Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vertigo Comics - A Decline of an Empire

It’s an odd thing that, in any form of serialised entertainment but particularly in comic books, there can be a product or a piece of art that is so consistently good that we all just stop talking about it, instead giving the knowing nod to other customers in your local comic shop that have similar good taste. It’s the secret handshake of the LCS. The recently released new Parker adaptation by Darwyn Cooke, The Score, is a good example of this; a book that had established a fan base that were going to buy it no matter what, and because of this the response for the new release felt somewhat muted. This doesn’t necessarily translate to poor sales; in fact it can sometimes mean that so many people are buying it that it doesn’t warrant talking about. Unfortunately it can also mean that shouting from the rooftops about how good a book is has become tiring because nobody listens, instead opting to buy whatever ‘Earth shattering event’ the big two are willing to shill on them. Indifference has killed series before they have had a chance to grow, even within the big two themselves. (Captain Britain, SWORD, and Dr Voodoo from Marvel are all recent series that got cut off at the knees mainly due to fan indifference.) This is not Marvel or DC’s fault; like the retailers that sell the comics, the publishers are in the business of making money. Nor is it the fault of individual fans, who have every right to buy what they want. Sadly, whoever is to blame, it means that many promising series, often books that are attempting to push the medium forward, can’t float in the shark infested waters of the Diamond top 100 comics. This effectively hurts the medium as a whole.

Seemingly, the one exception to the rule of ‘if the sales are bad, we’re axing it,’ is the run by DC but nurtured by Karen Berger Vertigo Comics. If you are reading this it can be a fair assumption that you know the history of the imprint so instead, let’s look at what Vertigo represents. For many years Vertigo was run autonomously, utilising a combination of properties owned by DC such as Hellblazer and Swamp Thing, and ‘almost’ creator owned properties such as The Invisibles and Preacher. (As an aside, many say Sandman was the book that made Vertigo’s name, this reviewer would actually argue that Preacher was the book that made people actually sit up and take notice of the imprint as a whole and actually brought a lot of people either into or back into comics.) None of the books were doing X-Men numbers but that wasn’t the point, the imprint was all about elevating the status of the creators involved whilst giving them the freedom to write and draw the stories they wanted to, also giving them a sense of ownership of their tales. This in turn helped the mainstream industry, giving them a new untapped group of creators, particularly writers, to work on their main books. Take one look at the top creators in the industry right now and it’s hard to argue that statement. Two of the five Marvel Architects are Vertigo veterans and the only person apart from Geoff Johns to get a virtual free reign over DC’s properties is Grant Morrison. Even Frank Quitely, a man who is constantly, and correctly, labelled as Comic’s greatest living artist first came to prominence in the USA due to his work on Vertigo books. Effectively, what was once cutting edge is now the industry standard and that is a positive thing.

Another thing that Vertigo did was, as expectations on the books they published were lower than that of DC proper, allow books that would have undoubtedly been cancelled elsewhere to thrive and eventually prosper. Scalped, in this writer’s opinion, is consistently the best book on the shelves, consistently being able to shock and surprise like no other book out there. Quality doesn’t necessarily translate to sales though, and for the book to have a month where it has crept into five figure numbers is virtually unheard of. Nevertheless, Vertigo have stood by Scalped and it is now rapidly reaching its conclusion at issue sixty, during the course of that time making a superstar out of writer Jason Aaron. Due to this, sales have very slowly been rising on the title and it manages to do incredibly well in the collected edition market. Another title Vertigo stood by was Y: The Last Man and by allowing the book to run its course made Brian K Vaughan a writer of mainstream (real-mainstream, not comics-mainstream) proportions. To many, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso were just names until they created the genre bending 100 Bullets. Brian Wood became the voice piece of a generation through the Vertigo published DMZ. The list goes on and on.

Admittedly none of this is to say that Vertigo is like the Mother Teresa of comics, allowing properties to continue going on whilst losing money hand over fist. Two titles that were prematurely ended were The Exterminators and American Virgin. Both were great titles but the sales just weren’t there. Even so, Vertigo still gave them a chance, both got into at least the mid twenties in terms of issues. For a comic to sell as low as they did and still get to issue thirty in today’s market would be a pipe dream.

As time has gone on belts have tightened. DC, particularly with the launch of the new 52, have no longer let their imprints run separate from the main company itself. First Wildstorm, a groundbreaker for forward thinking superhero comics in the early two thousands was enveloped into the DC universe proper, and then DC started taking the properties it owned back. Whilst this wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, (Wildstorm stopped being relevant the day the last issues of Ex Machina and Planetary shipped, and Swamp Thing and Animal Man haven’t had series of any note in years,) what it did do was leave Vertigo in a position where it had to question the usefulness of its existence, both financially and creatively. If all the imprint is putting out is low selling creator controlled titles what is the benefit to cost ratio for DC? As the new titles that they are releasing are failing to gain ground and major tent pole titles (DMZ, Scalped, Sweet Tooth,) are all coming to an end, all Vertigo has left are film and book adaptations, once the preserve of Wildstorm; and Fables? Let's just say that Fables is a book that Vertigo needs more than it needs Vertigo.

So, what becomes of Vertigo and the new titles and creators that would have been obvious choices for the imprint? This writer believes that Vertigo will become more similar to Marvel’s Icon imprint; a place for DC exclusive creators to be able to put out their own creatively controlled product whilst still working for DC proper. In some regards, the most critically acclaimed Vertigo title right now, American Vampire, already feels like it follows this model. In respect of creators and creator owned comics there is no need for concern. Image Comics, once the safe haven for gravity defying breasts and thimble sized waists everywhere has now, under the guidance of publisher Eric Stephenson, become more than Vertigo ever could be with fully creator owned projects under their banner and a diverse range of genres and subject matters for both the young and old. It’s no coincidence that Happy, the next project from longtime DC creators Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson will be published by Image.

So, the Vertigo we knew and loved is now a distant memory, replaced by something that is completely different and possibly, culturally redundant. This is not the fault of DC, who for their part, distributed twenty years worth of some of the best comics of our generation. It is the fault of an ever changing market that has no space for a Vertigo anymore. Hopefully DC will put Karen Berger to work at what she does best; finding new exciting voices to put out forward thinking comics that we can all enjoy.

Ultimately we should just be grateful that amazing books such as Scalped, 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, Northlanders, Preacher, and countless others had a place that they could call home so we, as fans, could enjoy them. The saddest part of all? What’s going to happen to the third volume of Seaguy!?

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brandon said...

Great post.

If you pick up an issue of Preacher, for example, during the first third of the run, the Vertigo house ads are amazing. They had so much output (much of it were just small mini-series) that it's amazing to see it drop off so much.

Seems like just a matter of time before Hellblazer is cancelled in favor of a DC-proper reboot. I guess the business model going forward is going to be the novel sized works like "The Chill"

At least the back catalogue is vast.

Anonymous said...

That's one of the saddest pieces of comic journalism I have ever read. I loved Vertigo. I consider Marvel and DC my elementary and high school education...but Vertigo is college. This kaleidoscope of variety and color.

Vertigo was to me, the only thing worth giving DC money for. I would rather read one issue of Preacher or Y: The Last Man than any of the cliched garbage Geoff Johns cranks out.

Is there any suspense left in Marvel or DC? Every month you see the same tired taglines in all of their comics "This will change everything!!" It's laughable because nothing ever changes. The result: comics that evoke absolutely no emotion on the reader. I felt ZERO suspense during the death of Batman storyline. There was never any doubt that he would be resurrected in two years tops. But when a Vertigo character dies...it actually makes you feel something.

I will NEVER put money in DC's hands again for what they've done to Wildstorm and Vertigo. Their comics are nothing but movie and toy commercials now. They are utterly and completely devoid of any creativity. And I hope people finally start waking up to how much of a sell out Jim Lee really is.

RIP Vertigo and go to hell DC.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Vertigo going to die after Sandman ended? And then again after Preacher? And after that the imprint showed that even without a title in the top 100, it can still strive creatively.

We shall see how the new management deals with Vertigo, but I don't think they will mess too much with an imprint which gives them an "in" with an audience which doesn't buy their core comics and the love of the (non-comic) media critics who read more than just capes.

Perhaps it will become like Marvel's Icon, but American Vampire is still very much an example of "old" Vertigo: a creator becoming popular in the industry doing work for Vertigo. As is the case with Lemire and Sweet Tooth. I'm not going to pretend they were nobodies in the comic world before, but their work under the Vertigo flag surely didn't hurt.

Just like there was life after Sandman, Preacher, Y the Last Man etc. etc. the same will apply after Scalped and DMZ and even Fables (my personal favourite)

That Image is now bringing out the kind of comics which could have been printed under the Vertigo banner, I don't see that as something which hurts the imprint. It just means there will be MORE good comics to choose from besides the ones from Vertigo. As my ever thinning wallet clearly shows.


Matt Duarte said...

American Virgin was such a strange and wonderful series. I wish it had found a bigger audience, as the ending was terribly rushed due to the cancellation.

Taylor Pithers said...

Hi Oscar

I agree with most of your points and I wasn't trying to get across that Image are Vertigos replacement. It was more that there is no denying that Image have seen a gap in the market where Vertigo once stood tall.

Like all companies Time Warner are in the business of making money and the sad fact is the market can't support the amount of Vertigo titles it once could

btownlegend said...

The New Deadwardians is terribly fantastic and American Vampire is easily a top ten book. I even find myself enjoying Paul Cornell on Saucer Country. Vertigo is not dead. Punk Rock Jesus just dropped...

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