“Magic’s just when you trick the universe into believing some incredibly outrageous lie.”
Mike and Casey hop into Chas’ cab for a journey to the realm of Dreams, because it’s time to go on a road trip across America. Our traveling companions, librarian Kit Laika and Joe Preti from the View from the Gutters podcast.
This month we dig into the Vertigo line of mature-readers comics from DC. From its inception with Karen Berger’s editorial work with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing in the 1980s through massive hits like Sandman, Preacher, Fables and 100 Bullets, we dissect some of the most influential, critically acclaimed and popular comic books of the past thirty years.
Is Vertigo dead, even if its spirit for creator innovation and quality live on at other publishers?
“Main Theme” from Constantine (2014) by Bear McCreary
Previously titled: “Make Comics Great Again”
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Man, this makes me feel old. I first encountered Vertigo in Swamp Thing and House of Mystery; the originals, not the revived titles, in the 70s. Those were showcases for new talent, inspired by EC and Warren and others, which featured editors like Joe Orlando. It’s that sensibility that helped form the outlook that led to Vertigo. Orlando was instrumental in keeping that mindset alive and that met the perfect young, daring editor in Karen Berger, who ran with it.
I found my interest in comics revitalized by the early independents, like Pacific, Eclipse and First, which opened my eyes to things like the proto-Vertigo titles. I tended to adventure more, and flipped through Sandman, when it launched, before I bought. I bought Black Orchid before Sandman, due to memories of Orlando’s work on it, in Adventure Comics. As I went through college in the 80s, you couldn’t escape names like Moore and Miller, Hernandez, Sim, and Chaykin and titles like Swamp Thing, Miracleman, Cerebus, Love & Rockets, Raw, American Flagg, Moonshadow and Mister X. Slowly, the horizons expanded to encompass more and more of Proto-Vertigo. I was there with the launch and found more of what I wanted to read, as I found less and less in the DC mainstream, let alone Marvell or other superheroes. As the 90s went on, I was reading Vertigo and independents, more than superheroes (other than Starman).
Not sure about your guys’ timeline, though. DC was owned by Warner since the late 60s. The Kinney Corporation bought DC and Warner Bros-Seven Arts. That grew to be Warner Communications and merged with Time, Inc, to become Time-Warner. So, DC was part of a conglomerate well before the Burton Batman. They were together when Superman flew, in the form of Christopher Reeve.
The shuttering of Vertigo is also tied to DC wanting to get away from creator-ownership, to match the entertainment conglomerate mindset of owning intellectual property and not sharing the wealth with the creators.
Marvel did have an early experiment that is a spiritual cousin to Vertigo, in the original Epic, under Archie Goodwin. It wasn’t thematically similar; but, it was creator-owned material, looking to compete with the new independent venues, and more sophisticated material. However, Archie never truly had the freedom to run with it and Marvel wasn’t willing to fully move outside the Marvel Universe, and used Epic to publish things like Elektra Assassin, where Frank Miller could swear; but, Marvel owned the property. When Archie left, it was pretty much dead in spirit, even if the body twitched for a while, under Carl Potts.
Low point is the current state. High point is hard, because it is so subjective. On a personal level, it is Sandman. The lyrical quality of the work inhabited my older adult life, to where it helped me grieve, when I lost a friend to cancer and my father to pulmonary fibrosis. The friend loved Gaiman’s work and we shared a bond of Sandman and Neil Gaiman. His wife had quotes from the series in the program at his memorial service. It simply summed up the truth about life, that you get a lifetime, nothing more, that helps you accept death, and move on.
I never, ever hear anyone talking about an experience like mine with comic books. It’s treated in such a binary way; people either read them and were into them or they didn’t and weren’t.
My experience is so different. My parents were book readers and both of them loved to read out loud to myself and my brother; not just for bed time but as an activity that would consume an entire afternoon… I don’t think they ever bothered with children’s books, I don’t remember there ever being any in the house. It was more that, even before we could really understand the language, they were simply excited to just share all the stories that they knew and loved. My dad was super into mysteries and spy thrillers, and my mum was a fantasy nerd.
So I grew up a book reader and it wasn’t until High School that I was suddenly surrounded by comic books. My friends loved them and shared them, old and new by the stack. From Archie and Casper to the Marvel and DC universes… I read them too, and I pretended to like them. I even went into a comic shop and bought the weirdest, most unconventional comic series I could find -just- so that I’d have something to share that made me feel like I was really in on the secret.
But I wasn’t, and I never understood why until much, much later in life… The thing is, I would read comic books just like I read a regular book. My eyes would just scan the text, moving from panel to panel, page to page, and the whole experience would last maybe 5 to 10 minutes per issue. I never saw the art as anything more than peripheral, and really never gave it any of the attention it deserved. I mean, when you see a film how often do you study or even just explore the set? Unless a filmmaker is actively drawing attention to it, it’s just there and then gone again. It cradles the narrative without having any real impact of its own… And that’s what comic book art was like for me.
That series I bought to be cool? It was called ‘Nazz’. I got the first three issues all at once and then the 4th some time later when it was released. Even after all these years I still remember the story pretty clearly, but almost nothing at all about the artwork… I have a vague recollection of the main character wandering around shirtless a lot, but I’m not even sure if that’s accurate. I guess they’re still in a box here somewhere, but I’ve never been inclined to read them again.
Even knowing what my problem is, it’s still really, really hard work to control it long enough to read a comic. I have to actively stop at each panel and force myself to take some time to appreciate the art… But any distraction or slip of attention and suddenly I’ve read that page as text, and I have to start over again at the first panel (on the page) to do it ‘properly’. It can quickly become too tedious to be fun.
All in all I’m still kind of jealous of people who can just become absorbed in their comics. I know how wonderful it feels to be so immersed in a narrative that mealtimes, even whole days, just pass in a blur… The knowledge that there’s an entire medium of narratives that I can’t experience in that way is kind of depressing.