Cover art for VERTOSCOPE
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Cover art by Lynn Nguyen; cover design by Kath Hsi.

VERTOSCOPE, edited by Nechama Frier & Ten Van Winkle. 221 pages. ISBN 9780692624210. eBook, $10; softcover, $25. Kickstarter. Buy: Gumroad (ebook), Storenvy (softcover).

I was the very first backer for VERTOSCOPE and have been delighted with how smoothly production has been going. I just got the ebook version and am so excited to read it. I love the clean typography on the foreword and the table of contents; Kath Hsi did a great job on the design of the book.

VERTOSCOPE is an anthology of villains, one that seeks to invert the lens on these oft-maligned characters and understand their motivations, as well as ask difficult questions: how do we understand and negotiate ethics when two systems conflict and both sides need to survive? How can we use villains to understand injustices? It’s a masterful anthology; I’m impressed by the deep insights I encountered all throughout its pages. What follows are reviews of individual stories from within the volume.

For each review, I’m also including a scent pairing, à la Charles Payseur’s Monthly Round, only nonalcoholic (mostly). 😄 Enjoy!

Glaskönigin by Ten Van Winkle

3 pages. The tragic story of a princess fated to die—only to survive and launch an attack against the queen. The art for this piece is lovely, with clean lines and expressive characters. However, I found it difficult to get past the lettering; the text is hard to read and detracts from the story. Nonetheless, this mini-comic offers an interesting setup that leads well to the title page.

Scent: Champagne and smoke, charred flesh paired with riches: a touch of frankincense cuts through the acrid smell of burning.

The Devil’s Dentist by Mady G.

12 pages. Four schoolgirls go into a forest that has mysterious teeth scattered all over. They decide to play hide-and-seek, only the game goes horribly wrong. I adore the artwork and lettering in this piece. The character designs are fantastic too; each character stands out, with their own quirks and personality. The compositions of the panels feels cinematic and, combined with thoughtful placement of lettering, each panel flows smoothly into the next. The reveal of the monster is chilling, and the ending is truly horrific. An eerie horror story; wonderfully done.

Scent: Simmering dark chocolate mixed with the damp smell of moss; a whiff of rotting leaves and other unpleasantries rises through the soft, soothing aromas.

The Bear and the Jester by Enoch

17 pages. A story about agency and creating a life of your own, about what it means to be a hero or a villain. A jester is trapped with a bear and has to make a difficult decision—with a twist ending that I loved. What an evocative title page for this story; the split faces and silhouettes give such a sense of character in a single page. The art and composition itself makes me feel like I’m watching an animated series in comic form; it’s fluid and wonderfully stylized. There are some fantastic lines in this piece that reflect the theme of VERTOSCOPE too: The good ones can’t be heroic on their own. They need someone else to misbehave first. And yet they still damn us for what we do.

Scent: Cedar, sharp and strong, with the slightest edge of iron: then, a breeze carrying both the green scent of cut grass and a breath full of smoke.

Taming You by Grace Park

15 pages. A story about human nature, about the things love doesn’t change, about the nature of monstrosity. A perfect showcase of the inversion of the good/evil lens that VERTOSCOPE is about: all the while I wonder if perhaps I shouldn’t be rooting for Jason, yet at the end I’m still cheering for him. God, the writing in this story is so good, not to mention the art. Beautiful choice lines: We all live at the expense of another. Who’s to say who’s monstrous; who’s to say who’s a beast?

Scent: The sharp fragrance of pine needles on a dry winter day; clothes still smelling like laundry sheets; gunsmoke and damp fur and just the faintest smell of tomorrow’s lasagna.

Coping Mechanism by Ursula Wood & Jenn Doyle

15 pages. In a world where androids provide grief counseling to humans, one character has a different idea for how he’ll cope. A chilling story that leaves unsaid the source of the main character’s grief—a structural decision that in itself echoes the main character’s inability to come to terms with their pain. There’s so much that isn’t explicitly stated, yet Wood and Doyle masterfully guide the reader through hints that we can put together that make the end all the more horrifying. Wonderful story.

Scent: Concrete. Exhaust, exhaustion. WD-40. The salt of sweat and tears.

Tincture by One of Two

10 pages. A story about temptation, about drugs and alcohol, about the means people resort to through history to gain power. I love that this story takes the inversion theme of VERTOSCOPE to a dark end—at first, the narrator is simply giving people choices and allowing them to choose their own downfalls, but, toward the end, the main character seems to make a decision that changes them from an enabler to an outright villain. The artwork is stunning, especially the pages with borderless panels; One of Two’s layouts remind me what I love so much about sequential art: there’s a logic to it that’s so unlike any other medium, and One of Two really plays with that logic to great effect.

Scent: Vodka, whiskey; the tart vapors of a dozen kinds of alcohol masking the metallic tang of blood.

C-259 by Nechama Frier

21 pages. A different take on a first contact story: Filip Sawicki leaves his lover on the eve of the city C-259’s destruction to join the aliens wreaking havoc on his home. He develops a relationship with the alien Ae, but while he projects an air of confidence and nonchalance, the memory of his last lover still haunts him. A deep and subtle character study that builds a complex profile for Sawicki in the span of a short story. Nechama Frier’s character designs are wonderful, and I love how expressive Ae’s face is. The brushwork in the art is fantastic as well, as are all the various styles of lettering throughout.

Scent: Ozone; the crisp nothingness of a subzero wind; leather and something indescribable, alien.

The Devil’s Pupil by Ashley McCammon

14 pages. Beautiful, unique linework and paneling create an ethereal style through which this story is told. A person crawls out from a pit called “The Devil’s School” to return “home,” only to find that what was rightfully theirs has been taken. I admit that parts of the story were a little unclear to me, but it seems this is a Dracula tale, one told from his perspective, where he awaits a hunter to challenge him. Fantastic artwork, with a more muted story than the others so far in this volume.

Scent: Dried flowers and pine; something furred and leathery: a bat whose wingbeats stir dust into the stale air.

Bear My Teeth by F. Lee and Rainy

12 pages. Oh wow, the artwork for this comic is exquisite—even in black and white, the painterly quality of the values shows through beautifully. A classic revenge story: A trans woman goes out on a walk and gets bitten by a bear, becoming a were-bear in the process. After she gets passed up for a promotion, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Wonderful paneling with choice details shown in every shot, beautiful artwork, and that last page is chilling. Fantastic work.

Scent: Chanel No. 5, shaving cream, the animal musk of thick fur matted with blood.

The House of the Immaculate by Sey Vee

15 pages. A police constable goes to the House of the Immaculate, a place where people can act out their fantasies and fetishes, to investigate a series of murders—but he encounters more than he expected. Tight pacing with concise worldbuilding, I found myself not expecting the ending, but also not surprised by it. The candle that opens and closes the story is a great way too bookend the comic.

Scent: Baby powder, perfume, smoldering embers. Candle wax and sweat, crisp linens, a whisper of blood.

Striker by Tim Stowell, Steph Stober, & Shazzbaa

15 pages. Johnson and Leo are on opposing soccer teams who meet at the finals. Leo tells Johnson that he can’t win by himself, but Johnson is ready to claim the victory by any means necessary. Unlike most of the other stories in VERTOSCOPE, “Striker” has no speculative element—which perhaps makes Johnson’s villainy all the more terrifying. He’s unapologetic about what he does, and the contrast against Leo’s kindness and Dempsy’s innocent hope makes Johnson’s decisions all the more chilling.

Scent: Sweat and grass stains, a cool breeze hinting of evergreens.

Witchweed by Ama

10 pages. Lovely artwork; the clean lines are expressive and reflect a wonderful mastery of form. “Witchweed” traces the story of a queen about to exact her vengeance upon people who believe her to be evil. I wanted just a little more from this story; there’s a lot of worldbuilding that goes unsaid, which makes the impact of the final page more muted, since the reader doesn’t understand what’s at stake.

Scent: Soft perfume; clean clothes and bitter herbs.

Tails by Emilee McGlory

13 pages. I love the style of this comic; the vibrant lines that have so much wonderful weight to them. In this story, a wife and mother cooks as a way of providing for her family and protecting her family… with her own secret ingredients. I didn’t fully understand why the character was allergic to her cooking, but I did enjoy the tale—in a short space, McGlory provides a great motivation for the “villain” and creates a sympathetic character despite her horrifying actions.

Scent: Simmering stew, freshly-steamed rice, the exquisite, savory scent of meat.

Breakfast in Bed by Sarah Winifred Searle & Hannah Krieger

11 pages. Two thieves try to mug a traveler, only to discover that the traveler has a surprise. Lovely artwork with excellent panel composition; the story is short and compact, but the pacing moves it along at the right speed, without feeling rushed. There’s a happy ending for this story—at least from the villains’ perspective.

Scent: Dried leaves, loamy dirt; fresh air tinged with fear.

The Wonderful World of Wasps by Fal & Miru

10 pages. “Adorable” is the first word that pops into mind, though “horrifying” is a close second—and I love any kind of story that can juxtapose those two words in a way that makes total sense. Wally the Bee gives the reader a lesson about braconid wasps, whose reproduction differs from other wasps. The wasps in the illustrations are partly anthropomorphized, adding a secondary alien invasion plot to the educational lesson. A fun story that takes on the question of survival vs. villainy: we may feel horror at what the wasp does, but that’s simply how they’ve evolved to continue living. A light-hearted note to end on.

Scent: A sharp tang of poison mixed with blood; gunpowder.

Process Work

I love seeing process work and how authors and artists think through their stories. I was especially happy to see a close-up of the seraphim tattoo from “The House of the Immaculate”; it was such a striking panel to see it on Sister Fortuna’s back, and the design is lovely.