My 2009 Vertigo miniseries reading starts with Bang! Tango by Joe Kelly & Adrian Sabar (with Rodney Ramos on inks), a six-part miniseries with the first issue cover dated April 2009. Like a couple of other minis from about the same period, I never read this at the time, waiting for a collection that never came. It’s a crime story that revolves around a tango dancer with underworld connections. He’s on the run from a fatal mistake he made in New York, but his past has come back to haunt him in San Francisco.
In his “On The Ledge” essay at the time, Kelly talks about wanting to write a crime story, but struggling to come up with a fresh approach. Artist Sabar suggested the tango, which provided a visual representation for the sex and violence that drive the story. It is a striking concept, which does give the story a unique flavor. However, I think that giving protagonist Vinnie a public life plus a very secret private life could have been done any number of ways. He could have been on stage as an actor, a musician, or some other kind of dancer and it would have worked as well. I didn’t think the dance scenes needed to be as long as they are, since they establish atmosphere more than they advance the story. And I never warmed to Sabar’s art: it’s more cartoony than the dominant realistic Vertigo style. It took me awhile to place it, but it reminded me of Paul Gulacy.
Kelly took advantage of the “mature readers” tag to include lots of sex–some of it quite kinky–plus having a trannsexual main character (her trannsexuality is actually a key plot driver, so it’s not gratuitous). He’s also guilty of creating many cliche characters, especially the gangsters, but there’s also a black musician who is drawn in very broad strokes.
Having said all of that, I have to admit that Kelly really brought the story home in the end. In the usual crime noir style, a complex series of relationships emerge, and it becomes hard to tell if anyone is innocent. The last couple of issues present a dizzying series of reveals and double-crosses. I definitely did not see the ending coming, and I mean that in a good way.
The five-part miniseries Haunted Tank (written by Frank Marraffino, with art by Henry Flint) is one of the few recent Vertigo miniseries that did get a paperback collection. The covers were done by a series of high-profile artists (expected and unexpected), including Joe Kubert, Paul Pope, Michael W. Kaluta, and Ted McKeever. Marraffino’s alternate cover to the first issue also serves as the cover of the TPB. The new series is set during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and features the ghost of 19th-century Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart becoming the guardian of an M1 Abrams tank. It is commanded by an African-American Sergeant Stuart, who (at least initially) does not take kindly to the ghost’s outmoded attitudes and language concerning his race.
I have never read the original series, but I’m guessing the tone was very different. Much of the focus here is on the dialog about race between the General and his descendant, and on commentary about the war. While there are plenty of battle scenes–as would be expected in a traditional war comic–the central focus is more topical. There’s plenty of salty dialog among the tank crew, which is probably pretty realistic, if a bit cliched. The race debate between the two Stuarts occupies so much of the dialog that it threatens to overwhelm the action. There are also numerous flashbacks showing how the General’s behavior resulted in his ghostly status: he was cursed after raping a slave. This is a far less heroic origin than the original one, as I understand it. And while it furthers the historical record of racism, it’s mostly irrelevant to the war at hand.
In the end I found the update to be overly labored. I can understand the attraction of placing the Confederate ghost in the position of being guardian to a black descendant. But it overshadows the war story so much that it’s self-defeating. Between the discussion of race and the observations about the pointlessness of the Iraq war, at times it barely seems like a war story at all. I suppose that is the fate of contemporary war comics. Rick Veitch covered some of the same territory in his Army @ Love series, but his satirical treatment was far more entertaining.
2009 also included publication of the second of Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart’s Seaguy minis, Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye. Like the first one, this is so surreal that I was happy to just read an issue at a sitting. That’s plenty to absorb! When we last saw Seaguy (back in 2004: the cover of Issue #1 trumpets “The Long-Awaited Return!”) he had returned from a trip to the moon. Mickey Eye agents had engineered a reboot, replacing his best friend Chubby Da Choona with a parrot named Lucky El Loro. Seaguy can’t remember any details, but he used to have a boat, and now he hates the water. Lucky declares that Seaguy’s name is ironic.
Conspiracy was certainly hinted at in the previous mini: somebody is responsible for Seaguy’s reboot, after all. But this one is all about the secret hand behind the outwardly perfect, happy world that Seaguy inhabits. It’s a world that no longer needs heroes, so his desire to be one makes him a threat to the status quo. The old sea captain named Seadog is revealed to be a lot more important than he appears. He appears to be in charge of the lunar development, as well as “Phase 2” in New Venice (after being told “the eye is most pleased”). He also has designs on the lovely She-Beard, the warrior woman who Seaguy worships from afar. This series also features a diminutive ex-archenemy named Prof. Silvan Niltoid who is surely a veiled Morrison self-portrait, complete with bald head and dark glasses. The name sounds like an anagram, but I can’t place it (but the word “villain” could be part of it).
Seaguy winds up in the “Home For The Bewildered” and after his escape he leaves his Seaguy identity behind to become a bull dresser (a hilarious, surreal matador that is just what it sounds like). Meanwhile Seadog has taken Doc Hero (the last remaining superhero) away…and Seaguy remembers his love of the sea, and his heroic mission. At the big climax Seaguy interrupts the marriage of Seadog and She-Beard, and Doc Hero springs into action, flying people to safety as the Mickey Eye amusement park explodes. Seaguy finally gets his hero team, and even wins the heart of the now-beardless She-Beard.
It’s a happy ending, and one that has completely changed things in Seaguy’s world. And I have to say that the second mini helps to bring the first into better focus: it’s easier to get past the surreal elements to see where the story is going. The entire tale is a sunny, unironic superhero story at heart (not unlike Morrison’s famous Flex Mentallo miniseries). But Morrison has said that the series was planned as a trilogy, and he and Stewart still intend to get to the final miniseries (which was to be titled Seaguy Eternal, but recent mentions have just called it Seaguy 3). I look forward to reading the conclusion, however long the wait.
So we come to the end of the grand miniseries tour, at least for now. I started this blog in early 2011, so I’ve already written about most of the relevant Vertigo publications from 2010 to present.