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Getting Vertigo: Why the DCU Should Reclaim Its Characters

There’s been some speculation regarding the DC imprint Vertigo Comics these days, which with the revelation that British sci-fi/fantasy dervish China Mieville’s “Swamp Thing” proposal was scuttled, supposedly due to plans to bring the mossy one back into the straight DC universe. It got fired up when co-publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee answered a couple of questions in an extensive interview for CBR, and the blogosphere has been abuzz with questions about the imprint’s future. (That’s what the blog I read told me.)

From what I’ve seen – and keep in mind my quest to read as few blogs and comment threads as possible – the reaction has been a mix of sedate and/or missing the point entirely and guessing which characters should be reclaimed. “Screw Shade, son. They need to bring back Constantein for realz.” If the rumors are indeed true, if the speculation has a strong base in reality, then Vertigo may possibly be approaching something of a crossroads. Though creator-owned titles have always been a hallmark of the 17-year-old line, it began, and built its backbone around characters borrowed from DC proper.

Animal Man and Doom Patrol have been reabsorbed back into the DC fold, and Christopher Chance, the Human Target, has been nudged into his own corner of fictional reality so as not to conflict with the FOX television series. Could Swamp Thing, Shade, and chainsmoking magus John Constantine be that far behind? If so, what does that mean for Vertigo?A friend of mine once told me that Americans invented things, and the British perfected them. He was talking about music, and he was exaggerating, but it’s a clever thing to say at parties. I decided long ago that if I were ever invited to a party, I would say the same thing about comics. And I would be clever.

The British Invasion – ours, the one in the eighties and with comics? – led directly to the founding of the Vertigo imprint. Alan Moore is fond of saying that he forced its creation, that DC created a line just to copy what he was doing. That’s an oversimplification at least, not to mention egotistical and a dick thing to say about talented friends. But it’s fair to say he provided the spark. After his literate approach had made “Saga of the Swamp Thing” and “Watchmen” crossover successes, DC decided it was time to scout talent in Britain. In 1987, Dick Giordano and Karen Berger crossed the pond, and recruited Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Grant Morrison, and Peter Milligan. Like Moore, their comics were smarter, darker, and more sophisticated than mainstream comics dared to be.

But they were still mainstream. Technically. They worked mostly with previously established characters in the DC canon, had to fit their stories – at least roughly – in the mesh of major events in the DC universe for several years. In fact, many of the books now considered classic Vertigo were completed or well in progress before the line was actually created. By the time of it’s inception in 1993, the first wave of the invasion was well over. “The Sandman” had been running for four years. Grant Morrison had wrapped up his tenure on both “Animal Man” and “Doom Patrol,” and great hairy Alan Moore had long ago given DC that two-fingered English equivalent of the finger. I mean, think about how bad the finger is. And then double that. That’s how not working for them he was. So why the creation of the line?

The official story is that DC created Vertigo specifically to go after new audiences, that its intent was to expand comics readership overall. There’s a lot of truth to that. A lot, and if it really was their specific intent, way to go. As in “The Sandman,” though, there are more truths than one. (I know, that was way too easy.) Truth number second: DC acquired the rights to unpublished properties from a Disney venture called Touchmark, which included completed books by a couple of Brits, and the publisher suddenly had a backlog of original material. By 1993, pretty much everything the Brits and proto-Vertigo were doing had officially gotten the “mature readers” stamp, and that vertical band down the left side was a handy way to corral anything that could be offensive. And everything down the line had been edited by Karen Berger, including Moore’s “Swamp Thing” and all the other pre-Vertigo additions. Her track record was already astounding. Why the Christ shouldn’t she have her own goddamn line?!

It was only after the branding that the lines of separation between universes became clear. They had named it, and names have power. Just like in “Sandman.” (Two for two!) It was a thin line, definitely. But previously established characters moved to pockets of DC unencumbered by mainstream continuity. The first official release, “Death: The High Cost of Living” took place in a world that seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with Earth-1. It was official, and if you were smart, burned out on action poses, and trying to justify ever reading comics again, it became the bridge that carried many young readers into a greater appreciation of comics overall. Vertigo slid over the boundaries like a shadow, and introduced a 15-year-old me to the wider wonders of the form — not just in its own publications, but in teaching/allowing me to seek out and appreciate independent, alternative, and unconventional comics. I can’t be the only one.

If DC main is truly out to take back all its characters, it’s doubtful that it would tank the line. It’s truly disappointing to hear that China Mieville was supposed to be writing “Swamp Thing,” as he’s one of the most interesting and certainly the most primal voice to emerge from fantasy in years. But the only title left from Vertigo’s formation is “Hellblazer.” “Swamp Thing” was canceled years ago. There’ve been several attempts at Swamp Thing books since the gory heyday of the eighties, none of them very successful. Creator-owned has been buttering the bread at Vertigo for over a decade, from “Preacher” to “Y: The Last Man,” with “100 Bullets,” “Fables,” “Heavy Liquid,” “Scalped,” “Transmetropolitan” and way too many more to list. Creator-owned, finite, and good.

But for every one that we could list, I’m sure we could come up with at least one good creator-owned title that was canceled too soon. David Lapham’s “Young Liars.” Steve Gerber’s “Nevada.” “The Minx” by the brilliantly reunited Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo? “The Invisibles” was in such danger of crashing Grant Morrison asked readers to have a wank over it. (Long story.) Even in the mega-embrace of DC it’s difficult to keep a creator-owned comic going. The well isn’t nearly as full as it was in the early nineties. And a lot of what’s filling it is people who wait for the trade, or just grab a torrent. We’re all supposed to be going digital anyway, right?

Perhaps it’s right that DC reabsorb a few characters. Mainstream comics are generally more mature than they were back then, primarily because of, ya-huh, Vertigo. The British Invasion had a decade to settle in, and the majority of the industry grew up to the beats of Gaiman, Morrison, and Moore. It seems almost barbaric to quarantine characters these post-Crisis Brightest Days. We are mainstream comics, and we contain multitudes.

It seems even more fitting that Vertigo make a complete commitment to creator-owned titles. Whatever happens (probably nothing, making this article a complete waste of time), Vertigo should always be a priority for DC. Company properties or creator-owned, Vertigo is the portal to the underground; the metaphorical road that travels from the world of superheroes to literary and art comics. It bridges the gap between mainstream and independent, and it affects them both. A Soft Place.

Just like in “The Sandman.”

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