With the sad news that DC Comics is shuddering it’s Vertigo imprint in favor of grouping their comic titles by age-appropriateness, it’s time to honor some of the many brilliant works that came out of this stories mature-reader publishing initiative.
In January of 1993, inspired by several of DC’s more outré offerings, now-legendary editor Karen Berger (who left the company in 2012 and has since launched an eponymous imprint, Berger Books, with Dark Horse) launched an imprint apart from the company’s typical superhero books: stories that weren’t afraid to have a point of view as they explored religion, politics, sex, or all of the above, sidelining industry prohibitions on “adult” content. For a time, and under Berger’s stewardship, there was not a single book with “Vertigo” on the cover that wasn’t worth reading. These 10, and many others, are certainly worth remembering.
The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman
There were six existing DC series that inspired the launch of Vertigo and jumped labels in the first wave, but Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman was almost certainly the marquee name. Already almost 50 issues into a 75-issue run, the story of elemental lords and the world of dreams remains Gaiman’s magnum opus (credit too goes to a rotating lineup of artists representing the medium’s very best). It’s unquestionably Vertigo’s most (justifiably) beloved legacy.
Y: The Last Man, by Bryan K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
This book, co-created with Pia Guerra, was the one that launched already celebrated writer Bryan K. Vaughan into comics superstardom (paving the way for the ambitious, medium redefining work that is Saga). It wasn’t his first work in comics, nor even his first for Vertigo (that would be a controversial/underrated run on Swamp Thing centered on conflicted elemental Tefe Holland), but the 60-issue epic kicked off a streak of impeccable books that’s still going. The wonderfully high-concept series follows Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand, who happen to be the last two surviving males on Earth in the aftermath of the mysterious plague that left only women alive. Vaughan and Guerra explore the ways in which a world without men might be very different, and also the ways in which it might not.
100 Bullets, by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
The crime drama has an almost Twilight Zone-twist: finding individuals in extreme circumstances, the mysterious Agent Graves offers them a gun and 100 entirely untraceable bullets. With the assurance that any resulting shootings will be swept aside by the police, a rotating cast of characters each face a compelling moral dilemma: what to do with the power to kill with impunity? As the series progresses, the questions of morality give way to an exploration of American crime and power that dates back to the very first colonists at Roanoke. While Vertigo specialized in horror and dark fantasy, this Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso joint proved that bloody, gritty crime wasn’t out of the wheelhouse either.
Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Vertigo pushed plenty of boundaries—that was what it was there for. But perhaps no book trampled taboos as giddily as the 75-issue Preacher, from Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. It’s the story of small-town preacher Jesse Custer, who sets out across America after being possessed by a fugitive creature named Genesis, pursued by heaven and hell for having been born of congress between an angel and a demon. Ennis and Dillon are too smart to make a book that’s entirely profane, and amid a lot of bloodshed, the series thoughtfully explores American ideas of religion. By the time we meet the ignominious last descendent of Christ, it’s clear the creative team is utterly fearless.
Fables, by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham
What if characters of myth and legend lived real, day-to-day lives? Creator Bill Willingham isn’t the first person to have the idea, but he took it as far as it could go over the course of 150 issues and several spin-offs (most often working with penciller Mark Buckingham). In a little-noticed corner of New York City, the refugees of a devastating war led by a mysterious adversary live out their lives among us regular folk. It’s a book that has it both ways, featuring a huge cast of believable characters who also have attributes related to their own famous origin stories—before the focus shifts when the Adversary discovers the Fables have fled to NYC.
Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis and Derick Robinson
Beginning life at another DC imprint as the very short-lived sci-fi-focused Helix, Transmetropolitan represents a radical, but impressively prescient look at politics and the media. A couple of centuries from now, shirtless antihero Spider Jerusalem is a reporter in the Hunter S. Thompson mold. He faces two primary adversaries: a fascist authoritarian president called “The Beast” and his unscrupulous political opponent “The Smiler.” In the end, uncovering the truth about each of them makes Spider Jerusalem the most hated of all.
Incognegro, by Mat Johnson
As revolutionary as Vertigo was, it shared with mainstream comics of the time (and, to some extent, now) a reliance on white voices telling stories about mostly white characters. In contrast, Mat Johnson’s Incognegro graphic novel follows Zane Pinchback, a light-skinned black man in the 1930s, who goes undercover as a white man in Mississippi when his brother is accused of the murder of a white woman. Partly inspired by the story of one-time NAACP chief executive Walter White, Incognegro represents Vertigo’s most sharply impressive exploration of race and racism in America.
DMZ, by Brian Wood and Riccardo Buccielli
A second American Civil War has left the island of Manhattan in a precarious position in this 72-issue saga: it’s the demilitarized zone between the forces of the United States and the secessionist Free States of America. Reporter Matty Roth arrives in the city under near-apocalyptic circumstances, as the Midwestern militia groups that instigated the conflict have gained moral ground against the US government and brought the conflict to a dangerous stalemate. Surely an exploration of a violently divided America could only ever be fantasy and in no way prescient…
Doom Patrol, by Rachel Pollack, Richard Case, and Stan Woch
One of the first wave of books to make the move to Vertigo, Doom Patrol got a new writer at the same time in Rachel Pollack, who built on the work of Grant Morrison (whose run was already legendary) and fearlessly took the series in new directions. Under Pollack’s watch, teenager Dorothy Spinner became the book’s focus as the team moved into a new headquarters populated by the ghosts of people who’d died in sex accidents. Pollack, herself a trans woman, introduced trans character Kate Godwin, an early and still rare example of a trans superhero. Though Doom Patrol existed before her and would continue after, Pollack’s two-year, 23-issue run left it forever changed.
Daytripper, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
Perhaps fittingly, our list ends with a book about death… but in a more meditative vein than some of Vertigo’s more horror-themed offerings. Obituary-writer Brás de Oliva Domingos is the son of a famous writer. Brás laments that his days are spent writing about death when he’d rather write novels about the living. The story visits the writer at various points throughout his life, one day at a time, meeting him first as a young man, then a child, and later an old man. Coupled with Moon’s stunning art, it becomes a lovely and poignant exploration of death—more low-key than some of Vertigo’s other offerings, perhaps, but no less powerful for it.
What books define Vertigo Comics for you?