DC 52: I, Vampire and All Star Western

Another couple of reviews of the massive reboot of the DC universe which took place through September with 52 brand new issue 1s being published as the whole of the mainstream DC Comics continuity was rebooted, originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

I, Vampire #1

By Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino

Fialkov and Sorrentino’s I, Vampire has a bit of an odd feel to it – like All Star Western #1 (see below) it seems on first inspection to be a strange bedfellow for the rest of DC’s massive New 52 relaunch as both pretty much scream DC Vertigo rather than the mainstream DC Universe which is the bedrock of the New 52 that has so dominated the last four weeks of monthly releases. But on looking closer there are connections into the main DCU, although I’d still say both titles feel they owe more to Vertigo’s influence, but that isn’t a bad thing in my book since I’ve always had a soft spot for Vertigo. Besides the DCU, even a freshly rebooted one still building itself, is a big place and allows for this kind of diversity.

I found the cover a bit generic and weak, to be honest – not actually bad, just not terribly impressive or eye-catching – but Andrea Sorrentino’s art inside is far, far better and much more appropriate to the feel and style of this intriguing series, often murky, and muddy in certain scenes, which suits a tale where the morality is never entirely clear. There may be an obvious Evil Threat but the defence against it isn’t exactly on the moral high ground either. In that respect I, Vampire remind me somewhat of the clouded morality of the excellent Ultraviolet series from Channel 4 several years back (which is high praise as I thought that was a hugely compelling bit of drama).

There’s a stong opening on a dark, rubble-strewn cityscape and it isn’t clear to the reader exactly what is going on. An accident like a gas explosion, a terrorist attack, natural disaster? We’re not sure and the uncertainty is a part of this story, an important part, I think, we shouldn’t have a clear picture right away here but slowly be lead into a dark maze of loyalties and conspiracies. We see bodies all over the wreckage of buildings and cars, while a lone figures stalks across it all. He finds one body still moving and rather than attempting a rescue he swiftly stakes the survivor then beheads him; a vampire killer? Who is he and why are there multiple vampire bodies littering a damaged city street?

Cut to a pair of slender figures by a lake, a man and a dark-eyed, Fey-like woman, Mary. She is asking the man about history – does he remember the Revolutionary War? Yes. Does he still remember what they fought for exactly? This is not that war, the man, Andrew, answers her. She shakes her head:

Why Not? We’ve been oppressed. I’m Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Ben Franklin all in one,” she argues.

You kill people.”

I kill livestock,” she retorts emphatically.

And right there we see some difference between Andrew and Mary – it looks like he may have been the one responsible for bringing her across and while he feel guilts for vampirising her and for the other blood he has spilled across the centuries and seeks to atone in some way for it Mary is clearly the opposite. She revels in her vampire abilities, her eternal life, immense strength and sees killing humans as no more morally troubling than the average meat-eating human does the killing of cattle for food. And yet with the greater numbers humans are masters of the world while the more powerful vampires have to hide in shadows and myth to be safe. Mary wants an end to this, she wants a war against the human world, to take it by force so the vampires will rule. It isn’t just the massed ranks of human though, Andrew points out – how does she and her ‘soldiers’ expect to stand up against someone like Superman? Some Green Lanterns? Wonder Woman? They will be wiped out by the superheroes, Andrew points out, a massacre. There is no need for such risk when they can remain covert and co-exist with humans. But hidden co-existence is not enough for Mary…

I really enjoyed this issue – while the idea of vampires being tired of hiding in the shadows and deciding to take over is far from new to the genre it is still intriguing and straight off from the first issue it has me wanting to follow on to the next issues. Elements remind me of other vampire series I’ve enjoyed – as I said the moral ambiguity is reminiscent of Ultraviolet (especially a later scene where the vampire killer in the ruined city finds a woman and tries to kill her while she scream wait, you just turn up, tell me I was attacked by a vampire and expect it is okay for me to let you just kill me? As with Ultraviolet’s vampire killers you are made to question if the vamp slayers are also immoral killers too), while the relationship between Mary and Andrew reminds me a little of Nick and Jeanette in Forever Knight, he tired of his vampire state and trying to reclaim his humanity by atoning for centuries of misdeeds while she clearly has no such qualms and actually enjoys being a vampire and has no wish to be ‘cured’. And yet, like Jeanette with Nick, despite these differences she clearly still has strong feelings for Andrew. It is, as I said, very Vertigo, but the mention that her vampire army, if it rises, will have to face the caped heroes, ties it into the DCU continuity, albeit a much darker, supernaturally tinged area of it, and it will be interesting to see where it goes; with centuries of plotting I’d imagine Mary has considered facing superpowered opponents at some point and I’m intrigued to see how she plans to deal with them.

All Star Western #1

By Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Moritat

And to another of week four’s New 52 releases and another that seems to have strolled in from the Vertigo side of DC’s world: All Star Western. And as with I, Vampire, there is, though, a link to the main DCU, albeit a historical link since this is set in the 19th century, opening with a beautiful view of late 1800s Gotham City, old Western style steam locomotives (with those distinctive large chimneys and the cow catchers) pulling into a raised station while the harbour in the background is a forest of masts from tall ships. It’s a nice set up, quickly establishing the era in one, large splash page. Disembarking from the train is a grizzled, scarred, familiar face – Jonah Hex, leading his horse off the train, clad in his trademark Confederate uniform. The Old West has come to the expanding big city, it seems, but even in the urban setting there are still bushwhackers to beware of and a gang in a dingy back alley make the mistake of trying to rob the passing cowboy…

You shouldn’t be in Bandit’s Roost alone!” yells one of the gang”

Ah ain’t alone…” Hex mutters, pulls his pistols, “Ah got two friends with me.”

As you might expect the would be muggers are swiftly disabused of their notion of easy, small town rube as prey in the big city as Hex simply guns them down. Open plains or the more uncomfortable (for him), closed in environs of a rapidly expanding big city, Hex is not a man to be messed with.

Across town Doctor Doctor Amadeus Arkham has been summoned to a grisly crime scene by Gotham Police detective Lofton, much against the wishes of Chief Cromwell, who is arguing with Lofton in a blood-splattered room, over the body of a butchered prostitute. On the walls is scrawled in blood ‘Metus’; Arkham translates this as ‘fear’ and it quickly transpire that several other prostitutes have been found, similarly carved up and with a word in a different language painted on the wall in their blood. Someone is sending a message. At this point Hex turns up, also called for by Lofton who wants to use his unique bounty hunting skills. The Chief is firmly opposed to both Arkham and Hex, so Arkham proposes he and Hex investigate privately and turn over any information – and the kudos for any subsequent capture – to the police.

Hex prefers to work alone but grudgingly takes the doctor with him as he trawls dive bars and back streets in search of information on the Gotham Butcher. There are some nice little details even in these short scenes, such as a clearly visible bridge under construction in the background of one street fight, quite obviously Gotham’s equivalent of New York’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge, being built, another nice detail setting the period and showing a bit of care by the artist. In one bar/bardello Hex disentangles himself from Arkham’s attempts to psychoanalyse him (the doctor is almost as curious about Hex’s mental landscape as he is that of the serial killer) when he recognises one prostitute as an old accquantance, who he approaches for information. When a would be client hassles her Hex reacts predictably and wallops him, leading to a good, old-fashioned bar-room brawl, with Arkahm watching from below a table and re-considering his initial analysis of Hex’s pathology in light of the fact he does display certain moral codes, such as protecting his lady friend and his desire to bring in the killer.

There are obvious parallels to the infamous murders of Jack the Ripper here – the victims all prostitutes, all butchered and mutilated rather than simply murdered. But the psychoanalytic angle of Arkham and the rough justice approach of Hex bring a new angle to it. One of the more famous myths surrounding the Ripper murders was that it was all covered up by a Masonic conspiracy involving senior Masons who were all leading figures in society, and here we have a mystery suspect identified only by a silver skull ring, which we soon discover (at a society party where Hex’s Confederate uniform causes great offence) that a large number of Gotham’s movers and shakers wear just such a ring and belong to secret society. Is the killer one of them? If so is he operating with their sanction? Or a rogue killer that they are covering for? Hex quickly realises they in over their head at this gathering and he and the doctor withdraw to reconsider their approach in light of this revelation. Meanwhile a very personal message is sent by the murderer to try and discourage Hex and get him to leave, but the killer clearly doesn’t know Hex, who grits his teeth and declares if the killer wants to make it personal then he’s fine with that. You know he isn’t going to stop…

A really enjoyable entry into the Jack the Ripper re-imagined sub genre, nicely crossing the Victorian detective yarn with the Old West and a hint of possible supernatural or conspiracy (or both) lurking behind these murders, while the mention of the Wayne family and the introduction of a certain Mayor Cobblepot link this historical fiction to the main DCU, although again with a lengthy detour through Vertigo country. Compelling stuff and like I, Vampire it certainly did the job of making me want to read more, in fact I am actively looking forward to the next issue.