From Preacher to Lu­cifer, TV is plun­der­ing the back pages of Vertigo. Abi­gail Chan­dler ex­plores the his­tory of DC Comics’ edgy, provoca­tive im­print

SFX - - Vertigo -

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.

ThiNK diF­FeR­eNT

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.

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