PrintE-mail Written by Ian Mat Sunday, 08 May 2011

Feature Articles

Turning 18, it’s a big deal. All the sins become legal here in the UK for the first time: buying fags, drinking booze, voting. But turning 18 is also known as “coming of age.” It’s the point some religions consider you to have reached adulthood and maturity. But one comic company has been running the strapline “suggested for mature readers” for 18 years as of March this year. So step forward, Vertigo, and receive your birthday bumps.

The mature line of comics that come out of the DC stable was, paradoxically, born out of Death. It was this spunky emo girl who started the long publishing run in March 1993 hot on the heels of the successful The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. But Death was not alone. Other DC titles that were considered a bit too grown up for the spandex crowd also transferred over to the new comics line, masterminded by executive editor Karen Berger.

Dream fails to recruit an outcast wise old advisor in The Sandman #74 Art by Jon J Muth

These were Animal Man #57, Doom Patrol #64, John Constantine: Hellblazer #63, Sandman #47, Shade, the Changing Man #33 and Swamp Thing #129. And it is no surprise that some of the writers most associated with these works – Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman and Peter Milligan – were headhunted by Berger some 30 years ago during the famed “British invasion” of American comics.

Morrison wasn’t writing any of the above titles at the time they were folded out of DC continuity. And neither was the grandfather of mature comics, Alan Moore.

He may have turned the shambling C-rater Swamp Thing into an A-lister being of godlike power, but he had stepped well away from the vegetable one at the time he was subsumed by Vertigo.

In an interview with Jonathon Ross the bearded magician said of Vertigo: “The thing I find a bit of problem is that their atmosphere, their ethos or whatever, seems to be based on the bad mood that I was in about 18 years ago. It’s not even their bad mood.”

However, he did credit some of the titles as “great”. This may be because Berger established Vertigo as DC’s mad lab of ideas from the get-go, with the imprint’s first creator-owned series, Enigma (a young man’s tale of coming out against the backdrop of metafictional super villains) launching soon after Vertigo did.

Yorick meets a familiar face in Y: The Last Man #60 Art by Pia Guerra

The contractual agreements between creators and Vertigo have come under criticism. But the “Bergerverse”, has always been considered a separate dimension where good stories are told and crossovers heavily frowned upon. Though last summer it was announced all character born and bred in the DC universe, from Animal Man to Swamp Thing, were summoned home to the roosting ground.

Some crossover oddities have slipped through the cracks. Morrison respectfully appropriated the new Dream from The Sandman into his acclaimed run on JLA. And more recently Gaiman consented to Death appearing for a narrative-driven heart-to-heart cameo with mortal Superman baddie Lex Luthor in Action Comics.

A conspiracy theorist starts to go mad when the visage of JFK starts talking to him in Shade, the Changing Man #2 Art by Chris Bachalo

Gaiman remembers the early 90s as a time when comic fans snapped up foil-wrapped, limited edition first runs in packs of 25 in the vain hope their worth would skyrocket like shares in the future. In the foreword to The Vertigo Encyclopedia he consigns these speculator books to the tip and credits Vertigo’s success to Berger and co’s desire to publish books they themselves would enjoy reading.

That’s not to say Vertigo titles weren’t immune to looking distinctive on the comic shop shelf. Most will remember the vertical strip down the staple-side of all its titles’ covers. The line has also been credited to kick-starting the boom in trade paperbacks, possibly because titles – apart from a certain chain-smoking English magician among the launch titles – had a finite lifespan and tended to end around the 70 to 75 issue mark, thus making them easier to collect into bound volumes.

But the transition from monthly issues to trade paperbacks for Vertigo’s starting line-up has not been a quick one. While The Sandman trade paperbacks charted the rise and fall and rise again of the dream king in the late 1990s, it took a lengthy 15 years for Morrison’s 1988-1990 eco-fixated Animal Man run to be fully collected.

King Mob remembers the good old days in The Invisibles volume 3 #1 Art by Frank Quitely

Meanwhile, the initial arc of Morrison’s Doom Patrol - a surreal band of accident survivors with less-than respectable superpowers in 1989 - only took three years to be collected … and then nothing. Fear of a legal challenge from the Charles Atlas body building company over the Flex Mentallo character arguably delayed publication. Mentallo, a parody of Atlas’ notion of turning beach-bound weaklings into mighty men, appeared prominently in later story arcs, making collection without his presence impossible. But when the suit was dismissed in 2000 the Crawling from the Wreckage paperback was republished, closely followed by five other volumes collecting Morrison’s run between 2004 and 2008.

Milligan’s 1990 breakthrough Shade, The Changing Man – a stranded inter-dimensional alien battling the mental neuroses of America while possessing the body of a serial killer - took 13 years for the first six issues to be bound together in 2003, with a reprint in 2009 paving the way for his American Scream storyline to be curtailed inside three trade paperbacks.

Animal Man has the secret of superhero immortality explained to him in Animal Man #26 Art by Chas Troug

John Constantine: Hellblazer currently stands at a bookshelf-bowing 32 trade paperbacks – not including spin-offs, specials and uncollected material – while The Sandman is contained in ten books … or four telephone directory Absolute editions. And don’t forget several characters from the Sandman-verse like Lucifer and denizens of The Dreaming enjoyed their own spin-off titles, numbering around the 70 issue mark, too.

And with Vertigo’s family tree roots entrenched in the fertile ground of Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing run, respectable comic buyers are sure to have the six volumes containing this on their bookshelves. But despite critical praise of the 1984 to 1987 series, the trade paperback hiatus kicked in when the first seven issues were put together in the same year Moore left the title. The final, long-awaited Reunion volume was released in 2003 – 16 years after the series concluded.

Swampy was also the first Vertigo character to be adapted for the big screen. Well, he wasn’t Vertigo-owned at the time in 1982 when Wes Craven adapted him. But he certainly was when the 1989 sequel The Return of the Swamp Thing came out.

That dizzy Vertigo-wait kicked in then until 2005 when Keanu Reeves pulled on the Silk Cut chuffing, trench coat-wearing persona of Sting-influenced Scouser John Constantine. Except this time he’s a suited-and-booted Los Angelite with a terminal lung cancer from Ennis’ Dangerous Habits storyline. Ironically, the comic was renamed Hellblazer to avoid confusion with Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and the movie adaptation was renamed Constantine to avoid the same legal landmine.

Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner enjoyed celluloid praise when David Cronenberg adapted A History of Violence in the same year. Another title subsumed by Vertigo and turned into a big-budget blockbuster was V for Vendetta. Creator Moore continued to vent his own vendetta against DC by demanding his name be removed from the project, which film critic Sean Burns said “It’s not hard to see why”.

A face pack-wearing Christopher Chance confronts a mystery assassin in the Human Target miniseries Art by Edvin Biuković

Darren Aronofsky, once tipped to direct Batman Begins, instead released The Fountain, later turned into his own Vertigo graphic novel. The production was troubled after Brad Pitt withdrew his considerable clout from the title, prompting the director to say: “I knew it was a hard film to make and I said at least if Hollywood fucks me over at least I'll make a comic book out of it." Some critics booed the hard film at the Venice Film Festival while others gave a standing ovation.

Last year the caper-driven antics of Andy Diggle and Jock’s The Losers reboot hit the summer cinema screen. The timing was not good, with the similarly caper-driven but bigger budgeted A-Team coming out at the same time. But something good came out of it: a pair of hefty omnibus-size trade paperbacks released to tie into the film’s expected success.

Finally, former Vertigo cowboy Jonah Hex, back in the DC stable since 2005, moseyed into cinemas in 2010 to ugly-face up to nemesis John Malkovich. He rode off into the sunset, saddled with a pair of Golden Raspberry nominations.

On the smaller screen, one of Vertigo’s lesser-known darlings has had two shots at TV. The Human Target, the story of a master assassin-cum-identity thief who adopts the personas of people in the firing line, was first aired in 1992 and again last year. The revival could be credited to Milligan, who wrote two blistering miniseries on the character, opening the door to an on-going series which sadly ended after 21 episodes.

Yet one of Vertigo’s mightiest players, Preacher, failed to get face time with the Lord under the helm of Daredevil and Ghost Rider director Mark Steven Johnson. Not even the word of God could convince HBO execs to air the love triangle of a lapsed punch-drunk reverend, his hitwoman girlfriend and scene-stealing Irish vampire buddy.

The vampire Cassidy on the disadvantages of being immortal in Preacher #26

Conversely, the small screen has seen an influx of writers from that medium coming over to the printed form instead. After rethinking his pitch for a TV show about a band of kooky bug exterminators versus an immortal Egyptian evil, Simon Oliver found a more receptive audience at Vertigo. Ironically, this led to the comic being optioned for a TV series, where it sits in limbo.

Aging grizzled Scottish detective Rebus may be known to fans in equal parts as the TV character played by John Hannah and the star of 17 “Tartan noir” books that claimed 10 per cent of the crime novel market. Creator Ian Rankin has now penned a Hellblazer hardback graphic novel as part of Vertigo’s newest sub-imprint devoted to crime.

Happy 40th birthday, John Constantine, back in Hellblazer #63, 1993

The sub-imprint move echoes earlier ones by a younger Vertigo in the mid-1990s with its city-themed Vertigo Pop! titles focusing on locales like Bangkok, London and Tokyo. The poor-selling science fiction line Helix collapsed, but the popular future journalist Transmetropolitan series by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson was brought under the shelter of the Vertigo umbrella. There was also the cinematic Vertigo Vérité attempt to break away from the supernatural themes dominant in the imprint; the creator-owned Vertigo Voices collection of miniseries and Vertigo Visions, an attempt to resuscitate new life into dusty characters like The Geek, The Phantom Stranger, Doctor Occult and teen president Prez.

If Marvel is dubbed The House of Ideas, then Vertigo could rightfully claim the moniker of Mad House of Ideas, with current titles including American Vampire that tells bloodsucker stories against locations like LA and the Wild West, with input from horror maestro Stephen King; the brainy iZombie recasting of golden oldie monsters, including a were-terrier; the unstoppable storybook reimagining of the immortal Fables, John Constantine’s arcane backstabbing, reservation savagery of Scalped, warzone hostility of DMZ and the magically mature Harry Potter-esque The Unwritten.

New logos and new sidebars for Vertigo titles Animal Man and Shade, the Changing Man

With more than 200 titles born out of Vertigo over nearly two decades, there has been a fair share of successful children. The world is a lot darker and interesting with works like the Machiavellian 100 Bullets, offbeat Air, frustrated American Virgin, voluminous Books of Magic, rebellious The Invisibles, and engendered species of Y: The Last Man.

There has been copious binge drinking, careless sex between demons and angels, language so foul Richard Pryor would cringe, enough Marlboros smoked that the stubs lain end to end could connect Hell to Heaven – and that’s just Preacher. John Constantine’s decades-long career is all that to the power of 23 in the business. But the English magician, like Judge Dredd, is not immune to the ravages of time and allegedly turned 58 on May 10th 2011.

Perhaps that’s why he is the only one of the debut titles still going 18 years later. Like his fans, he ages in real-time, too. Ages, but unlike his suggested audience, never matures. Belated happy birthday, John. Keep up the bad mood. And happy birthday, too Vertigo.

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+3 #2 Mr Cheese 2011-05-17 17:24
Great read, definitely going to pay Animal Man a visit
+1 #1 Kris Heys 2011-05-15 06:47
Sweet read, bro!

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