Posted by Don MacPherson on March 15th, 2011
Vertigo Resurrected: Finals #1
Writer: Will Pfeifer
Artist/Cover artist: Jill Thompson
Colors: Rick Taylor
Letters: Rick Parker
Editor: Joan Hilty
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo imprint
Price: $7.99 US
I have to admit that my overachieving days came to an end when I finished high school. The sort of unabashed ambition and academic aggression that are such integral parts of the story in finals certainly wasn’t reflective of my post-secondary experience, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the comedy, satire and symbolism that make up this noteworthy project. Originally released 12 years ago, Finals was something of a mid-range Vertigo limited series that got a lot of praise, and I’m kicking myself now for missing out on it the first time around. A few years after the original release of this book, Will Pfeifer carved out a career as a go-to writer for DC’s super-hero line, the high point of which was the underrated H.E.R.O. and the low point of which was the much-maligned Amazons Attack event book. If that’s all one knew of Pfeifer’s work, he wouldn’t make much of an impression. Now that I’ve read Finals, though, I’ve had a glimpse of the inventiveness and extremism of which he’s capable. I hope the revival of this obscure, avant-garde book offers the writer a chance to bring us something just as zany and challenging in the near future.
At Knox State University, a different kind of academic excellence has been established as the path to success. Students are encouraged to not only think outside the box, but to break out of the box, burn the box and then bomb the remaining bits to kingdom come. For example, religious studies major Nancy Bierce has established a cult of her own, full of freshmen coeds ready to do her bidding. Gary Skelton’s senior anthropology project is to examine evolutionary theory from a first-person perspective, going feral in the woods around campus. And then there’s Wally Maurer, a film-studies major whose senior project is… non-existent. He staves off a demanding faculty with big ideas and promises, but in reality, he’s nowhere with his film. You’d think on a campus as chaotic as Knox, he’d find some inspiration.
Jill Thompson’s artwork is, for the most part, associated with properties with cute elements, such as Scary Godmother, Li’l Endless and Beasts of Burden, but this earlier project demonstrates a versatility and harsher edge. She takes a much looser and angular approach with the figures and backgrounds here than she does with, say, Beasts of Burden, but her style is still unmistakable. She conveys the youth of these college-aged characters nicely. Exaggeration is the key to storytelling throughout this book, and it’s apparent in her design choices. The athletic and campus-security characters are disproportionately depicted, making them appropriately monstrous in appearance. That being said, there’s a certain grounded approach in the designs of the core cast of characters. It’s easy to see oneself or one’s friends in this group, and that allows the reader to relate in some small way to this extreme vision of society.
My one qualm about the art on this book is with the colors, but I don’t think colorist Rick Taylor is necessarily to blame. There’s an interesting balance of darker, muted tones that are in keeping with the edgier side of the book and brighter, more irreverent colors, reinforcing the sort of make-believe, unrestrained aspects of the plot. But the brighter tones are at times too bright, even garish, and I suspect it’s due to the paper quality. When I was first reading this book, I noticed that my thumb easily smudged the ink on the page, much more easily than when reading other modern comics. I would imagine the more inexpensive nature of these Vertigo Resurrected and DC Comics Presents reprints might have led DC Comics to turn to cheaper paper and printing methods. The lesser quality isn’t overtly apparent, but the way the colors display and the ink is easily marred leads me to believe that may be the case.
Pfeifer wisely balances the more extreme elements of the premise with characters that have more grounded concerns and conflicts in their lives. Tim Pike may have invented a machine that will inevitably lead to his death, but he also resents his overbearing and demanding parents. Dave Oswald treats violence and victimization with outrageous callousness, but hedonistic, carefree lifestyle is something that’s not hard to find on many college campuses. While the characters’ senior projects are incredible in nature, the characters themselves have some credibility.
It’s been said that college and university experiences aren’t about finding a job, about fulfilling ambitions or charting one’s course through the rest of one’s life. I believe in the tenet that the undergrad years are about gaining knowledge of yourself, not just gaining knowledge. Of course, that perspective has faded significantly, especially given the cost of tuition these days. One can’t even get a decent job with just a high school diploma today, and a middle-class career really requires more than just an undergraduate degree. More and more, college is seen as a vital step in finding a place for oneself in the workforce, a world that’s far more capitalist and competitive than the haven many of us knew during our post-secondary education experiences.
I think what Pfeifer is doing here is much more than lampooning the college experience. Sure, it can be competitive in some respects, especially for the top tier of those dedicated to academics. But I think what the writer has done here is allow the American kill-or-be-killed mentality in the capitalist workplace, the political realm and even the military industrial complex to infect the quad, to devour the dorms and corrupt the seminars. Obviously, he offers a strong criticism of that competitive attitude, as the approach consumes and destroys all of the brilliant young minds that serve as the central cast of characters. 8/10
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