The Former King of Comics

A Personal Retrospective of Vertigo

This article first appeared on Multiversity Comics on June 10, 2014, but was written by me. It has been published here as well with their very kind permission.

Today’s readers may not think about it in such a way, but Vertigo really is – in my opinion – one of the most important comic imprints ever.

In 1993, Vertigo was created by Karen Berger as an imprint of DC Comics, after Berger had worked from within DC’s editorial to do everything she could to help comics grow up. Vertigo stemmed from her work in DC proper, as she pushed their titles in more mature directions, championing Grant Morrison’s work on “Animal Man”, Alan Moore’s tenure on “Swamp Thing”, and Peter Milligan’s “Shade the Changing Man.”

That led to Vertigo’s beginning, as well as the mass influx of writers as part of the “British Invasion”, such as Neil Gaiman (“Sandman”), Ennis (“Hellblazer”), the aforementioned Morrison and Milligan, and more.

Berger herself was the ringleader, bringing in writers not because of their ability to grasp continuity or carry on existing storylines, but because of their gifts in pushing comics to exciting new places. With her eye for talent, she had the ability to recognize potential many didn’t see, and by doing so with people like Morrison and Gaiman, she changed comics forever. If you ask anyone who has worked with her, or anyone who is a pundit of the industry really, Berger is undoubtedly one of the most important people in comics of the last 25 years, and Vertigo is her magnum opus.

Under her tenure, Vertigo became a mainstream way to access edgier, more thoughtful fare. Sure, there were other notable releases of similar or greater esteem available then – Los Bros Hernandez on “Love and Rockets”, Daniel Clowes’ work on “Eightball” and Dave Sim’s “Cerebus” for three – but they were each faced with more limited reach, thus less accessibility to Joe Q. Comic Reader. With DC’s backing, books like “Transmetropolitan” or “100 Bullets” could find audiences in people just like me.

The people who didn’t know there was something else out there.

For a certain generation, Vertigo was a gateway drug to this other world, and it helped inspire creators and push readers to want something more – something different – from their comics.

When I was a kid, I was all about the superhero comics. Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos’ “Impulse” was my favorite, but if you talked to me about an X-Event – especially “Age of Apocalypse” – you’d have my complete attention for as long as you wanted. Superhero comics were all that mattered, comic wise, and there wasn’t anything anyone could say that could make me think any different.

In the summer of the year 2000, I worked at my local comic retailer Bosco’s Comics, Cards and Games in Anchorage, Alaska in the sports cards section, and on my breaks or – if I’m being honest – often as I was working, I’d read trade paperbacks to pass the time. One of the comics I grabbed simply to break up the day changed the way I read comics forever.

Dillon and Ennis' Preacher Vol. 1Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s “Preacher.”

That comic remains to this day my all-time favorite title, and its adult oriented yet still highly entertaining story blew my superhero loving mind.

Shortly after that, I stopped reading comics. I was knee deep in the heyday of high school and about to face the future of college, and because of some reason or another, I just stopped. I didn’t read comics again until the summer after my freshman year of college (2003), when I went to my local shop to see if anything interested me. I asked one of the clerks for a recommendation, and the response came in the form of an important question:

“Have you read Y the Last Man or Fables?”

I hadn’t, naturally, as they had both started during my reading hiatus, and he hooked me up with the first trades of both.

More than 10 years later, I’m writing for this comic site because of “Preacher”, “Y the Last Man” and “Fables” more than any other books. They are the books that changed everything for me – one opened up a different world of comics to me and the other two brought me back to reading them – and the one commonality between the three of those books is this:

Vertigo published them.

For me, the peak time at Vertigo was in the mid to late 2000’s. In that span, it was a veritable comic reader’s delight, with “Y the Last Man” and “100 Bullets” coming to their thrilling conclusions, “Fables” continuing strongly, the apex of “DMZ”, and “Scalped”, “The Unwritten” and “Sweet Tooth” teasing us with fierce yet inviting starts. On top of that, newer voices like Jason Aaron, Jeff Lemire and Scott Snyder found a home there, and all in all, things were looking up for Vertigo.

Until they weren’t.

Oliver and Rodriguez's FBPI’m not exactly sure what triggered it, but over the past five years or so, Vertigo has begun a decline that has left it a shell of its former self. It still produces good books, mind you, as “Fables” is still kicking, “The Wake” has earned a lot of appeal and an Eisner nomination for Best Limited Series, “American Vampire” and “The Unwritten” continue to impress, and some of the newer breed like “FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics” have been strong.

But DC has started cutting Vertigo out at its knees. It hasn’t helped the imprint that some of its longest running books wrapped simply because DC saw more value in them as DC properties, shifting John Constantine from “Hellblazer” (the longest running Vertigo series before its cancelation) to “Constantine” in the New 52, and moving other characters like Shade, Madame Xanadu and even Death over as well. It weakened Vertigo’s line, and in the process helped further convey the image that DC was quickly losing sight of the value of its imprint.

Out of the books they are currently publishing, four of those books will have wrapped within the next year, and five will if you really, genuinely believe “The Sandman: Overture” will reach its conclusion by then. Beyond that, there aren’t any replacements on the horizon, unless you include Peter Milligan’s “The Discipline” and two other unrevealed books that were mentioned in this New York Times article back in July of 2013. That will leave the imprint with single digits in its publishing line, and no real explanation or idea as to why the number is dwindling so.

Many minds would likely look to the departure of Berger herself as the catalyst for all of this. Berger resigned in December of 2012, and her visibility within the company had seemingly been reduced even before then. Berger was the heart and soul of Vertigo, and a key figure in drawing many creators in. After her resignation, some openly wondered if this was what would truly lead to Vertigo’s demise, but its own diminishing attractiveness as a place to publish work pushed that domino over long before if anyone was really being honest.

Part of that is their own doing. For example, John Layman, the writer and co-creator of “Chew”, recently shared his experience of bringing that book to life on Twitter, talking about how Vertigo rejected the project, and did so in pretty disrespectful fashion. This is a book that went on to become an Eisner winner and hugely successful from a sales standpoint. Layman was even a known commodity to DC/Vertigo, and that’s the treatment he received.

Now imagine what treatment newer creators looking to bring their big ideas to life might get from them?

Like “Chew”, many books that would likely have been earmarked as Vertigo material in the past instead go to Image, or are released as graphic novels, webcomics or Kickstarter projects. A number of creators have shared that there are varying flaws in the Vertigo creator-owned deal, and those dents in the Vertigo armor are enough to make Image a more attractive option to many when it comes to releasing projects, especially given the enormous financial potential creator-owned has in this post “Walking Dead” world. The comic community is a small one, and people talk. These are the types of things that likely ensured that books like Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s “Southern Bastards” and Scott Snyder and Jock’s “Wytches” ended up where they did rather than Vertigo, despite the history those creators have with the imprint.

As Grant Morrison told the New York Times in a piece that very much reads like an obituary for the imprint, “Everybody learned from Vertigo. Everybody copied the tricks that worked, took the cool stuff, left behind what they didn’t like, and turned it into a sellable product.” Options aren’t just more abundant than ever, they’re increasingly viable and lucrative as well.

Cloonan's By Chance or ProvidenceFrom where I sit to write this piece, I can reach out and touch copies of Becky Cloonan’s “By Chance or Providence”, Matt Kindt’s “MIND MGMT” hardcover Volume Two (“The Futurist”) and Adrian Tomine’s “Optic Nerve” number 13. The first and third books I mentioned were self-published, while “MIND MGMT” was released by Dark Horse Comics. All three – once upon a time – easily could have been Vertigo titles, but because of more attractive options being available to creators, they went the routes they did. Those books are very real examples of what Morrison said coming to fruition.

Previously, I mentioned that a big part of Vertigo’s appeal was that it brought higher brow storytelling to the masses in ways that others couldn’t. But in today’s digital world? Cloonan can release her mini-comics digitally and print and sell them through her own distribution house, Lounak, without needing a publisher or imprint. All she really needs is a printer, a website with an excellent ordering system, good marketing channels, and the willingness to put in a lot of effort. In today’s industry, if you want to be, you can be your own Vertigo.

Does this all mean Vertigo is on its way out? Sometimes it seems like it, but given its history, I wouldn’t count them out yet. They’re currently led by three very bright people in Shelly Bond, Will Dennis and Mark Doyle, and it was the work of a sharp individual who got them to where they did in the first place. If Vertigo could return to its past glories, it will take the work of those three rebuilding the house Berger once built.

More than anything, though, it will take them repairing the bridge they once had to the creative side of things. Sure, Neil Gaiman is still wrapping “Overture” and Scott Snyder has a couple irons in the fire, but at least to me, it’s apparent that Vertigo doesn’t have the pull they once did with creators, with other, more progressive comic houses surpassing them in that regard.

One way or another, Karen Berger’s wish of Vertigo helping comics grow up has been fulfilled, and it’s evident in the evolving reading habits of someone like me and in the burgeoning creator-owned movement at Image and beyond. Vertigo has been a catalyst in that change, and for me, they’ve been the most important part of it. Only time will tell if Vertigo will still be around to help inspire another generation of readers to want more from comics, though.

I for one hope they will be, as they once did for me.