It takes a certain amount of confidence to open a comic with not one but two double-page spreads in a row, and Deathbed #1 (Vertigo) does exactly that. After a brief four-panel page introducing Antonio Luna as a just-born infant, Riley Rossmo delivers two pages of swamps and monsters that would be at home in any number of humid vampire stories. It’s got unspeakable horrors and a sharply dressed man that’s defined so much of Rossmo’s work at DC on books like Constantine and Batman/The Shadow, but the second spread is the one that really stands out. While Luna may be the character on his last legs, it’s Val (Valentine) Richards who’s been tasked with taking his deathbed confessions and turning them into a memoir, and our introduction to her is a lot less romantic and grand than Luna’s. We meet her smoking a cigarette on the toilet and trying not to take the job. Val is cast as the kind of young woman who peaked too early, chasing the success of her fourth-grade creative writing trophy and filling all of the empty spots inside herself with all the wrong things.
This opening sets a specific tone for the rest of the first issue, and it’s one that Rossmo and writer Joshua Williamson deliver with admirable precision. From those first pages full of demons both literal and inner, the book ramps up quickly, filling up every panel with sharp dialogue and gore. There’s not a lot of breathing room, but that doesn’t pose as much of a problem as it might in a book with more jokes. A lot of the text on the page is done in voice-over and it lends an air of radio drama to the whole book, a feeling that’s only amplified by Luna’s rapid-fire dialogue; it’s hard to read his words in anything other than a sharp Mid-Atlantic accent straight out of 1950s films. If the book was written more to tickle the funny bone and less to tell a weird and sprawling story, the pacing wouldn’t give people room to laugh and the whole thing would feel too campy. But Luna takes his own ridiculousness with just the right amount of serious, and by the end of the book, so does Val.
Fans of Transmetropolitan might find some familiar themes in Deathbed. Though Val isn’t strictly a journalist, there’s an element of gonzo journalism in what she’s gotten herself sucked into, and Antonio Luna is the kind of larger-than-life guy to center hijinks around. It feels like the lovechild of the movies Up and The Haunting, but rolled up in something and smoked. There’s an eccentric old man who’s probably straight crazy trapped in a house full of monsters that he’s bent on killing. Val is both as foil and fuel for Luna’s madness, in a role not dissimilar to the one played by some of the companions in Doctor Who. There’s a thread woven throughout the story that focuses on legacy and survival that, judging by what Williamson has been doing with Birthright, will be interesting to watch unfold. In Deathbed, Rossmo and colorist Ivan Plascencia have delivered a neon, gory, beautiful book that manages to capture lunacy without being unorganized or overwhelming, and it’ll be fun to see where the team takes Val and Luna next. Vertigo is still just a shadow of its former self, but Deathbed feels like a step in the right direction.