Panels of future Past: Terminal City #1 (Vertigo, 1996)
Upon looking at the cover and browsing artwork in the mid90’s Vertigo series Terminal City, I immediately started thinking of the “retro-future” look and feel of the titular location of the recent film Tomorrowland. In both cases, it’s a version of a futuristic city that seems straight out of the the 50’s World’s Fair, it’s that rather stereotypical view of the future as can only be imagined by those that lived in the 50’s and 60’s. Hover-cars, massive statues, and gliding, possibly magnetic trains for the backdrop of this limited series comic book.
Like pretty much everyone else in the country, I did not see Tomorrowland, nor did I read past Terminal City’s inaugural issue, which itself played more like trailer for whatever story would be set in this fantastical place; in both in cases, I got an idea for the look and feel of the setting. In the case of Terminal City, the setting is indeed the most interesting aspect of the story, despite attempts by the writers to weave various unrelated characters into a web of the titular city’s criminal underworld.
Our protagonist is Cosmo Quinn, a former daredevil called “The Human Fly” who has resorted to using his talents at scaling daunting heights by taking up a job as a window-washer. Most of the first issue cleverly allows us to appreciate how this vacation has given him a unique perspective on not just the physical perspective of Terminal City, but also the events within it; he can see the complicated web of characters from a detached point of view. In the visual story-telling medium of comic book, it’s important to use visuals and a lot of shorthand to establish characters, but, even with that said, this is all a bit obvious.
From above, he has been able to keep tabs on Hercules Arms’ bartender Charity, a former flame of his who helped him out in the past, just after his career as The Human Fly came to end. Does she know that he’d be keeping tabs on her? Apparently no, because when Cosmo suddenly drops into the charity ball near the end of an issue to help a nefarious-looking character, she seems surprised to see him. It’s the stranger’s briefcase that finally lures Quinn from the outside into the heart of this story. He had seen this very briefcase – cuffed to a detached hand – on one of Terminal City’s giant art-deco statues, The Colossus of Roads, a place that is too high to be accessible to anyone else but himself.
What had really happened? During his harrowing ascent, which was being broadcast as a publicity stunt, The Human Fly had seen a trench-coated man fall to the ground from above. Over the radio, Charity told him to proceed with the climb, but when Quinn spotted the briefcase cuffed to that very hand that was now separated from its owner, that man’s killer attacked Quinn from behind before making off with the briefcase. It was then that the career of The Human Fly ended.
When, in the “present” now years later, what could be the same man stumbled into the Herculean Arms during a charity ball just as Quinn was cleaning the windows, Quinn notices the same briefcase. Yes, just like in all those cliche crime capers, he knows its the one. At the end of the issue, Quinn formulates a new plan. We might not know the details of this plan, but we gather that it involves, once more, scaling the Colossus of Roads to try to link both events together. As before, he is knocked out from behind, and that is where the first issue of Terminal City ends.
Despite its attempts to tell a rather cinematic story, the issue just doesn’t have enough in it to be all that compelling. It’s main protagonist and his former flame are (just barely) interesting enough, but the various side characters introduced here even less so. We have the Albino midget gangstress, Lil Big L’il, who no doubt wants the case for herself. There’s B.B., the young punk-ish female construction worker who has just arrived into the city and is trying to find her way. We also have Monique Rome, the mysterious character who we just catch a glimpse of here, observing a key moment in the story.
Truth be told, the first issue of Terminal City doesn’t tell much of a story, and is more content to provide us with setting and atmosphere. Quinn’s narration is par for the course, and it’s almost interchangeable with the narration you’d read in Sin City (or that you’d hear in the films). At least the creators of Sin City knew enough to exaggerate the rather stock elements that go along with crime-noir genre; it’s the stylistic excesses of Sin City that have made it as influential as it has been; by comparison, Terminal City, while obviously just as self-aware as Sin City, just seems to walking – timidly, I might add – on paths already taken. Since Terminal City itself is your stock futuristic city – whether by design or not – it also winds up not being as interesting as it’s creators would like us to believe. I’d almost rather plunk down ten bucks to watch Tomorrowland then try to scour the 50-cent bins for the rest of this mini-series.
Terminal City #1 plays like trailer for itself. While it’s admirable of Vertigo comics to take chances on sci-fi concepts at a time when superhero books were once again finding their place, there’s just something so generic about Terminal City. It’s okay to save much of the story for later, and use a debut issue to establish tone and voice, but when that tone and voice feels old and stale and is blowing smoke in a setting that attempts to be fresh and new (but actually isn’t) we can only wonder not about the story, but why the project was given the go-ahead to begin with.