Sunday, January 13, 2008

Delayed Reaction: Cairo

Cairo (DC/Vertigo), by G. Willow Wilson and M. K. Peter

Why’d I wait?: Trying to look at things from the publisher’s perspective, I think the original graphic novel format makes a lot of sense for Vertigo to explore, and possibly even become their main focus within the next few years.

From the perspective of a reader, however, they often times make for less attractive purchases. And when I say “reader,” I mean a Vertigo reader in the original sense—someone who’s been reading their books before the line congealed into a formalized imprint, when the graphic novel revolution had not yet arrived; someone who still goes to the comic shop weekly to pick up the 22-page, stapled comics.

This book in particular didn’t boast the strong hook of name creators, “I must own that!” art or a huge promotional push in the way that other recent Vertigo OGNs have. (Think Sloth, Can’t Get No, Pride of Baghdad, Sentences or Silverfish, for example).

Writer G. Willow Wilson was still a pretty much unknown quantity, her only prior published comics credit being Outsiders: Five of a Kind—Metamorpho/Aquaman #1 (which I rather liked). The fact that she was female, Muslim, 26 and a journalist all piqued my curiosity (Simply put, those aren’t the sort of vital stats one usually sees on Vertigo writers, let alone DC fifth week event writers), but she was a writer I was more, say, $2.99 interested in hearing from, rather than $24.99 interested in hearing from.

The artist is M. K. Perker, an artist and illustrator I’ve never read or even seen anything by. The cover image he provides is rather striking, but a quick flip through didn’t suck me in the way, say, Niko Henrichon’s lush Pride of Baghdad art would have.

Finally, the book seemed to lack the sort of buzz that demanded it be read as soon as possible. Doing a very quick and very lazy search, I see that quite a few bloggers and online commentators have mentioned it, but it never seemed to reach the sort of critical mass that other original graphic novels have, not even among the feminist super-comics fan portion of the blogosphere, who would naturally seem predisposed to championing the work of a young female writer capable of telling good super-comics featuring the likes of Rex Mason and Aquaman II (Gail Simone can’t write every comic her fans want her to, after all).

Oh, and also, I’m both poor and cheap. So why spend $25 on a literary graphic novel, the sort that my local libraries usually order?

Why now?: Because if finally showed up at my local library.

That, and the online chatter regarding the future of format, particularly in regard to Vertigo’s low-selling monthly pamphlets vs. their long-lived trade collection, moved this Vertigo OGN way up my “to read” list.

Well?: At the risk of oversimplifying my reaction after such a long, rambling answer to the first question in this “Delayed Reaction” format, I liked it.

I really liked it.

The art is rather unusual, to the extent it took me some getting used to. Perker’s story-telling chops are fairly well developed, and there were only two instances in the entire 160 pages where it got a bit muddy.

I dug his style, which at first struck me as rather amateurish. I’m not quite able to articulate it, but it evoked self-published work to me. Not that it wasn’t polished at all; it may be nothing more than the fact that the style he employs is similar to that of a lot of self-published artists I’ve seen selling minicomics at cons.

The character designs are quite distinct though, and he does a beautiful job on the places they occupy. The architecture, the street scenes, the vehicles and backgrounds—it’s all quite accomplished.

I can’t discuss his strongest points without getting into plot specifics, but suffice it to say he does a great jinn, a very distinct but incredibly cool-looking devil (it’s the insect liked crouched posture and scuttling that gets me) and a really neat scene where the hero grabs the sword (You’ll know what I’m talking about when you read it).

The art is also all black and white, which is an interesting choice. It carries the mood of the one-color cover throughout the entire story, and the interior art is shaded to the extent one doesn’t really miss the color, but now, thinking back, I wonder if it really was the best way to serve the story.

It does reduce the need for special effects sort of art. There are many points where the mundane and the magical cross paths in this story, and what of its greatest attributes is the rather matter-of-fact way it happens. If a jinn transforms from human shape to a more abstract, gaseous shape in a color comic, it adds a dimension to the act, a dimension that here isn’t necessary.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that the characters can just turn a corner and find a demon, or that a reader can turn a page and see two characters in flight on a magic carpet all of a sudden.

The story features a small ensemble cast of a half-dozen or so protagonist who all share an antagonist, their paths criss-crossing until six plots become three plots which ultimately become one.

There’s Ashraf, an Egyptian drug smuggler and all-around rogue; Kate, a young American woman from California traveling to the city to escape her own, Shaheed, a Lebanese-American coming to the Middle East to do something few Americans feel the need to have to do; Tova, a wounded Israeli soldier who finds herself smuggled into the city; Ali, a Morroccan newspaper reporter and columnist in love with Ashraf’s sister; and Shams, a jinn bound to a hookah that’s changed hands between a few of the characters, and who is charged with protecting a box containing the word “East” from a wicked and powerful gangster/magician.

It’s a fairly big cast and complicated plot, but Wilson juggles it all rather deftly, mixing elements of Middle East culture and mythology in such an incredibly naturally way that they never seem the least bit affected. (And any story involving devils, demons, genies and magic swords is going to lean very hard in the opposite directon of “natural”).

It’s not a perfect story, and there’s a panel or two near the climax where things get a little too goofy in terms of the Hollywood coalition of demographic stereotypes marching off together to do battle, but it’s a very well-crafted and, more important, enormously entertaining one.

Would I travel back in time to buy it off the shelf?: If I had $25 to blow, sure. I wouldn’t mind having this on my shelf at all, both to loan out to friends or occasionally reread.

I also kind of wish I had read it back in November so I could have done my part to talk it up, as Willow and Perker are both exciting talents with bright futures in the field, and I think this is a book that should naturally appeal to Vertigo’s traditional, 1990’s fan base in a way relatively few of their newer books do.

One more thing: If you’re interested in Cairo, my “Best Shots” colleague Michael C. Lorah interviewed Wilson last summer for Newsarama. You can read it here.


Anonymous said...

It's good to know that Vertigo is still in the habit of producing Vertigo-quality titles. They seemed to be having a rougher year in 2007.

Mike Lorah said...

I still haven't read that one myself, actually. I should see if the NYPL has a copy, though I've been surprised at how lacking their comic book selections often are.

Tony said...

"appeal to Vertigo’s traditional, 1990’s fan base in a way relatively few of their newer books do."

How do you mean? What's Vertigo doing different?

Caleb said...

How do you mean? What's Vertigo doing different?

I think the Vertigo of 2006-2008 or so has a less defined aesthetic...there's not the sort of "house style" they had at the beginning. I don't think this is a bad thing at all; in fact, it's probably a great thing.

Regarding Cairo, I just meant it's a story I could have seen being published at Vertigo in 1993 or 1999 or 2000; a lot of their OGNs (with the exception of maybe God Save the Queen) have explored different the sort of literary territory that book publishers have been getting into.

Cairo was very much the old school magical/mundane world juxtaposition that most Vertigo titles had back in the day (before, Preacher and Transmet kind of redefined the imprint as more high concept in general). Additionally, Cairo feels very much like the practically-a-superhero-book-but-not-really feel of the '90s Vertigo. With few changes, it could have been a DCU or WildStorm book.

If any of that makes sense.

G. Willow said...

Thanks for the kudos! Glad you enjoyed the book. And for the record, I think of it as an "old-school" Vertigo book too. The original Vertigo titles--Shade, Sandman, Preacher--were a huge influence on me in high school/college.