Fear of Falling: The Wednesday Waffle - Issue 36

June 5, 2019

It has been reported that DC's long running "mature readers" imprint Vertigo is facing the axe. This is saddening news, if true - this is why...

Vertigo was born back in January 1993. John Major was Prime Minster, Bill Clinton was being sworn in as President of the United States, Whitney Houston was at number one in the UK singles chart with "I will always love you" and A Few Good Men was the most successful film at the UK box office.

 

In comics Superman had just died, and the ninties boom, fueled by the narcotic effects of "multiple variant, die-cut, foil-enhanced, glow in the dark, holographic, card stock, animated covers" was beginning to burst. 

 

It was a very different time.

 

Very much swimming against the populist image superhero tide had been senior DC editor Karen Berger. Her little corner of DC did something that almost nobody else in mainstream US comics was doing - eschewing spandex, ignoring hype and concentrating on exploring what comics as a medium were truly capable of.

 

Focussed on the fantasy and horror genres, this darker collection of comics (including Sandman, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol) became known in the DC offices as "The Berger Books", and they formed the core of the newly launched Vertigo imprint.

 

The first comic to actually wear the new Vertigo trade dress was issue #1 of Death, the High Cost of Living, the first book to spin out of Neil Gaiman's now classic Sandman - featuring the Lord of Dreams' hugely popular big sister taking human form for a day. 

 

 

 But there was much more groundbreaking stuff to come. From (what were for the time) graphic sexual images in The Extremist and Sebastian O, to dropping the F bomb in massive splash page letters in issue one of Grant Morrisson's The Invisibles, comics from Vertigo pushed the envelope of what the U.S. industry felt was possible - publishing content that had previously been the preserve of small press underground comics.

 

For a while, through the rest of the nineties and into the new millenium, Vertigo was the place to go for  intelligent, thought provoking work. Garth Ennis's Preacher was published there, as was Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan. There was a real sense that creators could do anything there, whether your creation was a disillusioned preacher with the power of the Word of God swearing and killing across America, or an angry journalist shooting people with a "bowel disruptor".

 

 

There were no limits, nobody cared whether you offended some people so long as the work was good - and there was all manner of variety. Wesley Dodds, the golden age Sandman brought some film noir 1930s colour to the mix, while the hard as nails crime drama of Scapled - about a Native American F.B.I. agent investigating corruption on the reservation where he grew up - was closer in tone to The Wire than Sam Slade.

 

The DMZ examined what might happen if the United States slipped into civil war (something that seemed impossible at the time, rather less so now...), Fables put traditional fairytale characters into modern day New York, Y The Last Man presented a dystopian future where only one man remains after every other male (except his pet monkey) has perished.

 

And so on, and so on, and so on. There was so much great stuff from Vertigo for so long I think we may have take in for granted. But then, in March 2013, Karen Berger, who had been at the helm for twenty years, stepped down to be replaced by Shelly Bond

 

And that was fine - Bond had been involved with Vertigo for a long time. She was (and is) a talented and experienced editor, there was no reason to think that Vertigo would not do anything other than continue to go from strength to strength.

 

But looking back, it's clear that all was not well. Bond lasted just three years, before a "restructuring" of the imprint led to the elimination of her position. The machinations and discussions that led to that decision are not in the public domain, but the effect was to leave Vertigo rudderless. The consequences were profound.

 

The imprint's roster of titles had been falling anyway, and for a while we had nothing from Vertigo on the rack at all. And of course, in the meantime the rest of the industry had changed beyond recognition.

 

By the time Shelly Bond left, Image, which when Vertigo was founded had been a wall to wall spandex fest that was effectively a creator owned Marvel Comics tribute act had transformed itself. Image had been founded by creators who wanted to retain creative nad financial control of their work and their characters. That ethos attracted more creative people with a variety of ideas.

 

If, for example, Robert Kirkman had been looking to start The Walking Dead in the nineties, Vertigo would have been a natural home. If Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples had been pitching Saga back then, again, Vertigo would have been the perfect fit.

 

But The Walking Dead lurched into the world in 2003. Saga first hit the rack in 2012. By then, Image, with it's creator friendly ethos and lack of corporate interferance was a much more attractive proposition, and so that's where the biggest cult and critical hits of their respective decades went.

 

At the same time, competitors like AftershockIDWBOOM! and Vault were also getting into that more mature, more thoughtful brand of comics. Vertigo was very definitley not the only game in town, and creators who had been the backbone of the imprint were finding new homes among the new publishers on the block.

 

This seemed to be changing recently though.

 

In 2018 a new hand took the tiller of the good ship Vertigo. As Mark Doyle took over as editor a slew of new titles were announed. Neil Gaiman brought Sandman back (sort of), overseeing a raft of titles relating to his ninties masterpiece - and they were good! The hardcore crime niche once so brilliantly occupied by Scalped got a new resident in the form of American Carnage, in which an African American former F.B.I. agent who can "pass" for white goes undercover amongst white supremicists.

 

The craving for science fiction was met by the epic Mad Max style dystopia High Level, while Hex Wives offered some magic with a heavy dollop of satire on the side.

 

Now, if the rumours are true, this could all be coming to an end - which makes me question the editorial wisdom on display at DC.

 

As readers we have little to fear - the kind of books that first found a home at Vertigo back in the nineties will not be going away. Not only do we have the aforementioned publishers BOOM!ImageVault and Aftershock, both Karen Berger (with the Berger Books at Dark Horse) and Shelly Bond (with Black Crown at IDW) are back at the helm of their own imprints and are once again bringing the strange and unusual to the rack.

 

So, even if this is the end for Vertigo, its legacy will, I suppose, remain - and that, at least, is some consolation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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