Suggested for Mature Readers: Vertigo Comics

Goodreads Shelf: Vertigo

 

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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DC Comics – 1980s

Previous: DC Comics – 90s

I think we can all agree that the 80s was among the top decades ever. In the world of comics (at least, American mainstream superhero comics), it was the decade the medium finally matured into a respectable art form for adults.

I definitely grew up on Marvel, but in my later teens I chose to focus on DC, and from my early and mid-twenties I spent untold hours scouring for back issues to fill in the historical gaps.

The truth is, Marvel was revolutionary in the 1960s but DC — that stuffy old company famous for square-faced Superman and Adam West-era Batman — did catch up. Green Arrow/Green Lantern by Dennis O’Neil in the 70s comes to mind. By the 80s, there were plenty of literary books.

As for Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, it says a lot those seminal tomes were published by DC. But you’ll have to wait until my inevitable Alan Moore and Batman-themed posts for more on those. Same bat-time, same bat-channel!

Allow me to skip ahead in the timeline of the DC Universe, whereas the centerpiece would definitely be 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. The mega-crossover revitalized the entire multiverse, with a cosmic menace requiring the heroes of all the different earths and time periods and planets, and an ending that took all the realities and put them into one big universe. RIP Supergirl and Barry Allen Flash…

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Written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by George Perez, it was a masterpiece.

Speaking of which, to go a bit further back on that creative team: Wolfman and Perez tother first came to prominence with the New Teen Titans. We forget now, but for a time they were the rivals to Marvel’s X-Men. That successful.

Sidekicks Robin, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl were joined by newcomers Cyborg, Starfire, and Raven. Changeling/Beast Boy too. You may know the cartoon.

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Cyborg was futuristic-transhumanist science fiction, Starfire was space opera, and Raven was supernatural horror. All the neccesary genres for superhero adventures. Add that to character development and the occasional soap opera storylines, and the formula made for solid great comics. Too bad the Titans have never been able to live up to that pre-Crisis era since.

 

Pre-Crisis DC, that was back when there were all those numbered Earths. The Golden Age 1940s continuity was called Earth 2, with the Justice Society and the original Action Comes #1 Superman. Writer Roy Thomas, who might be the most knowledgeable man in all the field, wrote about the WWII-ea in All-Star Squadron. It was followed up Infinity, Inc., which wasn’t as good but interestingly showcased the sons and daughters of the Justice Society in modern times. I do like my superheroes generational, a sense of history.

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Then Crisis happened. All those Earths were now one. History was rebooted. Earths 1 and 2 had the same timeline all along. It’s confusing, I know.

The first post-Crisis crossover to introduce this new streamlined universe was Legends, helmed by Marvel’s popular writer-artist John Byrne and John Ostrander. It pitted DC characters against Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, which the ultimate epic villain of Darkseid.

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Then, the Suicide Squad grew out of Legends. This ragtag team of supervillains employed by the government was, in a word, awesome. Very cool, very badass. Who knew corny DC villains could be written with such edge? Captain Boomerang, Deadshot. And a lot of the characters died in these suicide missions, some of them not even coming back to life. And who doesn’t love Amanda Waller?

Apparently there will be a movie of the squad soon enough.

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Most important of all, the new Justice League evolved out of Legends. It was the latest incarnation, the Justice Leauge International, most often referred to as the “Bwahaha! era.

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Believe it or not, it was a comedy comic. Cowritten by esteemed writer J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, it kind of showed what it was like to hang out as a superhero in the off time of saving the world. It had Guy Gardner as Green Lantern, who was refreshingly a dick for a superhero, Martian Manhunter as elder statesmen, best buds Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, girlfriends Fire and Ice, and of course Batman being super cool Batman.

I tracked down every single one of those issues. I still have the full run to this day, including Justice Leauge Europe. They did fight supervillains like Desparo and had crossovers with the extremely serious Suicide Squad, but mostly it was a return to comics being fun. Unfortunately, after Giffen and DeMatteis left the League became convoluted through the 90s until Grant Morrison revitalized the franchise with back-to-the-basics JLA. But that is a post for another day.

“One punch…”

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