Spearheaded by editor Mark Doyle, DC recently announced an ambitious relaunch of their adult comic imprint, DC Vertigo, with four new titles in 2018 and more to follow in 2019. These comics are socially relevant, with diverse casts and creative teams. The concepts are fertile ground for many months of stories and art.
There's Border Town, by Eric Esquivel and Ramon Villalobos, about monsters from Mexican folklore and tensions in an Arizona border town; American Carnage by Bryan Edward Hill and Leandro Fernandez, a crime story about infiltrating a group of white supremacists; Goddess Mode by Zoë Quinn and Robbi Rodriguez, a futuristic magical-girl virtual reality tale; and Hex Wives by Ben Blacker and Mirka Andolfo, about witches rising up against their male oppressors.
SYFY WIRE spoke with the four writers of the 2018 DC VERTIGO books about their concepts, real-world influences, and how they reflect their own experiences.
Esquivel on Border Town: I started pitching to Vertigo back when Jamie S. Rich (who is now part of the Batman team) was in charge. After reading about a year's worth of ideas that were basically just terrible cover songs of other peoples' books, Jamie gave me the best advice I've ever received in my life, which was: "only pitch stories that nobody else could tell."
So I took that advice, and I went apes*** with it. Border Town is informed by the weird relationship I have with my ethnicity (I'm a biracial Mexican/Irish guy), the scary stories my cousins traumatized me with when I was a niño, the weird culture of the town I moved to right before my sophomore year of high school — basically all of the stuff I never thought anyone in the world would care about, except for me. And, insanely, it looks like this is the book that's going to define my career.
Blacker on Hex Wives: It began in earnest after a few discussions with my wife at the end of which she said, 'I just can't deal with working for men right now.' She'd described to me the male company heads and directors who, in her capacity as a consultant, had insulted her and others at the companies, minimized her work and the work of other women, and had ridden their privilege to the top without any awareness of that privilege. The things she described experiencing and seeing weren't blatant (usually) or loud. They were insidious and baked into the way certain — I'd argue most — men behave. I include myself in this. There is ingrained behavior that men pick up simply by living in this world that is intrinsically misogynistic or diminishing or condescending to women. So, that was on my mind.
One of my favorite shows when I stayed home sick from school as a kid was Bewitched reruns (a lot because I had an enormous crush on Elizabeth Montgomery). I saw an episode again a few years ago when Mad Men was still on the air, and a spark flickered somewhere in my mind about how the two shows pushed up against each other, as well as the gender politics of both shows. Finally, it boiled down to a question: What if Samantha Stephens wasn't a suburban housewife married to an ad-man because she wanted to be? What if she had no knowledge of her true nature, and the show unfolded as she discovered it? I pitched this idea to Mark Doyle who, unknown to me, was then deep into the Vertigo relaunch. He fast-tracked the book, which was incredibly flattering and intimidating, and here we are.
Hill on American Carnage: I've always been someone who doesn't like boogeymen hiding in the darkness. I run towards and through my fears, not away from them. After the North Carolina attack by Dylann Roof and the way it seemed extremity rose in concert with it, I wanted answers. I wanted to know why people wanted to kill me. I wanted to know how people grew from infants into people that spent the majority of their time in a war mentality with other Americans. It all started with a need to see the white supremacist movement up close.
During that period, I heard a childhood friend had joined a skinhead, alt-right — whatever name you want to give it — organization, and this was a kid I grew up with, someone that was a good friend of mine. I tracked him down, and I met with him, and I didn't want to judge or yell or fight. I just wanted to know why he made those choices. After meeting with my (former) friend, I started going to message boards with a ginned up identity, not to bait people, but just to talk and listen.
Then I came clean, and reached out to some people in the movement through law-enforcement friends of mine that could make the connection (and they warned me that it would be dangerous, but I never listen to that). From those conversations, all that personal research, standing in front of the dragon and listening to its dogma, the story of American Carnage was born.
Andy Khouri at DC Vertigo reached out to me and asked me if I had something that fit the brand. I told him, "I have THIS, but I don't know if you want to publish it. It might hurt a little." To his credit, Mark Doyle's credit, Jamie Rich and DC, in general, they were supportive from the beginning and they wanted me to bring American Carnage to them. So I did, and it's the right format for the project. They saw what I saw and wanted to help me share that vision with readers.
Quinn on Goddess Mode: It came from frustrations with fighting for a better world that I can't talk about in any other format. Ultimately, I wanted to make a story about trying to be a person who has to balance themselves between having a life and fighting an overwhelmingly unfair and asymmetric power struggle they didn't opt into with other people who got the same bulls*** deal. It's a long, uphill battle that usually comes to you rather than the other way around, and in doing so, it changes you in ways that often don't make you stronger. Sometimes they mean the world to you and become your chosen family and your strength, sometimes they seem like they were grown in a vat specifically to antagonize you in particular.
Progress is a lot messier than the alternatives, because building something new is harder than shouting "No!" and trying to kick it over, or ignoring it outright. I want to explore these tensions in an honest way that doesn't do the 'both sides are bad' trash or oversimplify into "why can't we all just get along" gift store t-shirt slogan moralizing, either. I'm a messy person. I want to make something that embraces messiness instead of demonizing it or apologizing for it.
Since I'm a gigantic nerd, naturally this takes the format of magical girls in a cyberpunk setting fighting giant monsters.
Timeliness and Relevance
Esquivel on Border Town: Our book occupies a really delicate space. Border Townis informed by the real world... But there are also shape-shifting monsters in it. We're not the news. We're not "tragedy porn." We're a horror comic featuring monsters from Aztec mythology, and a bunch of kids who look exactly like my friend group when I was a teenager.
As a Chicano guy working in comics, I'm expected to address the concerns of my community and my country while I'm telling an entertaining story. And I am both willing and able to rise to that challenge. But it makes my job harder than my peers'. Having said all that, Border Town #1 opens up with the convergence of a migrant family crossing The Sonoran Desert, a group of heavily-armed militia members who are patrolling the border, and a legendary figure of Aztec myth clawing its way out of a portal to Mictlan (Aztec Hell).
Blacker on Hex Wives: Talking about gender politics really hasn't been, nor should it be, just topical. I think more than informing Hex Wives itself, the #MeToo movement has made more public the conversations about gender parity in the world and hopefully the book can be a part of those conversations. I think the book tackles a lot of the subjects that #MeToo has brought to light — the big ones like assault and predation — but as interesting to me from a dramatic point of view are the small and insidious ways men control women. I hear men say these are things they don't even realize they're doing it; they are just behavioral facts of modern living, things learned or picked up or with which we're inundated from youth, for generations. And they really can be so, so small-seeming.
You know, the example we always see is when a man tells a woman to smile. I'm certain that man doesn't see the patronizing superiority in that; he thinks it's innocent. But, of course, it isn't. It's controlling and condescending. There are a million of these examples.
Hill on American Carnage: "I honestly didn't know what would happen when I spoke to the white supremacist groups, especially in person. I didn't know if suddenly I'd be in a fistfight, or something worse. A few people started in with slurs from the beginning, but it didn't trigger me and I would endure it. I met with people either alone, or with just a pair of people, and I found that when you're sitting in front of someone, speaking with them, and you're not chasing confrontation, but listening, human nature takes over. Conversations started with the recruitment dialogue, the talking points — most of them expected me to be setting some sort of trap, but I wasn't. I was just listening. Listening while black, hahaha.
It takes effort to keep hate going. It's not in our nature to hate people who haven't done anything to us, so people would eventually, during the conversation, start opening up. Some of them were veterans who got screwed when they came back home. Some of them — most of them — were victims of the economic downturn and looking for pathways. Some were legacy true believers, the dogma handed down by their parents. Only one of the meetings threatened to erupt in violence, but that's why I would meet in a semi-public space.
Quinn on Goddess Mode: I've always believed in the ability for tech to be a tool of powerful social change, as long as it's used the right way. There's an inherent parallel between the story elements I want to explore with the progression of tech that had this blue sky "great equalizer" dream, but really just ended up enshrining pre-existing power dynamics. There's a potent parallel between technological systems and social systems that is worth exploring, especially as tech tries to avoid any social responsibility with engineering. I mean, look at Twitter or the last election. I want to make that kind of techno-libertarian smoke the whole pack, so to speak.
On a more surface level, I think being a tech dork myself helps me avoid some goofy stuff that's always bothered me with modern-day cyberpunk tropes, like floating semitransparent projected screens. I know it looks cool, but no one wants that. I'm interested in exploring more updated extrapolations of where tech might go, like quantum computing and network abstraction and other stuff that sounds like a made-up, Star Trek term, so I'm going to leave it at that.”
Esquivel on Border Town: There are no new stories, right? Every story that can be told has already been told. So the way we keep things fresh is by applying new perspectives to things. In the case of Border Town, it's basically an "alien invasion" story that was written and drawn by a couple of guys who are treated like criminal aliens by society. So stuff's going to play out a little differently than you might see in Stranger Things or Mars Attacks!
I love Frank Miller's Daredevil run. And a big reason for that is because he brought Irish Catholic verisimilitude to that character. All the parallels to the book of Job, Matt's mom being a nun, the omnipresent guilt — that was all informed by Frank's culture. That's all I'm trying to do with my career. I want to weaponize the stuff that makes me unique, and use it to create stories that people can dig — no matter what their ethnicity, nationality, or gender is.
The DC Vertigo Panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2018
From 6 to 7PM, Friday, July 20 in Room 23ABC at San Diego Comic-Con is the DC Vertigo panel, and Esquivel, Blacker, Hill and Quinn will all be on the dais to discuss their work. Also at the panel will be Sandman Universe's House of Whispers team Nalo Hopkinson and Domo Stanton, Border Town's Villalobos, Hex Wives' Andolfo,and two creators from 2019 DC Vertigo titles: High Level's Rob Sheridan and Second Coming's Mark Russell.