Sunday Slugfest – The Vinyl Underground #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Martijn Form, Robert Murray, Jason Sacks
Martijn Form

When I picked up this book the first thing I noticed was the cover. It’s a stinker. I’m a fan of Sean Philips and really enjoyed his book Intersection (published by Image Comics) with Duncan Fegredo. He is an extremely talented artist, but with this cover Philips will not win any awards. It shows a vinyl record out of its sleeve. The blackness of vinyl occupies 1/3 of the cover, and without any details, it makes for a boring piece of art work.

It’s a good thing comic book covers don’t influence my purchasing decisions.

The quality of a great many new comics can be fairly assessed by the reading of the first issue. That statement doesn’t always apply to Vertigo titles though. Of course, there are first issues that reveal their quality right away like Y The Last Man or DMZ, for example. But Vinyl Underground is a new comic series whose first issue didn’t appeal to me that much, so I’m not sure if this is going be a great saga.

I think it primarily has to do with the way writer Si Spencer chose to introduce his characters. It’s straight forward, revealing the main characters in linear manner, each after several pages apart from each other. It’s not very creative and it doesn’t reveal any surprises about the characters. Sure, they are a strange bunch, but what do you expect when the lead character is named Morrison? It’s an homage to Grant Morrison I like to think, one of the strangest writers in main stream comics. To tell you the truth though, I can’t tell yet if Spencer’s characters will be strong enough to carry this story. Although they are pretty offbeat, they don’t have their own voice right now.

The introduction of the setting wasn’t that strong either. The main characters are living in an abandoned subway station? I couldn’t relate to that yet. The scenes are not really clear about it. If you asked me to tell you what the story is all about, I haven’t a clue, to be honest. Not really. A little boy’s head is found. I believe it’s the same boy that is part of some voodoo ritual in the first scene. Perv, a friend of Morrison, has a vision about this murder, and Perv is making his name worthy by vomiting all over himself when he has the vision. Then there is a blond nymphomaniac who is an on-line pornstar but never goes all the way. Huh!? She seems to be part of this group that investigates supernatural crimes, but I cannot make heads or tails about the story or the characters. It feels like snippets that doesn’t make a strong issue. Even with a gun to my head I can’t tell you exactly what is going on in this issue. It’s like a vivid dream, but when you wake up you can not recollect the how’s and why’s.

The art feels a bit too…sweet. Maybe this is deliberate to create a contrast with the story of upcoming issues, but so far I’m not impressed.

So I think 2 bullets is a fair rating. The dialogue isn’t snappy, and the story’s plot feels shallow at the moment. But it is fair to say that Vertigo comics are like good wine: they just need some time for me to fully appreciate their full bouquet.

I just have to wait for the first story arc to wrap up in order to determine what to make of The Vinyl Underground.

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Robert Murray:

When you read the first issue of Vinyl Underground, think the Mod Squad for supernatural crimes. And I mean the movie Mod Squad, not the awesome television show with my main man, Linc Hayes (Clarence Williams, not Omar Epps. Blasphemy!). What do I mean? The creative element of this series (Si Spencer, Simon Gane and Cameron Stewart) aim to create the coolest, hottest, glossiest set of heroes the Vertigo imprint has seen in a long time, if ever. Our main character, Morrison Shepherd, is like a male Britney Spears: a celebrity’s son whose face constantly adorns the tabloids due to his various sexy exploits. Callum O’Connor, a.k.a. Perv, is an autistic Chris Hansen on crack, but with the look and vibe of Sickboy from Trainspotting (You get all that?). Leah King could be the love child of Paris Hilton and Gill Grissom from CSI, who just happens to run a website that would make Donna Martin (from 90210) proud. Prick tease! Finally, Kim Abiola is Sporty Spice, Lisa Bonet from Angel Heart, and Laila Ali all rolled into one. Yeah, Si Spencer is definitely influenced by the moving pictures, either on film or television. Looking over his biography confirms that, as he has been a writer on EastEnders and (potentially) the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Flashy visuals don’t necessarily equal a compelling comic book of the Vertigo standard, so this first issue falls a little flat in comparison. However, there’s some great material to work from here, so I don’t think readers should lose hope in the future quality of this series.

Two elements in particular keep the future looking bright. First, there are the double lives that each of our characters lead, presenting public faces for their private personae. Like I said, Morrison is a tabloid darling and generally famous screw-up to the reading public, but in reality he is a brilliant criminologist who runs a team of occult detectives. Perv is a registered sex offender to the world at large, but in reality he is a clairvoyant who is striving to get predators off the streets. Leah is a spoiled rich kid who’s on the bottom of the totem pole at the morgue, but is also a college-age blond virgin sex symbol on the net. Finally, Kim is a media darling as well, due to her status as an African princess and her former romantic relationship with Morrison. However, she is also an expert on the pyscho-geography of London, due to her witch doctor father. These dichotomies in personalities reminded me of the film American Beauty, which had the tag line “Look Closer.” I think some great subplots could develop from these different images of our main characters, and I hope that Spencer puts these images to good use. The second element to keep in mind in this first issue comes from Spencer’s comments in this month’s “On The Ledge.” He talks about his appreciation for his adopted city of London and how the city barged it’s way into Vinyl Underground, becoming as much of a character in the tale as the four protagonists. London wasn’t very strongly represented in the first issue, but the fact that the conclusion of the issue defines a quest throughout the nooks and crannies of the city indicates a strong London presence for the rest of this storyline, at least. Spencer should look to one of his fellow Vertigo writers, Denise Mina, for inspiration. She managed to make her home city of Glasgow a viable character during her Hellblazer run, displaying a fondness and wonder for the city that had given her life. So, the future looks bright for Vinyl Underground, even though the present issue is a little too glossy and full of itself.

Gane, Stewart, and colorist Guy Major make sure that everyone looks beautiful and cool throughout this first issue, as trendy clothes, haircuts, and poses abound (check out the tan on Leah! No lines!). Even the police detective has an aura of trendiness about her that’s sure to come up at a later time. For a comic detailing the nefarious workings of London’s occult underworld, nothing looks very gritty or disgusting. A headless boy with diamonds stuck into his eyes should have had more of a gross-out factor than it has here. I think the smoothness and cheekiness of the entire presentation is the reason why I had such a lackluster feeling about the whole issue. One panel that sticks in my mind is Leah burning some drug pusher’s face to a crisp. Even though the panel includes a burning face, blood spurting and vomiting, the focus of the panel is on the loveliness of Leah and her flowing blond locks. If this is for some story effect, I haven’t gotten figured it out yet. Also, please tell me that Morrison is leaving his seven inch vinyl records at the scene for some other reason than a calling card! These comments might be picky on my part, but I felt the first issue of Vinyl Underground betrayed a lot of Hollywood influences rather than the depth of graphic storytelling that is Vertigo’s bread and butter.

Jason Sacks:

It’s no secret that the last few new series from Vertigo haven’t been hits. Exterminators, American Virgin, Army@Love, and the rest of their new launches haven’t really been able to attract readers in any sort of quantity. Sure to join that list is Vertigo’s latest title, The Vinyl Underground. The Vinyl Underground
is the tale of a group of London residents who gather together to find the people who committed horrific crimes. Unfortunately, based on the first issue, this series is neither unique enough nor intriguing enough to break Vertigo’s losing streak.

The comic begins with a horrific crime, the ritual slaying of a nine-year-old boy by a man in a bizarre leopard-skin outfit. The problem here is not that the crime isn’t horrific enough, and let’s face it: that sort of thing is nothing new to the Vertigo reader. We look at the scene with the jaundiced eyes of one who’s used to seeing more horrific events than that all the time in Vertigo comics.

The story then introduces the main characters. Morrison Shepherd is the outrageous black sheep of his father’s family. “Mozza” cultivates his bad boy image with the press, seemingly reveling in the attention that the tabloids give him. But Morrison has a secret: in truth, he’s a good guy. He gave up drinking and a lifestyle of debauchery in order to live in a cool converted subway station with his weird friends and fight crimes.

Among those friends are Perv, who seems to be some sort of unjustly accused sex offender who has strange visions of the future; and Leah, who makes a living working her way through medical school running a website as the “genuine college blonde virgin.” Leah’s a conceited sexy bombshell who you can never have, while Perv is just rather strange.

So what we have here is a comic that seems to really fit many of the stereotypes people have about Vertigo comics: weird characters, bizarre occult crimes, and, oh yeah, a setting of London, England, that make this comic seem awfully familiar.

It's not that Vinyl Underground isn’t professionally done. Writer Sy Spencer does a nice job of setting up his characters, and there is the promise of more intriguing things in the future. And artists Simon Gane and Cameron Stewart do a nice job with character design. Morrison especially is drawn very much to be the right bastard that he should be.

The problem is that there’s just nothing to make this comic stand out in a crowded comics market. This first issue is good but not great, and it feels like we’ve seen a lot of this kind of stuff before. I hope like hell that Sy Spencer proves me wrong in future issues, but based on the first issue, The Vinyl Underground seems to be nothing too special.

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