Publishers seem increasingly willing to roll the dice on anthology formats recently. Maybe it’s the success of things like Dark Horse Presents, and the model they’ve followed of introducing new works and then successfully spinning them off into new story titles like BLACK BEETLE. There’s an inherently approachable aspect to anthologies—new readers can pick them up and take a tour of many ideas and art styles without feeling out of the loop, and creators themselves aren’t subjected to the high-wire act of telling fresh tales while balancing the necessities of continuity. It’s also a chance to bring on new talent and give readers a chance to play a role in selecting what appeals to them. Vertigo, however, has a long history of valuing the anthology format to engage with new readers, from its FIRST CUT to FIRST OFFENSES, which readers still pick up when trying to get a handle on what the line has to offer in terms of genre and content.
TIME WARP, a revival of a late 1970’s anthology format, presents nine stories by a variety of well known and new creators following a loose theme that may not be as loose as it appears at first glance. The key word “time” stands out as a recurring (literally) factor in these stories. On the whole, because the anthology contains so many varied story-telling techniques and art styles, its appealing and gives the reader a sense of time and money well spent based on its “something for everyone” approach. As a one-shot, it also reads like a graphic novel in disparate parts that comments on the potential of science fiction in the comics medium with capacity to challenge our concepts of humanity, technology, and their often troubled relationship.
[Caution: Mild spoilers on content, but no plot-twist revelations ahead]
“R.I.P” , written by Damon Lindelof, with evocative art by Jeff Lemire and fluid colors by Jose Villarubia, is a strong start to the collection. What could be more basic, pulpy, and attractive than a time-travel tale with dinosaurs and multiple attempts to escape death? The story’s variations on a theme, however, get complex quickly, with satisfying results. All the kinds of questions about the implications of time travel that kids grew up with watching Star Trek: The Next Generation take a bite out of the story and lead the reader in logical loops. Lemire’s energetic, chaos-controlling line-work, combined with Travis Lanham’s quirky lettering, suggest an undercurrent of the haphazard about all human endeavors. The message seems to be, despite all our planning, when we deal with factors essentially bigger than us, we might get by, but only by the skin of our teeth. The suspension of belief necessary for the story isn’t overbearing since it points out all the problems and difficulties of handling big themes in its plot structure.
“It’s Full of Demons” is a particularly challenging story, one might almost call a mystery despite its early introduction of a possibly alien time traveller in turn of the century Austria. After reading the complete story, you might have a Memento-like experience of reconstructing the details of the story backward along the lines provided by a full revelation of their significance. This is engaging for the reader. Tom King’s writing is clever in providing just enough detail to make this backward reading possible while not revealing too much about why the increasing madness of a little girl growing up after her brother’s death might be important to readers. The themes of the story are, in fact, heavier the more you examine them, commenting on how fear and the “demonizing” of figures and groups may be an even greater threat than the shocking intrusion of the vastly unknown into daily life. Tom Fowler’s artwork suggests history well without rendering it ponderous, and in particular conveys emotional states in its main character with great empathy.
Gail Simone writes “I Have What You Need”, with upbeat and somewhat eerie art by Gael Bertrand, and vibrant colors by Jordie Bellaire. Simone isn’t afraid to get complicated, either, about the implications of time travel, even within one’s own mind, and delves pretty deeply into human nature by exploring the idea that a drug could enable you to revisit the best ten minutes of your life. Her kindly shopkeeper holds this god-like key to a “product” that everyone wants, and also provides commentary on what humans deserve, and what they get out of life. Twist endings are a common feature of many of the stories in TIME WARP, and though the stories might have been intriguing without them, it’s a pattern that gives the reader a sense of the value of each particular story as a unit of entertainment and harks back to the genre features of early pulp sci-fi.
“The Grudge” is an intelligent and very human tale of rivalry between two scientists, the kind of rivalry we’ve seen in techno pop culture between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Written by Simon Spurrier, with art and color by Michael Dowling, its compressed storytelling gives you a sense of having read a whole comic or perhaps a graphic novel, again presenting an entirely different, detailed world within the anthology. It spans the life of these scientists, their tragedies, and the tension between public demand for spectacle in scientific discoveries and the real needs of scientific advancement to look toward greater future building. Dowling’s near photo-realistic art style easily conveys the sense that this could be our twenty-first century future, still governed by the baser, and higher impulses of the human beings involved in advancement. But the story infuses even tragedy with humor, and most importantly, believing in the reality of the characters helps convey the messages of the narrative.
One of the most surprising additions to TIME WARP is a Dead Boy Detectives story. Originally created by Neil Gaiman as a spin-off from SANDMAN, the Dead Boy Detectives seem to veer pretty far from science fiction in their investigation of the occult. However, Gaiman was never one to draw a firm line between the occult and the scientific, and neither has pulp tradition, a borderland other comics in TIME WARP also explore. This episode, “Run Ragged”, written by Toby Litt, with layouts by Mark Buckingham, finishing work by Victor Santos, and letters by the great Todd Klein, reads like a sudden glimpse of a return to a favorite world, and indeed it’s described as a lead-up to a continuing storyline in THE WITCHING HOUR ANTHOLOGY. The artwork, and also the colors by Lee Loughridge are accomplished and appealing, particularly successful at conveying motion and action while creating a sense of the haunted atmosphere of the material.
“She’s Not There” may remind readers of the more psychological aspects of good science fiction, with more than a dash of the noir emphasis on intense relationships. The premise, that a company in the future can charge vast amounts of money to resurrect ghosts as “information” gleaned from loved ones, hits one of the many common themes in TIME WARP, the general neediness of human beings and the lengths they’ll go to in order to seek comfort from their pasts. Another “mystery” aspect of the story, written by Peter Milligan, with art and colors by M.K. Perker, is the reason for the resurrected wife Angel’s death, and the lingering problems that might have comprised her relationship with her husband in the first place. The story poses a unique question, “Can you own a ghost?”. In a technological world where everything’s a commodity, it seems like a singularly dark possibility. The artwork suggests a blend of the familiar and the unknown in equal proportions, keeping readers guessing, just like the plot.
The unusually titled story “00:00:03” places human beings under another kind of microscope under the pressure of extreme situations. During vast interstellar wars, we follow the decisions of Helene as she attempts to perform her military duties under the influence of a unique “molasses” protocol that extends perception of time. Written by Ray Fawkes and drawn by Andy MacDonald, this is the kind of story that sci-fi readers will be particularly attracted to. It offers sweeping conflicts on a large stage, space battles, and remarkably deep characterization of a central figure in action. The age old question posed by sci-fi, “Are we still human inside our technology?”, is both addressed and answered in a poignant way.
If you’re all about the art of sci-fi comics, then you’ll have quite a few surprises to look forward to in TIME WARP, but it’s likely that Matt Kindt’s “Warning: Danger” will be top of the list. With Kindt’s sketchy outlines, and splashy use of watercolor tones, the story breaks from many of the common assumptions of what traditional sci-fi art should look like. How do you convey the crisp lines of spectacular technology in such an idiosyncratic style? Kindt’s answer is to render technology, and its premises in the story, organic, and therefore a little more alarming. By breaking with what readers may recognize, Kindt presents an unrecognizable, and very compelling vision of the future. His diagrams of the armor and accoutrements of two civilization-representing soldiers locked in single combat schematize the ingenuity and determination of one-upmanship in technological advancement. There’s a downbeat sense of recurring time that’s featured in a number of TIME WARP stories, providing the opportunity for humans to relive their obsessions and failures, or get it right when given another chance.
The final piece in TIME WARP gathers together the thematic threads of recurring time, human decision-making, and the bizarre responsibilities that power over technology entails. When technology becomes somewhat monstrous, who’s really in control? Is the humanity inside the machine enough to guide progress away from disaster? “The Principle” is written with a key focus on two main characters by Dan Abnett, and presented rather beautifully with colors and art by I.N.J. Culbard. The trope of presenting a guy new to his job as an identifying character for the readers is here completely necessary to add tension to the gradual revelation of plot. The attempt to prevent an assassination of the “principle” figure through staging the same moment in time over and over again gives characters repeated chances to get things right, and also humorously comments on some historical mysteries as time-travel screw ups. Culbard’s inks, particularly, have a certain noir sensibility, too, though infused with a sci-fi eye toward motion, and seem appropriate when grounding the future in the past. Abnett doesn’t hold off on the sci-fi theme of responsibility, either, and closes the collection with a final message about the tendencies of humanity to abuse power in banal ways, and the responsibilities, often dire, we face in trying to keep that kind of potential chaos under control.
In fact, looking back through TIME WARP, the overarching implication of these stories seems to be Time=Responsibility. The further we push technological advancement, and the more we tinker with our humanity, the more work we generate for ourselves monitoring our trajectory. But with concepts and artwork like the kind contained in TIME WARP, the spectacle of those sci-fi heights never ceases to be attractive, even when it’s pointing out the potential pitfalls that almost certainly lie ahead. TIME WARP contains a miscellany of energetic science fiction, and its hard not to find the sheer breadth of material and the talent behind it a selling point. Nine worlds, and compact story-telling that often spans lifetimes in one volume? It’s both entertaining and consistently thought-provoking, marking a worthy return of the TIME WARP title.
Title: TIME WARP #1/Publisher: Vertigo, DC Comics/Creative Teams:
“R.I.P”: Damon Lindelof, writer, Jeff Lemire, artist/“It’s Full of Demons”: Tom King, writer, Tom Fowler, artist/“I Have What You Need”: Gail Simone, writer, Gael Bertrand, artist/“The Grudge”: Simon Spurrier, writer, Michael Dowling, artists/“Dead Boy Detectives”: Toby Litt, writer, Mark Buckingham, layouts, Victor Santos, finishing/“She’s Not There”: Peter Milligan, writer, M.K. Perker, artist/“00:00:03”: Ray Fawkes, writer, Andy MacDonald, artist/“Warning: Danger”: Matt Kindt, story and art/“The Principle”: Dan Abnett, writer, I.N.J. Culbard, colors and art
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.