The New Vertigo Relaunch and Why You Should Care.
DC does not get enough credit or attention in recent years for their ongoing attempts to push boundaries, expand the comic market and build up new talent outside of the superhero status quo. While Image Comics has taken the lead in diversity of titles, genres and talent, DC has also been doing its best to foster creative enterprises that are light years away from the spandex and capes and they have mostly gone unappreciated for their efforts.
Whether its Warren Ellis’s high-tech super-spy re-imagining of the Wildstorm universe or the stunning high quality of the various Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros titles to the cutting edge wonderful weirdness of Gerard Way’s Young Animal imprint. All of which show DC’s often forgotten willingness to embrace change and experimentation that has punctuated much of their publishing history through a wondrous and bizarre Silver and Bronze Age that included such amazing experiments as Dial H for Hero, Metal Men and Doom Patrol up to the works of Jack Kirby and the collected works of the British Invasion that led to the original rise of the Vertigo imprint.
MODERN CLASSICS FOR THE DISCERNING READER
While the average fan and buyer has always associated DC with it’s meat and potatoes roster of the Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman trinity and by extension the Justice League and related titles, it is these other side streets within DC that has for me at least have always yielded the most satisfying comic reading experiences on a regular basis.
CLASSIC DC WEIRDNESS
This is no way meant to diminish the importance and quality of such seminal must-read works like All-Star Superman, Batman Year One or Rucka’s run on Wonder Woman. But as those examples span several years, for most of DC’s modern history, one could pick up virtually any book taking place within an imprint or adjacent to the main continuity (I’m thinking Ennis’s Hitman here) and end up reading one of the best books you’ve ever read. Let’s not forget that for about five years in the nineties Vertigo was publishing The Sandman, The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan and Preacher all at roughly the same time. That is an unparalleled level of creativity that is unmatched by anything occurring in the main DCU.
CLASSIC VERTIGO MUST READS
*Should any book mentioned in this article be unfamiliar to you I implore you to immediately pick it up*
The Vertigo imprint itself has had ups and downs with recent years mostly being down. Editorial changes combined with the rising star of Image left the once groundbreaking imprint as more of a side note than an industry leader. With the divisive but I would argue necessary main DC continuity reboot of the New 52 we saw a slew of interesting and high-quality comics that seemed to be more in line with the Vertigo aesthetic than the mainstream DC continuity; Demon Knights, Dial H, All-Star Western, and Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE. All great reads that expanded the universe with a decidedly Vertigo approach and went mostly ignored while people complained about Batman and Tim Drake continuity problems.
THE BEST OF THE NEW 52 HAS A FAMILIAR VIBE
Likewise, John Constantine despite being born in the main continuity pages of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing had become a standard bearer of the Vertigo line in the long-running Hellblazer. Personally, I love Constantine running around the standard DCU and interacting with the mainstream characters but one wonders why if virtually every superhero character is able to support multiple titles why didn’t they think John Constantine could? One set in the standard universe one purely horror based in Vertigo. Considering DC likes to play it loose with the multiverse and continuity I don’t see a reason why this wouldn’t have worked. Ah, hindsight.
In the convening years, Vertigo continued to publish a small number of surprisingly great titles that, again I hate coming back to this point over and over, but were just ignored by the average buyer. Gail Simone possibly did her greatest work to date in the terrifying sci-fi horror story The Clean Room with astounding art by John Davis-Hunt. Si Spencer’s cross time murder mystery Bodies was easily my favorite mini-series of the last ten years. Tom King’s harrowing and heartbreaking look at the Iraq war with art by Mitch Gerards in Sheriff of Babylon. David Baille and Meghan Hetrick’s charming, witty, and very very sexy fantasy book Red Thorn. More recently Tim Seely and Stephen Molnar’s supernatural police procedural Imaginary Fiends, as well as Justin Jordan and Ibrahim Moustafa’s Savage Things, an ultra-violent tale of child psychopaths, turned into soldiers were both not only satisfying and interesting comic reading experiences but seemed tailor-made for tv or film adaptations.
SOME OF THE BEST OF THE RECENT VERTIGO LINE
While Vertigo was still turning out exceptional work it did not seem to be catching on as well as it should have. Now DC has announced that it will be relaunching and rebranding this legendary imprint with seven new titles. You can read a breakdown of the titles here.
Admittedly, my initial response to this announcement was a bit of more annoyance verging on anger instead of enthusiasm. As I’ve laid out, Vertigo has even recently been putting out exceptional work pretty much non stop. And yes, many of these recent books did fail to find the audience they deserved and it seemed that at least some of the blame for that should be placed at the feet of Vertigo editorial at the time and DC overall for not promoting the gold they had. In the end, who knows what goes on with these things? I can only speculate and perhaps these books and creators did much better through trade sales in Amazon and bookstores than I realize. After all, the direct market can only be so illuminating of the overall success of certain books and the type of audience these specific books are geared towards are more likely to be purchased through those outlets than your average comic store.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
So let’s take a cue from the Vertigo model itself and look towards the future. While each of the titles announced looks intriguing the big thing that obviously stands out is the diversity aspect. Creators and concepts all seem to lean towards various socio/political subtexts and analogies. Make no mistake, THAT IS A GOOD THING. I for one am of the opinion that all art is inherently political in nature and have grown irate with the vocal minority in social media who start complaining and yelling every time any socio/political idea involving race, gender or sexuality is put into superhero comics.
That Vertigo is focusing on (using their own buzzword here) social relevancy couldn’t make me happier and it’s an aspect of Vertigo that we tend to forget. Both The Invisibles and Transmetropolitan are HIGHLY politicized works with multiple layers of social commentary. One of the main heroes and possibly the best character in all of Morrison’s Invisibles is Lord Fanny, a Brazilian trans woman shaman. But beyond all that the story concepts are interesting, they seem relevant to our time and all have promising creative teams.
Also worth noting is that among the various creators are voices that haven’t done much or anything at all within the medium before; Rob Sheridan the art designer for Nine Inch Nails, Tina Horn a podcaster, journalist and lecturer. As well as some underrated talent from within the comics word; Bryan Hill (Postal, Apollo IX) and perhaps my favorite new-ish writer Mark Russell. For those unaware, Russell’s The Flintstones and Exit Stage Left The Snagglepuss Chronicles are so good that they transcend the comic medium and should be compared more to the comedic social satire and commentary found in Heller’s Catch-22 or Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. The Flintstones, no joke, being one of the best comics of the last twenty years put out by any company.
FEW ARE CHALLENGING SOCIETAL NORMS IN SUCH UNEXPECTED WAYS AS RUSSELL IS
Former Batman editor Mark Doyle has assembled a truly impressive roster of talent with some high concepts that have me as excited to be a Vertigo fan. Doyle knows his stuff. While working in the Batman world he helped bring us the hidden gems of Gotham Academy and Gotham By Midnight. Way more fun than you thought a Dick Grayson comic could be with Grayson. He was also the editor during the soft reboot of Batgirl that started with writer Brenden Fletcher and continues with Hope Larson which while it might not be to everyone’s tastes was one of the few entertaining all ages books on the shelves from a Big Two publisher. Doyle knows good ideas when he sees them and isn’t afraid of embracing change and a new direction.
SOME OF THE BEST RECENT BATMAN BOOKS HARDLY EVER HAVE BATMAN IN THEM
Everything seems in line for a great success for Vertigo going forward, the only questions now are 1. Will this bold rebranding be able to generate enough interest within the comic buying audience and 2. Does Vertigo offer enough to lure and keep talent invested in working for them while the siren song of creator ownership with no potential corporate interference at Image beckons?
I am going out on a limb to speculate on these concerns. In regards to the first question, as I’ve kept on insinuating throughout this article, the types of books Vertigo publishes simply doesn’t appeal to the direct sales buyer. I could write a long essay on how this demographic, the adult male reader ages approx 30-50 who goes to a comic store on a weekly basis to pick up his pull list, is never going to venture out of his comfort zone of the superhero stuff they’ve read for decades. This is a dwindling and cynical audience that it unsustainable for the overall market annd I think DC knows that.
While we haven’t yet seen the drastic rise in sales promised by the emerging markets of minority readers the smart money is that this is the buyer of the future. While direct market sales dwindle year after year just a casual look at manga sales within the millennial generation shows a vast untapped potential. As does sales within Amazon, Bookscan and Scholastic. Those readers are not going to come to the comic book medium because of Batman. But they might come for the work of Gerard Way or Zoe Quinn. For Young Animal and Vertigo.
As for whether Vertigo will be able to compete with the likes of Image for talent interested in publishing creator-owned material. That is a much bigger and daunting question. There have been stories in the press over the years that one of the reasons creators have gone elsewhere instead of Vertigo is because of restrictions put in place by Warner Bros when they discovered they had no rights to any of those properties. I’m not going to comment further on the truth or veracity of those stories, the only thing I will add to this is that creators when considering their options, should realize that corporate interest GOES BOTH WAYS.
What Vertigo may be able to offer is larger platform and brighter spotlight with all the benefits of advertising and promotion opportunities one might not get at other companies. And should a book be a hit, well there is a fairly clear road of communication and negotiation in regards to transmedia adaptation that might be much harder than just doing it on your own. So where can I submit my pitch?
Regardless, I think as readers who can expect more great titles coming from Vertigo and we should all give them a try.