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Vertigo’s ‘Time Warp’ Anthology Returns Rip Hunter and Trolls with Super-Science

What I love about the comic book anthology is the frequently anarchic approach they can take to compiling disparate creators and stories. It’s like putting a bunch of great cartoonists, writers and artists — some of whom you know, some you’ve never heard of– in a playlist and hitting “shuffle.” What I love about Vertigo anthologies is that they’re nothing like that. Well, almost.

DC Comics’ mature readers imprint, Vertigo has a long tradition of carefully curated anthology projects that are distinct from others in that they’re always commissioned from scratch to facilitate a specific theme. This practice coupled with the limitations of the short story gives creators a challenge that can yield results that are often fascinating and — because Vertigo can offer access to the vast DC library of characters — really fun. Following in the footsteps of mature readers revivals of old DC anthology titles like Weird Western Tales, Weird War Tales, Mystery in Space, [Tales of] The Unexpected and House of Mystery, the latest themed Vertigo mixtape is Time Warp, dedicated to time travel. On sale now and featuring original shorts by Damon Lindelof, Jeff Lemire, Tom Fowler, Gail Simone, Simon Spurrier, Peter Milligan, Dan Abnett, Andy MacDonald and Matt Kindt, among others, Time Warp comes with some auspicious Vertigo firsts and, unfortunately, what could very well be a Vertigo last.

Vertigo points out on the distinctly un-Vertigo-like cover of Time Warp (featuring the original anthology’s whimsical, silly masthead that’s unbefitting of Vertigo’s normally high design standards) that the one-shot marks the first comic Lost co-creator and Star Trek Into Darkness co-writer/producer Damon Lindelof has contributed to the label. That’s certainly a feather in Vertigo’s cap, but what ComicsAlliance readers will probably find more notable is the fact that Lindelof’s story stars Rip Hunter. The temporally displaced “time master” of DC Comics had been seemingly displaced from publishing altogether following DC’s “New 52″ reboot in 2011 (at least as far as I’ve noticed), but thankfully he was just shunted to Earth-Vertigo for this cool little story.

Clever readers probably guessed the hook of Lindelof and Lemire’s story from its title (which was saved for the last page in the comic but was telegraphed in the Time Warp contents page up front), but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. “R.I.P.” finds the endlessly beleaguered Hunter on what resembles a tropical island, running for his life from exotic beasts and encountering future versions of himself along the way. It’s superficially familiar territory for Lindelof, of course, but he and Lemire make it at once bleak and weirdly touching — a good descriptor for Vertigo itself, perhaps.

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ComicsAlliance favorite Tom Fowler reins in his frequently hyper-expressive artwork for this Time Warp contribution, although the somber and close-up-heavy visuals are no less affecting. I’m not familiar with the work of writer Tom King but I was impressed with his contribution, which without spoiling anything is a chilling and surprising twist on one of time travel’s most prevalent hypothetical questions. An opposing viewpoint on the same question is put forth by Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard’s “The Principle,” one that made me laugh out loud. I haven’t read Abnett and Culbard’s The New Deadwardians, but this amusing time travel short makes me want to check out the collected edition soon.

Time Warp’s other high profile Vertigo debut is that of Gail Simone, best known for her superhero comics Batgirl and Birds of Prey. I really enjoyed the detailed yet cartoony artwork and vibrant colors of Bertrand and Bellaire, respectively, but Simone’s story relied heavily on characters taking a couple of pages to explain exactly how some complicated, imaginary time travel technology works, which pretty much sucks all the life out of the story. Sadly it’s a narrative tic that reappears a few more times in Time Warp, like in Matt Kindt’s otherwise great contribution, “Warning Danger.” The problem is mitigated because the story is illustrated with Kindt’s typical flair — indeed, some of the pictures are truly gorgeous — but the artwork is often overpowered by of text-based descriptions of imaginary sciency things that you mostly don’t get to see in action. That is, with the exception of a cool “conscious bullet” — a self-aware projectile that Kindt depicts in step-by-step action. Kindt creates a very cool sequence explaining that bit of creative killing, and it’d be fantastic if he had more pages to do the same with some of the other ideas that he’s stuffing into this short.

The cool thing about the anthology as a format is that unless you’re a deeply idiosyncratic cartoonist who can just suck people into your world in that visceral way that I think mostly only cartoonists can, a story really does live or die on the strength of its central idea because you don’t have time to wrap an audience up in your quirky characters or grand narrative plans. You’ve only got a few pages to hook ‘em and when it happens it’s like shooting a three-point swish — and that goes for the reader too. That’s how I felt reading Simon Spurrier and Michael Dowling’s “The Grudge.” The standout feature of Time Warp, the story depicts an increasingly bitter love triangle whose super-scientist opponents square off in the realm of physics, time and space. Described in the story as a public feud on the level of Blur and Oasis, doctors Zachary Penge and Cyrus Pound’s mutual love of the same woman inspires such brutal super-clownings as programming a swarm of decaying carbon molecules to refract light in just such a way as to spell out “Doc-Z Has No Cock.” Epic trolling, epic trolling. And with each successive attack, the doctors push human understanding of the universe to a new level, but all of their achievements are secondary to their selfish personal ends. It’s a truly dark and hilarious short story, and one that’s made me more eager to read Spurrier’s Six-Gun Gorilla science fiction series when it releases from BOOM! in June.

Time Warp has the sad honor of containing what’s likely the final Vertigo short story edited by the imprint’s recently resigned founder, Karen Berger. “She’s Not There” is another highlight, with former Air artist M.K. Perker turning in ornately detailed work for this Peter Milligan story about a man whose late wife is recreated as a “facsimile-ghost” by super algorithms collating all the electronic information she generated in her lifetime. While not really a time travel story, it’s so well illustrated and — not to torture the ghost metaphor too much — hauntingly beautiful that we’ll give it a pass.

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Some more overly-explainy panels aside, I loved Ray Fawkes and Andy MacDonald’s short story about a space mecha pilot who’s shot down and all the things she has to do in the final hour of her life — an hour that’s really only three seconds, but feels like 60 minutes thanks to some time dilation technology. The protocol exists so pilots can log and transmit crucial tactical information in the seconds before they perish, but recruit Helene Bendek finds a way to do both her sworn duty and make a final, touching gesture of raw humanity. It’s a contemporary aesthetic refresh of a familiar psycho-drama trope — in this case, the Major Tom doomed astronaut — which is an approach that used to work really well for Vertigo. As the imprint celebrates its 20th year, it’s nice to read something reminiscent of that tradition.

Time Warped #1 (of 1) is on sale now in finer comics shops and digitally via the DC Comics app.

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