I didn’t know anything about Death Bed when I picked it up. I had made a note of a new #1 from DC that didn’t ring a bell ahead of my trip to the comic shop, but I literally didn’t know what it was about or who was involved until I held it in my hands. And for one reason or another, whether it was the colors on the cover or the interest in seeing what Vertigo is launching these days, I decided to pick it up, only to discover that this was decidedly appropriate.
Valentine Richards is down on her luck and tired of writing other people’s stories when she’s suddenly offered the chance to ghostwrite an autobiography out of the blue. The subject is Antonio Luna, a man whose existence she can find no other evidence of but who insists that he’s the most fascinating human to ever live.
From top to bottom, Death Bed feels like a modern Vertigo book. For better and worse, there’s a charming irreverence about the story that shapes the atmosphere of the book. Joshua Williamson bets big on the relatability of Val and the bombastic appeal of Luna and it goes in his favor.
I would not be surprised at all to discover that this series was conceived while watching a Dos Equis ad, and Luna scratches that same over the top itch while also throwing in some shoutouts to our society’s love of fads, with some reconstructed mystery man strangeness for flavor. The first issue is a fairly standard Call To Adventure structured around the mystery of Luna and his death, but, while there are some logistical oddities, Williamson makes his pitch too enthusiastically to hold that against the book.
Of course, the same energy that propels the book also has its drawbacks. To be blunt, it can feel somewhat juvenile. It’s emphasis on the gross and personal, the voyeuristic sexuality, and cheering lack of human intimacy mark Death Bed as being part of a particular genre of comic whose insistence on being for adults only points out how childish it can be. As glad as I am to see a piece of media that can show nudity and chooses a flaccid penis over anti-grav breasts, the justification for Luna’s lack of pants is flimsy at best. The truth is that there’s something funny about the male form and the surprise of seeing Luna undressed makes for a better visual beat.
The redeeming feature of Death Bed in this regard is that I think it knows that and that its protests are weak. It’s not about logic, it’s about pulp! So who cares if Luna’s plan in this issue and the one he proposes for the rest of the series are mutually exclusive? It’s all about, as the man himself calls it, “atmosphere”.
The book is littered with strange and wonderful ideas, both at the micro level – Luna dueling a giant moray or becoming a snake oil salesman in the late 40s – and the macro – leading the series towards a strange meta-narrative about how we reinvent our heroes. The sense of possibility is the hook for readers to return and, for all its other strengths and weaknesses, that’s what the story is counting on. Indeed, there’s not a lot of information that will be directly relevant to subsequent issues beyond the premise, just the promise that it will be an ANTONIO LUNA story. No, THE Antonio Luna story!
It’s a near impossible task to write for skilled writers and impossibly talented storytellers, but Williamson does an admirable job, bringing a sardonic wit to both leads and the narration, wisely used sparingly. Nevertheless, while Williamson’s dialogue is more than adequate, it’s the feeling of the piece that’s most commendable and a huge part of that is shared by Riley Rossmo.
Rossmo’s art is just great. The sketchy lines of the issue curl and crack around delightfully full shapes, each carrying a weight and momentum straight out of the golden age of American animation. Valentine’s spherical, porcelain doll appearance, is a perfect example of the kind of strange yet pleasing buoyancy present in Rossmo’s work while the sheer extremity of Luna’s attackers demonstrates how deep and angular the style can become. Their topography is particularly impressive, almost recalling a wax rubbing of a three-dimensional image built over the flatter style that some of their siblings possess.
The art starts simple, but the creeping inks, whether pooling into deep black or fracturing off into slender, snaking tributaries, provide an impressive control and specificity.
There’s fantastic craft on display all through the book, but, at its core, Rossmo’s art just packs so much energy and atmosphere into the issue as to make technical concerns seem petty. The first splash page of Valentine is just so striking and it’s actually so different from much of what we’ll get going forward, but it also captures the spirit of the book.
Of course, while Rossmo will walk away from this issue with well deserved acclaim and appreciation, it is nearly impossible to ignore the role that Ivan Plascencia plays in Death Bed’s success. So much of this issue is overshadowed by the sickly grey and green of Luna’s mansion, but the lingering perception of Death Bed #1 is that of vibrance. Part of that surely comes down to the cover, but color is cleverly hidden all throughout the book. The insistence of quiet, but ever present warm tones and the click of pastel hues almost hiding amongst the drab hold the fort until color bursts forth to affirm what Death Bed really is.
Death Bed knows exactly what comic it wants to be. There are problems with that comic, from its unimpressive cynicism to the fairly traditional structure it follows, but that boldness and that certainty help it succeed in achieving the precise balance of features that it set out for. The mixture of pulp, punk, and millennial grunge is spot on and instantly connects to Vertigo, making Death Bed a perfect reconnection with classic Vertigo and a natural reconstruction of those kinds of feelings for the modern day. With Williamson’s wild ideas at the fore and incredibly potent visuals from Rossmo and Plascencia, the book is simply wonderful. Death Bed won’t be for everyone, but, if it doesn’t sound like it’s for you, it doesn’t care. If it does though, you’ll regret not seeing where this one goes.
Death Bed #1 is currently available in comic shops from Vertigo.