There is a strong Stepford Wives feeling to this story, but instead of secret robotics it is underlaid by secret magic. The narrative opens with history: witches in Salem, Mass. in 1692; Pawling, NY in 1777; South Pass City, Wyoming in 1873; and finally New Orleans in 2005. All along a group of men called the Architects wage war against a coven of perpetually reincarnating witches. It seems endless, and ultimately unwinnable, but a young Architect proposes a plan.
Next thing we know, everything has changed. Coven leader Isadore is a happy wife in a quiet cul-de-sac in the town of Desert Canyon. She has no memory of her past lives, or her membership in a powerful coven and the power they possess, or the endless war with the witch hunters. The other housewives in the neighborhood are the same. All of them have a daily pattern they don’t fully understand, especially the wildfires that surround them and prevent travel outside of the town. Yet their husbands are able to get to work through the fires.
Their domestic lives are a delicate balance, full of daily routines to keep the women occupied. Things start to unravel, slowly at first. The witches practice blood magic, so something as simple as a small cut can cause mysterious magical effects. The big triggering event happens when one of the sentient cats that populate the neighborhood (one of the witches has the power to speak to cats) sacrifices himself. His decapitation sends one of the witches up into the air in free flight, which completely freaks her out. And at first her friends do not believe her, looking for non-magical explanations instead.
But they begin comparing notes, and testing their powers. The Architects meet during the day in their underground bunker beneath the neighborhood, monitoring everything through a network of cameras. Suspicions of magical activity triggers a visit from the home office. The witches try to maintain the illusion of normalcy at first, but they get caught using their powers. The men make the mistake of threatening them, and all hell breaks loose. The final panel show the newly-empowered coven walking through the flames that ringed their neighborhood. The caption reads “The Beginning.”
This was initially announced as an ongoing series, which probably explains the open-ended conclusion. I would welcome a continuation of the story–probably from Image at this point–but suppose it is unlikely. But this is a nearly self-contained first chapter right up until the very end, so it was a satisfying read. Blacker has written for the TV show Supernatural and wrote comics for Marvel and others before this, so it’s not surprising that his dialog is sharp. I especially enjoyed the cat dialog: just how I imagine a cat would sound. Mirka Andolfo is an Italian artist and writer, who has worked for DC, Marvel and others; her series Unnatural is published by Image. She has an easygoing naturalistic style that I could see in a YA story. It works well here, too, especially her skill depicting facial expressions.
High Level is set in a world hundreds of years after the big apocalyptic event (no dates are given), with the motto”Welcome to the Post-Post-Apocalypse.” It is a now-familiar desolate place, with residents relying upon scavenging for many of their needs. At least that’s the case down south, where protagonist Thirteen makes her living smuggling, and belongs to a community called the Ordell Faire. High Level is up north: a mythical place, thought to be a place of plenty, with a religious angle. Travelers go there to find Ascension, and no one has ever returned from there to tell of it.
All very reminiscent of the Mad Max movies, including the cybernetically enhanced humans. Thirteen runs afoul of a cult of them early on, but is rescued by Black Helix, a rebel force fighting against the powers in High Level. So this post-apocalypse does still have a bit of quasi-political organization. She accepts a job to transport a child messiah named Minnow back to High Level. The idea is that she will be able to fly under the radar (no one in the North knows her), but of course things are not that simple. But it’s not all serious: I especially enjoyed the whimsy of flocks of flying drones (clearly modeled on our contemporary version).
It turns into a classic chase story, and Thirteen becomes separated from Minnow. When they finally reach their destination, they find a whole society in Low Level working to Ascend to High Level. Ascension may have been a myth all along. Thirteen is admitted to High Level, but finds it deserted. And a figure called the Red King tells her that he is responsible for all the deaths she just saw, and is on a higher level. She sets off to find him, with the final note “End of Book One.”
With Barnaby Bagenda Vertigo again went outside of the world of comics for the writer. He was the long-time art director for the band Nine Inch Nails (including the scripting of their alternate reality game Year Zero), but this was debut writing comics. Artist Barnaby Bagenda is best known for DC’s The Omega Men, as well as other DC titles. His style is more high fantasy than science fiction, which suits the tone of the book (despite the apocalyptic setting). The collection even includes a map, another fantasy hallmark, and a High Level Encyclopedia. Heavy world-building here, which was clearly intended to establish a much longer run than six issues (this again was originally announced as an ongoing title). While on one level this is a quality series which ends the run of Vertigo miniseries on a high note, it is frustrating that the ending is so inconclusive. Like Hex Wives it is a first chapter, but in this case it is much less self-contained.
When I began this Vertigo Miniseries Tour (and this blog) I never even entertained the notion that it might have a fixed ending. But here we are: the last Vertigo miniseries, barring some later rebirth of the imprint. Fortunately the imprint helped make possible a wide variety of creator-owned comics that are flourishing with many other publishers, large and small. Kickstarter is coming on strong as a major force enabling that work as well. Lots of stuff to read, although I have to say that the tempo of the story telling in a classic Vertigo miniseries is still a special thing that is hard to replicate in any of the contemporary formats.