A look back at one of the most significant comic book imprints in the history of the genre
When people think of DC comics, they rarely think of Jesse Cutter’s drunken mission to murder God. Or the Invisibles team being transposed into the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Or the frenetic sexual dysphoria of Doom Patrol. Or the building of a vegan death cult in Animal Man.
These aren’t the safe stories. They’re not the conventional ones. But they have been among the most artistically important ones. For a while, they existed within a section of DC Comics intended solely to push on the edges of comic panels, but that period will now come to a close with the Vertigo imprint shuttering in January.
In June, DC Comics announced it would consolidate all of its publishing imprints into its mainline branding. While some of these imprints, such as the kid-friendly DC Ink, had a short life span, this decision also ends a 25-year experiment undertaken by DC to push the comics medium to its breaking point. Vertigo, the “mature readers” imprint at DC, is shutting down, including all of its current titles.
For Vertigo readers, this news was hardly a surprise. Vertigo had been searching for a stable audience, but the demographics were slipping. While the world of comics has permeated every inch of pop culture, to the point where some of the most ubiquitous stories in society today originate in the pages of DC and its great rival Marvel, comic books remain an incredibly niche market.
Catering heavily to hobbyists, comic books sell at boutique retailers. To have any sort of meaningful engagement, you have to commit to subscription purchasing; taking even a month off can leave you totally lost in their serialized storytelling. For signature series like those featuring the Avengers or Spider-Man, publishers can expect maybe 100,000 copies of an issue to sell at the top end. Vertigo books often came in under 5,000.
So Vertigo’s passing did seem somewhat inevitable. At the same time, the loss is far greater than its modest sales numbers might suggest. The dissolution of this brand doesn’t merely mark the end of an era, it doesn’t merely bring to a decisive close the groundbreaking titles this imprint has published, but it also gets to the heart of something lost in the world of comics itself.
Vertigo’s history actually started several years before the imprint launched. In the late 1980s and early 1990s a sort of renaissance began to occur in the world of American comics.
The mainstream superhero books traditionally catered to youth markets, but the boundaries between them and the “alt” comics with mature themes started to blur. A “British Invasion” began to take place as authors moved from UK comics to American behemoths like DC, including people like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Peter Milligan. Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns had cracked open our feelings about what comics were, leading to dozens of terrible think pieces wondering if comics had “grown up.”
Things started to shift at DC Comics as a few titles evolved right past the edges of the superhero genre. Alan Moore took over Swamp Thing from creator Len Wein and introduced a concept known in the comics world as “revisionism,” reimagining the character’s history and reality in a more literarily expedient way. Swamp Thing became a horror book that explored our fears about identity and relationships. Grant Morrison saw the potential in z-rate characters like Animal Man and Doom Patrol, and mixed surrealism, anarchism, and chaos magick. Neil Gaiman went even further, stripping the Sandman of his entire history and mixing the comics mythology with our religious history into one of the most culturally defining fantasy stories of the 20th century.
DC editor Karen Berger saw what was happening and began cultivating it openly, not shying away from the fact that these books were moving past the decades-old strictures imposed by the “Comics Code Authority.” Instead, she let them breathe and they thrived and evolved into a genre of their own, using the structures of comic storytelling such as serialized stories, heroes and villains, and genre elements, to create a self-referential loop—challenging genre stories that were critical of their own narratives while exploiting the tools offered by the comics medium.
Vertigo Found What Was Already Under the Surface
Vertigo certainly opened a door for the rest of the market. When Image Comics emerged in the mid-1990s it was defined as “creator-owned” company (major comics companies own their creative properties), but over time evolved into a more open environment of genre books without aging themselves down. (There are now a dozen solid companies, with Image leading the pack, that produce mature-oriented comics untethered to the superhero motif.)
Vertigo competed with the very upstarts who were spawned by its own artistic forays. It did so by bringing in a range of talented writers with complex, creator-owned genre projects. What Vertigo did, a part of the revisionist flavor brought in by the British writers and honed by their army of creators in the ’90s, was to take the model of American comics seriously and elevate it.
Watchmen looked at the moral contradictions inherent in the masked heroes and newly-minted immortals and saw those contradictions through to their logical conclusions. When these authors looked at the slate of DC’s second tier, they didn’t just come up with original science fiction and horror concepts, but they extrapolated from what was already there, dormant but available just beneath the surface of their character histories. For Grant Morrison it was the real story of occult conspiracy that drove much of the DC mythology; for Peter Milligan it was the shattering of gender and identity boundaries intrinsic to the masked persona.
As these new creators reimagined the DC universe, they did so with a certain amount of fidelity because, as they understood, there was more to comics than we could see at first glance. They had tapped into deeply human mythic tropes, subjective archetypes that drove back a millennia into the stories we have always told to attempt to make sense of our world of contradictions. The serialization, the perpetually returning characters, the use of titanic struggles between good and evil—all were used. Which meant that these creators had exploited exactly what comics had brought to the table rather than rebuilding them from scratch in the image of other artforms.
The writers approached the superhero stories as Gnostics, keeping all of the elements in place but flipping around their contexts. Heroes became villains, truth became fiction, and the audience became characters. The Vertigo books leaped past all of our base assumptions about what comic book stories wanted to tell us, while simultaneously remaining anchored to the structural sensibilities of the comic book medium. When we looked back at the page, all of the traditional superhero story elements were still intact. Their triumph was to infuse more into this medium than had been there before, and in it we found a uniquely American artform.
This is what cemented Vertigo not just as a platform, but as a genre of its own, increasingly strange and contested as the 1990s progressed. The writers on these platforms became superstars and often moved on to more mainstream superhero books, and Vertigo shifted as those creators demanded that their original concepts be brought to the comic book stands as well. These began, again, as evolutions of existing comics concepts, such as Entertaining Comics (EC) styled horror books, war stories, each focused on reinterpreting these themes rather than digging up nostalgia.
When we look back at many of the comics that defined Vertigo’s first 15 years, many seem arcane by today’s standards. There is a derangement to the pages, sometimes too strange to follow, sometimes brutally offensive in their iconoclasms. And sometimes they line up so perfectly that they show us why comics connect with every generation as myths.
The Door Had Been Opened
As comics shifted, there was less of a place for the Vertigo model. The creator-owned field became the main center for this type of mature-oriented genre book, and Vertigo was not structurally built to give writers the kind of freedom (and pay) that Image could.
When Berger eventually left (she has her own line at Dark Horse now), a series of high profile editors could not seem to nail down Vertigo’s identity, despite churning out a few award-winning titles. They went through a number of stages, including becoming a carbon copy of Image by doing only creator-owned genre books and miniseries. Its most recent incarnation was to become increasingly self-referential by launching, and re-launching, titles that reapproached their popular characters from Vertigo’s heyday, such as Lucifer or a series of books set in the “Sandman universe.” At the same time, former My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way tried to bring in a line of adult-themed superhero titles, including updates to Vertigo classics, but they were unable to re-catch the lightning given that the culture had moved away from the initial electricity it felt when it first reckoned with the dark side of heroism. After a while, it no longer seemed like a novel pursuit.
All of this felt like a retread, lacking the cutting originality that had first stretched the boundaries of comic storytelling. Once-transcendent characters now served as vehicles to recover the classic format of DC Comics, arcane histories, sequential storytelling, and hyped crossovers.
As to where things currently stand, DC is not giving up on adult oriented titles entirely, but they will be set strictly within the very controlled parameters of the mainstream DC Universe. DC Black is DC’s newest branding for adult oriented books, mostly Batman titles that will be a bit edgier than their “in continuity” fare. A Joker graphic novel emblazoned with the DC Black label is the inspiration for the Todd Phillips incel tragedy, Joker, and Batman’s complicated history will provide a lot of opportunities to push the limits. But they will all be set tightly within their universe boundaries, refusing to question the most basic assumptions of those characters and elevate them past our expectations.
Rather than remembering Vertigo merely as a brand, their legacy should be as an arts movement inside of comics, an imprint that did not allow itself to be swallowed up by the conventions of the genre, but instead regularly and magisterially traced its corners.
This postmodern-esque moment seems a bit quaint now, and there is a move inside superhero comics to reclaim its “sunny side up” appeal (the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most visible of these factions). Yet this should not discount that, during a period of enormous artistic accomplishment, the deconstruction of our heroes was happening in such a visceral way that it had the ability to reshape our most enduring national myths.
From our vantage point now, looking down at the comics Vertigo gave us, you can’t help but marvel at the dizzying array of worlds and stories that the imprint was able to build. We must conclude that, in the above sense at least, Vertigo lived up to its name.