It is not impossible to create a comic book of quality around a Soviet teenager defecting in desperation, moving to America, growing up beautiful, and becoming an employee of the US government who takes gymnastic spy assignments. I can say this in confidence having enjoyed Aymond and Van Hamme’s Lady S (Dupuis, published in translation by Cinebook). It is also not impossible to create a comic book of low quality around that selfsame premise—Extreme Studios’ 1995 three-issue miniseries Vogue, by Witten, Voris, Mychaels, Park, and Parsons and based on Liefeld’s Youngblood character Vogue, is that bad result. As a Liefeld Creations fan I desired this comic to be good, but it wasn’t. It could have been. But it wasn’t.
The reader is expected to understand that Vogue is a member of the American celebrity-superhero team Youngblood, and that her position on this team is “what if the Black Widow had chalk white skin and purple hair, and was never involved in spy stuff until she came to America.” She does not have superpowers but she does sometimes have eyes with no iris or pupil (sometimes—not always). Her skin, hair, and eyes are not explained or acknowledged, and the regular colouring mistakes within this mini don’t help them become any more narratively communicative. Vogue, when not being a katana-wielding superhero, is the CEO of a successful cosmetics company, and a supermodel. In case we don’t know this, we are vaguely reminded: five pages in, a spread of narrative captions tell us that Vogue is finding it hard to handle doing so much. It’s hard to describe a comic book like this—I can tell it better than they did. My description will be more engaging than the published sequence.
Vogue has overextended herself, as anyone trying to hold down three jobs is likely to do. As any CEO is likely to do. As any supermodel (the “super” is my assumption, but this is power fantasy comics: is she gonna be a jobbing catalogue mannequin?) is likely to do. As any superheroine, etc. etc. She’s doing a lot and she’s ready to break; she feels an identity crisis coming on which is partially due to the fact that she kills people. Youngblood must be gritty. She can “take a life without batting an eyelid.” She can’t take a life without feeling an identity crisis coming on, though, so maybe eyelashes would have been better used as a way to talk about her feelings about her beauty industry career than to form an accidental rhetorical paradox. None of this matters to the story at hand because she’s about to be interrupted by an ultimately unidentified man who’ll explain her darkest backstory—father shot, emergency flight, defector status, gymnastic ability—and send her off Russia-bound on a quest to avenge her dead dad.
It’s easy to superimpose a stronger story over the bones provided. “This woman works too hard because leaving her mother and brother in the wake of a traumatic event, political tensions, loneliness and the like make it hard for her to stop distracting herself”—that’s not a bad place to start a story. Work addiction is a real problem. Maybe as a very visible immigrant she feels role requirements that are crushing her. Maybe the need to return to the country she hasn’t seen in ten years, the opportunity to see her mother again, will interact with her mental health problems and professional obligations and alchemise Vogue into a new stage in her life. Perhaps deciding (planning? succeeding?) to kill the man who killed her father and changed her whole life will take her to emotional places she hasn’t been before. Lady S conceives a tale of emotional connection, guilt, forced betrayal, and manipulation between a survivor, her adopted parents, the boy who saved her life when she was newly orphaned, and the secret services. It shows what can be done! Maybe this could have been a character portrait instead of a very basic action movie knockoff. Maybe, maybe, no.
There are many, many misspellings in Vogue #1-3. There are lettering mistakes and oversights. There are the aforementioned, and more, colouring mistakes. There are discrepancies in the art which are unexplainable—the same penciller-inker team is credited for all three issues, but Vogue’s hair shrinks, gets shorter and flatter, throughout. It’s like her hair grows in reverse, truly . . . not the kind of complaint one expects to make, a complaint that seems bizarre and silly, but it’s true. Her hair ungrows, over a three-issue miniseries, that takes place over two or three days. Is it distracting? Yes! Is it, in its mystery, also one of the most interesting things about Vogue? Maybe, maybe—yes.
Our heroine meets with her mother for a short three panels. Explaining that she had to forget her living family on purpose—one single speech bubble, for the reunion of a girl who left her mother in fear at fourteen—and mama V responds: “I understand. None of that is important now. They say in America you are a hero. Now you must be a hero for me.” Vogue’s long-lost brother is actually quite recently lost; he’s been missing six weeks. Vogue breaks into the Kremlin’s secret info bunker (yup) and discovers she should be looking for the villain of her piece under Chernobyl. But not before noting how old and rubbish these Kremlin computers are, compared to what she’s used to using at Youngblood. America! Fuck yeah!
Narrative captions describing the events of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are a fairly miserable thing to read in any superhero comic. Vogue (1995) reveals that this event was “really” the result of superhero experimentation, Vogue’s nemesis using radiation to try to create a Soviet superarmy, making its acknowledgement of the huge toll the radiation release took on human lives (“the principal victims were soviet children”) and the local environment coarsely tacky. This whole mini deals casually with radiation, atomic power, and the political status of post-Soviet states and people. It does not appear to have much research behind it.
Finding “automated defense droids” in a secret passage under the Chernobyl reactor, Vogue knows she must be onto something. She fights them, gets punched in the spine by a miscoloured hand (dialogue on the next page makes no sense if the silver fist shouldn’t actually be green), and is given “meningitus (sic), small-pox (sic) [and] malaria… all at once!” Baddy team, meet protagonist. End issue.
Letterer Kurt Hathaway had given Blight—a character who appears to have the power of giving people illnesses at will, with the ironic affectation of “calling healthy people ill and saying they must be cured (with sickness)”—blue speech bubbles, with wavy, uneven outlines to suggest by my read a hideous, bubbling tone of voice. This was on the second-last page of issue #1. By page one of issue #2 this has changed: Blight’s voice is still given a wobbly outline but the wobble is far more regular and the background colour for the text within it is white. On the next page this apparent disconnect between the various Vogue team members (in fact by issue two the editor is Jim Valentino, instead of issue one’s Eric Stephenson) continues as the tank character Tank cries that Vogue “broke his knobs” after she is seen punching a flat plane of his face. He does not appear to have what I would call knobs. Maybe they were already broken, before? Vogue disdains this team and tells them they “wouldn’t qualify as minnows in the bloodpool.” I don’t know what that is.
(I actually do know what that is, because I have the ability to Google. Nobody had Google in 1995. Concepts relevant to stories are supposed to be established within those stories; comics created to market other comics should at least have an asterisk and a note about who should buy what, and when. The bloodpool is the training ground for Youngblood hopefuls. Think NXT, I guess.)
Issue #2 is where the gendered slurs and rape references begin. Bitch, whore, witch, sow, “too pretty to break,” sarcastic reference to her modelling career, super-bitch, negative reference to her modelling career. The villain, Stroika, reveals that he shot her father because of a dispute over the ethics of their shared radioactive super soldier program. Stroika, KGB head, was in favour of lethal human testing. Her father, a “brilliant scientist,” was against it enough to lend his scientific mind to the project for some undetermined period of time. This is where Stroika claims responsibility for what was called the Chernobyl accident—complete with panel of grey, disintegrating radioactive victims. Stroika uses his (faulty) superpower activation machine on Vogue, and leaves thinking he has killed her. Of course he has not, and she awakens a short time later with newfound superpowers. This is the first indication that Vogue did not already have superpowers; this is where I had to fire up the wikis. Seriously: why is her skin snow white? Why are her eyes snow white (sometimes)? Just because. There’s absolutely no reason I can find. Vogue’s teammate is a boy made of rock; she is a superheroine. She could have the power of “white skin and white eyes” without it being egregious or even really out of place. But she doesn’t! She just happens to have non-notable, notable attributes. This is not a prequel
Having woken with her new invulnerability and increased strength, Vogue is faced with the threat of Warfare, a product of Stroika’s experiments. Naturally he is her brother, now a very cross nuclear man. They fight until she convinces him that she is his sister. Warfare, Dimitri, believes his sister died when their father did—but her mother didn’t! Her mother had heard of Vogue’s American heroism. That’s another dropped thread. Speaking of threads, Vogue’s overpants are coloured four different hues over their two-issue, unchanged appearance. They go from orange to blue to purple to one to purple to white. Yes! White! The white of her bare skin. Ass-coloured overpants.
Issue #3 is co-co-written by reserve editor Jim Valentino, and I think his big, mature hand on the steering wheel was both important and wasted. You can feel this mini trying to come together—it just doesn’t, because it doesn’t have any substance to gather. The third issue is where the villain threatens the public with an atomic bomb and a demand for political power; it’s where the heroine and her brother fight together as adults who have both found different mentors and different paths to approximately the same place, albeit in different countries and cultures. It’s where the hero fights the villainous team, where the villainous team is betrayed by their leader and reveals his false ideology, and where the heroine kills a man in front of her mother in order to finish old business and display how much she has been forced to change by circumstance. All the recognisable superhero moments! Vogue even “has to” leave her mother and brother and homeland behind thanks to her contract with Youngblood: a solid conflict base for continuing stories. But the dialogue hasn’t got much better, the sequential art isn’t really all that sequential, and there’s no appreciable emotional status quo to affect. Vogue and Warfare’s mother is exhibited as a hostage by Stroika; he claims he kidnapped her as a last-resort control for his protégé Dimitri. But Dimitri has been missing for six weeks, and Vogue met with her mother yesterday— there was an opportunity to explain away the discrepancy and introduce a shapeshifter reserve villain working for Stroika, appearing in the climactic to reveal she was the mother Vogue met or even as the hostage-mother. Either way, faced with Vogue’s love, this “bad” character could be moved to side with our “good” heroine, leaving one more decent Russian superhero behind at the end of the comic and in the meanwhile creating melodrama within both factions during the violent events of the mini series’ last fight. That is much how the superhero story is built to work.
Vogue’s killing of Stroika is almost positioned as a turning point, with nominal callback to the initial statement of identity flux in narrative captions, but these twist to the side just to become an indictment of careers in beauty:
“She is no longer a painted object, grinning seductively for a camera . . . Or a cold-hearted businesswoman marketing make-up and perfumes to make other women more ‘attractive’ to the opposite sex.”
Coming from a 1990s, ass-out, sphere-breasted, eyeless, pout-heavy superheroine comic made by an entire team of men, that is flagrantly misogynistic. It’s insulting. It’s hypocritical.
Vogue leaves the country of her birth, and her family, to rejoin her regular book. She sheds a tear, ostensibly because she’s sad to go but I’ve an inkling it was more to do with what’s been wasted. Models—models, okay, have interesting lives. They are interesting people. Vogue, the magazine Vogue, makes fantastic use of this fact; they have models as columnists, editors at large, videographers, interview subjects. On top of the “wearing clothes in a compelling way” skillset for which they are originally hired. Models have very, very often been professional performers since their early days of puberty; they’re worldly, they’re experienced, they have seen things. Hundreds of American models are from former Soviet states: there are people who could have been asked about their lives and selves, there are people born to write this book. Some of them love modelling and some don’t, but both of those types of model have opinions on modelling, and on things beyond modelling. They have personalities and styles of diplomacy. They have preferences! Vogue has none of these, and it is her own, personal mini.
You could read 1995’s Vogue in 2018. But you could also read Lady S and/or a copy of Vogue (Conde Nast). I know which I’d suggest. And I know which is kinder to its subject.