In 1993, DC Comics transitioned a number of their titles aimed at mature readers into a new line called Vertigo Comics. The brainchild of editor Karen Berger, the core idea behind Vertigo was to take those comics that were already being used to tell more complex stories and expand them outside of the strictures of the Comics Code Authority. The end result was a number of legendary series (Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man and Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, to name a few) which blended genre fiction with social commentary to create something never before seen in American comics.
Recently, Vertigo Comics decided to get back to basics just in time for their 25th anniversary. In addition to their revamping The Sandman with four new series spinning out of The Sandman Universe #1, they announced seven new on-going series cut from the same cloth as the original Vertigo line.
Hither comes Border Town – the first of these seven titles. Set in the town of Devil’s Fork, Arizona, the plot centers around Frank Dominguez, who – much like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – was forced to move across the country after one little fight and his mom getting scared. Yet Devil’s Fork contains dangers more menacing than over a dozen species of native lethally-venomous reptiles and skinhead gang-members.
The boundaries between this world and the next are weakening and creatures that take the form of your worst fears are now roaming the desert. It will fall to Frank and his fellow teenage outsiders to solve the mystery of what is really behind a series of violent deaths and deal with a problem the local authorities are quick to write off as being the work of “God-dang illegals.”
Border Town inspired controversy as soon as it was announced, due to a concept that was based around addressing issues of racism in the Southwestern United States through the lens of Aztec mythology. This prompted death threats against writer Eric M. Esquivel and talks of boycotting the new line, Vertigo Comics, DC Comics and everything Warner Bros. makes. All over a book that has no agenda beyond saying “racism exists and is a bad thing” while using literal boogeymen as a metaphor for how foolish people are when they let irrational fears control them.
I mention all this because, as a critic, it’s my job to consider the context of these things going into a work. Personally, I love analyzing and discussing this sort of thing and how the writer’s life influences the work, though it hardly takes a great scholar to guess that Esquivel (a half-Mexican, half-Irish native of Tuscon, Arizona) probably put a fair bit of himself into the character of Frank. I appreciate, however, that many would just like to get down to brass tacks, ignore the controversy and simply be told if this book is worth reading.
Holy Mother of All Things Good N’ Plenty And All Her Wacky Nephews, YES, this book is worth reading!
While Esquivel’s plot is hardly original (seriously – think about how much children’s fiction and horror is built around kids and teenagers fighting monsters their parents don’t believe in), the execution is flawless and the setting puts a wholly unique spin on a classic concept. While one can draw comparisons between Border Town and Stephen King’s IT, it would be lazy to write it off as a Southwestern Stranger Things. If anything, I’d compare Border Town to Garth Ennis’ Preacher, which also explored issues of racism and politics in a Southwestern setting with twisted humor. Both series also share a willingness to go over the top for a joke, as when we see the various forms the fear monster takes on its rampage through town.
Artist Ramon Villalobos does a fantastic job bringing the world of Border Town to life. Sporting a highly-detailed style that invites favorable comparison to Frank Quitely, Villalobos’ work is intricate in its line work without feeling cluttered and thinly-inked so we get to appreciate every little touch. The colors by Tamra Bonvillain are equally impressive, with gradient effects in several scenes that perfectly capture the aura of an Arizona sunset. Letterer Deron Bennett keeps the text visually interesting, with distinctive fonts for narrator captions and word balloons.
Ignoring all the controversial elements (which really are much ado about nothing, in this critic’s opinion), Border Town #1 is a solid start for a series that upholds the finest traditions of Vertigo Comics on every level. If the rest of the revival is this strong, I predict we’ll see a new congregation of Vertigo enthusiasts heading into 2019.
Border Town #1 releases on September 5, 2018!
Written by The Critic The Internet Deserves, but not the one it needs right now…. Matt Morrison. He’s a smart-ass guardian. A sarcastic protector. A Snark Knight.