June 2003

Karin L. Kross


Vertigo at Ten: a few thoughts

In a way, it's all Alan Moore's fault. His work -- and that of editor Karen Berger -- opened American doors to British comics writers and artists who are now household names: Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan, Dave McKean, David Lloyd. They were followed by Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, and more. Their work paved the way for DC Comics's Vertigo line, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Though the line has probably had as many misses as hits, it's been a strong force in the world of comics over the last decade, and it's worth taking a look back at it all.

Ironically, thanks to the acrimony between himself and DC, the man who can be credited with paving the way for the Vertigo line hasn't written a thing for it himself. Alan Moore has acknowledged a certain amount of discomfort with it: in an interview with Jonathan Ross, he observes that Vertigo's "atmosphere, their ethos or whatever, seems to be based on the bad mood that [he] was in" during the Thatcher years. It's a harsh assessment, perhaps, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate. Ever since the line was first launched, the spectres of Moore's Swamp Thing, Gaiman's Morpheus, and Delano's John Constantine have loomed large over the titles, with occasionally regrettable results. It gave the early Vertigo books a strong tendency towards the supernatural and the spooky, which made the line look rather one-sided for quite a while. An early exception, though, was David Wojnarowicz's and James Romberger's Seven Miles a Second, and thankfully, there have been similar exceptions since then, venturing into science fiction and film noir, among other genres.

Good things came out of the supernatural/spooky set, to be sure; Caitlin R. Kiernan's run on the Sandman spin-off, The Dreaming, was one of them, as is Mike Carey's always-entertaining work on Lucifer. But there were misfires. Many of the Sandman Presents minis, for instance, have been merely lackluster at best (the Thessaliad, to name a recent example, wasted a perfectly good character, although it's possible that I'm the only person on earth who actually liked her); and the attempt to revive Swamp Thing was sadly disappointing in the end.

If there's any generalization to be made, it's that the Vertigo imprint has been at its best with the works that don't fit into the Sandman/Swamp Thing/Dreaming/Books of Magic "Vertigo Universe". I'm thinking of titles like Garth Ennis's Preacher, Grant Morrison's The Invisibles and The Filth, and Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan. And some of the divinely odd early pieces that most people have probably forgotten, like The Enigma, Scarab, and Kill Your Boyfriend. In this respect, Vertigo has been the Miramax of the comics industry: providing Hollywood-scale budgets and production values to creators who might otherwise have little outlet apart from self-published black-and-white. (Not, mind you, that there is anything wrong with self-published black-and-white comics, and indeed, those were some of the first to offer a taste of what lay beyond the well-scrubbed, Code-approved superheroes. But there is something to be said for knowing that you'll get your work published in full color. Anyway.)

It should also be noted that Vertigo has been remarkably successful as a marketing ploy. The comics audience, after all, is getting older, and fewer youngsters are picking them up; and as the older readers' tastes change, they don't always want superheroes. Enter Vertigo: a means for DC to still satisfy the desires of adult readers who still love their comics, but who want something a little stronger and more complex, and who perhaps aren't savvy enough yet to find their way around the racks of independently published comics at the local store. Though it was perhaps inevitable that in some cases, the "mature readers" label ended up being largely an excuse to include sex, gore, and the word "fuck," for the most part with Vertigo, it's come to signify a certain degree of quality.

It's been a good thing, really. The Vertigo imprint has been a successful publishing experiment, and it's even spawned an imitator in Marvel's "Max" line. And its legacy of fine new comics writers who might have otherwise been obscurities in the back corners of the shops is a worthy one indeed.

So happy anniversary, Vertigo. Here's to another ten years.

Next month: a highly opinionated overview of the Vertigo line's high and low points. And in the meantime, walk, don't run, to your shop and get the new Warren Ellis/Colleen Doran book Orbiter. And if your shop does not have it, demand that they order it for you. More on that later.