A while ago, during my ‘Brief History of British Comics’ I was going to include a whole part to DC Vertigo, because in my head, I’d imagined they were British. They weren’t- but you’d never guess, given that it was at any given time pretty much dominated by the most acclaimed British comic book writers of the age.
It also was very British in its themes, writing, art, and overall darkly cynical approach to bloody everything. I was hoping to get another chance to write something about the imprint that essentially shaped my life and modern love of comics.
Be careful what you wish for, right?
DC Vertigo are closing their doors in 2020, probably for good this time, and I’m devastated. It’s essentially part of a restructuring over at DC, so adult comics will be printed with an age-restricted rating rather than specifically from Vertigo. I understand why, obviously, but I’m still gutted. I’m not the only one either- a lot of writers and artists have come out to eulogise the loss of Vertigo.
Warren Ellis wrote a piece on his blog, Jason Aaron thanked Vertigo for his big break, and Christian Ward lamented not being able to do a whole book with them (though they did publish a short). Of course Neil Gaiman got a word in. It’s sad Steve Dillon isn’t with us anymore, since my fondest memories of his art are from Preacher. There were plenty of other tributes, but those are the ones that stood out to me because… well, for obvious reasons.
As someone pointed out on twitter – though not British itself, Vertigo had a huge appeal over here, hence why I assumed it was British. It was more in the wheelhouse of our miserable, weird sensibilities (see my Brief History of British Comics series). There were a lot of writers and artists who got to create outside the box thanks to Vertigo’s creator-owned ethos, thanks in large part to Karen Berger, the imprint’s founder. It’s down to her we have some of the best comics ever created and the continuing careers of the most acclaimed names in the industry. Thankfully, she’s running the Berger Books imprint over at Dark Horse, which produces some Vertigo style content including the frankly incredible She Could Fly (I reviewed the first issue here) and Invisible Kingdom(Thomas gushed about it here).
Good news though…
Also thankfully, the books still being published by DC Vertigo aren’t being cancelled, just being published by DC under a different label, which is good for me since I’m still enjoying Goddess Mode. There were a few titles that were cancelled before the announcement, namely Border Town (because its creator turned out to be a disgusting creep) and Second Coming (because of religious zealots kicking up a stink). That last one – which was cancelled before a single issue was even released – is especially odd, given that Vertigo has surely released far more blasphemous series, but… whatever.
Get Woke Go… on for over twenty-six years of successful Eisner Award winning comics
Whatever the reasons behind the shuttering of Vertigo, I can tell you one thing – it definitely had nothing to do with ‘Get Woke Go Broke’ as some charming specimens are trying to tell you. Vertigo has been full of Nazi punching anti-authoritarians since day dot. It was my first introduction to explicitly gay and trans stories (for better or worse, but we’ll get to that). There were discussions of belief and faith, of existential angst and finding hope in the darkest places. If you don’t think DC Vertigo was at least woke for the nineties*, then you do not know Vertigo very well.
Maybe you should? I’d like to take the opportunity to recommend five of my favourite Vertigo books. I cannot stress enough how much these books shaped my life and how important they are to me. Are they perfect? Nope, but they are important. Not only that, but Vertigo’s titles allowed a wider audience to see the potential of the medium beyond superheroes to the point where, for a long time, mainstream superhero comics tried to ape their edgy content with none of the depth or purpose. It’s arguably survived by Image, Vault, and Dark Horse, who have been making unconventional and creator-owned work in the imprint’s absence and will now continue to do so.
So, here’s five really great books from DC Vertigo, RIP**.
Written by Peter Milligan, Art by Duncan Fregredo
This may well be my favourite comic of all time. It has everything: dark interpretations of the superhero archetype that don’t feel stale, overly edgy and eye-rolling? Check. Scratched, down to earth art that grounds the fantastical elements without making the whole thing look boring? Check. Amazingly visceral body horror? Check. Explorations of sexuality? CHECK.
This was the first time I had ever read anything explicitly gay. It treated the love affair as something warm, strange and intense, something beyond the control of the people involved. For a thirteen/fourteen-year-old just discovering they’re not entirely straight, this meant a lot.
Reading Enigma again now, it feels like there’s less than subtle commentary on how comic book superhero narratives can impact real life and those who adopt their stories. Maybe even linked to a particular type of queer sexual awakening.
It’s hard to argue that this isn’t a very prophetic story.
Written by Garth Ennis, Art by Steve Dillon
Holy shit, this comic blew my tiny mind. I read and reread the Salvation trade (my personal favourite in the series) so many times, my copy almost fell apart. It’s an examination of America, its culture, and religiosity that seems to be a big trend amongst the British writers who worked for Vertigo. It doesn’t have the lofty cerebralism of Sandman or the technological trappings of Transmetropolitan, but it’s somewhere between the two. There’s the dark comedy trappings of 2000AD (Garth Ennis is one of their most respected alumni) – a kind of satirical cynicism that’s very much a British trademark. It’s a love letter to the Old West, warts and all, and a long, hard look at what makes patriotism, devotion, and blind faith turn ugly and destructive.
It’s gross, intensely violent, ridiculous, often mean-spirited, but blow me sideways if it doesn’t leave a hell of an impression. To be fair, its mean-spirited-ness feels a lot more punching up than down – the targets are at turns cruel, manipulative, stupid, racist, and fanatical. Jesse Custer is an amazing anti-hero – his partnership with Cassidy and Tulip makes for one of the best dynamics you’ll ever find in pretty much anything. A better trio of anti-heroes you are unlikely to find in a hurry.
Steve Dillon, like any good artist working for Vertigo, made the artwork stylistic yet grounded, giving the intensely fucked up things that would frequently happen in Preacher that visual edge. Glenn Farby’s disgustingly and gloriously pulpy covers perfectly fit each issue and caught the eye from across the comic book shop or, in my case, across the library. Basically, no matter how you feel about Preacher, you do not forget it. It leaves a mark on you.
Writer by Warren Ellis, Art by Darick Robinson
I have a Spider Jerusalem tattoo***.
Okay, fine – like Preacher, Transmetropolitan changed my life. I read it when I was eighteen/nineteen, so yeah – most things you read at that age change your life. I actually got to meet Warren Ellis when I won a writing competition (my first column published in an actual newspaper!) and he was surprisingly friendly. Just the right sort of gruff old comic book uncle type.
Transmetropolitan didn’t start in Vertigo, it began in DC’s ill-fated Helix imprint (oh dear) and ran from 1997 to 2002. Much has been made of the um propheticnature of Transmetropolitan so I won’t go into all of it. Warren Ellis has always had a solid internet presence – I remember messaging him during a Q&A on his MySpace page – so he would have been working on Transmetropolitan long enough to see where history was going. It is very much about the early 2000s – the war on terror, Bush, Blair (the basis for the Smiler, according to Ellis) and the emerging power of the internet. Darick Robinson’s art has that sprawling busyness of Mobius, so you can trawl the pages for hours and see new background gags and references.
The writing is mile-a-minute, filthy, quotable, hilarious, and hard-hitting. If it was an album, it’d be the Pogues (it’s named after a Pogues song) with the Pixies as the supporting act – a wild swing between loud, funny, angry, chaotic and slow, thoughtful, and despairing. It’s so damned good. Even though, in his blog post about the end of Vertigo, Ellis said he never really felt like part of the imprint, I’d contest the exact opposite. With that writing, that art and that protagonist- you probably wouldn’t imagine Transmetropolitan to be published anywhere else.
Also, Warren Ellis said Spider was at least partly based on Sir Patrick Stewart. Enjoy.
Written by Bill Willingham, Art by Mark Buckingham, Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton
I was pretty obsessed with this series, since it filled the void left behind by Tenth Kingdom (AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO REMEMBERED THIS SHOW?!). The art was consistently lovely and detailed and the story was intriguing. I was and still am a sucker for some deconstruction of fairy tales and I’m very much a sucker for werewolf/wolf characters. Again, this was the closest thing I had to a continuation of Tenth Kingdom (I DIDN’T HALLUCINATE THAT SHOW RIGHT? I FEEL LIKE I DID!).
Whilst it had some… questionable approaches to world building and character motivations, there were plenty of highlights to this series. Snow White and Rose Red’s strained relationship, the tracing of fable and fairy tale characters into myths and legends, the fantasy realism setting… It’s perfect for those of us who were having Sandman withdrawal at the time. Or Tenth Kingdom withdrawal.
(I SWEAR TO GOD IT WAS A REAL SHOW IT HAD SINGING MUSHROOMS, TROLLS ON DRUGS AND THE BAD GUY FROM RICHIE RICH IN IT.)
It ran for a long time, its epic expanse allowing for a long, thoughtful narrative to play out, which is not something everyone gets the chance to do – not to mention the spin offs and the Telltale game The Wolf Among Us. Whilst I definitely have problems with this series and its creator, I still have a soft spot a mile wide for Fables, and its place amongst the most acclaimed books at Vertigo is well deserved.
Written by Neil Gaiman, Art by a multitude
What can I say about Sandman that hasn’t already been said, repeatedly, by many many others? It’s a stone cold classic, one of the most important comic books ever created. It’s a Goddamned masterpiece.
But then again, I was pretty much a typical Sandman fan – a nerdy, college-educated woman. I got into Sandman in my late teens/early twenties because that’s, like, the law.
Sandman was my first introduction to anything resembling positive trans representation in the form of Wanda, though obviously it was pretty… typical of the era (It was arguably better than in The Invisibles). The stories featured a great cast of human characters from all walks of life, which, for a white teenager from a very conservative town in Essex, was pretty eye opening. It wasn’t perfect or even that great by the standards of the day, but it was… a lot.
The art featured cannot be described, only experienced. Dave McKean’s covers in particular are works of capital-A Art. Neil Gaiman is confident, flowing through a complex weave of individual narratives alongside a vibrant main cast. Dream, despite being the main character, is probably the least interesting among the rest of the Endless. His power and apparent omniscience is undermined by just how many terrible mistakes he makes, which ultimately lead to his own downfall. It’s fascinating.
There’s so much to digest and think about – you have to go back and read the books separately just to get a handle on what happened. I mean that as a compliment. For a lot of other people, this would probably be seen as pretentious, but I’ve been following Gaiman as a writer for literally decades – he’s nothing if not sincere. He’s had moments of pretension, sure, but not in Sandman. Not as far as I’m concerned. I’m at a loss as to how to really go into Sandman. You surely must’ve read it by now? If not, please do.
Pour one out…
There’s lots more – in fact, the ones I’ve listed above are probably the most popular, quintessential books from Vertigo, but they’re also the ones I read the most because I am super basic. Then again, let’s face it: Vertigo’s basic is extremely not basic. I invite you to list some of your favourite Vertigo books in the comments and pour one out for, as Warren Ellis called it, the “crooked old house of mystery and secrets.”
*Shame it mostly only employed middle-aged white guys, but never mind.
** For now, but who knows? Not much stays dead in comics.
*** Not on my head – it’s on my lower back because I’m a coward. And basic.