What surprises me about the Vertigo artwork of the mythically grungy 90s, (as seen in Sandman, Lucifer, Swamp Thing, and Hellblazer) is that I now find it half-assed and amateurish, when at the time it felt like the height of sophistication. There are exceptions, like Steve Dillon’s clean, simple designs for “Preacher,” but mostly there’s a certain hurried feel to it all that I once thought was artistic and now find suspect. For instance, look at this sample from Peter Milligan’s (otherwise excellent) “Shade the Changing Man.”
Superficially, it’s all cool: there’s perhaps too much text (Vertigo was seriously aiming for literature) but JFK’s photo-realistic image works well. However, look closely at the face of the man in the middle panel. That’s a face that only looks like it’s well drawn if your eyes are flying over to JFK’s presidential grin. Read any slower, and the drawing reveals itself as inferior: look at the unnecessary sooty lines by the temple (fake grit), the hair sticking out where it shouldn’t, and particularly the weird indent of that anatomically suspect cheekbone. It’s a bad rushed drawing.
… And a fairly typical look for “Shade the Changing Man.” (Not knocking Chris Bachalo’s work, but being prolific takes a toll.) Originally a Steve Ditko creation, Rak Shade is a nebulous character donning a “madness vest”; his counter-cultural superpower seems to be the ability to make comic pages go all psychedelic.
His nemesis in the early issues is “The American Scream,” a mad disruption of reality that brings to life all the “American” stereotypes that Milligan (a Brit) probably gleaned from Twilight Zone re-runs, documentaries on McCarthyism, and JFK assassination pamphlets. Fans of “Hellblazer” will find Shade to fit comfortable alongside that trench-coated figure… matter of fact, Shade and John Constantine are currently fighting the ambiguously good fight together in “Justice League Dark.”