Friday, February 17, 2006

Sophisticated Suspense -

A Jaundiced Look at Ten Thirteen Years of Vertigo

Part One

Many years ago, in the Pleistocene era when dinosaurs walked the earth and Milo George was still editor at The Comics Journal - an event that, much like the Clinton Presidency, helped to define a generation and also gave us fodder for many, many oral sex jokes - I wrote an article on the tenth anniversary of DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. Now, for various reasons this article never actually saw print, living a long life in the e-mail limbo of various editor's inboxes until, finally, I realized that the article was so long past it's shelf life as to be distinctly smelly. If you've been a writer for any amount of time in pretty much any capacity, you know that these things happen. Best just to move on with one's life - no harm, no foul.

But, the
other important part of being a writer is that you never throw anything out, in the hopes that any seemingly insignificant scrap of scribbling can one day be salvaged and put to good use. So, one day recently it occurred to me that I had a perfectly good article sitting in my hard drive that might be of some small interest the readers of this blog. Sure, it's slightly out of date, and there are a few instances of anachronistic comments that seem positively silly in retrospect - but unless otherwise indicated, the actual text has not been altered. It was especially interesting to see my comments - written almost four years ago, long before current conventional wisdom had solidified - pertaining to the birth of the trade papaerback economy and The Sandman's position at ground zero of said revolution, which somehow manage to seem both perspicacious and naive at the same time, if such a thing is possible. At a certain point old articles stop being embarrassingly out of date and become objects of historical interest - does this piece qualify? U-Decide!

So, for the foreseeable future, sit back, put up your feet, and imagine you're sitting in a different era. There's a Bush in the White House; we're all still
really fucking scared of hot Islamist death falling on us from a clear blue sky; giant crime-fighting cats roam northern Nova Scotia; and just forty years ago a group of four young moptops from Liverpool had emerged to help teach a country still grieving the death of Camelot to smile again. But most importantly, no one except for Neilalien had any clue what a "Blog" was, and certainly no one knew that people like myself would one day use the medium to terrorize a fearful nation with their warmed-over pseudo-journalistic leftovers. Enjoy!

DC’s Vertigo imprint celebrates its first decade of publishing this year. The line launched in January of 1993 with the publication of the first spin-off from Neil Gaiman’s successful Sandman series -- the first of two miniseries starring the Sandman’s sister, Death.

The initial announcement of the launch in July of 1992 did not pass unheralded, but in retrospect the event was assigned far less significance than it would eventually assume. Tucked quietly into the “Miscellanea” section of The Comics Journal’s 152nd issue -- alongside the announcements of a pending alliance between Eclipse Comics and HarperCollins and the firing of then Popeye artist Bobby London -- the announcement was both inevitable and underwhelming.

There were many more pressing events in the headlines of the day. The summer of 1992 was the high water mark of the “Image Revolution”. Forces across the industry, spurred on by the scent of Marvel’s blood, were gathering their armies for the battles that would become the bloodbaths of 1993. Few would remain unscathed as the industry entered a decade-long period of instability and recession, marked by brutal distribution wars, bankruptcies in the highest corridors of power, and mainstream creative lethargy of an almost apocalyptic nature.

But here we are, ten years later. There are many important questions to be asked about Vertigo’s eventful history to date, but the most pressing of them would have to be the following: How exactly was Vertigo able to use the economic and creative instability of the middle 90s to successfully position itself as the most influential imprint in all of mainstream comics? Traditionally, Vertigo books don’t sell anywhere near the top of Diamond’s sales charts. They don’t usually attract the “hot” artists and they don’t have the “hot” characters or licensed properties. Vertigo is, ultimately, just another arm of the Time / Warner / AOL conglomerate -- and the majority of their editorial aesthetic reflects this.

In art, a revolution is only as good as its marketing. There was no great tidal flux of creative combustion that demanded the creation of the imprint. There were, instead, a series of incremental creative advances made by isolated individuals within the DC hierarchy that necessitated the creation of new ways to market comic books. Its telling, given the paucity of truly important comics published in the mid-to-late 90’s, that the handful of good books that compose Vertigo’s foundations and backbone were enough to serve as sufficient catalyst to change the face of the industry.

Note from 2006: I think I overstate my case pretty critically here. As the rest of the article demonstrates, there's a subtle difference at play: Vertigo didn't actually change the industry; Vertigo was merely the first to move towards a series of changes in the existing retail model which seem, in retrospect, inevitable. The imprint has always been a much more quiet presence than their influence would imply. Certainly, he success of the line's aggressive TPB backlist and targeted marketing served as a catalyst for others to follow suit, but they only changed the environment around them to the extent that they needed in order to find a successful niche which had yet to be filled. Of course, this niche would eventually prove to be of enormous importance to the future of the industry, but by the time people realized this Vertigo had already been following a fairly steady blueprint for quite some time.

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