Last week, DC Comics announced that it was shuttering its different imprints and consolidating all its titles under one brand. Notably, this marks the end of Vertigo Comics, the publisher’s august banner for mature series and graphic novels. While Vertigo’s days of breaking new ground for comics have been past for some time now, this definitive end is still a bittersweet occasion.
Vertigo launched in 1993, in the wake of a drastic upheaval in comics storytelling precipitated by several bombshell ’80s series, including Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus (which the year before had won the Pulitzer Prize — the first and still only graphic novel to do so). As art and writing talent from the UK swarmed to America, adult-targeted comics such as Hellblazer, The Sandman, and Animal Man found huge success. DC decided to create Vertigo to give such authors greater creative leeway (and freedom from the strictures of the moribund but still authoritative Comics Code Authority).
From the beginning, the imprint was shepherded by editor Karen Berger, who established its reputation as a home for stories that pushed the boundaries of what was expected of comics, not just in terms of content but also in form. Over the next 25 years, Vertigo would publish everything from blockbuster series like Fables, 100 Bullets, Swamp Thing, and The Invisibles to oddities like Shade the Changing Man, The Unwritten, and Air. There was, for a time, a feeling that it could and would take a chance on absolutely anything, regardless of genre or tone. Not every experiment worked — basically every sub-imprint the company attempted crashed and burned. Remember Vertigo Pop! or V2K? No, you don’t. But that one of comics’ “Big Two” carved out this kind of space for creators for so long remains impressive.
But that permissiveness on DC’s part only lasted so long. In 2012, Berger left Vertigo, and it never quite recovered, with the following years seeing a continual series of editorial shakeups. In 2018, DC attempted an imprint-wide relaunch, branding it as “Vertigo DC,” only to now abort that as well. (This comes a year after AT&T completed its purchase of Time Warner, which owns DC Entertainment.) Current Vertigo series will soon either end or be folded into the main DC line, which will be differentiating its various series’ intended audiences based on an in-house age rating system. The former Vertigo titles will presumably be part of the “Black Label,” for those aged 17 and up. (To date, Black Label is most notable for luring headlines by showing Batman’s penis in a comic.)
With comics now a much more respected art form, Vertigo’s loss is hardly a blow. Still, its influence on the industry cannot be overstated, and this makes for a good excuse to pay homage to its considerable legacy. Here are ten Vertigo titles (both famous and lesser-known) which demonstrate the line’s versatility and impact.
One of the reasons for the imprint’s creation and among its original launch titles, Hellblazer would go on to be Vertigo’s longest-running series, with the original title lasting 300 issues. Over that run, a wide variety of writers (including Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, and Mike Carey) and artists (including Dave McKean, Mark Buckingham, Richard Corben, and Steve Dillon) would try their hand at telling stories about occult detective John Constantine. The sheer variety on display makes this series something of an exhibition of Vertigo in miniature, and also ensures that there’s at least one story arc for every kind of reader.
The Sandman (1989-1996)
Probably Vertigo’s biggest hit, spawning innumerable reissues and spinoffs that were successful in their own right (Death, House of Mystery, Lucifer, etc). Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus about the adventures of Morpheus, the cosmic embodiment of dreaming, is a landmark in comic book experimentation. Unified around the theme of how imagination shapes the world, different issues tackle everything from a man who becomes immortal simply because he wishes it to a nighttime coterie of house cats who believe they can dream themselves to the top of Earth’s food chain. In many ways it’s the prototypical Vertigo title.
The Quitter (2006)
Harvey Pekar set the standard for comic book autobiography with his seminal indie series American Splendor, but this one-off graphic novel he did with Dean Haspiel for Vertigo doesn’t get discussed as often. Delving more into memoir, Pekar recalls his youth and myriad struggles to find his purpose in life during that period. Just as forthright and wry as his work about his life as an adult, his memory refreshingly lacks any tinge of nostalgia obscuring events.
This three-issue miniseries from writer Garth Ennis and artist Frank Quitely is essentially an excuse for Quitely to go hog-wild with his imagery. A dog, a cat, and a rabbit are put into robot suits by the military and turned into killers, only to rebel and seek their freedom. What follows is a visually dazzling, frequently breathtakingly gruesome ride. Graphic action has rarely been rendered with such energy and detail.
Probably one of the archetypical ’90s comics, Preacher was part of a trend that ensued when creators realizing that they could do essentially whatever they want. The result was a wave of violent, profane, sometimes sophomoric series. And Preacher is indeed all of that and more (add in heavy helpings of blasphemy). While not all of its intentionally risible politically incorrect content has aged well, what distinguished writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon‘s series, both then and now, is its acute eye for character interaction and development. Sure, one issue may have a man having sex with a giant mass of meat shaped into the form of a woman, but the series also has a genuine, aching heart to it.
Y: The Last Man (2002-2008)
One of the more important series to shape the tenor of Vertigo’s major titles after its initial hits wrapped up their runs, this book also launched writer Brian K. Vaughan to comics stardom. In the aftermath of a mysterious plague which kills almost every mammal on Earth with a Y chromosome, surviving male Yorick Brown (and his monkey Ampersand) embark on an epic, strange road trip. Blending drama, action, humor, Pia Guerra’s skillful art, and Vaughan’s trademark penchant for “Did you know this interesting factoid?” asides, it’s served as a template for many subsequent comic hits.
War Story (2001-2017)
Though this ran only for a few years at Vertigo before transferring to Avatar Press and getting retitled War Stories, author Garth Ennis firmly established its sensibility in this time. An anthology reviving the once-popular war comics genre, each issue tells a different story in a different theater of war, each one with a different artist. Special mention goes to “Condors,” set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, in which a Spaniard, a German, an Irishman, and a Brit get stuck in the same foxhole.
Originally part of DC’s sci-fi imprint Helix before moving to Vertigo, writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson’s series essentially puts Hunter S. Thompson into a cyberpunk thriller. The result is an appropriately gonzo tour through every offbeat transhumanist scenario Ellis can dream up. Spider Jerusalem is one of comics’ most vivid figures, the kind of character who it seems could only exist in this form.
Doom Patrol (1993-1995)
Grant Morrison’s famed run on this title had already ended by the time it was featured as one of Vertigo’s launch books. Instead, writer Rachel Pollack was at the helm at the time. While Vertigo made many great strides for comics, it can’t be said that it did much to help advance gender equality behind the scenes (though it should not be overlooked that a woman oversaw the venture). Only a fraction of its titles were written by women, but the fact that a trans woman was running one of them right off the bat was laudable. Doom Patrol, well-known for going as weird as possible under Morrison’s pen, now also explored identity through a lens of gender and sexuality, introducing one of comics’ first transgender characters. Where Morrison applied a Dadaist framing to his idea of the superhero team, Pollack infuses her story arcs with influences from Jewish mysticism. Still uncollected in trade paperback, this remains an underrated run.
Consistently aiming to make any traditional notion of “hardboiled” look tame, writer Jason Aaron and artist R. M. Guéra concocted this indelible crime series. Taking place on a Lakota reservation, it incorporates issues around contemporary Native American life into its stories of harsh people pushed to harsher deeds. Brazenly political and brutally drawn, it’s one of the best crime stories of any medium from recent years.