Meeting #5: The Birth of Vertigo
Category: Comic Book Club
Last month, the landmark series 100 Bullets came to a close with its 100th and final issue. Controversial, innovative and, of course, very much "for mature readers", 100 Bullets was a series that continued to build on the reputation established by DC’s Vertigo imprint for high-quality comic books. In fact, Vertigo has gone so far in carving out its own identity in the comics industry, that it has become an entity distinct and separate from the DC Universe. But this was not always the case.
In 1993, DC launched the Vertigo line with Neil Gaiman’s mini-series, Death: The High Cost of Living, and a starting lineup of books that included Hellblazer, The Sandman, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Doom Patrol and Shade, the Changing Man. But these titles did not just appear out of thin air as ready-made Vertigo projects. No, the formation of the Vertigo imprint was the culmination of a process that had been developing for several years, a process of change that saw several DC titles become something more, something that could no longer be contained within the confines of the DC Universe. How and why did these changes occur? What were the qualities that would come to define a Vertigo comic?
That’s what we’ll be exploring in this meeting. And so though Vertigo is in the title of this week’s meeting, technically speaking it’s not Vertigo books I’ve asked you to read, even if they’ve been retroactively labelled as such. No, what we’ll be discussing is a selection of DC titles from the late 1980s – The Sandman, Animal Man, Hellblazer – titles that in the future would make the jump over to Vertigo. By going to a time when these books were entrenched in the DC Universe, I hope to pinpoint the moment when they each began to pull away from DC, and be redefined as something new. In short, we’ll be looking at the birth of Vertigo.
When discussing the birth of Vertigo, there is one crucial figure who must be mentioned: editor Karen Berger. In 1987, DC was at a crossroads. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen had been recently released, and each had revolutionised comics. So while DC still trailed Marvel in sales, they were in a position to carve a niche for themselves as innovators, the ones pushing the envelope and blazing trails. But just how were they going to do that? After Watchmen, where do you go next? Keeping in mind the fresh, exciting new perspective Alan Moore had brought to Swamp Thing, Karen Berger set out on a talent-scouting trip to the UK. In a 2003 New York Times article – "At House of Comics, a Writer’s Champion", by Dana Jennings – Karen Berger explained why she looked to Britain in search of a new wave of writing talent:
I found their sensibility and point of view to be refreshingly different, edgier and smarter… The British writers broke open comics and took the medium to a new level of maturity.
Note here the focus placed on seeking out writers. In the same article, Berger states her philosophy as editor of Vertigo has been a longstanding emphasis on the writer – "We’ve raised the profile of the writer… it’s the stories that drive the books." Debating the accuracy of this philosophy is perhaps fodder for another meeting, but one thing that’s certain is that the origins of Vertigo are closely tied to Berger’s "British Invasion", and that this movement took the concept of the "superstar writer" in comics to a whole new level. As a result of this 1987 talent-scouting trip to the UK, Karen Berger introduced Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan and (a few years later) Garth Ennis to mainstream American comics.
Much like Alan Moore had re-energised Swamp Thing by changing the title from a run-of-the-mill monster book into bold, experimental literature, this new stable of British writers were encouraged to take stagnant DC properties and revive them with their own creative spin. Upon the completion of the Black Orchid mini-series – his first work for DC – Neil Gaiman proposed revamping forgotten Justice Society superhero The Sandman in such dramatic fashion, that Karen Berger suggested he run with the idea, but base it around a totally new character, rather than being tied to the history of the original Sandman. Gaiman took this advice, developing and building on the idea, and from this process came Dream of the Endless, his world and supporting characters. And so The Sandman was born.
Right from the first chapter, "Sleep of the Just", it is clear that this series will be an expression of a unique creative vision. As far as "origin stories" go in comics, it is markedly atypical, breaking from convention on several fronts. Our eponymous hero is pretty much a peripheral figure here, not even getting a sizeable chunk of dialogue until the chapter’s end. Up until that point, we are treated with a multi-stranded story told from a number of perspectives, spanning across almost a century. It almost feels like it could be a standalone story, rather than the beginning of a monthly series from DC Comics – there certainly seems to be enough plot crammed in "Sleep of the Just" alone to fill a feature-length film. It