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Is the DC Universe Reclaiming Vertigo Characters?

According to gossip-lord Rich Johnston, the hammer’s finally fallen: After years of unsuccessful Vertigo reboots from guys like Brian K. Vaughan and Mark Millar to Joshua Dysart, Swamp Thing, alongside the myriad characters he brought with him to Vertigo’s side of the DC Comics Intellectual Property Divide, will be returning to the DC Universe. DC Comics had no comment on Johnston’s article, but if this is the real deal, then this would be a very Big Deal, and a sea change for DC Comics’s publishing plan in general, especially their relationship with Vertigo.

For a while, this seemed impossible due to DC’s editorial structure, with former Publisher Paul Levitz at the top of the pyramid, and fully in favor of separating their mature-readers and all-ages characters into separate brands that never intersect. Below him, he had Karen Berger of Vertigo and Dan DiDio of the DC Universe line; these were two separate but equal lieutenants who had full control over their own domains and no control over the other’s.

So as long as that kind of editorial structure was in place — and as long as Levitz was on top — this was going to remain the status quo, and remain it did; while Dream appeared in Grant Morrison’s “JLA” and the end of Keith Champagne’s “JSA” #80, and Swamp Thing had a cameo appearance at Hal Jordan’s funeral, for the most part the barriers between Vertigo and DC have been incredibly difficult to tear down. The only reverse migrants are Animal Man and Doom Patrol, where the latter was always a superhero ’60s team that got thrown into Vertigo almost by accident, and the former was allowed to return to DC due to the involvement of Grant Morrison.Levitz, of course, has since stepped down and DiDio has been promoted to Co-Publisher along with Jim Lee. If there is an plan to bring these characters back into the DC Universe fold, would that editorial decision simply be a matter of principle — that DiDio feels that these characters were always rightly DC’s, and now that he has the corporate muscle to move around, he’s going to do it? Or does someone else have immediate plans for them?

Back in May 2008, when they first announced J. Michael Straczynski’s run on “The Brave and the Bold” (which finally began in fall 2009), JMS was talking up his desire to do team-ups with Constantine and Swamp Thing, characters that were, at the time, totally outside of the DCU sandbox, especially since this was long before the corporate restructuring that left DiDio on top. I’m also fairly sure Straczynski wasn’t the only writer who wanted to get his hands on these characters.

The most interesting thing about this, however, is the way Johnston phrases the new edict: “Any character that came from the DC Universe can and will be used by the DC Universe.” If true, this includes a huge group of characters. Johnston names Prez and Black Orchid, but that’s a definition that not only includes John Constantine — who currently has his own 260+-issue-and-going ongoing at Vertigo — but also all of Neil Gaiman’s Endless, as well as, by extension, all of “Sandman” and Mike Carey’s “Lucifer.” Considering he is made out of pure will, I expect we’ll see the Devil himself wearing a Green Lantern ring by the end of 2011.

This would be a gigantic sea change not just for DC, but for Vertigo as well, since the rumored cancellation of a China Mievelle run on “Swamp Thing” implies that this isn’t just adding DC characters, but subtracting Vertigo ones. Where this leave “Hellblazer” is a mystery; “Unknown Soldier” just got canceled for sales reasons, leaving Matthew Sturges’s “House of Mystery” as one of the two last DCU-derived ongoing books at Vertigo. (“House of Mystery” features Cain and Abel.)

This also reconfigures the two lines — now, rather than the divide being all-ages/mature readers, it would be a very clear work-for-hire/creator-owned divide. DC probably isn’t too concerned about Swamp Thing being too mature for DC readers considering their current output features a superhero (somehow, magically) hallucinating on heroin and saving a dead cat from an alleyway of junkies. The transition to the DCU proper might mean a lost F-bomb here, some covered nipples there, but for the most part any “mature themes” that used to be Vertigo-only are fully explorable under the DC imprint at this point.

Meanwhile, Vertigo will be without company-owned properties, or their tried-and-true methodology of hiring young talents to do radical, ground-up reinventions of disused DC properties — a paradigm that birthed both the British Invasion of the late ’80s and Vertigo itself in the first place. They’ve long since shed the pretense of being a line of dark fantasy and supernatural horror, putting out crime dramas like “100 Bullets”, sociopolitical sci-fi epics like “Y: The Last Man” and glo-fi superhero insanity such as “Seaguy.”

Really, this would just make official what everyone already knew: the DC Universe is for work-for-hire, and Vertigo is for creator-owned work.

So where would this this leave Vertigo? Minus some of their starting characters, but still publishing reams of evergreen trades as well as big-name creator-owned titles like “Scalped” and “The Unwritten.” DC would get the chunk of itself that was removed in the early ’90s returned, albeit to a very different body. I expect we’d see a deluge of these characters in the DC Universe itself, as writers who’ve held back the floodgates of Swamp Thing/Green Lantern crossovers got to finally let loose; time will only tell if any of those stories will be any good.

And as for Vertigo’s favorite boy, John Constantine, and his book “Hellblazer”? A character tied into the DC Universe enough to be in “Crisis on Infinite Earths”? Well, I just hope he gets to wrap up his run satisfactorily.

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