We all like our quality television these days, don’t we? It’s a given that the new era of literature is television, started by HBO’s crime dramas and continuing on other networks. As we all agree. We all take it for granted that storytelling is evolving, and the once maligned medium of TV now produces the highest quality there is. Welcome to the Golden Age.
However, at least a decade before HBO rewrote the rules of television there was another maligned medium breaking all the rules. Comics never quite got the respect they deserved, but the proto-HBO of comics would still be Vertigo.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, DC Comics started publishing some very mature comics. It was very much the house that Alan Moore built. Starting with Swamp Thing and continuing with Watchmen and beyond, DC won award after award and their horror comics imprint began to get very literary indeed.
Mr. Moore has since disavowed DC Comics, and refuses to work with any mainstream publisher. He’s more of the INDIE camp these days… Yet, they owe him a great deal.
Alan Moore deserves a post all his own, coming soon.
Meanwhile, the most popular comics coming out of DC’s horror imprint in 1989 turned out to be Sandman by Neil Gaiman. It started out as a reference to an obscure superhero, incorporating various old 70s horror characters, and then it turned into one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time.
Issue 1 of Sandman simply said “Suggested for Mature Readers.” There was cursing, nudity, the whole bit. Like rated R movies. Was it risky for DC, the same mainstream publisher as Superman, to publish?
By 1993, there was a new label. It said Vertigo up there in the corner. Thus, Vertigo – a subset of DC – was born.
Neil Gaiman and Sandman will get a post all their own very soon as well!
And, you’ll notice both Moore and Gaiman are British writers. That’s another theme of quality comics – they tend to be part of the comic’s 80s British Invasion. Guess the founders of the English language tend to be better scribes.
Winning scores of Eisner Awards every year and popularizing the economic model of selling trade paperback reprints (i.e., “graphic novel” volumes) at bookstores, Vertigo changed the game forever and fully realized the medium’s potential. Finally, comics grew up.
Below are a few of my favorite Vertigo titles. Not meant to cover everything, just a few. As said, early Alan Moore and Gaiman’s most popular works – especially Sandman – will be covered later. Don’t you worry. I’ll also get into Invisibles by Grant Morrison and Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis. All in due time.
Firstly, Preacher by Irish scribe Garth Ennis was the most badass comic to read when I was in high school. Ennis, by the way, known for writing the Demon and John Constantine (an Alan Moore creation) in the Swamp Thing spinoff Hellblazer. A lot of up-and-coming writers would write Constantine over the years, it was Vertigo’s longest running series, but I didn’t usually follow.
Preacher wasn’t part of the greater “Vertigo Universe”, it was its own self-contained, creator-owned thing. Which is best.
I was determined to read it all, and snuck away at the bookstore to catch up on the graphic novels. I don’t think it was finished yet when I started back in the mid-90s, but by the time the last volume came out I read it to the end.
It was an American Western written with the perspective of the outsider, fully capturing and bottling that Americana essence. About Jesse, a preacher who fucks and drinks. And also on the lookout from a corrupt God. And had the superpower Word based off being possessed or something by the offspring of angel and demon. There were vampires and rednecks and the Saint of Killers and grungey-suicidal Arseface and Vatican conspiracies and an inbred descendant of Jesus Christ.
It was oh so blasphemous, so good.
I heard a TV show is finally in the works.
Let me add that I believe the Da Vinci Code ripped off Preacher. The Da Vinci Code was a terrible book as everybody knows, but most are unaware that the first work of fiction to successfully use those Holy Grail bloodline conspiracy theories was in fact Preacher. So, kudos to Garth Ennis and a hearty fuck you to Dan Brown.
In more recent history, I didn’t like Ennis’s superhero lampoon The Boys (it’s funny but enough already, we get it you hate superheroes). I am told I should be currently reading his series Crossed from Avatar Press.
Books of Magic was one of my heartfelt discoveries, not particularly popular but I enjoyed it. Originally a one-off graphic volume by Gaiman, it was about a bespectacled young wizard but moreso a vehicle to tour the mystical sections of the DC/Vertigo Universe.
Then, the long-running series by John Ney Rieber and then Peter Gross continued the story of Timothy Hunter. His boyhood, his girlfriend Molly, Faerie connections, dealings with demons.
You may notice that it’s suspiciously similar to Harry Potter, the young Brit sorcerer in glasses with an epic destiny. Books of Magic was created several years earlier. And Tim was much cooler than lame Harry Potter. Gaiman actually could have sued J.K. Rowling, like many others did, but gentleman that he is he declined.
In my early 20s I hunted down every used graphic novel and back issue until I read the whole story, and when Rieber’s run concluded I picked up the issues written and illustrated by Gross. It was lovely. I didn’t read those newer ones about him grownup, Wartime or somesuch, I’ll always remember Tim Hunter as a boy.
One of my absolute favorite things ever was Moonshadow, beautifully written by J.M. DeMatteis (remember I was a fan of his 80s-era Justice League) and elegantly painted by Jon Muth. By favorite things ever, I don’t mean one of my favorite comics, or even books/fiction, I totally mean one of favorite things ever.
Actually, was previously published by Epic – Marvel’s less successful imprint –but reprinted by Vertigo years later. I’m glad they did.
The very first painted comic, even predating Marvels. The watercolors by Muth have an altogether different feeling from Alex Ross’s oils. Surreal, dreamlike space saga about a boy exploring a ridiculous universe, spaceships and social satire and coming-of-age and sex, until enlightenment is attained.
I remember reading the whole book in one sitting on a quiet Ohio weekend as a kid, a thick book covering twelve issues and an epilogue.
A most perfect work of art, cannot be overstated. My heart aches in remembrance.
For a while in the 2000s I followed all of Y the Last Man. Got them at the library during my California years. A solid story about the last man on Earth, exploring the post-apocalyptic remnants of the United States run by women after all but one of the men died off. An exciting series, with mysteries unresolved at the end.
Brian K. Vaughan is a fun and poignant storyteller. I recommend his original graphic novel Pride of Baghdad about zoo animal casualties of the Iraq war.
Currently, I am obsessed with Fables. The series is just about to end after a very long run of 150 issues. To compare, Sandman ended at 75 and Preacher at 66.
Best drawn by Mark Buckingham and expertly written by Bill Willingham. Oddly enough I never liked his superhero work. Incidentally, I met him at the L.A. Book Fair once and he was a bit mean to me about politics. But with Fables, he’s been on fire for years.
The premise is that Snow White and Beauty & the Beast and Bigby the Wolf (who can transform to a human, obviously) and all the fairy tale characters escaped to the real world. Because Pinocchio’s father Gepetto has created an evil empire. There’s the farm, where the inhuman ones have to live, and three little pigs have a revolution. Prince Charming is a sleaze who divorced and remarried all those princesses, etc. How much more awesome can you get?
Granted, as for politics Fables is a metaphor for Israel but I forgive that.
The mythology is very broad, with endless possibilities for stories and character development. Well, almost endless. The politics get very complex; a rare story told in real time as people get married and have kids. Others die, and many actually stay dead. There are spinoffs too about Jack the giant killer, Cinderella as spy, and so on.
A good reminder that fairy tales were never supposed to be for children in the first place. The stories can get very dark indeed. Not Disney.
Consistently the best that Vertigo has produced for at least the past decade. I’ll miss you, Rose Red and the cubs!
Those are some of the Vertigo books I enjoyed reading most of all. I am leaving out a lot. Impossible to fit everything, but that’s a start.
Note that I always preferred Vertigo’s fantasy comics to their many crime comics. I think it suits the medium better; not horror exactly but that magical realism in a modern setting is Vertigo’s true signature style to me.
Now that Fables is ending, what do you recommend I read?
Next: In keeping my word, a post of either Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore. But who first? Where to start, on my next installment(s) focusing on favored comic authors…