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Vertigo Crime’s Soul-Searching Violence

Graphic novels like ‘Area 10,’ ‘Bronx Kill’ appeal for mercy

Jun. 21, 2010
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Distinguished by arresting black-and-white art, DC Comics’ Vertigo Crime imprint shares a high-contrast look, fast action, and a macabre allure with DC’s incipient 1930s comic books. Like many early DC stories, two of Vertigo Crime’s six newest graphic novels, Area 10 and The Bronx Kill, take place on the periphery of police work. With their emotionally charged content, though, these new books are a world away.

Area 10, by comic/TV/film/online animation writer Christos N. Gage and prolific comic artist Chris Samnee, is a shocking page-turner that pits New York Police Department Detective Adam Kamen against an amorphous legion of practitioners in the crude, mystical science of trepanning. Whether you’ve heard of trepanning or not, be glad this book isn’t in color. In the realistic gross-out sweepstakes, Area 10 comes second only to Jason Aaron and R.M. Guéra’s Scalped.

What makes Area 10’s graphic violence doubly disturbing is its story’s grounding in reality. Gage’s Detective Kamen embodies certain basic human qualities: We all question our own powers of perception from time to time, most of us want to protect the defenseless, and many of us would sacrifice our lives to save our loved ones. Kamen’s battle with the trepanners (and/or his own mind) interests us because we see glimpses of these qualities in him.

Gage’s artful script turns police and medical procedures into a kind of soul-searching. Samnee’s shifting perspectives from later, aerial, and ground-level views, long-distance all the way down to face-to-face, put the reader inside the action. His heavy use of black shadow—no gray in this book—adds drama and portent to the characters’ expressions, and the story’s first few supernatural sequences are so brief and cleverly drawn that they make us question our own reading of the story.

Peter Milligan’s story The Bronx Kill shares Area 10’s dramatic structure. Milligan’s protagonist Martin Keane is a writer tortured by his family’s past. Martin’s lovely wife, Erin, encourages him to confront and conquer that past. To test Martin’s courage, Milligan bombards his and Erin’s relationship with obstacles of folkloric, mystical and even prosaic origins. Several pages of The Bronx Kill are mock manuscript of a novel in progress, wherein Martin appears to be trying to rewrite his own life.

The familial, highly localized action set in the Bronx and Cork, Ireland, gives the self-absorbed Martin a vivid, approachable personality. Artist James Romberger’s quickly rendered work is so sketch-like that it appears, like Martin’s novel, to be an unfinished draft. At first the unstylized, undetailed art makes it difficult to discern between characters, but ultimately it complements those characters’ explosive behavior. The perspective is mainly aerial, which might suggest a certain Catholic judgment of the characters. Or Romberger simply might be trying to evoke life in the Bronx, as seen from police helicopters, high-rise apartments and the occasional bird.

Area 10 and The Bronx Kill differ from their DC predecessors in their language, which reflects modern New York in all its candor and crudity. All the bluntness and bloodletting in these books actually reinforce an artistic appeal for tenderness and mercy. Both books demand—and merit—second readings. My only gripe with the books is over the lengthy dying-villain soliloquies used in both. Yes, we want to know the villains’ motivations, but comic books need more clichés like record collections need more dust.

Vertigo Crime’s four other new titles are Dark Entries, an occult detective story by writer Ian Rankin and artist Werther Dell’Edera; Filthy Rich, a greed-and-lust tale by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Victor Santos; The Chill, a thriller by writer Jason Starr and artist Mick Bertilorenzi that, like The Bronx Kill, deals with Celtic mythology; and The Executor, a tale of being haunted by an old flame’s past by writer Jon Evans and artist Andrea Mutti.


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