In the Eighties, DC launched a mature range of comics aimed at a higher-brow audience and engrained it with the sensibilities brought over with the so-called ‘British Invasion’. Initially these books were based within the DC universe, but later the range got its own imprint and with it each book it’s own separate continuity, if indeed the creators wanted it.
So Vertigo was born, and to many people’s surprise, it’s still going strong. To this day it’s the go-to imprint for crime and supernatural storytelling with a hard and intelligent edge, being a forerunner in original graphic novels, creator freedom and a fantastic segue for writers and artists to move from indie publishing to the mainstream and back again.
Vertigo was also ahead of the game where it came to keeping their back-catalogue available as collected volumes, a trend that nearly every company only followed suit with after about a decade. Their mini-series collections and original graphic novel output genuinely blurred the lines between ‘real’ literature and comics, but the meat for me comes in the form of Vertigo’s long running series.
At their most basic, these series act as a welcome escape from the superhero grind, but go with it and you’ll discover a wealth of creativity and originality that is singular not just for a comics imprint, but the entertainment world in general.
As usual with these articles, this recommendation selection is based on nothing but my own opinion and tastes, so don’t be upset if I’ve neglected to mention your favourite titles… That’s going out to all of the Sandman, Doom Patrol and Animal Man fans out there.
Saga of the Swamp Thing: A Swamp creature, once only viewed as an urban legend of Louisiana, finds himself in more and more horrific and abstract situations until he comes into contact with a loud-mouth British Mage/con-man called John Constantine, who recognises him to be an earth elemental and sets him to training to become the planet’s spiritual protector against a threat of unparalleled proportions.
In the early-mid Eighties, long before the launch of the Vertigo imprint, Alan Moore took over this ‘horror’ book, which acted as his lead-in to American comics, and birthed the ethos of what Vertigo would stand for. Collaborating mostly with artists Steve Bissette, John Totleben and Rick Veitch, Moore morphed the series from a basic creature feature to one that toyed with a universe of possibilities that peers, such as Neil Gaiman and Jamie Delano, would later capitalise on. It experimented with narrative styles, genre mixing and the medium itself and presented stories that were literary, horror, superhero and surreal. The series is still in print and correctly under the Vertigo banner.
Hellblazer: John Constantine, a con-man, mage and self appointed protector of humanity, rides the synchronicity highway and goes wherever he’s needed, solving supernatural issues with a wink and a sarcastic smile, well, that’s the intension anyway, most of the time he’s just keeping all of his plates spinning and keeping himself out of hell, with his friends usually paying the price.
Verigo’s only truly ongoing title, Hellblazer spun out of the popularity of the John Constantine character from the pages of Swamp Thing. In 1988 Jamie Delano and John Ridgeway kick-started this contemporary horror series and it’s still going now, with issue 288 available as of this writing. Subsequently many of the industries top talent have had a crack at Constantine, each one bringing a slightly different twist to the character and each with a different take on horror, from urban through creatures to biblical. Past writers include Garth Ennis, Paul Jenkins, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey, Andy Diggle and Peter Milligan.
Preacher: A young, faithless preacher called Jesse Custer is accidentally infected with the offspring of the first coupling of angel and demon. It gifts him with the power to command people with the force of his will and a knowledge of what’s been happening in heaven, whereupon he learns that God quit sometime ago. Deciding this is not good enough, Jesse takes to the road with his ex-girl, Tulip, and the foul-mouthed Cassidy to find God, kick him in the ass and tell him to get back to work, along the way getting involved in some truly depraved adventures.
Garth Ennis had been working in American comics for a while before he started writing Preacher, but this is what made his name and set the standard for the rest of his career. Starting the title in 1995 with Steve Dillon, Ennis plumbed the depths of depravity in a fashion and with a humour that would’ve been unacceptable in any other visual medium of storytelling. It was more on the nose than any of the Vertigo books preceding it, and it managed to skirt between lowest common denominator and earthily intelligent with ease, pleasing not only seasoned Vertigo fans, but bringing in readers who would usually steer well clear.
Transmetrapolitan: Spider Jerusalem is a maverick journalist that has a bad attitude and hates people, HATES them. The City that he comes from is a utopia of extreme self-indulgence where trends and religions come and go at the blink of an eye, and where the truth of things falls between the cracks. Spider hates The City too, but when he’s informed that he must return there to complete his contractually obligated final book, he begins his long quest to bring the truth to a people that he hates and who don’t care. He can get pretty nasty.
Writer, Warren Ellis, is a surly, bad tempered SOB and it’s hard not to see the character Spider Jerusalem as a heightened version of himself, just as The City is an extreme version of society in the developed world. Created in 1997 by Ellis and artist, Darick Robertson, Transmet contained predictions of technological development that, at the time, seemed quite out there, but already, in 2012, many are becoming reality. All these details besides, the comic was like nothing that had come before and nothing there’s been since, a sci-fi, political satire, black comedy of relevant issues… with lots of swears and a cat with two faces.
The Unwritten: Tom Taylor, as a boy was the inspiration for a series of boy-wizard based fantasy novels written by his father. As a jaded grown-up Tom gets most of his income from signing photos at conventions, but when confronted by what seems to be a character from the Tommy Taylor books, Tom is presented with the possibilities that he may not be his father’s son and perhaps could be the actual Tommy Taylor character, whom people are seeing as a messiah figure, but when a secret organization begins manipulating the media to turn people against Tom, and other fictional figures start coming from out of the woodwork, Tom sets out to get to the bottom of the whole situation.
The most current of my recommendations, and the only one still being released, The Unwritten plays on the huge popularity the Harry Potter franchise and explores how such things work with the public consciousness, as well as experimenting with the comic medium and the blurred lines between it and all literature, like a combination of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethia, but arguably more accessible than both. Writer, Mike Carey, presents ideas as complex and interesting as can be found in all entertainmentdom, but relays them with simplicity, where the baton is handed off to artist, Peter Gross, who lives up to some incredibly challenging imagery. At its most base level, it’s a good old ripping yarn.
Prioritising just five Vertigo titles over the plethora available on the stands proved very difficult for me, I could choose a list as long as my arm from their great back-catalogue, and all of varying genres. So here are few more suggestions, which you may wish to look into depending on your tastes. Hard boiled crime doesn’t come much better than 100 Bullets and Scalped, for pure action craziness see The Losers, if you yearn for deep theological musings on religion and it’s contexts in the past, now and further (deep!) seek out Testament (though be wary of its cancellation induced rushed climax), DMZ mixes war and political intrigue with a hint of sci-fi and allegory, and finally, those who like their westerns dark should dig Loveless.
Just to push the boat out and wave the Vertigo flag a little more, here are a few titles that I haven’t started with yet, but hear very good things about: Fables, Sweet Tooth, Northlanders, American Vampire and Y the Last Man.
Now go broaden your comic horizons.