A Gift of Irony: The Vertigo Tarot

I’d like to talk to you a bit about irony.

Now, by this time you should have had it beaten into you that irony is not like it’s explained in Alanis Morisette’s song “Ironic” from Jagged Little Pill. A series of hilarious conincidences are not irony. No, irony is something much deeper than that. Merriam-Webster’s defines it as “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” That is, you expect one thing, you get another, that’s irony. (I guess from that definition, the “rain on your wedding day” is kind of ironic.) But there’s also this one, also from Merriam-Webster: “an event or result marked by such incongruity.” It’s for this definition that I have an example.

Since I’m moving to Indiana in the next couple of weeks, my family had its Christmas gathering early to mitigate people’s complaints of “We’ll never see you ever again!” So my brother and I got each other our gifts. My gift to him: Watchmen. He’s never read it and is getting into comics, so there’s really no reason to not get him something he’d buy anyway. But his gift to me? The Vertigo Tarot. For Christmas. Irony, checking in.

Now, I’m not surprised by this gift at all, because when I first saw this new printing of The Vertigo Tarot, I squee’d in joy and declared, “WANT!” I’m a bit of a fanboy when it comes to wacky occult things illustrated by Dave McKean. And really, that was all I wanted it for. I wanted to drool over super-cool art. The fact that it had a forward by Neil Gaiman (McKean’s sometime-collaborator) and was based on characters from DC Comics’ Vertigo line made it even cooler. And I still really have no idea who Rachel Pollack is, but apparently she’s kind of a big deal in the comics and sci fi worlds.

So I crack it open, and the first thing I’m overwhelmed by is the smell. It has one of those ink-and-paper smells that one associates with good glossy work (not unlike the Avatar Press smell). My wife’s initial reaction, before even opening the book or looking at the cards, was “Oooo… it smells good. That’s a start.” Getting into the package itself, though, is probably more what you’re looking for.

First, the box is quite stylish for just being a box. The texture of the printing is almost satiny, and the interior box seems sturdy. The book is set in the interior box, with the deck itself packaged behind in a faux velvet bag. So far, so good. The packaging looks good and looks like it will probably stand up well.

The book is nicely laid out. Unfortunately, it is a reprint (and, I assume, reduction) of the original 1995 hardcover printing. So the typography is rendered extremely small. I have 20/15 vision and it was still something I had to read at exceedingly close distance. I am certainly no tarot expert, but I found most of Pollack’s writing to be interesting, at the very least. Some of the more Vertigo-specific artwork (especially the Major Arcana) seemed to read a little too much into what characters they used for what cards and why, and how that character fits into tarot lore. I could have done without that. All in all Pollack’s interpretation of McKean’s art seemed alright, but McKean’s very abstract art is difficult to classify. Much of the final work was done with a computer, and McKean’s fascination with it is palpable; early computer-assisted graphics work flows through this deck like water from a spilled cup.

The cards are… well, they look fantastic. The glossy art is crisp, and they are definitely asthetically pleasing. I’m not sure, though, how much they’ll be able to stand up to actual use. DC Direct claims the cards are thicker than the old cards, but I would be sure to wash my hands before using the cards to avoid oils and fingerprints. Also, the cut of the cards is alright, but all of them have a very definite perforation cut. I would have liked a die-cut card significantly more. The backs are designed in such a way that it’s difficult to tell, at a glance, whether the card is correctly- or reverse-oriented. I think this adds quite a bit to the actual experience of “reading” the cards. Again, though I worry how they’ll hold up to repeated use.

The deck, like all tarot decks, is split into the 22 cards of Major Arcana (or Trumps) and the 56 Minor Arcana cards (Ace through 10 and 4 court cards per suit.) The Major Arcana is where most of the “Vertigo” comes from, as they depict different characters such as John Constantine, Swamp Thing, and various Sandman characters. The Minor Arcana is where McKean really goes abstract, though. My personal favorites are the Pentacles cards (also called ‘coins’ or ‘disks’ in other tarot decks.) The art McKean gives them is fantastic. My brother really liked the Swords suit. Standout Major Arcana pieces are The Emperor–based on The Geek–and The Chariot. But really, I could name any and all of the Major Arcana… they’re all that good. McKean really outdid himself on some of these.

DC Direct lists the retail at US$29.99. My local store marked it up some, to US$39.99, but I still feel that it was worth it. At the very least I’ll have a conversation piece. I may just start collecting decks, as I’ve heard people are wont to do. I don’t know. But I know that my brother certainly got his money’s worth on this gift, and I’ll enjoy looking through it–and squinting to read the book–for years to come.

NOTE: A full visual spoiler of the deck is available here.

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  1. Lavender
    December 28, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    I think your assessment on this deck is right on the dot. That was how I felt about my new deck as well. It’s really unfortunate that they cheaped out on the card stock. Almost like creating a gourmet meal and serving it on paper plates.

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