From Preacher to Lucifer, TV is plundering the back pages of Vertigo. Abigail Chandler explores the history of DC Comics’ edgy, provocative imprint
When DC Comics launched their
Vertigo imprint in 1993, they wanted a place where they could develop some of their lesser-known characters and give creators a chance to tell controversial and groundbreaking new stories. Comics like Sandman and Hellblazer were doing well for them and they wanted to give them a home of their own.
Fast-forward 23 years and Vertigo screen adaptations are everywhere you look. Whether they bombed, like Constantine, progressed nicely like Lucifer and iZombie or were the hottest new show of the summer (hello, Preacher), the TV industry finally seemed to cotton on to what the comics industry figured out over two decades ago – controversial, provocative material is always the most interesting.
Nineties Vertigo marked a creative period that remains incredibly impressive to this day. We got Sandman, Swamp Thing, Preacher, Hellblazer, Transmetropolitan, 100 Bullets, The Invisibles and more that decade, with titles like Lucifer, Fables and Y: The Last Man following in the early ’00s.
Aside from poorly-received film adaptations of V For Vendetta and Hellblazer (as Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine) and ongoing failed attempts to adapt Sandman for the big screen, the film and TV industry has been slow to take advantage of Vertigo’s treasure trove of original stories. But with the success of Preacher, that’s likely to change now.
Right from the beginning, Vertigo was determined to do things differently. “i’m not a comic book fan,” admits Vertigo founder and former executive editor Karen Berger. “i think i bring a different perspective to the work that i’ve done because i bring things from
They said ‘Would you like to have your own imprint?’ Well yeah…
other areas of interest, objectivity, no sort of fan attachments, and ultimately just a desire to make cool, irreverent material in comic book form, and to really break the boundaries. That was the mission of Vertigo… to have a point of view that really went against the grain of what was out there at the time.”
That different approach was what attracted writer Mike Carey to Vertigo, long before he wrote Lucifer, Hellblazer and The Unwritten for the imprint. “i think there was a point at which American comics – and i’m thinking right up to the late ’70s and very early ’80s – when American comics had gone into kind of a rut because they were being edited and written by people who had respect for the tradition, but they only knew one way to do it, they only knew one way to tell a story,” Carey says. “And you suddenly get these British writers coming in, the first generation of Brits writing for the American market – and i’m thinking Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison – who basically just threw all the rules out the window and started doing something completely revolutionary.”
So how exactly did a creator-owned line of violent, smart, epic and often explicit comics come out of the Comics Code-obeying dC of the early ’90s? “i had been at dC for 10 years before Vertigo,” Berger tells SFX. “i had already established the core books that became the seminal books of Vertigo, the proto Vertigo books like Sandman, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Shade The Changing Man, Doom Patrol… dC were calling them the Berger Books, they knew that there was something different and edgier going on in those titles and they had a great response. i was on maternity leave – it was in ’91 when my first son was born – and i got a call from Jenette Kahn and Paul Levitz and dick Giordano, who were running the company, and they said, ‘We really would love for you to do more with this cool stuff that you’re doing. We’re getting such a good response, we see a larger audience for this’, and they said, ‘Would you like to have your own imprint?’ i’m like, well yeah…” Berger laughs at the memory.
Berger was determined “not to be beholden to a lot of the things that were kind of the rules of superhero comics and try and really look outwards and look at the storytelling in perhaps more of a european way, in a more independent way, a more underground way.” That was certainly something Carey responded to as a reader. “it was literally a different template for long-form storytelling that suddenly made all kinds of things possible,” he remembers.
The remarkable thing about the Vertigo books is that something like Preacher feels just as shocking and revolutionary today as it did 20 years ago. “We were kind of ahead of the curve a little bit, i think,” Berger says. “All stuff that goes against the grain tends to happen on the fringes of what’s going on in the mainstream, and comics, just by its very nature, is a fringe medium, and what we were doing with Vertigo was even on the fringe of superheroes.”
Carey thinks the reason comics can afford to be a little more experimental than TV is that they can literally afford it – financially speaking. “it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make a tentpole movie, or to make a TV series, so the people who do those things, who bankroll those things are understandably averse to risk. There’s very little risk in comics. You can do what you like really, the budgets are unlimited, the ceiling is very high.”
Berger was never precious over the idea of what American comics should be, and that allowed Vertigo to really break free of convention. “You look at so much stuff that’s on TV, and even in comics. i mean, when you do stuff that’s licensed or company characters or franchises that go on so long, you just get really tired of it as a reader, as a viewer. And what we did at Vertigo was always ask, ‘What’s the next new thing out there and what can we do to really challenge what you expect of a comic book?’”
in 2010 dC Comics decided to move all of the Vertigo characters who originated in the dC universe back into the main dCU – including John Constantine, Swamp Thing and Shade, the Changing Man. Karen Berger left Vertigo in 2013, and dC has been making a concerted effort ever since to claw back some of the ground the imprint lost to other creator-owned publishers, especially image Comics. These days it boasts a strong slate including American Vampire, Clean Room,
Unfollow and The Sheriff Of Babylon.
ANARChY iN The dC
The anarchic days of Vertigo’s immoral protagonists and rejection of authority might be over, but those themes are clearly still resonating with a modern audience, otherwise why would so many screen adaptations have come out at once?
“i think there’s a certain type of person who always responds to not being complacent and being excited about something new, and challenging the status quo and challenging the system,” Berger says. “i think a lot of it is questioning, not taking things as accepted or for granted. i think it’s a really positive way to look at the world, to question it. i can definitely see the millennial attraction.”
despite the often controversial nature of the Vertigo titles, Berger was given almost complete free rein by dC. “i got a lot of support and that’s what was so great about working at dC at the time – there was such a great trust and creativity and realising that there are risks you have to take if you want to run a creative company, and really give writers and artists the opportunity to push comics into a different zone.”
While TV is catching up with Vertigo’s boldness, it’s still not quite there. The
Constantine TV show was criticised by viewers for sanitising its occultist hero in order to make him palatable enough for network TV, and the Preacher TV show is yet to match the outrageously blasphemous realms of the comic book. “it’s fiction,” Berger stresses when SFX asks her about the religious controversy over
Preacher. “i think that’s the whole thing that people forget about. This is not real. And you’re always going to find someone who’s offended by stuff, but if you live that way you shouldn’t be in a creative medium.”
Vertigo had the guts to make that declaration – if you’re easily offended or afraid of asking some big, uncomfortable questions, then you shouldn’t be telling stories.