Thertigo – Vertigo Comics at 30 (1/12/23 Day Thread)

Logo designed by Richard Bruning

On January 12, 1993, Vertigo Comics imprint launched with “Death: The High Cost of Living #1”. A bunch of DC’s Magic and Horror titles had been going since the late 1970s at DC as their Weird books helmed by Dick Giordano and then Karen Berger with a stable of mostly British creators and started in earnest with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing in late 1983. By the late 80s, they had a batch of Mature Readers books with Berger as Editor and a bunch of upstart publishers and other DC Imprints like Paradox Press (which basically got re-named Piranha around the same time Vertigo happened).

House ad for Marc Hempel’s “Gregory” from Piranha Press. December 1992

The line also had some roots in the planned Disney Comics line “Touchmark”, which would have been overseen by DC-Vertigo editor Art Young. It was promoted at the 1991 San Diego Comic Con but the budget never went through and several of the planned books ended up published under Vertigo instead. You can read some more about that from Letterer & Designer Todd Klein here

In the months leading up to 1993, DC sent out promotional “Sampler” booklets and 75 cent “Preview” ones with excerpts from the first batch of Vertigo books along with an original Gaiman & Kent Williams Sandman story.

Early Promotional Booklets
Vertigo Sampler minicomic sent as a promotional book to stores in late 1992. I don’t actually know what’s in this one
Vertigo Preview booklet sold for 75cents on New Years week 1992/3. Front and Back Cover.
Interior of Vertigo Preview, note from Karen Berger.
Page from Gaiman & Kent Williams’s original Sandman short story in Vertigo Preview.

By the mid 1990s, Shelly Bond (then Roeberg) was running a lot of the day-to-day and answering Letters to the Editor. Shelly and Peter Milligan were the people with the most output I think of as “Vertigo Comics”. The opening line was continuing 5 titles and launching a couple new ones every month. Vertigo started out with a “brand” of mostly urban-fantasy & horror, but got its own lines, branding and even sub-imprints through the 90s doing Science Fiction, crime and more DC tie-ins. In 2009 they even had a line of Standalone B&W Crime Noir graphic novels sort of affiliated with “Hardcase Crime”

If I had to say what they were going for with this first month of books, ordinary people running into something Weird and being unable to deal with it for a couple pages, then jumping right in.

Karen Berger left DC in 2013 and Shelly Bond took over the line. But after she left (or maybe got fired, I don’t remember? I blamed Gerard Way’s vanity imprint “Young Animal” at the time) in 2016, it didn’t really have any direction. Swamp Thing and Constantine had returned to the DC Universe proper by 2011 and by the late 2010s most of their titles were being published under new imprints like “Black Label”, “Sandman Universe” or “Young Animal”. Berger’s tried to start up new publishing lines at Image and Dark Horse with some fun titles, and Bond did a “Black Crown” imprint at IDW that really felt like the same Vertigo projects (with some of the same people, like Milligan) as she’d been overseeing decades ago, but they both had some good titles. I think COVID and compounding economic strains on publishing cut off Black Crown along with Vertigo itself in 2020. Berger’s line at Dark Horse is still going, but I haven’t ready any of them in a while.

Lucifer vol 4 #13. Cover by Tiffany Turrill. One of the last DC books to be published with the Vertigo banner in late 2019.

Every Month’s new titles had an “On the Ledge” briefing in addition to individual books’ Edtiors’ replies to fan mail. Just from Karen Berger at first, but then whatever writer or editor they wanted to be promoting something Coming Soon.

The first 2 months of Vertigo On The Ledge, both written by Karen Berger along with a list of what was coming out.

I’d say the Vertigo imprint was a bigger step for Branding than it was for storytelling. The characters of Swamp Thing and Sandman wouldn’t really cross into Mainstream DC Comics much, and give-or-take a Batman cameo DC Characters didn’t show up in Vertigo books like they had in the late 80s but other than that, ongoing remained unchanged for that first year or so. I think they started dropping F-Bombs around late ’94.

Mature Readers Dark Magic stories weren’t exactly “Groundbreaking” by then either, even for big comics publishers. Ambrose Bierce- as a character in Phil Foglio’s “Stanley and his Monster” mini from the months Vertigo launched, even gives a rundown of the John-Constantine-Style Trenchoat Magician guidebook.

Ambrose Bierce explains the Constantine Style. Phil Foglio’s Stanley and his Monster #2. January 1993.

But they were certainly promoted. Sandman was already well-known after things like the World Fantasy Award win for Midsummer Night’s Dream in 91 and merch like shirts & watches. I don’t know if there were ads outside comics, and couldn’t find any in what few Marvel books I scoured out from November-December 1992, but DC was flooded with full-page house ads in between Funeral for a Friend and the Batman vs. Predator TPB with Some TV show called Time Trax on the back covers.

House Ads from issues of Shade and Hellblazer November 1992-February 1993
Inside Back Cover
Subscribe to these DC Books today, because in 3 weeks they’ll be Vertigo books instead

They even had Promotional Signing Tours outside the regular Convention schedules, making a big deal out of Flying Creators in from Britain who honestly probably lived in New York or L.A. by then anyway

I wonder how many of these stores are still open? I know the tour & a lot of Vertigo promotion was coordinated by Capital City Comics Distribution, which folded in the mid 1990s

And the vertigo got better press from critics than a lot of other new comics of the time. Not that many people remember Darkstars, Hammer Locke, Scarlett or The Hacker Files.

The Comics Journal #155. Cover by Dave McKean.

Giordano, Berger and Young talked a lot in those days about how Cool and Different they were than the rest of the junk of 1993 superhero books. How much of that they meant or how much was really true is something you’d have to judge for yourself reading them.

They published 17 original books and 1 reprint in those first 2 months; launching 2 new minis in January and 2 new monthlies in February. I had re-read Death, Hellblazer #63 and Shade #33 kind of by accident last fall before realizing the Vertigo Anniversary was coming up so I decided to keep it going, borrow the couple I didn’t have and do a big Retrospective of the line I grew to love like 11 years after it was cool.

If you want to read more, MisterSplendiferous did a nice writeup for his Comics Chat a couple years ago here:


Death: The High Cost of Living #1-2
Death: The High Cost of Living #1-2. Covers by Dave McKean

Death: The High Cost of Living #1-2 – If Vertigo has or had “Goth Cred”, this is a big part of it. Bachalo did a few other Vertigo books, but this was probably his most famous. A “Death takes a Holiday” style spinoff of Sandman about his older sister the personification of Death. There’s a couple references to previous issues of Sandman.

The month before, in the titles’ last issues at DC there was a safe sex PSA with Death that’s often collected with “High Cost of Living”.

‘Death Talks About Life’ AIDS & Safe Sex PSA by Gaiman & Bachalo.
Animal Man #57-58
Animal Man #57-58 covers by Brian Bolland.

Jamie Delano and Steve Pugh (with some Scott Eaton & Russ Braun) had a double-sized issue the previous month to wrap up their “Flesh and Blood” arc, with the Life Web (AKA The Morphogenetic Field and The Red) birthing Buddy a new body after he spent some time as a Chimera. The next couple issues are the Bakers trying to settle back into Normal Life and they’re all the ugliest “We’re doing this because we can” excesses of Mature Readers comics. Buddy and the kids go to a mall, scare everybody and wreck the place while Ellen goes to visit her friend in the city and they both get abused and assaulted constantly for 20 pages. None of the art is from Pugh & John Higgins is too impressive for me. Lots of stuff in Ellen’s story about how The City is the REAL Jungle, man. This one had a hard time finding its footing when it stopped being a Superhero book and I’m surprised it got past #40 in 1991, much less 30 more issues as a Vertigo title.

Animal Man #57 by Steve Pugh
Enigma #1-2
Enigma #1-2 covers by Duncan Fegredo

Chock full of Milligan Weirdness, and maybe a little more jarring than Shade’s because it had just started. I first read Enigma out of the boxes in maybe 2004 and didn’t get it at all, but Duncan Fegredo’s art looks cool. These first 2 issues give us an outstandingly boring Everyman, a Masked Mystery who might just be a living Mask and a couple of weirdo villains who were meant to be thought up by a trashy 70s comic written by a hack for beer money. This one was a mini, so they start hinting at the cyclical end/beginning on page 1, with some violence by a well in Arizona and a lot of significant lizards. I borrowed the new “Definitive Edition” for Enigma which has a lot of pages of Fegredo trying to justify his “bad” art in the first 2 issues by saying he had gotten used to painting instead of penciling in the early 90s. Apparently Milligan thought up a quick excuse at a con panel in Texas in 93 claiming the art was supposed to start Rough to match the audience’s confusion. It’s a whole-big metanarrative but the biggest question I’m left with this time is why do they only mention the Writer of the in-universe Enigma comics and not the artist?

Enigma #2 by Duncan Fegredo
Hellblazer #63-64
Hellblazer #63-64 covers by Glenn Fabry

Again, not really Breaking Stride with Ennis’s run as it was, but #63 might be my favorite single issue of the batch. Steve Dillon draws John’s 40th Birthday with a bunch of his friends, some from earlier DC and Hellblazer books and some that Garth had just created and retconned in like they’d always been with him. He pees on The Phantom Stranger, smokes some Swamp Thing with Zatanna and generally acts irreverent towards the old DC books they came from before a drunken warning of Things to Come from the original Spirit of Saturnalia. Acts as a nice “hold onto your hat, things are about to get REALLY weird” pitch for Ennis’s run, Vertigo and the rest of the 1990s all at once.

Hellblazer #63 by Steve Dillon
Sandman #47-48
Sandman #47-48 covers by Dave McKean

he book was in the middle of ‘Brief Lives’, after Dream and Delirium had tracked down their lost brother Destruction on his Island. Jill Thompson was drawing this one, and there’s a great watercolor 2-page spread in #48 that foreshadows a funeral we’ll see later in the book. I know the story is that Gaiman wrote the entire outline in a single rained-in weekend but by #47 some specific panels of the series’ ending were in place.

Sandman #47 by Jill Thompson.
Sandman #48 by Jill Thompson
Shade the Changing Man #33-34
Shade the Changing Man #33-34 covers by Chris Bachalo

Chris Bachalo (with some fillin art in #34 by Glyn Dillon that I’d swear was Phillip Bond) was back on interior art and now Painted Covers after a kinda pretensions fill-in arc drawn by a sliver-agey Colleen Doran. A New Starting Point by way of Shade getting another new body. This arc dealt a lot with Pain as a Process, and #34 opens with a line I love: “If Mozart had been a torturer (and how do we know for sure he wasn’t…)”

The book moves into the 2nd or 3rd big “era” of the book when Shade, Cathy and Lenny move into a Weirdness Magnet Hotel.

Shade #33 by Chris Bachalo
Shade #34 by Chris Bahcalo. I’d say the only thing published in these first couple months that might really give a reader Vertigo.
Swamp Thing #129-130
Swamp Thing #129-130 covers by Charles Vess

Alan Moore, Rick Veitch and John Tottelben had left by the 1990s. Nancy A Collins and Scot Eaton were in the middle of an arc that kind of read like a Re-tread of earlier Saga of the Swamp Things, with Swampy and Abby being hassled by the Sunderland corporation and the government. There was also a previous plant elemental Lady Jane, who’s as much an avatar of Collins as The Green.

Lady Jane Collins in Swamp Thing #129 by Nancy Collins and Scot Eaton.
Doom Patrol #64
Doom Patrol #64 cover by Brian Bolland

The start of Rachel Pollack’s run. Also had the hard job following up Grant Morrison’s with its ending. She started by dragging Dorothy Spinner back into the “real world” under the care of Dr. Will Magnus. There was a time I liked this run more than Morrison’s, probably because it was even weirder & harder for me to find- I heard they finally put it in one expensive Omnibus HC last year after promising and cancelling TPBs for at least a decade- but I can see why most people say this first storyarc with Case still on art is in Grant’s shadow.

Doom Patrol #64 by Richard Case
Sandman Mystery Theatre #1
Sandman Mystery Theatre #1 cover by Gavin Wilson

Matt Wagner, who’s kind of made a career since out of Pulpy Year One stories, and Steven Seagle doing a book with the Original Golden Age Sandman Wesley Dodds, featuring lots of Gritty Period Realism, meaning on-panel bigotry and child abuse. Still, the Guy Davis issues and their nightmare sequences with the occasional editorially-mandated Morpheus cameo look great. I can’t provide a letters page for this one because I got it signed by Wagner and lost it in separate bar trivia wagers.

Sandman Mystery Theatre #1 by Guy Davis
Books of Magic TPB
Books of Magic TPB 1993 Vertigo printing designed by Richard Bruning.

The DC miniseries that I never get tired of telling people Harry Potter ripped off, collected in 1 volume. All 4 issues’ art is great, even the ones I’m not a big fan of (Scott Hampton) are well suited to their story. I think the Vess issue is my favorite.

Books of Magic #2 by Scott Hampton
Mercy oneshot
Mercy cover by Paul Johnson

Mercy – A standalone Graphic Novel from JM DeMatteis and Paul Johnson, I can’t concretely find if this was out the end of February or beginning of March 1993 but it’s listed on all the Vertigo Launch Promotional material. Vertigo went on to re-print a lot of JM DeMatteis’s 80s work at Marvel/Epic like Moonshadow and Blood: A Tale. DeMatteis gets pointed to a lot as a writer of Spiritual comics and this one certainly fits the bill: A dying guy astral-projects around the world to see a bunch of human suffering but understands that Mercy (the character, the concept, both) needs Suffering to be present.

Mercy painted art by Paul Johnson

The book is all really well painted by Paul Johnson, who did a Computer Hacker title I’ve never heard of right before this, Some 2000AD for a few years and then according to Wikipedia left comics to become an acupuncturist. Go figure.

A couple of DeMatteis’s script pages from the Dover Books reprint of Mercy (“Shade the World”). I don’t know if these were written for Disney-Touchmark or DC-Vertigo?