The (somewhat) recent news that Karen Berger was resigning as Executive Editor of the venerable DC imprint Vertigo sent my mind spinning down the 20+ years of my own comics reading history. I wasn't around for the beginning of Vertigo, but Vertigo was certainly around for me, and blasted the spandex covered blinders that I had worn as a teenager into splinters, forever changing my expectations for, and love of, comics. When I first heard the news about Berger a few months ago, it felt like that journey had come to an unceremonious end, and this piece, every time I imagined writing it, felt as much an obituary as a celebration. Subsequent events have given me a bit more hope; the imprint is not being dissolved, the highly qualified Shelly Bond has agreed to take on Berger's leadership position, and the promise of continued relevance for the otherwise moribund DC comics is flickering, but not extinguished.
So, let's stick with the celebration part. I won't say goodbye (as I had planned to do), but those multitudinous memories, now aroused, will crowd around my brain until I release them into the wild. There are a lot of them.
As I mentioned above, I had comics tunnel vision as a teen, exclusively reading many of the same characters and titles that remain popular today: X-Men, Wolverine, Punisher. DC, for me, meant Superman, convoluted time lines and alternative universes, and an occasional odd duck like 'The Omega Men'. Beyond that, I had little idea that other publishers even existed. As I grew older, I turned to novels and movies to fulfill any desire for more challenging, more adult fare. The 'Born Again' story in 'Daredevil' was the apex of literary merit in comics for me at the time, and I lacked the imagination or faith to realize that I was trundling around the foothills of a Mount Everest of quality, variety, and ambition. Don't get me wrong: I still love and appreciate Born Again, but still, c'mon. Tip of the proverbial iceberg.
I quit comics. I thought comics had quit me. I thought they had nothing more to offer me as I entered my high school years. It was true that the X-Men had nothing much more to offer me at that point, but comics? I was like a near-sighted man imagining that the horizon lay at the boundaries where my own deficient vision began to blur.
Several years later, when I was in my early twenties, I was working in a T-shirt shop that had plenty of T-shirts, but very little shopping. I would have read cereal boxes to pass the time, it was so boring. As luck would have it, instead of cereal, a co-worker of mine brought in a few comic books, and among them was the first issue of Sam Kieth's 'The Maxx'. Yeah, I know: not Vertigo. But it led me to Vertigo, and quite quickly, because it showed me a few very important truths that I had somehow been oblivious to: not all comics were DC/Marvel, not all comics were superheroes, artwork didn't all look the same, and most importantly, comics could still speak to me.
Let's skip the part where my stupid brain led me down the well worn grooves of my complacency, and the first few comics I bought to rekindle my fizzled interest were, wait for it: X-Men, Wolverine and the fucking Punisher. They were as puerile as ever (in fact, in the early '90s, they were quite a bit worse than they had been before), but fortunately, I didn't stop there. I went to a comic shop, and I discovered 'Sandman'.
What. The fuck. Is this? I had never seen anything like it, or read anything like it. The first half dozen issues I bought were the only half dozen issues this little Things From Another World (different name then, I think) had in stock, so they were scattered all over the place, and part of several different story lines. Nevertheless, I was blown away, even out of sequence. Dream's twinkling eyes glaring out at me from the cover of #50's Ramadan. Delirium's elliptical, fascinating nonsense in crooked letters disarranged inside rainbow word balloons. Gaiman and Allred telling the nothing-like-comics-I-knew story of Prez. In those half dozen issues I saw half a dozen completely different stories, and ways of visualizing a story, and I couldn't have been more awestruck if I had discovered gravity for the first time that day.
That day I also became a collector of comics for the first time. Not the Ebay, encase my books in slabs, debate the difference between 9.4 and 9.6 kind of collector. No, for the first time, I cared about having all of the issues of a comic book series. I'd always been content before to buy them as I found them, skipping around, scattered issues of even my favorite series. Not only was I determined to buy and read every issue of 'Sandman', but I was willing to pay premium prices to obtain them. Not because I thought they'd be worth more some day, never because of that. Because of the STORY. I've never been addicted to drugs, but I know what it's like, because, damn it, THE STORY.
And thus 'Sandman' became, to borrow another common addiction term, my gateway drug. To other comics, yes, eventually. But in those days, the blinders were hanging in tatters, but were not yet blown completely off, and I started my trip into broader awareness by checking out a ton of other Vertigo books: Milligan & Bachalo's 'Shade, The Changing Man', Wagner, Seagle & Davis' 'Sandman Mystery Theatre', Ennis & Dillon's 'Hellblazer'. Not everything resonated, of course; the trippier, metafictional series like 'Doom Patrol' and 'Kid Eternity' felt like attempts to deconstruct those superhero comics I had so recently read unironically, and were boring, distancing and pointless to me. I wanted new worlds, new genres, not old ones turned on their heads.
Shade did have elements of that, of course. For me at least, the fusillade of ideas didn't overwhelm the narrative, and most importantly, the characters. At Vertigo, Peter Milligan soon became perhaps my favorite writer. 'Enigma', 'Face', 'The Eaters'... all brilliant. And that leads me to another of the sea changes that Vertigo wrought on my relationship with comics: creators mattered. Before Vertigo, I didn't know or care who wrote and drew the books. I did know that Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli were responsible for Born Again', but that was just about the only comics story that had motivated me to check the credits page. After Vertigo, the writers and artists of the books I cared about would be my primary (sometimes only) barometer of interest in future titles. I can't imagine things any other way, now. Vertigo was not about creating strong concepts, and then milking them generation after generation with a parade of differently talented craftsmen, all working on the same canvas with their different tools. Vertigo was about creation, about experimentation, about discovery. It wasn't about doing the best you could with what you were given. It was about creating the best thing you could to give life to your own ideas.
Vertigo has been around for as long as I've been reading comics as an adult, and it's been as consistent or more as any other creative force over that time period. There have been the messy "failures" along the way: 'American Virgin', 'Air', 'Loveless', 'Greek Street'. It's a testament (that's another one, actually: 'Testament') to the consistent quality and ambitious nature of Vertigo's titles, and Karen Berger's stewardship, that even those titles I haven't, as yet, gotten into still hold some measure of appeal for me. There are very few Vertigo titles I have written off completely.
And then there are the successes, and there are a lot of them. Much has been said and written about a Vertigo "house style," but when I think about the diverse lineup of Vertigo titles I've enjoyed over the past two decades, the only commonality I see is a somewhat nebulously defined (at least by me) commitment to quality. The retro cool of the two 'Terminal City' series and the future cool of Paul Pope's '100%' and 'Heavy Liquid'. The wordless urban fable 'The System' by Peter Kuper. Gritty crime dramas like 'Scalped' and 'Luna Park'. Kyle Baker's particular brand of madness. Steve Seagle's personal and affecting Superman story. G. Willow Wilson's magical realism. David Lapham's dance on the razor's edge. Mat Johnson's historical dramas. If you're a Vertigo reader, in the space of this paragraph, you've probably thought of several favorites I haven't mentioned. It's a staggering list, by any measure.
The road that Vertigo set me on twenty years ago has since developed many forks and branches. If Vertigo disappears tomorrow (a causality of low sales and corporate priority shuffling), there would still be a hundred different routes to the destination of vital, exciting graphic stories. No matter the relevance Vertigo will have to my comics reading future, there is no mistaking its importance to my past. The first comic I ever pre-ordered was published by Vertigo ('Mr. Punch'). The only long running series I have read in their entirety are Vertigo series. Vertigo didn't just unlock the door for me, it ushered me in and guided me through the landscape of this brave new world. Thank you, Karen Berger, and the thousands of other dedicated and creative folks who have treated their readers with respect, and their work as an art form.