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DRAMATIC FIRST ISSUE! THE SECRET ORIGINS OF VERTIGO COMICS!
It started with the end. In 1954, psychiatric consultant Dr. Fredric Wertham published his book Seduction of the Innocent. It was the culmination of fifteen years spent attacking the "mature" comic book industry, whose fortunes had been rising with the increased popularity of "adults only" crime and horror titles.
Wertham, who regarded the comic book purely as a medium for children, campaigned for comic books to be heavily regulated, claiming that they were responsible for juvenile delinquency and homosexuality. His arguments not only dealt with adult comics, but also traditional superheroes such as Batman. The publication of Seduction... brought his cause to the attention of the US Senate, who ran a series of hearings into the matter, and ultimately created the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was a regulatory body who were responsible for stripping scenes of sexuality, "immorality" (drinking, drug abuse and the like), gore, horror and excessive violence from comic books to make them suitable for family audiences.
The adult comic book, it seemed, was dead.
THE ASTONISHING TALE OF A BEARDED HERO FROM ACROSS THE SEA!
Despite the growing underground comix movement of the 60s and 70s (of which Robert Crumb remains the best known exponent), mainstream comics continued to adhere to the CCA's rulings. With the Golden and Silver Ages of American comics far behind, the US comic book industry was slowly beginning to suffocate under decades of repeated storylines and rehashed heroes. The future looked dim, until DC Comics made the wise decision of looking abroad for new writers.
They looked to Britain, whose hugely popular satirical science fiction comic 2000 AD had been produced for almost ten years without the restrictions of the CCA. Writer Alan Moore was chosen to continue the adventures of schlock-horror superhero Swamp Thing, a scientist who was turned into a walking plant monster. Under Alan Moore's writing, and with the lenient editing of Stuart Moore (no relation), Swamp Thing was transformed - both literally and figuratively.
Moore's first change was to retcon the character of Swamp Thing. In Moore's second issue, The Anatomy Lesson, it was revealed that when Alec Holland fell into the Louisiana swamp outside his laboratory, he did not transform into the plant monster. Instead he died, and The Parliament of Trees (a group of plant elementals) used his memories to create a new elemental being. This ground-breaking reinvention of the character, along with Moore's beautifully crafted stories and taste for black humour made the book a critical and commercial success.
Moore's second change was to push the boundaries of acceptable content to their limits, introducing storylines that involved rotting zombies, graphic violence, incest and torture, all of which were strictly banned by the CCA. Rather than water down the stories, DC's editors took the brave step of dropping the Comics Code Authority seal of approval for that comic. A precedent was set. Comic books were finally growing up.
Moore's popularity sent editors back over the Atlantic, armed with blank chequebooks and a "take as many prisoners as you can" attitude. British writers and artists were snapped up and added to the growing ranks of DC authors.
The "British Invasion of Comics", as it would later be known, soon bore strange and wonderful fruit: inbetween the thousandth Batman spinoff or millionth X-Men comic, Jamie Delano's Hellblazer was railing against the hypocrisies of British Conservatism, and Grant Morrison was doing postmodernism before it got popular by writing himself into Animal Man (he would later introduce America to dada - and dada to America - in the surreal Doom Patrol). Pete Milligan explored national obsessions and personal madness in the psychadelic, reality-bending Shade the Changing Man whilst Neil Gaiman was mixing modern history and ancient myths in the literary masterpiece The Sandman. Meanwhile, Alan Moore had toddled off to write Watchmen, arguably one of the best literary works of the 80s, and seen by many as the greatest work of graphic literature ever (and which, along with The Dark Knight Returns, defined an entire decade of comic writing).
Suddenly it was cool to read comics; the medium was finding a popularity it had not seen since the 40s, and a cultural respectability it had never seen in its existence. Of course, this bubble was soon to burst but that's another story for another time.
THIS ISN'T YOUR FATHER'S TRANSVESTITE SHAMAN TERRORIST!
In 1992, as the mainstream popularity of comics approached its peak, DC editor Karen Berger proposed moving DC's mature readers titles to a specialised imprint where they would be allowed even greater freedom. The following year, Vertigo was born, its title a play on the "edgy" nature of the comics it represented. Vertigo's first month brought the following:
It also featured Death: The High Cost of Living #1, a spinoff of The Sandman starring Morpheus' titular sister (w: Neil Gaiman, a: Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham).
Berger (now Executive Editor of Vertigo) also commissioned Enigma, an eight-part miniseries about sexuality and superheroes from Pete Milligan and artist Duncan Fegredo. Vertigo's first non-DC owned or based property, it showcased the imprint's desire for smart, challenging and entertaining comics whilst also allowing them to thrive outside of traditional DC restrictions. Usually comics for DC had to exist within the fictional DC Universe inhabited by Batman, Superman et al. but now they could work within their own worlds, and operate on their own internal logic without decades of continuity dragging them down. With this progressive, thoughtful attitude it was hoped that Vertigo would prove popular with creators as well as readers - and it did.
A TERRIFYING JOURNEY INTO THE PRESENT!
At the time of writing, Vertigo's tenth year is drawing to a close. In the past decade, over 250 different series and miniseries have been published under the imprint, with many more still to come. There have been ups and there have been downs; periods of invention that encouraged blockbusters like Preacher, Transmetropolitan and The Invisibles have been followed with fallow periods in which poorly-performing series such as American Century and Hunter: The Age of Magic have been axed, leaving behind huge gaps in the print schedule. And for an imprint which prides itself on being cutting-edge, there is still heavy reliance on the old guard to bring home the bacon (Hellblazer is in its fifteenth year; The Sandman continues, both in the occasional Sandman Presents miniseries and in its critically acclaimed spin-off Lucifer; another Swamp Thing restart is expected in 2004).
Despite this, Vertigo's output is more diverse now than it has been for some time; award-winning author Brian Azzarello continues to thrill crime fans with his noir-ish 100 Bullets; Andy Diggle's heist caper The Losers is a wild ride of OTT action and breakneck plot-twists; Mike Carey's miniseries My Faith in Frankie is a romantic comedy involving gods and ghosts whilst Brian K. Vaughan's hugely popular Y: The Last Man is a post-apocalyptic tale set on a world where all men have died except one; Pete Milligan is exploring themes of identity and modern life in the thriller Human Target and Bill Willingham is plotting out a whimsical soap opera about modern-day fairy tales in Fables.
THE DEATH OF VERTIGO?
And so to the future. Creatively and financially, Vertigo is entering its second decade in full strength. But there are dark shadows on the horizon: Marvel Comics' MAX line has been created to tap into the adult comic market, and has proved fairly successful, although its comics remain tied to the Marvel universe and lack the more unusual subject matter of Vertigo.
More worrying is DC's decision to start putting out regular superhero titles and non-DC stories under a "mature readers" tag without shifting them to Vertigo. If DC begins to put out adult comics outside of its own adult imprint, then what purpose does that imprint serve?
Of course, Vertigo has weathered larger storms than these. But even if Vertigo does fold, it leaves behind it a rich history of some of the greatest stories told in any medium.