When I learned, after reading the first issue of Lee Bermejo’s new monthly Vertigo series Suiciders, that the writer/artist made his home in Italy, I can’t say I was terribly surprised, given that the basic set-up for this book appears to have torn at least a page from spaghetti exploitation stalwart Joe D’Amato’s post-apocalyptic “thrillers” Endgame and 2020 Texas Gladiators, but please don’t get the wrong idea — derivative as the premise here may be, I still think we’re in for a fun and intelligent ride that promises to explore issues of economic inequality and media saturation in a more straightforward way than most mainstream comics, particularly those of a superhero-ish bent, can or would ever dare to. The Vertigo imprint in general appears to be hitting something of a creative stride once again, after far too many years, and while so far sales numbers for their recently-added titles like FBP and Coffin Hill have generally been rather weak, let’s hope they decide to see them through and wait for them to gain an audience, because there’s some very promising stuff coming from the house that Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, et.al. built, and sooner or later the comics-buying public is bound to start paying attention — right?
Well, possibly. Or at least hopefully, at any rate — and you can add Suiciders to the list of new (relatively speaking) Vertigo books that definitely deserve more attention than they’re probably likely to get. Bermejo is certainly a “known quantity” as an artist, given that his detailed, gritty, realistic illustrations have been featured in some rather high-profile DC projects in recent years, most notably the Joker graphic novel and Before Watchmen : Rorschach (both done in collaboration with writer Brian Azzarello), and he was allowed to showcase both his writing and drawing skills on Batman : Noel, so a “solo” monthly of his own was probably due to happen at some point here, but I honestly couldn’t have predicted that he’d tackle his turn in the spotlight with this much confidence and clarity. The world of Suiciders seems to have arrived on comic store shelves fully realized down to the last detail, and even though we’re only given tantalizing glimpses into it here in issue #1, it’s a fairly safe bet that most readers — particularly those with a penchant for “after doomsday” scenarios such as myself — will be left hungry for a whole lot more, even at $3.999 a pop (incidentally, has anyone else noticed Vertigo quietly sneaking more and more of their titles up a dollar? Sure, they usually give you a high-gloss cover for that extra buck you’re laying out, but it’s still a drag).
Here’s a brief rundown of the particulars, for those inclined to know more before they buy : in the future, L.A. has been devastated by a massive earthquake (I guess the whole nuke angle is kinda played out) and in the aftermath of that catastrophe, rather than rebuild per se, the powers that be have just decided to start all over from scratch — for the 1%. Hence, the city has bifurcated into two distinct regions — the glitzy and wealthy New Angeles, and the decimated and impoverished “old city.” It appears that the division isn’t too terribly dissimilar to the prevailing socio-economic structure of apartheid-era South Africa, where blacks far outnumbered whites but had no real voice in government despite doing all the menial labor that the privileged minority counted on for basic survival — and for their trouble, found themelves warehoused in desperately poor, sickeningly inhumane “homelands” on the other side of a fence from their social “betters.” We might think that’s all a thing of the past, I suppose, but the situation in Israel today isn’t much different, with Palestinians living in squalid conditions in the outdoor concentration camp that is Gaza and having to carry a pass and proceed through a security checkpoint to get to their jobs in places like Jeruslaem, Tel Aviv, etc. where they do the blue-collar and service-related work the wealthier, lighter-skinned folks are dependent upon — and it’s not like we’re immune to this sort of de-humanizing bullshit in the US, either, as the rich increasingly flee to mansions in gated “communities” where you have to present ID to gain access, while the poor, whose labor the folks behind gates are both exploiting and in need of, see their inner-city neighborhoods deteriorate further and further at the same time their social safety net is being raided and squandered by the those who already have way more than enough.
What to do to distract the populace from this abhorrent state of affairs? The Romans called it “bread and circuses,” these days we call it pro sports and TV (because we don’t feel the need to keep the peasants fed anymore), and in New Angeles they call it “Suiciding” — a sort of high-tech combination of American Gladiators and MMA fighting that you can definitely see coming down the pipeline in the next 10-to-20 years (if that). The biggest star of the Suicide Ring is a rugged, handsome bruiser known as The Saint, and while he appears to be our ostensible “hero” of the story, Bermejo wisely plays it close to the vest and reveals very little about him beyond the fact that there’s more going on with him than meets the eye. Shit, we don’t even know his real name or anything of substance about his background yet, but you just get a feeling that there are sides to him that his well-oiled PR machine would rather have the public — and, by extension, us readers — kept in the dark about.
The bulk of the action in this debut installment is consumed with The Saint’s latest championship battle, and Bermejo makes you feel every punch and kick with his fluid pacing and high-octane visuals, ably abetted by colorist extraordinaire Matt Hollingsworth, who imbues the penciler/inker’s pages with a radically different, but no less impressive, palette that Barbara Ciardo did on Joker and Before Wathcmen : Rorschach (a book I’m now convinced Bermejo should have written himself because, let’s face it, Azzarello’s script was a lazy, uninspired mess). All in all, the two of them concoct a feast for the eyes here that you’ll find yourself studying in detail for fear of missing anything too intricate, awesome, or both.
But how does it read? Pretty damn well, I’m pleased to report. Bermejo has a solid grip on both characterization and world-building, and the sub-plot that runs concurrent with the main storyline, about a hapless band of refugees looking to sneak into New Angeles to provide a better life for their families, is both believable and repulsive in equal measure. It doesn’t end well (spoiler alert), and you never expect it to (cancel said spoiler alert), but you feel it all the same when tragedy strikes, nonetheless — a sure sign that a writer knows what he or she is doing. Not every script sets out to reinvent the wheel, but when the author is able to get you to invest yourself in their story despite the fact that you know where it’s headed, well , that’s always worthy of a measure of respect, in my book.
And my respect — whatever that’s worth — is definitely something that Bermejo has won back with Suiciders #1. More or less everyone who participated in the Before Watchmen debacle (with the exception of Amanda Conner, who did sublime work — as she always does) saw their reputations knocked down a good few notches in the eyes of many, myself included, but this book is just the right combination of socially aware critique, sci-fi dystopianism, and bad-ass action to keep me hooked for a good long while. There’s a grim, remorseless, polarized, and utterly believable future society beckoning for us to come explore it in these pages, and Bermejo and Hollingsworth are proving themselves, at least to this point, to be excellent tour guides.
Fair warning, though : things look as though they’re gonna get pretty dangerous pretty fast, so I’m thinking some Saint-style body armor will probably be in order if you want to make it out of Suiciders alive.