Column: Retronomicon: Gangland

By J. Keith Haney

Alonso, Axel (editor). Gangland. DC/Vertigo ( April 1, 2000). ISBN-13: 978-1563896088.

DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint made a run on anthology series in the late 1990s, beginning with the four-part miniseries, Weird War Tales (reviewed last month) and culminating in the short-lived monthly series, Flinch. We can infer that sales on the preceding miniseries had been large enough to justify the launch of a monthly title and yet, Flinch only lasted a little over a year before sinking beneath the waves. You could make the argument that anthologies are tough sells by their very nature. You’re never sure what you’re going to get and the quality needs to be strong on all your stuff for it to stand out. In fact, as we look at the immediate follow-up to Weird War Tales, Gangland, we begin to see the beginnings of the seed of rot that would sink the whole notion of Vertigo anthologies.

The series billed itself as “The Unusual Suspects”, promising a touch of the weird placed side-by-side with the very real horrors of gang life of any era. It is a promise that very few stories delivered in this series, though the ones that did are worth highlighting. Dave Gibbons, legendary artist of Watchmen, serves up the anthology’s best story with the sci-fi piece, “The Bear”, chronicling a Russian gangster’s brutal comeback in 2017 over the rival that nearly killed him with a car bomb. It is a vicious, unsentimental, unforgiving story that never once glosses over its own brutality. A close second is Simon Revelstroke and Richard Corben’s “Killer Smile”, which follows a Hell’s Kitchen gangster escaping an ambush, only to run headlong into his own past…which happens to include an old friend he buried with it. Saying any more would give too much away. Suffice to say, its prose and tone mirror the novels of Andrew Vachss and it features the most disturbing smile this side of the Joker. Third place for Best in Show for this series goes to David Lloyd’s “The Big Snooze”. This co-creator of the original V for Vendetta gives a decent twist to the old hard-boiled death-row story by having its narrator be a German Shepherd who once belonged to a mobster and then a cop. Like the doomed protagonist of a noir film, our dog just makes that one mistake that takes it all away from him.

A few of the other pieces deserve an honourable mention for being original variants on the crime theme. Peter Kuper draws a silent story called “Chains” that tracks the drug trade from harvested poppy to drive-by shooting in the space of three pages. “Platinum Nights” by Lucius Shepherd and James Romberger tells the story of a young Puerto Rican gangsta who mistakenly gets a platinum credit card through the mail. At the urging of his friend, he decides to party on it until they get thrown out…but there’s a final price that money won’t be able to settle. Ed Brubaker and Eric Shanower’s “Small Time” is a trip down Memory Lane for a small-time grifter. He recounts getting into the game as a boy growing up in 1975 Orange County at the Park Point Condominium Complex. The low-key probing of the respectable fa├žade of the middle class makes it strangely moving. Joe R. Lansdale and Rick Klaw’s excellent script on “The Initiation”, a Texas tall tale about a trio of kids mucking up a would-be gang member’s initiation, almost makes you forget the atrocious artwork by Tony Salmons. Finally, “Electric China Death” is classic Twilight Zone stuff, which involves two protection racket mobsters finding out firsthand what truly protects a Chinese restaurant they’ve been shaking down.

Okay, it’s got all this going for it. So, why do I say that this series has problems? Because all the other stories in this series hit so many sour notes as to lose the music. “Your Special Day” has a decent-enough script by Doselle Young, listening to the narration of a suicidal hitman at a mobster wedding. But Frank Quitely’s artwork ruins it by going so over the top as to be at the same altitude as the Hubble Telescope. Making this entire family the most-heavily-armed clan this side of the Hatfields and McCoys steamrolls over whatever decent pathos existed in the script. I’m certain that it was intended to be humorous, but it comes off as annoying. “Clean House” has a similar problem. Brian Azzarello delivers one of his usual high-caliber scripts about a mob informant making a sudden, vicious exit from Witness Protection. But Tim Bradstreet’s artwork, while rich with his usual detail, has absolutely no storytelling flow. It’s like someone took a bunch of photos and decided to call it animation. Jamie Delano and Randy DuBurke’s “Big Shot”, which tells the story of a femme fatale and her role in a pair of corporate power plays that suggests a time loop, has excellent story and artwork…and absolutely no business in this anthology. It fails to really match the crime theme that Gangland promotes.

Darko Macan and Kilian Plunkett give us the more-boring brother of “Killer Smile” with “Gang Buff”, a totally uninspired piece about a Depression era dentist getting involved in bootlegging and dying with a smile on his face. The single biggest failure of the script is that you manage not to care anything about anybody on stage. Tayyar Ozkou’s “Original Gangster” is just as equally the flipside of “Chains”, making a very UNoriginal analogy between prehistoric men and modern gangsters in a silent three-page story. I loathe pieces that pretend to have insights as obvious as a fluorescent brick under the arm. But the absolute nadir of this collection is “Worldwide Gangster Robots”, which serves up the worst of both worlds. Scott Cunningham’s “story” is a nonstop rant about the fabled Men In Black, their real agenda, and how to fight them. This was supposedly inspired by “the rants of Francis E. Dec, Esquire”…Such a pity that it didn’t inspire an actual story that needed this ludicrous title to even pretend to fit into the anthology’s theme. Daniel Zezeli’s art is, sadly, a perfect match for the story, a charcoal-heavy series of panels that are so murky as to kill what little storytelling that they might have possessed.

I absolutely loathe writing a bad review of any kind. My theory is that there is enough bad stuff out there that real critics hardly need to take out a highlighter to show off sections of it. But, given that Weird War Tales heralded such a promising start to the Vertigo anthologies, it is just as equally important to show where the missteps started. For that, you have to look at Gangland. There is enough good material to keep it from being a complete failure, but it manages enough pointless mistakes to take itself out of the winner’s circle.

You can buy Gangland from Amazon.com.