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Vertical
Reviewed by Iain Emsley, © 2004

Format: Comics
By:   Steven Seagle and DC Comics/Vertigo
Genre:   Pop Culture/Drama
Released:   December 24, 2003
Review Date:   January 29, 2004
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

Do you remember the first time you fell?

The first time you fell in love with a person, or fame, or even just an idea? If you do, did you fly, or crash and burn?

If you don't, then pick up "Vertical".

Vertigo, the literary imprint of DC Comics, has just taken the plunge, quite literally, in "Vertical", a new self-contained graphic novel written by Steven Seagle (who also wrote Vertigo's earlier "House of Secrets"). This is a comic unique in both storytelling and style; instead of being standard size, the book is 8.5cm wide and 26 cm high, and features a foldout cover which runs over the top, depicting the descent of the two main characters down the outside of the Empire State Building.

One of those characters, Brando Bale, works at Andy Warhol's Factory in Soho, and in his spare time dives off buildings to land on a variety of impromptu mattresses, from Zillo boxes filled with junk to a dumpster, all in an attempt to find redemption. Zilly Kane comes to the Factory in response to one of Warhol's adverts, finding herself in a long queue waiting for an audition. When Brando swings a favour for the biding-her-time Zill, he unwittingly unleashes a voice within both their heads. Brando sees the ghost of his lover, Lona, a black woman whom he not only kept from his white father, but who he accidentally killed. Zilly hears the voice of her father who swore to ignore her if she left for New York to seek her fifteen minutes of fame.

What keeps "Vertical" from being just another pop culture reference-laden comic? Partly it's the exquisite way Seagle draws out the inner worlds of his two characters though these almost schizophrenic voices in their head respective heads. Mostly it's the way Seagle neatly undermines the Warhol dictum of fame (you know, the whole "fifteen minutes" thing) and the mythology surrounding him and his art. Brando searches for Andy himself through the book, finding him only when he has completed his final, redemptive leap. Zilly finds herself in the predictably long line of wannabes waiting for their turn at the proverbial fifteen minutes, but she finds a man who allows her to jump the queue. Those familiar with Warhol's work and the influences he had might well wonder if she was based on Mary Woronov (an actress who was given her start by Warhol, best known for an array of Indy films and TV guest shots these days), or if she was simply another passer-by in the Factory. We don't know either way, but Seagle peels back the petals of the black-lit rose that is the Factory and its mythos with "Vertical" though Brando and Zilly's almost symbolically self-referential experiences in Warhol's world. The deconstruction is such that there is no sense that everybody within those walls would automatically become famous or even lauded by the 'cognoscenti' by the sheer fact of being at and around Warhol's Factory. These hangers-on aren't even portrayed as simple star-f[il]kers seeking famy by proxy. Instead, Seagle presents us with the portrayal of a select few who put together films at the behest of (and in the style of) Andy Warhol, despite his not actually being present. Seagle's version of the Factory is a factory of creation, branded under a copyright that is far more powerful that any registered, a creative collection of human cogs driven by their own individual passions and needs. In this Factory, each person can, and very often does, speak their own mind and display their own beliefs. Sometimes they even act like complete children, as adults are all too often wont to do.

It is so refreshing to see the Factory portrayed for what it was: a hive of individual creation and a sometime haven of lost souls. But Seagle's comic is more than a revision of Andy Warhol and his cultural influence. "Vertical" also has a larger agenda in how it portrays the antithesis of the hippy philosophy: there are folks within that building who are willing to put themselves to the test and to find themselves through their own actions. It is only when Brando and Zilly face their own final tests, away from the Factory, that each can face their own inner voices and overcome their demons. You can almost hear the Velvet Underground in the background as Zilly waits for her man and avoids all of tomorrow's parties whilst Brando, not necessarily sticking the spike into his arm, searches for his white light by plunging off the sides of buildings.

Seagle, as well as being a fine writer in his own right, joins the growing number of comics writers like Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis who are taking the form in new and exciting directions, merging the metaphysical with the mundane in a fashion both literary and intensely entertaining. He quite literally takes a dangerous plunge with this book, and it's highly recommended to anyone looking for something different from all the deconstructionist faux-nostalgia that usually colours such explorations of pop culture.

RevolutionSF contributor Iain Emsley doesn't need to fall off of anything to hear the voices in his head.

 
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