October 23, 2010
The latest Vertigo Crime graphic novel comes from a writer who is no stranger to Vertigo or crime. Denise Mina writes crime fiction based in her native Scotland, but she’s best known to me for her thirteen-issue run on “Hellblazer.” It was a good run, most notable for how John Constantine wound up saving the world through the power of schadenfreude. With that in mind, I was looking forward to this particular entry. The end result, like most Vertigo Crime books, is a mixed bag.
“A Sickness in the Family” follows a particularly eventful time in the life of the Usher family. Though it’s Christmas, the family unit is slowly coming apart due to things like father Ted’s decision to sell his cabinet making company, leaving his daughter Amy without a career, son William’s expulsion from college and drug habit, wife Biddy’s affair, and adopted son Sam’s anxiety over his place in the family. There’s also grandma Martha, but no one thinks she’s aware of what’s going on most of the time. I’d include the couple in the floor below the house, but it’s their death under mysterious circumstances that gets this story going.
Watching the Ushers slowly disintegrate as a family is perversely entertaining for most of the book. None of the characters, save Sam, are particularly likable so it’s fun to see their lives slowly disintegrate as they scramble to serve their own self-interests. It also helps that Mina keeps their actions grounded in reality, and therefore plausible, so that it doesn’t become an outright black comedy. She also sets up an air of mystery about the whole endeavor in the way that it’s suggested that the family’s demise might have supernatural origins.
However, she has one thing working against her from the very first page: the lettering. In comics, the best kind of lettering is the kind that you don’t notice, and the font they used for this book sticks out like a sore thumb. I’ve never had an issue with letterer Clem Robins’ work before, but his work here gives Mina’s prose a stilted, flat feel to it.
It’s distracting, to be sure, but it’s not as big an issue as the ending. Taken on its face, it feels like a rote exercise in Tragedy 101 by putting the screws to Sam in a way that doesn’t feel earned. I finished reading this the other day and felt like I’d been kicked in the nuts after I was done. Thinking about it, I suppose that it could be interpreted another way, as it’s entirely possible that the narrator could have skewed the telling of the tale in his favor. Though it’s possible, it doesn’t really work since that possibility is only left to our imagination instead of being realized in the story itself.
As for the art, Antonio Fuso does a decent here. His sharp, angular style reminds me of Sean Phillips (always a good thing) and his storytelling is generally clear, though there were a few parts where it was hard to tell exactly what was going on from panel to panel. Fuso also does a good enough job with the characters themselves and the emotions they’re called on to show, but there’s nothing in this regard that really sticks with you -- leaving me to think that there was room for improvement in this area.
Overall, it’s an alright entry in the Vertigo Crime canon. Not as good as “Dark Entries” or “Fogtown” and not as abysmal as “The Chill.” If you’re like me and you’re buying all of these to see how the imprint has developed over time, then you won’t be too disappointed. As for everyone else, I’d recommend Mina’s “Hellblazer” work over this.