Things get dirty when they look so clean: Graeme gets with the Programme, 7/18.

THE PROGRAMME #1: There was a time where Peter Milligan was arguably the best writer working on a monthly book anywhere in the American comic book world. Admittedly, that was more than a decade ago, and he was doing Shade The Changing Man and Enigma for Vertigo just after it launched, but he was so good back then; smart, funny, and able to mix both those traits into incredibly readable, unique stories that spoke to the big issues in everyone's lives. He hasn't been that writer for awhile - for various reasons - but I have to admit that this is the closest he's come in a long time (I didn't rate his X-Force/X-Statix as highly as everyone else did, for whatever reason. It just didn't seem that great to me... Sorry) - Jumping between multiple timeframes, touching on political and social and sexual hangups underneath the larger superhero story, this is both the most focused his writing has seemed in some time, and also the most savage.

What's interesting to me is how similar it seems to both Rick Veitch's "Army@Love" and also Brian K. Vaughan's "Ex Machina," which feels oddly fitting, as if whatever mainstream of comics that Vertigo and Wildstorm represent (The older superhero fan mainstream? The weekly direct market visitor who's wanting more mainstream?) has a lineage of writers that Milligan fits snugly into, a continuum that started with Steve Gerber doing Howard The Duck and kept going. That similarity, though, also works against the book; the superhero elements are easily the least interesting parts of the first issue, and are also reminiscent of more regular-superhero-mainstream things like The Sentry and even Brubaker's Captain America run, proof that even Wizard readers have caught up to what seemed daring and groundbreaking fifteen years ago, even if they'd find themselves turned off by winking references to Talibstan and erectile dysfunction.

They probably also wouldn't be too fond of CP Smith's art, which is a shame - Either photoreferenced or just photorealistic, there's an enjoyable intensity to it both in terms of the harsh blacks and also the melodramatic poses struck by characters. That intensity is backed by garish coloring by Jonny Rench that curiously works towards the good of the visuals, adding a surreal aspect that matches Milligan's dialogue. This isn't "realistic" comics, it's played as dark farce, as Milligan's best work always has been; he's a writer who has no problem being cruel to his characters and torturing them in the name of the plot (almost as much as Grant Morrison always ultimately offers happy endings because he loves his characters so much), and it's nice to see him return to such bastardry here.

Whether the series will live up to the promise offered in this first issue or, like his turn of the century series Minx (for Vertigo), burn out very soon after launching remains to be seen. But for now, it's a Very Good start.