July 2006

Clayton Moore

features

Graphic Attack: Vertigo Raises the Bar (Again)

There’s never been a place quite like Vertigo.

The DC Comics-based publisher has brought readers some of the most eclectic work to grace the comic book racks in the past decade, a fact that’s especially significant considering the age in which it was born. It was a daring move on the part of one of America’s oldest continuous publishers, moving into the world of speculative fiction and going where few mainstream publishers had gone before.

Graced with a plethora of incredibly talented writers and artists, including many exiles and immigrants from the dynamic world of British comics, Vertigo was founded in 1993 after evolving from dark, unusual books like Alan Moore’s psychedelic version of Swamp Thing. Led by its influential and visionary executive editor, Karen Berger, the Vertigo line soon grew to include books that were as gripping as they were sometimes outright strange, such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Garth Ennis’s Preacher and Warren Ellis’s blistering media satire Transmetropolitan.

Today the line of more traditional serialized books is equally dynamic. Bryan K. Vaughan will soon wrap up his post-apocalyptic road trip Y: The Last Man. Brian Azzarello continues to spill blood in his gangsta soap opera 100 Bullets and his western gothic Loveless. Brian Wood trips out on American history in DMZ. And of course, the denizens of hell still walk the earth in Hellblazer, Lucifer, and other horror-based books.

But it’s a surprise to find that all this success has emerged as an interesting catalyst for Vertigo, which finds itself going through yet another evolution. Berger and her team of editors have recently begun expanding the brand’s literary reach with more stand-alone books far closer to novels than comics, developed by some of the best creators in the business.

Master of Puppets

“I think, in many ways, the world is finally catching up to Vertigo in terms of what we’ve been doing in graphic novels for many years,” Berger said from the publisher’s offices in New York City. “It’s forced us to up our ante. We’re best known for our comic series but it’s only recently that we’ve begun to explore the stand-alone graphic novel format.”

Berger credits Steven Seagle’s It’s a Bird for opening a lot of eyes to the fact that modern-day readers -- beyond regular readers of comic books -- could find merit in books that they could identify with but which didn’t require the intense dedication that a ten-volume series like The Sandman might entail. Based around a writer’s assignment to take on the Man of Steel, It’s a Bird explores the deep cultural connotations the character brings -- without ever featuring Superman.

It’s a Bird was a real turning point for us,” she recalled. “It had that Superman comic book connection but it was done in such a way that you didn’t have to have ever read a comic book in your life. It was a personal journey and yet still an experimental work. It changed our approach to doing more stand-alone graphic novels.”

While few debate the worth of Vertigo’s ongoing series, the stand-alone approach also carries an appeal for creators. These books teeter on the verge -- dare we say it -- of literature.

“The original graphic novel offers the format of telling that one complete story that’s designed to be a novel, where writers can use novelistic approaches and pacing and story structure and layout,” Berger said. “This is stuff you can’t always use in the standard serialized comic with ads and 22 pages of story.”

The concentrated nature of these works also appeals to readers, an appeal to which Berger can relate.

“These stories are designed to be novels,” Berger said. “I think it’s a reason why people are becoming more attracted to the format. It’s a complete story that anyone can read without having to marry themselves to a whole series.”

Vertigo has always been an occasional home to fantastic writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, and others, but these days there’s a whole new breed of writers and artists joining its unusual ranks. Vertigo was kind enough to share some of the more dynamic books coming out in the near future and their creators were kind enough to share their thoughts as well.

“These books are great reads that stand up to the best contemporary fiction being created right now,” Berger said of Vertigo’s next wave of creators. “They show the kind of strength and uniqueness that the graphic novel brings forward.”

The Marked Man

By far, the most unusual of Vertigo’s upcoming offerings is Rick Veitch’s Can’t Get No, a new book that explores the American landscape and culture in an entirely new way. Published in June, this is a book so startling that even Neil Gaiman calls it, “supremely, magnificently strange.”

Can’t Get No, written and illustrated by Veitch (Swamp Thing, Bratpack) is a surreal chronicle of one man’s adventure during and immediately after 9/11. It begins sedately enough as Chad Roe, the repressed CEO of a company that makes Eter-No-Mark permanent markers, heads off for work in New York City. That day, the city joins with property owners in a suit against the company for graffiti damage. The resulting chaos sends Roe into a drinking binge that culminates in two female artists tattooing him from head-to-toe with his own permanent marker. He tries to cover his new markings but can’t. His odd appearance causes him to be driven away from certain death in the Twin Towers. Subsequently, Roe snaps and goes on the road.

“I’d heard the urban legend of the guy who got drunk and woke up drawn all over with Magic Markers,” Veitch remembered. “It kind of struck me that it might be interesting to follow through on someone in that predicament. It’s also a way to graphically ‘tag’ a character. You always know it’s Chad, even in long shots.”

The project took two years and even with nearly five years’ psychic distance from the event, Berger finds Can’t Get No very timely.

“What we’re finding with many works about 9/11, both fiction and film, is that the resonant effect of that time takes a while to seep in and that it comes out creatively in different ways,” she said. “I will tell you that it was very amorphous. Rick knew how it started but he wasn’t sure how it was going to end up. I knew that whatever he did would end up breaking new ground and exploring new territory in graphic novels, though, and I think he succeeded brilliantly.”

Perhaps the most aberrant aspect of Can’t Get No is its “narration,” a kind of sing-song, incongruous poetry that adds an otherworldly soundtrack to Veitch’s startling black-and-white artwork.

Can’t Get No differs from most graphic novels in the way that it works, with the lyrical captions dancing in and out of the unfolding visual narrative,” Veitch explained. “It’s meant to work on a reader’s brain in a new way. The trick was in creating just the right amount of dissonance between word and image so readers naturally fill in any gaps with their own imagination. People seem to see all kinds of things in there that weren’t my intention, which is really cool. It means that they’re making Can’t Get No their own.”

It also differs from the traditional 8x10 comic book in size. Roughly the shape of a thick paperback turned on its side, the art is presented in a widescreen format that is cinematic in its presentation.

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted the format of the book to be different,” Veitch said. “It wasn’t just to make it look original but also to break through the mindset that comes from reading the same shaped comics all the time. Vertigo came up with the final size and shape and I think they made a perfect choice. I like the way the book feels like a fat brick and just falls open in your hand.”

The book is heavy. So are its messages.

“When I talk to individuals, most of them are still struggling with aspects of how the event impacted our lives,” Veitch observed. “It seems like after the actual shock wore off and we geared up for war, our media moved on and a dialogue we needed to engage in never happened. I suspect there is something about the whole tragedy that we, as Americans, don’t want to face in the political sphere. Fiction is a good tool to get at complex issues that are stuck in the craw of the national consciousness, and of course I hope my book facilitates that in some way.”

Animal Instincts

One of Vertigo’s most lauded contemporary creators is Bryan K. Vaughan, who cut his teeth at the publisher with a badly received reboot of Swamp Thing. He has long since redeemed himself with Y: the Last Man, a wildly popular vision of a future where a plague has killed every male creature on earth, save two -- the eponymous Yorick and his monkey Ampersand.

Vaughan’s first full-length, stand-alone graphic novel is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a very different beast from the ultra-hip, culture-rich worlds he has carved over the past decade in books like Y or Ex Machina. Pride of Baghdad, due in September and based on a real event, tells the story of a pride of lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo in 2003 during an American bombing raid. Zill, their savage but proud alpha male, leads lionesses Safa and Noor and the cub Ali through the war-torn streets of the city in search of food, and maybe something more. Yes, it’s a tale of talking animals but it’s as moving as any animated film and profoundly more intellectually challenging.

“From Carl Banks’ Scrooge McDuck to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, our medium has always had a rich tradition of telling meaningful stories with anthropomorphized animals,” Vaughan explained. “I was looking to push myself by experimenting with this storytelling device but I was also hungry to write something that addressed my feelings about the still-ongoing Iraq War. When I read reports about this pride of lions that escaped in 2003, I knew I had the starting point for the story I needed to tell.”

He spent weeks studying the region, learning the history of Iraq, and finding out more than you’d ever want to know about lions. He even sought out people who spent time in Baghdad after the war began, including rescue veterinarian Mariette Hopley, who works for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

“I sometimes describe it as an Animal Farm for the Iraq war, although it seems obnoxious to compare myself in any capacity to Orwell, my favorite author,” Vaughan admitted. “We’re telling this seemingly simple fable about real-world lions and while it can be read as a straight adventure like The Incredible Journey, my goal was always to use these animals to explore my own conflicted feelings about the war, the nature of occupation, and the price of freedom.”

The book is gorgeously illustrated by Niko Henrichon (Barnum), who captures both the fanciful nature of the book’s talking animals as well as its harsh physical setting.

“It’s breathtaking,” Vaughan says of Henrichon’s art. “His cover is unbelievably gorgeous and I think people are shocked to see that the interiors are even more stunning. I was impressed by Niko’s work on Barnum but it was his lavishly illustrated sample drawings of various animals that convinced us that he was the only artist for the job.”

The writer admits that carving out a 136-page, stand-alone graphic story -- featuring animals, no less -- was pretty far removed from doling out short monthly episodes featuring Yorick, or the Ultimate X-Men.

“Insanely different!” Vaughan exclaims. “I’ve been writing exclusively serialized monthly fiction for almost ten years, so the learning curve for writing a self-contained novel was steep. But, I really wanted to challenge myself rather than rest on my laurels as ‘cliffhanger guy.’”

And what does he expect from faithful readers? (Or does he care?)

“No, I have no idea how readers will respond… but that’s exactly how I felt when I started working on Runaways or Y: The Last Man or Ex Machina,” he said. “I never think about my audience. I just write the stories I need to tell and try to tell them to the best of my abilities. I hope lots of people will check it out and get something from reading it but I only ever write for myself.”

It’s been quite a successful run for a writer who candidly admits that his vision for Swamp Thing didn’t quite turn out the way Vertigo had planned.

“Karen easily could have shit-canned me after I helped tank one of their biggest franchises but she recognized that I had a unique voice that might be better suited to original ideas,” Vaughan recalled. “My career really didn’t begin until I started working on books that I helped create. Vertigo is probably the only publisher today that wouldn’t have laughed me out of their offices for pitching them a fully painted hardcover novel for ‘mature readers’ about the Iraq war… starring talking lions. Same goes with Y, an ongoing series whose pitch probably sounded more like a bad Cinemax after-hours flick than a thoughtful science fiction story. But Vertigo is a daring publisher, and they push me to be daring, too.”

Berger is well aware of Vertigo’s diversification into more discrete subgenres.

“Over the years, we’ve expanded from horror and dark fantasy to more of a multi-faceted genre fiction as a publishing house,” she explained. “We have the crime fiction of 100 Bullets, the speculative fiction of Y: The Last Man and DMZ, the blend of fantasy in Fables and the biblical mythology of Testament, but it’s all very real-world based. But Pride of Baghdad definitely fits into this vein of the literary graphic novel.”

Urban Legends

The upcoming book most grounded in the real world might also contain the most fantastic elements. Vertigo has landed a wealth of interesting creators lately but one of the most diverse is Gilbert Hernandez, the acclaimed co-creator (along with brothers Jaime and Mario) of Love & Rockets.

Vertigo editor Shelley Bond (Bite Club) had worked previously with Hernandez on several projects, so when Gilbert approached her with a personal story about three youths in a sleepy suburban village, she bit.

The result is Hernandez’s original graphic novel Sloth, published in July, in which troubled teenager Miguel Serra willfully slips into a coma for an entire year. When he awakens with a deliberate and unhurried pace caused by his long sleep, he’s saddled with a nickname reflecting the book’s title. He struggles to reconnect with his girlfriend Lita and their best friend Romeo in a tale that contains urban legends, suburban drama and a dramatic struggle between dreams and the waking world.

“We’re all great fans of Gilbert’s work back to Love & Rockets and Palomar,” Berger said. “What Gilbert’s so great at is capturing people at a certain age and time in their lives where they’re forming these seminal relationships and romances that we can all relate to. Sloth really has that universal quality where I think anyone reading it will get it.”

Despite its universal appeal, there are certainly some outlandish elements to Sloth, like the mysterious “goat man” who haunts the lemon orchard near the teens’ neighborhood. This makes for an interesting dichotomy with the drab suburbia nearby, with both sides of the divide illustrated in Hernandez’s classic artwork.

“It was something I’d never really touched upon before in my work -- telling a simple story about young people in suburbia,” says Hernandez from his home in Las Vegas. “I remembered some from my own youth. We were pretty bored growing up and it was one of the things we’d distract ourselves with, these urban legends. When you’re a teenager, you go to parties but when you’re a little younger, you have to make your own interesting world when you’re living in an average, boring, middle-class neighborhood.”

The intertwined tales in Sloth incorporate several stories from Hernandez’s childhood in suburban California.

“I put in a few urban legends I heard as a kid,” he said. “One was that there were bodies buried in the lemon orchards. The one I grew up with was a ‘goat man’ who haunted an abandoned dairy. I knew that stuff as most people knew it, through word of mouth. I thought it would be interesting to do a story about the people that these events actually happened to.”

Without giving too much away, Sloth is also one of those books that absolutely requires the graphic novel format because the book’s twist is delicate, moving and requires a reader’s undivided attention.

“There’s a real nice sense of magical realism to that book,” Berger said. “It’s charming, and fresh, and the plot just amazes you. It starts in one place and ends up in quite a different place.”

Hernandez, who created some of his most moving work, such as Palomar and Luba, as serial comics, can appreciate the singular form of the graphic novel.

“A lot of the work I’ve done in the past has been serialized,” Hernandez said. “That can be a problem when you’re trying to keep readers interested until the end. You have to make these compromises. When you’re doing a straight graphic novel, it’s great because it’s all there.”

But Sloth did present its creator with a steep learning curve.

“I only had part of it in mind, so the rest had to come from the experience of putting together a graphic novel,” Hernandez said. “Doing it all in one clump was a new challenge for me and it went through a lot of changes as it went along. It was a struggle in parts to get it right. Hopefully readers will enjoy the twists and turns and project whatever they want onto it. I find the most interesting comics are the ones where you can project part of yourself into the world.”

Other Worlds

Finally, it’s worth noting that Vertigo’s stable of graphic novels includes more than just its brand new offerings. The Vertigo back catalogue carries a host of weird and wonderful books that are equally compelling.

There’s last year’s confessional novel The Quitter by Harvey Pekar, who was captured so memorably in the recent award-winning film American Splendor, which in turn was based on his ongoing autobiographical graphic novel. Vertigo’s book tells the story of Pekar’s childhood in the tough streets of Cleveland, a disastrous four-week stint in the Navy, and his emergence as one of America’s most candid writers.

For the hipster set, there’s the imaginative graphic novel The Originals by Dave Gibbons, the celebrated artist on Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It draws on Gibbon’s childhood touchstones of gangs, mods, rockers and other prototypically British cultural icons in a near-future story tinged with both glamour and violence.

More recently, Vertigo published The Fountain, written by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem For a Dream) and illustrated by painter Kent Williams. It’s a terrific clash of cultures, releasing the artistic version of the director’s forthcoming film starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz long before the film is released—and possibly even represents a different version of the same time-traveling story.

Fans of film may also find solace in Vertigo’s photorealistic stories like I, Paparazzi and In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe, which utilize flesh-and-blood actors in computer-manipulated photographs instead of pen & ink to realize their pulp visions.

Tales of madness, blood, murder and mayhem abound in the Vertigo universe, but there’s a healthy dose of humanity, too. Dr. Fredric Wertham might be horrified but there’s a great bounty here for the rest of us, quite under the radar of the Comics Code Authority.

For more information about Vertigo, visit www.dccomics.com/vertigo. You can find Rick Veitch online at www.comicon.com/veitch. Bryan K. Vaughan lives at www.bkv.tv. Much of Gilbert Hernandez’ past work can be found at http://www.fantagraphics.com/artist/losbros/gilbert.html.