Deathbed #1 is a very weird comic. The latest offering from Vertigo tells the story of a washed up writer named Valerie Richards who gets a lead on a writing gig from a friend. But when she arrives at the client’s cliched gothic mansion home, she finds anything but the boring ghostwriting job she was expecting. Her subject is Antonio Luna, a supposedly legendarily famous person who no one seems to have heard of before. He summoned Val to his titular bedside to have her write his story, one that he promises is the greatest one ever told.
Whether or not he or this comic lives up to that promise we’ll get to in a moment, but let’s start with what definitely worked: the art of Riley Rossmo. His line art crackles with the gritty energy that he’s become known for on various Batman issues and Batman/The Shadow, and his character designs are charming and dynamic, up there with the best of his past creator-owned work like Cowboy Ninja Viking, Green Wake, and Bedlam. Val is adorable and exploding with attitude, and Antonio is dramatic and striking. Ivan Plascencia’s colors perfectly complement Rossmo’s lines, and it really makes each panel pop with color, while still fitting the mood of the story.
Where this first issue lost me was the story. As well as it was presented visually, the story and its subtext left me scratching my head. When we are introduced to Val, we see her at her worst, and she’s lamenting about having never had any validation in her life since her fourth grade story was published in her local paper, and how she is currently forced to make a living telling other people’s stories. The rest of the issue is her being seduced by a toxically masculine old man into doing the same for him, and while the seduction is not overtly sexual, the undertones cannot be ignored.
It’s only the first issue, so presumably both Val and Antonio will learn something about themselves and each other over the course of the series, but I have to wonder why the story of a desperate woman being exploited by an elderly alpha-male is a story that the male creators wanted to tell at this particular moment. There’s clearly more going on with Antonio, and Val’s final words of narration give a little bit of hope for redemption, but as it stands, this first issue’s treatment of gender roles really rubbed me the wrong way. There’s not enough of the story yet to go so far as to call it sexist or offensive, but issue two has a ton of work to do convincing me that this story has anything to say that doesn’t feel kind of gross.
Maybe with a bit more polish, the script could have come across a little more clever or nuanced and these problems could have been smoothed out, but as it stands, Deathbed #1 is a great looking book, but one that feels like it didn’t think its story through all the way. If you’re a fan of the creative team–especially Rossmo–then check it out, but otherwise I’d wait to see how the rest of the series is received. There are better written comic books to spend your money on this week.