Or – “Sex & Violence And All That Other Fun Stuff…”

My recent review of Bomb Queen got me thinking about adult themes in comics.  When handled well, they can mean the difference between Captain Atom and Doctor Manhattan.  When utilized poorly, we can be faced with ‘Sultry Teenage Super-Foxes.’  (I wouldn’t necessarily google that one.)  In the early days of Vertigo, Grant Morrison took advantage of the Mature Readers tag, channeled the spirit of the (then-recent) ‘Natural Born Killers,’ and went for broke with a story that I remember fondly to this day…

**This Retro Review is Grant Morrison writing for the adult-oriented Vertigo Line, which is short-hand for Adult Themes, Content and Strong Language.  If you are offended by such things, please DO NOT click the link.**

KILL YOUR BOYFRIEND
Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciler: Philip Bond
Inker: Philip Bond/D’Isreali
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Ellie Deville
Editor(s): Art Young & Tim Pilcher
Publisher: Vertigo (DC Comics)
Cover Price: $4.95
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $8.00

Previously, in Kill Your Boyfriend: Grant Morrison wasn’t always GRANT MORRISON, COMICS OVERMASTER.  Once upon a time, he was just ‘that kid who wrote Zenith,’ part of the post-Alan Moore British Invasion of comic book talent, but when he relaunched Animal Man, all bets were off.  One of DC’s most uni-dimensional Silver Age novelty heroes, A-Man became a whole new beast (you should pardon the expression) under Morrison’s pen, and Morrison’s name became synonymous with wild, expressive wonderment.  So, what do you think is going to happen when he examines the myth of Dionysius through the prism of a repressed high-school girl in post-Thatcher England?

I’d have to say “Pretty much where I expected a Morrison story to go.”  Starting things at the end is a very cinematic technique for the story, and that opening page immediately draws your interest, making you wonder what in the world went wrong with this poor young girl’s personal reality.  A quick trip back in time (with imaginary Wayne and Garth sound effects, as it was 1995 after all) and we take a few steps back to find out how she ended up in such dire straits…

What immediately grabs me about this sequence is the change from the brilliant red of her dress and blood to the gray, drab high school existence of her day-to-day life.  Also wonderful is the sight of the boy in the background of panel two, a hulking monstrous presence, visually foreshadowing the catastrophic events he’s going to be bringing with him.  The Girl (whose name is meaningfully absent during these events) watches The Boy as he swaggers away with the stolen cigarettes, smirking that what the man felt wasn’t The Boy’s hand in his pocket, but an incipient heart attack.  “You’re in a dangerous age bracket,” he deadpans.  “Don’t suppose you’ve got a light?”  The Girl is entranced with his casual villainy, turning to the camera again to explain her theory of school:  “They get you when you’re small and vulnerable and they take all the human parts away, bit by bit, until you’re just a wind-up toy.”

This is the first of many instances where our main character makes eye contact with us to tell her story, and it’s used very effectively throughout the issue. With a title like “Kill Your Boyfriend,” there’s an inherent trap: You have to like the main character enough to tolerate the implied murder, and you have to have a boyfriend worthy of whacking.  Morrison manages to smoothly deliver both in the space of a couple of pages, as The Girl continues to narrate her descent down the slippery slope.  Kudos also has to go to Philip Bond, whose rendition of The Girl is heartbreakingly effective.  (I’ve always been a sucker for eyes.  Oddly, years later, I would meet a girl who so strongly resembled this character that I had to break out the book and compare.  She was somewhat amused by this.)  The Girl finds more frustration in her boyfriend’s schmuckery, her slowly carbonating hormones, and the fact that her home life is as drab and grey as school.  Things get unpleasant when her parents discover a condom hidden in her bureau…

“I hate everything,” seethes the girl as she stomps away, fully aware that she’ll return home as soon as she calms down.  Nobody delivers teenage angst better than Grant Morrison (with the possible exception of actual teenagers, though most don’t write quite as well.)  Enter: The Boy.

The strong implication here, by the way, is that this lad killed her Grandfather (whose fate is discussed in the top panel of the previous image.)  The two drunken teens make their way into the night, and he introduces her to the joys of vandalism, of cursing, screaming, drinking straight from the bottle and being a rotten little punk.  It’s joyous to read about, even now.  I was in my mid-twenties, well past the rebellious teen ‘Wild In The Streets’ phase when I first read this, and it still resonated strongly with me then (as it does, ridiculously, even now.)  The Boy and The Girl visit Paul, the awful boyfriend-who-loves-fantasy-novels-full-of-half-naked-sword-babes, and things take their natural course…

What makes this sequence even more impressive is the fact that Paul The Doomed Boyfriend is given some strong character beats, his disdain for her drinking tying into earlier dialogue, and his utter disbelief at the reality of the gun grounding the story for a few moments before it goes off into wacko-land again.  Their reign of terror doesn’t stop with Paul, though, as the twosome attacks a man in the street, hoping to steal his wallet.  Instead, they find that he’s wearing women’s lingerie under his clothes (“Must be an M.P.” remarks The Boy), that he’s had a fatal heart attack, and that his purloined keys reveal his apartment as a wonderland of porn, women’s clothing and various adult appliances.  (No, I don’t mean gray-haired microwaves.)  At his urging, The Girl thinks about how she wants to be “the girl all the boys fancy,” and dresses up, looking at the reader and sniffing, “What’s it to you?”  Heh…

Things get very intense for a bit, as they end up in a nightclub, get particularly stoned, and return to the apartment where she loses her virginity in a spasm of drug-fueled ecstasy.  She thinks about all the stories where the girl’s first time is horrible, and thinks “Why did they lie to me?  This is brilliant!”  It’s simultaneously awkward and wonderful to read this sequence, squicky and personal as it is, but the execution manages to keep it from feeling tawdry or voyeuristic.  The twosome sets off hitch-hiking, searching for new vistas, when they get picked up by a busload of “conceptual artists” in a double-decker bus that the Partridge Family would envy (with the entertaining message “Aliens Land Here” emblazoned on the top.)  The Girl’s wild ride continues, and she wonders who she actually was that the unthinkable things that have happened seem so natural…

That housewife line seems quite ominous, doesn’t it? It is, again, uncomfortable to read this part of the book, not because it’s unpleasant but because it seems entirely too personal.  The Girl experiences many things in the undefinable time spent on the bus, including her first time with a girl, and all manner of substances in their trip to Blackpool, where the group claims that they’re going to blow up the Blackpool Tower with a grenade in protest of something-or-other.  Upon their arrival, The Boy is enraged to find the group all mouth and trousers, causing them to inevitably run off in a teenage huff, stopping only to knock over a bakery…

I love this moment, as it reveals what a kid The Girl still is, but the duo finds themselves abandoned and on the run from the cops soon after.  The steal an on-duty hearse (and yes, it’s awful, but kind of funny as well) and defile the poor stiff with her wig, all the while unaware that the police know EXACTLY who they both are…  Or perhaps who they both were?  And, since it’s a Morrison story, mum and dad have a few secrets of their own.

Yeaaaah…  This is right where I started to realize some things, and I got that weird skin-crawly feeling that I get when I read about Greek tragedy.  The Boy and The Girl make their way to the Blackpool Tower, intent upon making a statement about something or other, meeting up with their friends on the bus again (leading to some wonderful meta-moments as she interrupts her narrative to be part of the events, which still cracks me up) and running wildly from the police.

The authorities and The Girl’s parents gather at the base of the tower, while our doomed couple try to suss out their next move.  Sadly, all their rebellion is proven useless by a sniper’s bullet, and The Boy is fatally wounded.   His response?

Aaannd there it is.  Morrison has said that this story was inspired by stories of Dionysius, with The Boy as the chaotic god of wine and running about, but the perfectly tragic twists comes as we discover that The Boy is actually her brother.  So, that’s creepy.  He throws himself from the tower after declarations of eternal love (“Get in touch if you can, won’t you?  Mum’s got a Ouija board.”) and explodes on his way to the ground (remember the grenade?) leaving The Girl to finish out her tragedy alone…

Smash cut to:

The blackest of black comedy endings is the perfect way to wrap up this tale, and even as a thirty-ish housefrau with glasses, The Girl still has those eyes…  Urban legend has it that Morrison writes in almost stream-of-consciousness style (sometimes after a few “sandwiches”, if you know what I mean) but the breakneck pace of this issue is perfect for reading and re-reading.  Philip Bond’s art is wonderful throughout the story, grounding what could have been a hallucinatory series of events with a very down-to-earth style, making it all the more terrible when the bad things start to happen.  This has long been one of my favorite one-shots, and I think it’s practically criminal that more people haven’t read this superlative story.  Vertigo Voices: Kill Your Boyfriend is just terrific, channeling all the embarrassing, wonderful, hormonally charged and awkward moments of the average teenager into a wildly violent and strangely intimate tale, earning 5 out of 5 stars overall.  If I were a teenage girl, I’d be scrawling the comic’s name all over my notebooks…

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  Why do you think it’s so difficult to deal with “Adult Themes” without coming across as crass or immature?

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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6 Comments

  1. Gibralter
    January 22, 2012 at 11:53 pm — Reply

    I’m lingering on this last panel. I think it’s the cheerful exprestion on her face as she is about to murder her family. I hate this kind of story. We have talked about vering milage before and this is a story I’d read once and speed past from then on. Even as a teenager I hated teenage angst. I still don’t like it. This life is shit so I’m going to burn the world attitude just pisses me off. While I could enjoy the art, the subject matter just kills it for me. But maybe I’m just missing the point. Also I think we can all be thankful that Matthew is not a teenage girl.

    Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: Why do you think it’s so difficult to deal with “Adult Themes” without coming across as crass or immature?

    Most of the time these subjects are presented in a immature way. Little thought is put into why a character would do something or they are made with broad generalizations.

    • January 23, 2012 at 7:29 am — Reply

      Also I think we can all be thankful that Matthew is not a teenage girl.

      It’s probably for the best.

      The thing about this book (and, really, a lot of the Vertigo books of the era) is that expectation of a “Vertigo Ending”, which is like an Outer Limits ending, only angstier. Mileage does vary, and I’m sorry this one wasn’t to your liking…

  2. ~wyntermute~
    January 23, 2012 at 3:53 pm — Reply

    Ugly, UGLY story (not “bad art”, i mean “gritty to the worst extreme”)…. But it seems to be “g-mo at his best”. He’s given characters with no prior ties/continuity to mess up, and he messes them up thoroughly. It isn’t my idea of a good time by =-any-= means, but it “F@#( things up” is what this man seems be too good at. It strikes me as the opposite of “N.B.K.” though, because in that film the “bad people” get a “bad ending”. The “white picket fence psycho” here is… Hmm. It’s believable if you believe all the other craziness that leads to it, but… Still trite, somehow. It’s like she’s a “stereotypical nutcase”, maybe? I can’t put my finger on the exact vibe it gives me, unfortunately.

    • ~wyntermute~
      January 23, 2012 at 3:58 pm — Reply

      Ugh. epic proofreading fail. ” …, but “F@#( things up is what this man seems to be too good at.” is what that ought to say.

  3. tidge
    January 23, 2012 at 7:24 pm — Reply

    I’d forgotten that this was Phillip Bond art…It reminds me more of Chris Sprouse with a dose of late-80’s Keith Giffen.

  4. Noobian74
    January 30, 2012 at 10:15 am — Reply

    Mr. Peterson, you’ve done it again. Wish I had read this book earlier.

    Oh, to answer your question, people have a habit of thinking that adult-themed books means that everything you couldn’t see in the silver-age books of yesteryear can now be seen. When that type of thinking is in the air, people want sensationalism over story, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Warren Ellis had sex and violence mixed into many an issue of Transmetropolitan, but it was for the purpose of showing just how desensitized our society is becoming to it. Wish others could do the same.

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