The Bleeding Edge

A decade ago, Vertigo started a revolution by making comics for adults

It was supposed to be make-believe, a disturbing but ultimately uplifting work of science-fiction from a celebrated author of grim futurama and glorious fantasy. The subject matter of Orbiter, a hardback graphic novel about a spaceship that disappears for years and returns sheathed in skin after visits to faraway places in the final frontier, has been the stuff of film and literature for decades. Rare is the year that passes in which a crew of astronauts doesn't travel to Mars or wander aimlessly in space, awaiting rescue from someone who looks like George Clooney.

But Orbiter is that rare and accidental bit of lit in which the front page has caught up with the fantastical and rendered it almost pointless: The Orbiter of the book's title is a space shuttle that crashes back to earth after a decade missing in action. Its disappearance--the "final NASA disaster," as it's referred to in the comic book written by Warren Elllis--forced NASA to stop sending humans into space. Though it's all make-believe, written months ago, the book's dialogue sounds as though it were penned only last week, and its images--of a damaged shuttle streaking and smoking across clear daytime skies--look eerily familiar. "What's that noise?" asks a boy staring out at Cape Canaveral. "Something blow up back there? Huh. Heard something go boom." He turns to find the sky on fire.

Vertigo Comics, the adult arm of comic-book monolith DC Comics, has no plans to delay the hardback publication of Orbiter, due in June. (The book has already been ordered by retailers, which means it's too late to be withdrawn now.) Instead, Warren Ellis, creator of such revered titles as Transmetropolitan and Planetary, is writing a new introduction.

Warren Ellis' Orbiter, due from Vertigo in June, remains on the schedule; how could DC know reality would crash upon fantasy so tragically?
Warren Ellis' Orbiter, due from Vertigo in June, remains on the schedule; how could DC know reality would crash upon fantasy so tragically?

This is a situation Vertigo's executive editor Karen Berger never expected, because Vertigo's books, for the most part, do not take place in the real world. Sure, Marvel Comics, home to Spider-Man and Captain America, had to rethink its output after September 11, 2001, because its stories unfold entirely in Manhattan; the company spent much of 2002 putting its heroes at Ground Zero. But Vertigo's titles exist in imaginary states, surrealistic realms, hyper-exaggerated realities. Its titles are populated by shape-shifters and teen magicians, demon-chasers and fairy-tale outcasts, vampires and vagrants, futuristic journalists and anachronistic superheroes, comics-drawing gorillas and busty private investigators, sandmen and swamp things. For exactly a decade this month, Vertigo has been the place where writers and artists gather to chart the unknown and exorcise their demons. These stories could have been novels, screenplays or just bad dreams. Instead they are comic books too oddball for the mainstream, too conventional for the indie crowd--brilliant 'tweeners, in other words.

Reality, the kind replaying over and over on nightly newscasts, wasn't supposed to creep up on Vertigo. Least of all when the company is in the middle of a birthday party. (For a 10-year-old, Vertigo sure does smoke, drink, screw and curse a lot.)

"My vision was always the same," says Berger, who founded Vertigo after returning from a maternity leave in the early '90s. "I was never like, 'OK, we have to do dark fantasy.' Or, 'We have to do dark and nihilistic and edgy.' There was never sort of one flavor. I like to kind of use HBO as an example. You know, Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm are very different from Oz and The Sopranos. Each show has an edginess to them. So do our titles."

Vertigo officially launched in March 1993, though it already had been around--in spirit, if not in actual name--for several years. A decade earlier, English author Alan Moore started writing for an early-'70s creation named Swamp Thing, an unjolly green zombie who used to be a scientist till he was offed and dumped in the muck. Moore was the first Brit to write for American comics, and Berger, his editor at the time, liked that he was a grown-up writing for grown-ups, not some inner child stuffed like a sausage in superhero spandex. By '84, Moore's story had become so adult, in fact, the Comics Code Authority--the antiquated governing body left over from the days when Batman and Robin were branded by Congress closeted queens turning little kids queer--refused to give Moore's book its stamp of approval. So Swamp Thing went behind the counter, and the home of Superman was suddenly peddling books too mature in content for kiddies.

From Moore's Swamp Thing would come another adult DC title: Hellblazer, about a chain-smoking occultist in a trench coat named John Constantine, who moved from backstage to center stage in 1988 when Berger rounded up two more Brits, writer Jamie Delano and artist John Ridgway. By then, Berger had become DC's British liaison--its overseas talent scout--and she would return from her travels with suitcases full of crotchety Brits who would resurrect extant characters everyone at DC, and everyone who'd ever read DC, had forgotten about: Animal Man, Sandman, Doom Patrol and Shade, the Changing Man. It was like rock and roll's British Invasion all over again: When the Euros reconstructed an American art form, and American superheroes, in their own image, they seemed once more relevant, if not revolutionary. Len Wein, creator of Swamp Thing decades earlier, might have been Buddy Holly, but Alan Moore turned out to be the Beatles.

By the time Berger had stopped collecting talent, the way an 11-year-old collects comics, she wound up assembling a gang who would influence generations while remaining viable more than a decade later: writers Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis; illustrators and artists such as Dave McKean, Simon Bisley and John Ridgway.

"When I became the British liaison, I went out there with the purpose of, 'I want to find writers who can think that same way, that really want to do different things than comics,'" Berger says. "These guys were new guys, they had very little published, and, you know, it was a gamble then. They used these DC characters as a backdrop to write stories about politics or relationships or environmental stuff or strange sex."

For a while, American creators griped that DC had given the keys to the kingdom to foreign hordes. There used to be a joke circulating among the creative community: Hire an English actor to pitch your idea, because Vertigo will buy anything in a British accent.

"It was a bunch of America-hating English writers writing in the American landscape," says a sorta-joking Howard Chaykin, co-creator of American Century, a pulp-noir about a man named Harry Block who fakes his death and disappears into the Cold War's crannies. Vertigo will also publish Chaykin's Barnum, in which P.T. Barnum's circus performers and sideshow freaks become a sort of team of super friends.

"When I went there, I was anticipating more heat and grief from the editorial department and getting less than I expected," Chaykin adds. "Remarkably little, and that was very cool. Generally speaking, my complaint about my own work is that I tell people exactly what I'm going to do, and when I do it they're always shocked. At Vertigo, they said, 'Do what you want,' and [American Century co-creator David Tischman and I] did it and came up with a book we really liked. We got very little negative reaction, very little, 'You can't do that stuff,' and the you-can't-do-thats were stuff so outrageous we were like, 'Yeah, of course, we can't.' That was the big issue: Vertigo gave us an enormous amount of freedom and let us run with some really wacky ideas."

The Vertigo sensibility existed long before it had a brand name: The shit was deep, dark, weird, surreal, unreal, undead. It wasn't just comics for adults, but lit majors, pot smokers, devil worshipers, Goth fetishists, New Age followers. It trafficked in gore and mysticism, fairy tales and freak shows, the autobiographical and the comical, the macabre and the magical. Gaiman's Sandman sprang from dusty Greek mythology and ancient folklore and Shakespearean tales and old DC comics; Morrison's Animal Man was a vegan superhero; Milligan's Shade transformed intangible thoughts into concrete things. If you think all this too far-out, too dopey save for the most active burner, upon the release of The Matrix in 1999 many comics insiders believed it little more than rip-off of Morrison's The Invisibles. And J.K. Rowling's prepub bespectacled wizard bears more than the passing resemblance to Gaiman's Tim Hunter, star of The Books of Magic, which debuted well before Harry Potter's most fanatical fans were even born.

Still, reminds Roger Sabin in his seminal book Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels, for all its influence, Vertigo at its inception "was undoubtedly successful--but not that successful." DC rarely profited from the line the way it did with such stand-alone titles as Frank Miller's Batman redo The Dark Knight Returns or Moore's subversive superhero tale The Watchmen. "As the 1990s progressed," Sabin wrote, "adult comics increasingly seemed like a false hope--at best, a cultish sideline." And comics retailers will tell you Vertigo books don't keep them in business; Superman and Spider-Man are propping open the doors, not Garth Ennis' Reverend Jesse Custer (the offspring of heaven and hell, literally) or Ellis' crusading journalist Spider Jerusalem.

Though its titles sold by the hundreds, or dozens, Vertigo's influence could be felt throughout the industry; Marvel's recent Max line, in which old heroes curse and much worse, looks like Vertigo at its inception, and Vertigo's editors have been lured away to competitors wanting their own adult comics. And for every dozen titles that went unloved and unread, Vertigo still published the occasional breakthrough must-read, including Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets, which debuted in 1999 and dealt with a man named Agent Graves offering people a shot (or 100) at redemption with a briefcase containing an untraceable gun and ammo. Azzarello, who is resurrecting DC staple Sgt. Rock for Vertigo this summer, notes that when he first pitched 100 Bullets, Vertigo passed.

"If Agent Graves was the devil, then it wouldn't have taken two years to get it started," he says, with a small laugh. "One thing that's really nice about working for Vertigo and why, as long as I am doing comics, I will do probably the majority of my work for them is there's a lot of freedom to tell the kind of story you want to. I could have taken it somewhere else, but I wanted the muscle of Vertigo behind it. I could have gone independent, and it would have lasted three or four issues--maybe."

Last year, Vertigo spawned two surprise hit titles: Brian K. Vaughan's Y--The Last Man, in which every male on earth save one dies; and Bill Willingham's Fables, in which fairy-tale favorites, such as Snow White and Big Bad Wolf, are expelled from their fantasyland and exiled to New York City. These days, the first issues of both titles are selling for as much as 10 times their $2.50 cover prices; rare is the week that their authors don't get calls about a movie deal. (Warner Bros. and DC are owned by AOL Time Warner, so guess who gets first crack.) Why both books succeed outside the comic-book locker room is no surprise: Y reads like classic Twilight Zone, as Yorick Brown and his pet monkey stumble across a dude-free wasteland in search of Yorick's girlfriend, while Fables drops storybook staples into the modern world. Unlike most Vertigo titles, you get them instantly--no translation, or hallucination, necessary.

"The funny thing is," says Willingham, "I didn't think it was what Vertigo wanted, because they want that kind of edgy, counterculture kind of thing. I don't consider myself edgy or counterculture, and this was going to be more of a kind of personal-look-at-the-world kind of book. I just happened to mention it in passing. I told my editor, Shelly Bond, a little bit about it, and that's how it ended up at Vertigo. Now there's not really a Vertigo-style book. You certainly don't have to be a disillusioned British writer to work for the imprint anymore."

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