Vertigo took some well-deserved flak last year for its Vertigo Crime imprint, a series of thin hardcover graphic novels that look similar in design to real novels and cost the same, but for much simpler stories and often mediocre art. Heck, I recall at least a couple weren’t even true crime novels but more along the lines of castoff Hellblazer stories.
Peter Milligan, though, he’s usually worth a read, and James Romberger’s online persona has always revealed him to be an individual of taste and intelligence, so one would hope that when he chose to draw something again it was going to be noteworthy. As it is, The Bronx Kill is certainly one of the better of the Vertigo Crime books, but that’s not saying a lot.
The story follows Martin Keane, a writer suffering a block after a successful debut novel. His ex-cop dad is an insensitive asshole, so we want to like Martin, but going off to Ireland to research a book and leaving his wife alone for months doesn’t inspire sympathy, or at least it doesn’t as presented here, because it’s unclear just what is pulling Martin to Ireland. Soon after returning, his wife, who had become fascinated with the stretch of land known as the Bronx Kill in New York, ends up dead there, making Martin a suspect. Martin’s guilt isn’t really presented as a possibility; Milligan has other fish to fry, tying the murder and the Bronx Kill landscape together, along with the prose pieces of Martin’s Irish novel in progress, in a story about history and sins of fathers being visited on sons and on down.
Romberger does an admirable job of storytelling, as is the case with most of the Vertigo Crime artists. When I used “mediocre” above, what I really mean is that while some, like Romberger, have a more effective style than others, in no case does any of them really let loose with a page of breathtaking beauty or invention. They are subordinate to the scripts, Romberger more than most and with some excuse, because of the prose sections of the book breaking up the flow. It ends up a rather compromised project that probably would have worked better as a prose novel, opened up with more twists, more background and greater attention to the novel-within-the-novel. At 180 pages of comics, Milligan gives short shrift to some promising ideas, and also short changes the character of Martin, as well as giving the story a shock ending that’s more sour than surprising.