The 13th Floor

From SWAMP THING to PREACHER: The History of Vertigo Comics

Karen Berger started working at DC Comics straight out of college in 1979. Smarter than most of her peers, and twice as dedicated, Karen was the assistant to Paul Levitz, who was a wunderkind himself. Levitz had spent the 70s building his name at DC, and would become one of the most important writers and editors in the company’s history. It was Levitz who would bring the British writer Alan Moore to DC, setting the stage for WATCHMEN. But before WATCHMEN, Alan Moore showed DC just what he could do with THE SAGA OF SWAMP THING. Swamp Thing’s comic was on the chopping block when Levitz convinced DC to let Moore take a crack at it. Moore reworked the character,  and almost overnight, the series became a sales success. The more mature aspects of the comic became a defining moment for DC, but it would take a while for the company to see it.

Karen, learned well from her boss. She knew that if you wanted to do something new, something different, you needed to look outside of the normal comics communities. DC and Marvel traded writers and artists like kids trade POKEMON cards, but the talent pool was limited, mainly because everyone was sitting in the pool and ignoring the ocean right next to them. In this case, that ocean was the Atlantic. In 1987, Karen took a trip to England to scout for talent. It was there that she met Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Peter Milligan. These three writers, under the careful eye of Berger, would become the foundation of Vertigo Comics.

2 Vertigo
Using THE SAGA OF SWAMP THING as evidence, Karen convinced the bosses at DC to take a chance on more adult oriented comics. This started with Neil Gaiman’s BLACK ORCHID, which took a little remembered Silver Age hero who was most famous for having a special origin issue that never got around to telling her origin, and brought new life to the character. Hot on the heels of BLACK ORCHID, Grant Morrison started his run on ANIMAL MAN. Morrison did his best to keep the comic in an all-ages safe space, but that didn’t last long. Over two years, ANIMAL MAN went from a pretty basic superhero comic to a series dealing with animal rights, eco-terrorism, and the concept of free will (Animal Man would come to learn that he was a comic book character and, in his last storyline, Grant Morrison would show up to apologize for everything he put the character through).

These books, along with Peter Milligan’s HELLBLAZER were all successes. Then the real boom dropped in 1989 when Neil Gaiman and artist Sam Kieth introduced the comic reading world to SANDMAN.

It is hard to explain the impact SANDMAN had on comics. The series followed the adventures of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, who had been held captive by a magician for decades. Upon escaping from his imprisonment, Morpheus must find the items that allow him to rule the Dream World. It took eight issues before anyone realized that Gaiman was changing the landscape forever. I’m not sure he really knew what he was doing. SANDMAN started off as a book on the outskirts of the DC Comics universe.. The first few issues have appearances by members of the Justice League and the first storyline deals with a well established supervillain. But that 8th issue, when we readers were introduced to Morpheus’ older sister, Death. Death was not what most of us would have expected in 1989. She was cute. She was Goth, with pale skin and dark eyeliner. You’d expect to see her at a Cure concert, not coming to take you to wherever it is we go after we die. In comics, in pretty much all of literature, Death was never happy, never smiling, but here was Gaiman’s version and damn if she didn’t love the living. She took pleasure not in her job, but in meeting people, in seeing what life is like for everyone. It was hard to believe that she and Morpheus were related, even though they looked a lot alike.

3 Vertigo
Gaiman’s SANDMAN became a smash hit not just in comic stores, but in bookstores across the world. The collections were making it onto the New York Times bestsellers lists. This was a serious serious smash hit for DC, and they wanted more. Even more important, they wanted Karen Berger to get them more.

So it came to be that Karen Berger and her crew of British writers started what was at first called the “Bergerverse”. These were the books that DC used to entice teens and adults who were moving away from superheroes, but still wanted to read comics. They were serious comics for serious minds. No tights, no sidekicks, and no bulging muscles. These were sophisticated comics.

The plan worked, and by 1992, the Bergerverse had found a profitable spot on the comic shelves. DC Comics had tapped into the indie comics market by ignoring their past and taking a chance. But still, some readers stayed away from the Bergerverse because of that big DC bullet on the cover. That logo was the essence of “standard comics”. That was the logo we all saw on SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS. No hip teens were going to pick up anything with those block letters taking up the upper right hand corner of the cover. Early in 1993, during an editorial meeting between Berger, Levitz, DC publisher Jenette Kahn and managing editor Dick Giordano, Berger was given the order to create a new imprint.

Vertigo Comics was born.

Vertigo had a simple plan, get the best talents in the comics world and let give them free reign. No longer needing to keep his series within the confines of the DC Universe, Gaiman took SANDMAN to the next level and planned out the series to a satisfying conclusion which would still be years away, and there was no editorial interference. Milligan got real weird with SHADE THE CHANGING MAN. Matt Wagner, who had made a name for himself in the indie comics world for his creator-owned series GRENDEL and MAGE, came onboard to write SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATER, a noir series based on the Golden Age Sandman.

4 Vertigo
Straight out of the gate, Vertigo was a critical success. The imprint hit at the right time, just as readers were looking for something new. It was far from the only new imprint to start in the early 90s. A year before Vertigo, Marvel’s biggest art talents formed Image Comics. In an attempt to bring more diversity to the comic shelves, another group of talented writers and artists formed Milestone. The b-level comic publisher Malibu Comics, who had been finding limited success with licensed comics like ROBOTECH and PLANET OF THE APES, started the Ultraverse and introduced their own superheroes (for a brief moment, Malibu became a bigger publisher thn DC). Valiant Comics, founded by former Marvel EIC Jim Shooter, moved from making comics based on Nintendo games to their own superhero universe, which was also a big success. Before the 90s were done, Milestone and Malibu would be gone. Valiant would collapse, but never fully disappear (and recently it has found renewed success in comic stores).

Through it all, Vertigo was the shining star. For a writer or artist to work on a Vertigo book was a badge of honor. Vertigo practiced profit sharing in way no other major company was. It allowed the creators to hold partial rights to their creations, giving writers and artists even more incentive to bring their best ideas to the imprint. This allowed Vertigo to find success after success. As Gaiman’s SANDMAN came to an end in 1996, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s PREACHER was just getting going, and with it came the second wave of Vertigo.

On a surface level, PREACHER is the story about a man, Jesse Custer, who finds himself with the ability to make anyone do anything he wants after he is possessed by Genesis, the offspring of an angel and a demon. When he is possessed by Genesis, Jesse learns the biggest secret in the world – God is real, and he abandoned mankind long ago. With his ex-girlfriend Tulip, and his new best friend Cassidy (who happens to be a vampire) Jesse goes on a hunt for God to make him pay for what he has done.

5 Vertigo
While Ennis and Dillon spent 66 issues (along with multiple special one-shots and a mini-series) telling the deranged, disgusting and often hilarious story of Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy, a quick digging reveals what the comic was really about – the lost generation. PREACHER is about the destruction of families, and the damage that causes. God is the ultimate father, and his abandoning his children has lead the world to the brink of armageddon. Jesse, the angry son, plans to make daddy answer.

PREACHER was a critical and commercial success on par with Gaiman’s SANDMAN. With PREACHER, Vertigo was able to reinvent itself as even more on the edge. After all, this was book that showed the bloodline of Jesus Christ kept hidden by the Catholic church, as well as pure through incestuous means. One of the series’ standout characters was Arseface, a teen who tried to kill himself after learning about Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but only managed to turn his face into… well, an ass.

PREACHER ended in 2000, and as sad as it is to say, Vertigo has been in decline ever since. The two biggest problems Vertigo has faced is a lack of a cross-over hit, and Image Comics.

This isn’t to say Vertigo quit producing amazing works.  Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: THE LAST MAN is, in my opinion, one of the greatest comics ever published.  Bill Willingham and  Mark Buckingham’s FABLES ran for over a decade, and spawned multiple spin-offs, not to mention rip-offs (I’m look at you ONCE UPON A TIME and GRIMM). But none of these titles hit the sales success of PREACHER. They never quite broke into the mainstream in the same way.

6 Vertigo
Part of it is because of Vertigo’s second problem. Early into Image Comics’ existence, creator Jim Valentino saw an opening in the market, the same opening Karen Berger saw when she created Vertigo. Valentino used his influence as an Image founder to publish more unconventional books. Sadly, because readers saw Image in a specific light in these early days, Valentino’s efforts failed. Still, he never gave up, and when he became Image’s publisher, Valentino created “Image Central” which allowed creators to publish their comics under the Image banner while keeping total ownership of their work. Where Vertigo would have the rights to a creator’s work, through Image, they were free to do with their properties as they saw fit. All Image would get in return is coverage of administrative costs.

When Valentino stepped down as publisher, Eric Larson kept the practice in place. While Image had yet to see any true successes from Valentino’s efforts, they were seeing more creators coming to them instead of Vertigo. In 2003, the work of Valentino and Larson would finally pay off big time with Robert Kirkman’s THE WALKING DEAD.  Almost overnight, THE WALKING DEAD was a hit with comic readers, though it would take the rest of the world a little while to catch on. These days, Image Comics is taking over more and more of the work Vertigo was known for.

After 20 years as EIC of Vertigo, Karen Berger stepped down in 2013. Shelly Bond, who was a part of Vertigo almost from the day it was born, took over Karen’s position. Sadly, she was unable to find the success Karen had found, though I believe this is due more to the rise of Image and not because of Bond’s own abilities. Last month, Shelly Bond and DC Comics parted ways. Her exit from Vertigo came as a shock to the comics community – Bond had just been announced as one of the people who would oversee DC’s newest imprint, Young Animal.

7 Vertigo
The future of Vertigo Comics, from the outside, is uncertain these days. It looks like DC is hoping that Young Animal will take over for the once edgy imprint. Two of Young Animal’s launch titles, SHADE THE CHANGING WOMAN and DOOM PATROL were launch books for Vertigo.

Whatever the future holds for Vertigo, its past will never be forgotten. As long as there are goth teens, SANDMAN will find an audience, and this Sunday we’ll see PREACHER coming to TV. Karen Berger changed comics forever, and for the better. Her legacy, and the legacy of Vertigo, will vibrate through comics until the end of time.

Bernie Wrightson
Mike Dringenberg
Steve Dillon
Dave McKean
Sam Kieth
Chris Bachalo
Glenn Fabry
Pia Guerra
Michael Zulli

*All Photos: DC Comics, Vertigo Comics


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