Creating compelling tales of the imagination, it's not rocket science, is it? DC managed it for a couple of decades, in the middle of the last century. And now, via the Vertigo imprint, they dip another toe into the water, with a collection of stories 'suggested for mature readers'. That means tits and swearing, kids.
I was curious to see what a Strange Adventures revival, under the Vertigo imprint, would offer. Let's see, shall we?
- The cover, a trippy number drawn by Paul Pope and candy coloured by Lovern Kindzierski, features an astronaut and a scantily clad young lady. That's one for the mature readers. It's not unattractive but is hobbled by the ugly, inappropriate banner ad for the Green Lantern movie.
- Case 21: The first story takes place in the usual dystopian future as a world-weary and terribly tiresome tattooist has a bad day. It features a script with a couple of clever ideas by Selwyn Hinds (apparently delighted to have free reign to cuss in a DC comic), scratchily effective art by Denys Cowan and John Floyd, deliberately wonky - and decidely unattractive - lettering by Sal Cipriano, and fine colouring by Cris Peter. It also has an ending only the blindest of bats could fail to see coming a mile off (probably a cyborg bat with virtual reality wings at that).
- The White Room: Juan Bobillo, who did such cute work on Marvel's She-Hulk title a few years ago, turns up here with a decidedly different style. Working in full colour, he produces soft, enticing illustrations for Talia Hershewe's bittersweet tale of a world in which people embrace false experiences over the real.
- All the Pretty Ponies: Virtual experiences also play a part in Lauren Beukes' story, in which a young designer and her well-connected boyfriend learn that they shouldn't mess around with other people's heads. Tightly scripted, it's superbly illustrated by Inaki Miranda, who finds a proper contrast between the worlds of the haves and have nots. And the intelligent colours of Eva De La Cruz are the cherry on top.
- Partners: Two teens are on the run, but is either of them a true friend to the other? That's the question posed in a sad, wacky story of fear and codependency from Peter Milligan. Hitch the absorbing, teasing script to the clean artwork of Sylvain Savoia - a little reminiscent of Mike Allred's line - and we have a winner.
- Ultra-the Multi-Alien: Writing and drawing, Jeff Lemire revisits one of DC's oddest Silver Age heroes. I appreciate the craft he brings to the story, the control, but Lord, it's a downer as our hero travels a million miles beyond melancholy. Kudos to Jose Villarrubia for a bright, breezy colouring job that makes this tale of literal alienation all the sadder.
- Refuse: A woman who's had her baby taken away because she's rubbish in the cleaning department finds something new to love in this body shocker. David Cronenberg would salute writer/artist Ross Campbell.
- The Post-Modern Prometheus. A man walks into a bar. A very unusual man. And the convention of the barroom tale almost excuses the narrative style chosen by writer/artist Kevin Colden. Almost. I found the long monologue, as our protagonist tells the story of his disturbing, desperately sad life, made for a drab reading experience. And when we return to dialogue, on the final page, the relationship laid out doesn't work. Nevertheless, an interesting experiment, with some subtle satire.
- A 'True Tale' From Saucer Country: George is a UFO nut, and one day he meets the aliens. Or does he? Paul Cornell delivers a typically sharp script and has fun with the narration. And 's artwork is spot-on for this tale set in Fifties America - unshowy but accomplished. George looks to me like classic comic artist Gil Kane - no stranger to Strange Adventures - and if I'm not imagining that, I'm likely missing some clever meta-fictive flight of fancy. Then there's the name - George Kashdan was one of the creators of space star Tommy Tomorrow. And look, the panel above (click to enlarge) is definitely winking at us ... oh, I'm probably overthinking.
- Spaceman: The only one of the stories trumpeted on the cover, this would be my least favourite. And the sole strip that looks set to continue. Brian Azzarello's script has a couple of future junkmen chatting about the news that their apparent creator has died. A bit of effing and blinding, imaginative but nigh-unintelligible future slang, ultra-violence motivated by gay panic ... what's to like? Well, Eduardo Risso's art is chunkily attractive, Patricia Mulvihill's colours are great and Clem Robins letters like the veteran he is. It's not enough, though, the strip has the tone of a shouty adolescent and I'm too old for that.
And I doubt I'll be reading future issues of Strange Adventures if Vertigo is going to bring the gloom to this extent. Yes, there's good work here. And undoubtedly, the original series - which ran from 1950-73 - had its downbeat endings. But here it's downbeat beginnings and middles too. Would it really be so uncool to have one or two tales of unalloyed wonder in there? Stories with drama, yes, but optimism too?
Shouldn't a book titled Strange Adventures take us soaring to the stars, not bring us down to Earth with a bump?