What If There Was No Vertigo?
I’m not sure I’d call it a rumor exactly, but there is a feeling that change is afoot at the DC Entertainment offices. A few months back, there were a lot of layoffs and considerable restructuring. The corporate masters at Warner Bros. seem to be taking a sharper look at the comic book publisher, and the numbers behind the various comics might not add up. The first victim was Wildstorm. My partners and I had even wondered at various times if Wildstorm mattered any longer. Then it looked like they got their stuff together from a story standpoint, but too late. The line was canceled, and that was that. Soon after, people began wondering if Vertigo was next.
It’s not that off base of a question either. Looking at the monthly numbers is a sharp stick in the eye to a Vertigo fan. It’s abysmal. Personally, I think Scalped is, hands down, the best monthly comic being produced today. Yet monthly it sells somewhere in the neighborhood 6-7000 copies. The fiercely intelligent and engaging DMZ is even uglier, but it’s been around for over 50 issues. The common wisdom suggests that the publisher makes up for it in trade paperback sales, hoping to get readers hooked on the first volume, and they’ll keep coming back for more. But even so, you have to wonder how long Vertigo had been building up a robust original graphic novel schedule, but it seems as if that has been shelved as well. There are hits, like Fables and American Vampire, but even those numbers are relatively modest, and do not seem to support an entire imprint. Good work is bring produced. Of that there is no doubt, but it sure doesn’t feel like the direct market is supporting it.
There other other clues that a change could be in the offing, if one were to take a suspicious angle. Recently Swamp Thing made his way back from being a Vertigo property to being part of the DC Universe. There are even rumors that John Constantine will be next to join the main DC Universe. If you go back and read his first appearance in the pages of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, it's not hard to believe. Conversely DC characters have made appearances in his title before. How will that chance the tone of the current Hellblazer book if it was true? That's hard to say, but it's a pretty scary thought.
In other areas of the comic book world, low comic book sales are bolstered by movie money, but other than Constantine, based on Hellblazer, none of the many, many excellent Vertigo properties have been made into features, and certainly not the runaway hit variety that can support the massive overhead a suite of offices and a team of editors demands.
It seems to add up that it is possible that someone could decide that, beloved as it may be, I can foresee a time when there is no more Vertigo Comics. What would that look like?
From the outset, the number of high quality, professionally produced, non-superhero titles available in comic shops would plummet. Let’s face it, if it doesn’t have a cape and mask, a comic book is likely to be a hard sell for most of the folks buying from comic book retailers. Further, the comics produced by Vertigo are usually exceptionally good. There are hits and misses, sure, but by and large, there’s a strict quality control, and as a comic book reader, the loss would be devastating. To understand such a thing, it's important to have a good grasp on just how essential Vertigo Comics is to the creative development of the modern comic book.
Looking at Vertigo from a wider standpoint, without them you’ve got a very different talent pool in US comics. In a very real sense, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman got their start in America via Karen Berger. The same with Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, Peter Milligan, Warren Ellis, and more from the early period. Later, we got to know Brian K. Vaughan, Bill Willingham, Mike Carey, Ed Brubaker, Brian Azzarello, Brian Wood. These are writers who shape so much of what happens in the biggest comics today, and in some cases beyond comics. Look at the careers of Andy Diggle and Jock after their work on The Losers. Known in the UK, they’ve become mainstays in US comics.
Then there’s Jason Aaron, who still puts out Scalped, and now works on the most mainstream comics you can, over at Marvel. I asked Jason about what Vertigo meant to him and his career.
I certainly wouldn't be writing comics without Vertigo. And I don't know how much a fan I would've stayed over the years without them either. Most of my favorite comics of the last few decades were produced by Vertigo, going back to Alan Moore's Swamp Thing (technically not a Vertigo series, but obviously still the birth of what became Vertigo) and Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, probably the two main series that made me not only a comic fan for life but also someone who knew they wanted to grow up to write them for a living. And then low and behold, my big break in comics as a writer came courtesy of Vertigo. We are, without a doubt, a better industry because of Vertigo, and I'm just proud to be even a small part of that legacy.
That’s just about creators. Obviously the creators at Vertigo end up moving on and affecting the comics industry in big ways, but a lot of that credit can go to the editors, who are sussing out these artistic voices. There’s no doubt that Karen Berger is one of the finest editors and talent scouts we have in comics today. She’s got an amazing eye for what will work in comics, and spotting budding genius early. Her team, with long time editors Will Dennis and Shelly Bond seem to have similar gifts as well. There have been plenty of others in editorial as well, names you'd recognize like Cliff Chiang, Stuart Moore, and Heidi McDonald. You might not know that the current Editor-in-Chief of Marvel, Axel Alonso got his editorial start at Vertigo, or at least the books that would become Vertigo. He’s yet another example of how Vertigo has shaped, and continues to shape the larger world of comics around them.
Axel moved over from Vertigo to Marvel, where he started working with Joe Quesada, who, along with Jimmy Palmiotti, found great success with a very Vertigo-like formula on Marvel Knights comics. They went so far as to hire several Vertigo creators for those books, including the Preacher team of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon on Punisher. Then Joe went on to become Editor-in-Chief for a decade, still holding on to those lessons learned from Vertigo and Marvel Knights, along with Axel who succeeded him. The influence has clearly become commonplace.
Overall, we’re in a comics culture where, other than the old standard superheroes, comic creators would do well to create something a mass audience can appreciate that can be read, long-form, in graphic novels, purchased in bookstores. It’s the financial model for much of the rest of the industry. While there have been a few movie adaptations, it’s surprising how many of Vertigo’s comic books stayed comic books. They’re made that way, and the universal appeal of the subjects and stories are among the best in comics for bringing in new readers. Vertigo has, over and over, produced work that you can give to people who don’t know from comics, but just want a good story they can get into. The reach of Fables and Y: The Last Man and Preacher can never be discounted for their power and success in convincing people that comics are a valid medium in ways most never gave a second thought towards. Robert Kirkman learned that lesson well, and I would argue that his Walking Dead success could easily be seen as the exact kind of model a Vertigo title would take. You could imagine Walking Dead coming out from Vertigo. It might have color, but other than that, it’s exactly right. Kirkman just applied it on his own, through Image Comics.
I don’t think Vertigo has finished serving its purpose. I can rattle off titles current titles now that are among the best comics have to offer, from Scalped, to DMZ, to Unwritten, to Fables, to American Vampire, and that there’s no other place that would publish them, certainly not with the distribution clout of DC and Vertigo, and definitely not with an upfront page rate that would enable creators to make a living from this art. Those guys would either have to go make superhero comics, or take their chances on the back end deal. Maybe it’s fair, but I also think it’s sad that there are so few outlets to publish material like this.
Personally, I owe my career to Vertigo, at least indirectly. When I came back to reading comics a decade or so back, I was looking for something else. I liked the regular mainstream comics just fine, but it was when I went and tried several issues of Hellblazer, 100 Bullets, and Transmetropolitan that I was well and truly hooked. It kept me coming back, and made me want to learn more, and make my own comics. From that, I started talking about comics with my friends, and writing about them, and podcasting about them, and here I am today. I told Karen Berger that once, and while it was a bit awkward, it was completely sincere, and I'm glad I had the chance.
With the recent re-introduction of Swamp Thing to DC proper, I’ve been thinking about these things and Vertigo’s place in comics. Like Swamp Thing himself, Vertigo began, seemingly by accident, and slowly, assisted by John Constantine, discovered the vast power and influence it had throughout the entire comics world. Things would never be the same without them, and I hope I never have to experience a comic shop with no new Vertigo comic books on their shelves.