are assigned by an unknown AI instead of by the people she interacts with.
Other notable stories include writer Peter Milligan (with artist Celia Calle) contributing “Pop Psychology,” exploring the wild memories of an erotic dancer in a coma. The last page reveals that her memory shifts have been triggered by the “Pop!” of a custodian chewing bubble gum. “Earwig Out!” (written by Clay McLeod Chapman, art by Szymon Kudranski) is a horrific riff on the classic Rod Serling Night Gallery TV episode “The Caterpillar.” As always the looser rules of the anthology allow for some visual styles that are unusual in Vertigo (or other DC) comics. Underground comix are represented by Sara Richard’s “Pop Goes The World” (written by Erica Schultz), while Hope Larson’s “Ray’s Bachelor Party” is a wordless story about the adventures of a sex doll. David Hahn’s “Pop-Up” (written by David Winnick) employs a distinctively Young Adult style.
Rob Davis opens this installment with “Eyesight to the Blind,” an imaginative tale about a blind man who can see music, and what he sees is a stunning and colorful alternative to his drab everyday world. Ted Naifeh illustrates Amelia Moore’s “The Dating App” (with colors by Veronica Gandini). The app is called Slam, and the heroine finally goes on a date which is excruciating yet successful. “World Junior Mustache” is presented by the indie/Young Adult comics team of writer Cecil Castelluci, artist Andi Watson and colorist Guy Major. After getting slammed as a hockey player, Maddie starts wearing her grandfather’s mustache and finds her own way. “Schrödinger’s Catflap” (Mike Carey, writer; Tana Ford, artist; Wes Abbott, letterer & Giulia Brusco, colorist) is a trippy story about multidimensional doorways that slam shut in the end.
Someone had to write a story titled “Slam Dance” about a group of punk rockers, and sure enough it’s Eric M. Esquivel: lyrics; Adam Cadwell: lead guitar; Ryan Hill: bass, Travis Lanham: percussion; and Jamie S. Rich: band manager (Rich was head of Vertigo at this point). Writer Mark Rahner, artist Joe Eisma and colorist Eva De La Cruz crafted “My Brother’s Crypt-Keeper,” a truly chilling ghost story. “Broken Flowers” closes the issue with a story about a relationship that ends in violence, but with a twist ending. Written by Frank J. Barbiere, with art by Garry Brown and colors by Doug Garbark.
The second installment of EKOH has a subtitle that explains what is happening: “EKOH, a device created to stop a plague from stealing humanity’s senses was activated too soon, unleashing something even worse into the world. Now the woman that EKOH was created to save may be consumed–along with its creator and everyone else.” Which explains a lot, but it’s still a wild, somewhat confusing visual ride. Peter Kuper’s “Climate Unchange” is a gorgeous wordless presentation of the catastrophic events caused by climate change, concluding with warnings about industrialization and urbanization (with one small cheat in the form of a cell phone screen’s New York Times headline).
“Krak(en)” is a visually gorgeous tale about some terrifying giant undersea creatures and the little girl who befriends them. “The Krak in the Wall” (written by Corinna Bechko) tells the story of a mysterious alternate world seen through a crack in the wall in an apartment building that is about to be demolished, beautifully illustrated by W. Scott Forbes. Mark Buckingham wrote and did the layout art (finished by Jessica Martin and colored by Andrew Dalhouse) for “The Audition,” another almost entirely wordless story. Buckingham’s art is so lovely that the Faustian nature of the story revealed at the end comes as a shock. Writer/artist Gilbert Hernandez (with colorist Laura Allred) close the issue with “Krak!,” a typical magic realism story about a rural Latin American village under attack by outer space aliens: it would be scary if it was not so goofy.
At the risk of using the obvious punchline, the series ends with a bang. Maybe it was an editorial happenstance that some of the best was saved for last, or maybe the sound effect Bang! just had more resonance. The final installment of EKOH uses all of the series sound effects, but after a Bang! the Blackmass ends with a Pop! “Monkey See” (written by Jonathan Case, illustrated by Leila Del Luca and colored by Jordie Bellaire) takes the story of a crooked police detective planning to run off with an actress after botching a murder and twists it with a missing gun and a pet monkey. “Mary” (written and colored by Jordie Bellaire, art by Declan Shalvey) tells the tale of a couple of ghostbusting journalists. One of them tries some sexist taunts on a female ghost, which does not work out well.
“Da Bangz” (story by Howard Chaykin, art by Jed Dougherty, letters by Saida Temofonte, colors by Jesus Aburto) is about a 60s rock band caught in the transition to the British Invasion. They are a macho bunch, including lots of pussy talk that no doubt would not fly nowadays (unless you are a certain ex-President). “Bang For Your Buck” (written by Emma Needell, drawn by Alé Garza & Don Green, colored by Luis Gurerro) tells a twisted story about a circus and a bad bargain that comes back to haunt the winners. “Beat for the Gods” (written by K. Perkins, art by Travis Moore, colors by Michael E. Wiggam) tells a surprisingly heartfelt story about a father who finally accepts his non-conformist son. “Little Bang” (Christian Ward, writer & artist; Jared K. Fletcher, letters) concludes this final issue with a gorgeous, psychedelic story exploring the cosmic reverberations of the quantum theory notion of “entanglement.” A scientist finds a way to reverse a horrific life event, and maybe save the world.