Note: Steve Bissette and I are teaching a course in contemporary comics history (Survey of the Drawn Story II, as it’s properly known). Our students are required to submit an essay, in blog form, on an aspect of contemporary comics history. They are restricted to the period of 1969 – present.
Today’s essay is by Carl Mefferd. Enjoy!
– Robyn Chapman
DC’s Vertigo Imprint
How Mature Comics Kicked my Ass
The early ’90s comics market was ripe for mature stories. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns made their impact in the ’80s and in time their darker, anti-hero mood permeated the industry. It was onto this stage in 1993 that DC editor Karen Berger spearheaded a new imprint out of the ashes of Disney’s failed Touchmark Comics. Berger had already head-hunted the bulk of UK talent that made up the British Invasion. It was these individuals that formed the core writers for Vertigo: Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Peter Milligan, Neil Gaiman and Garth Ennis. Vertigo’s first launch boasted such titles as: Swampthing, Hellblazer, Sandman and Shade the Changing Man. But in the following years many popular titles that fit the imprint’s tone and quality were brought on board. Vertigo continues to this day; publishing such acclaimed titles as: Y the Last Man, Fables and DMZ to name a few.
But you can look all that up on Wikipedia. What I really want to share is the experience of being a teenager introduced to Vertigo comics for the first time, and how they knocked my socks off.
I’m embarrassed to say I read Spawn as a kid. I saw other kids reading it so in perfect teenager tradition I followed the crowd. I thought it was ok, but never anything incredible. As I got older I started to feel like Image comics and the whole “grim and gritty” scene was shallow and overly commercial, like those market-driven re-brandings that try to make everything extreme and follow what the young people like.
I discovered Vertigo Comics through Moore’s work but really got into it via Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and Garth Ennis’ Preacher. Something about the tone and content was perfect for a disillusioned, moody teenager. It had a bit more intelligence than the angsty, macho fluff that Image produced, but still enough sex, drugs and violence to keep me hooked. Vertigo was to Image what HBO is to Michael Bay; still entertaining but with more substance.
But there was more to it than sheer titillation. Reading these books opened a window to an adult world I had yet to experience but was on the cusp of; full of real danger, despair and passion. They were often counterculture, attacking mainstream society, the government and organized religion, which was music to the ears of a young cynic like myself. In addition to being against the same things I was, these titles pushed for revolution, radical new ideas, and reflection. The heroes weren’t just strongmen but rather thoughtful individuals with their own beliefs often running contrary to the mainstream.
Ultimately Vertigo comics helped me fall in love with the genre and find my way to other more wholesome but still artistically beautiful titles. It also made me realize that adult content can be gratuitous but it can also help to tell more mature stories that would lose their impact if they avoided the inappropriate.
It seems that every generation of comic readers and consumers has particular scene that leaves its mark on their young, impressionable minds and opens the doors to what comics are capable of. One of the earliest examples was the horror comics of 50’s that veterans of the industry still talk about. Later it was the underground comix of the 60’s and 70’s; and in the case of me and other peers it was Vertigo comics in the 90’s. Though it has changed over time, the innocent image of comics often constricts the type of stories we think we can use it for. It’s not until someone defies the censors and makes full use of the word “graphic” in graphic novel do we realize there isn’t any story comics can’t tell.
– Carl Mefferd