Over the last few years, my comic-buying habits have steered away from capes, mutants, and gravity-defying busts. Luckily for me, there are a few publishers that have made a name for themselves by servicing the indie/alternative comics crowd. Among that small group of publishers, DC Comics imprint Vertigo has made some particularly loud noise with acclaimed non-superhero titles such as Sandman, Preacher, 100 Bullets, A History of Violence, V for Vendetta, Transmetropolitan, and Fables. I’ve enjoyed some of their books (Losers, DMZ, Mnevore) while others seem interesting enough but just aren’t my cup of tea (Y: The Last Man, The Other Side, We3). But overall, if it’s under the Vertigo banner, I’m willing to give it a shot. So when I saw a new, original Vertigo graphic novel called Cairo featuring a seasoned journalist/writer and an award-winning illustrator, I was on board.
Cairo starts with a street savvy thief named Ashraf who gets his hands on an extra special hookah that just so happens to be the home to a genuine genie. In an effort to make a quick buck, Ashraf ends up selling the hookah to a kid named Shaheed. Turns out the kid is the “chosen one” so the genie helps Shaheed on his burgeoning path with destiny.
Of course, there’s a ruthless mob boss/magician who wants the hookah back. Said mob boss/magician kidnaps Ashraf’s journalist brother along with an innocent American tourist as a little added motivation for the thief to recover the hookah. So Ashraf teams up with an Israeli soldier named Tova and the drama kicks into high gear.
Cairo’s pacing is very cinematic and runs similar to action/adventure movies like The Mummy, Sahara, or National Treasure. Problem is: Cairo isn’t like any of those movies. It’s closer to a direct for cable, TBS/TNT/Sci Fi Channel movie. Think The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines, Mansquito, or Return of the Living Dead 5: Rave from the Grave; movies where the story falls short fall short and the lack of a legitimate production budget shows on the screen.
The story is written by G. Willow Wilson; a journalist who has written for the New York Magazine. Maybe it’s just me but I expected more. Not because of her rather respectable resume but because Cairo reads like a comic book rather than being a good story in comic book form. Good stories transcend their medium and Vertigo has a catalog full of great examples. However, Cairo’s plot plods along with moments of forced characterization and unimaginative dialogue. Additionally, the use of mythology tries to be inventive but it comes off as superfluous. It doesn’t help that Perker’s artwork is rather uninspired. The linework reminds me of Greg Capullo or Mark Pacella when they worked on X-Force in the early 90’s. Way too superhero-y for a self-described “magical-realism thriller”.
I won’t harp much more about Cairo since it’s obvious by now that I didn’t like the book. Let me point out one more thing. Coming in at 160-pages, $24.99 is rather expensive for black-and-white/grayscaled artwork. Even if it is a hardcover and the creative team has a few “real” publication credits in the parentheses behind their names, Cairo is a hard sell at that price. I can pick up Scott Chantler’s Northwest Passage: The Annotated Collection (hardcover, b&w, 272-pages) for $20. Or I can pick up Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon’s Pride of Baghdad for $20 (hardcover, full color, 136-pages). Both better deals. Both way better books.
Last word: Cairo has received enough respectable pub that my not-so-glowing review won’t make a dent on the book’s standing. And based on a promotional push at your local chain bookstore, sales of Cairo should give Vertigo another market success to add to their already stacked catalog of titles. As for me, I’ll mirror Boston’s opinion of current Yankee/former Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon: Cairo is dead to me. I’m more interested in what writer G. Willow Wilson does for her comic encore. She’s qualified and talented enough to bring a unique perspective to another story in our beloved medium. When it comes to the artwork, I can’t say I’ll seek out M.K. Perker’s work in the future. But then again, Cairo may be the product of a blues musician being asked to play black metal. All you have to do is look at her online gallery of work to know she’s a fine artist. That being said, if I see her name on a future solicitation, I’ll seek out a few preview pages to see what she’s up to.
If you’re at your local Barnes and Noble or Borders, give Cairo a skim and see what you think. As for me, I’m gonna go reread the first arc of The Invisibles or the latest issue of Jason Aaron’s Scalped and remind myself how good Vertigo can be.