Upon overseeing the creation of DC Comics’ celebrated imprint in 1993, Berger remained in her position, constantly striving to bring more sophisticated, adult and graphic stories to an audience that isn’t necessarily interested in reading comics involving capes and costumes. As Berger herself once said, her hope was that Vertigo’s titles would “do something different in comics and help the medium grow up.” As we look back on her legacy, illustrated by the critical acclaim, mainstream recognition and enduring popularity of so many of the comics published under her watch, it’s clear she achieved her goal.
After long — and sometimes heated — debate, members of the CBR editorial staff have settled on the following list of titles that we feel best represent Vertigo based on critical acclaim, commercial success and the series’ overall impact on the industry. Cutting the list off at 10 was certainly not easy, especially when discussing an imprint that’s published as many amazing books as Vertigo has, but we believe our list accurately represents the broad swath of Vertigo’s accomplishments over its 20 year history. We invite you to share your own list of Vertigo’s Top Ten in our forums.
10. Swamp Thing
“Saga of the Swamp Thing” (later retitled “Swamp Thing”) became a very different comic, exploring realms of magic, philosophy and existentialism. After learning his memories were essentially a lie, the hero had to re-establish where he fit in the world and whether or not he was even unique. Stories took a very dark turn, getting the book a “mature readers” warning. It became a place for DC readers who wanted a story of good and evil that didn’t also focus on superheroes (although Swamp Thing still crossed over with many mainstream heroes for years). There were also controversial censorship concerns, such as one issue being held back when it showed a time traveling Swamp Thing being the one to offer a cup of water to Jesus Christ on the cross.
Moore’s long run on Swamp Thing was DC’s first serious step towards mature reader comics, a movement that eventually begat the Vertigo imprint. It also led to the long-running spin-off series, “Hellblazer,” which eventually grew to be considered the imprint’s flagship title. Years after Moore left the series, “Swamp Thing” became one of the inaugural Vertigo titles with the release of issue #129 in 1993. Swamp Thing still made occasional connections with the mainstream DC Universe, such as when he attended Hal Jordan’s funeral or when he fought Batman villain Killer Croc, but for the most part the creature and his adventures stood separate from the DC Universe until his surprising appearance in DC’s 2011 event series, “Brightest Day.” The current “Swamp Thing” series, written by Scott Snyder, is firmly entrenched in the mainstream DC reality, though it certainly retains much of the Vertigo “flavor” associated with the character’s past stories.
9. Animal Man/Doom Patrol
A year after launching “Animal Man,” Morrison expanded his DC of DC’s second-string team books, “Doom Patrol.” After years of the team being portrayed as typical superheroes, Morrison brought it back to its roots as a group of misfits who investigated bizarre foes and off-kilter threats. New heroes included Rebis, a hermaphrodite amalgamation of the previous Negative Man Larry Trainor and his physician Eleanor Poole, and a living street named Danny. The team’s classic foe, the Brotherhood of Evil, was replaced by the Brotherhood of Dada, antagonists who opposed reason and order, with a teammate whose ability to manifest “every power you hadn’t thought of” was pure Morrison. Other menaces included the reality-bending Scissormen and a scientist who sought to better humanity through chaos and destruction. These stories drew the attention and appreciation what would eventually become the Vertigo audience. While “Doom Patrol” was one of the flagship titles of the imprint’s launch, the changeover took effect with issue #64, exactly one issue after Grant Morrison left as writer. Recognizing the importance of the groundwork laid by the writer, the collected editions of Morrison’s runs on both “Doom Patrol” and “Animal Man” carry the Vertigo label.
8. 100 Bullets
With gritty realism, intense emotion, conspiracy twists and memorable dialogue, the series, which never featured any chapter written or drawn by anyone but its co-creators, won several Eisner and Harvey Awards. There have been talks of a live-action adaptation and a few attempts at a video game, though nothing has seen fruition. Years after its final issue hit comic shops, people are still talking about the book. If you pick up the trades, take a moment to notice how each collection’s title is a reference to its numerical order.
Appealing to those who may not necessarily be sci-fi or even comic book fans, “Transmetropolitan” is a mix of commentary and satire that remains relevant today. Spider can be hilarious in a very non-P.C. way, and he can be absolutely heartbreaking the next moment. After all, the reason he fights so hard to bring the truth to people is because under all of his bluster and hyperbole, he does think there’s something worth fighting for, no matter how much the odds are stacked against him.
Since its inception, the series has been guided by numerous acclaimed creators, including Neil Gaiman, James Delano, Brian Azzarello, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Denise Mina, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Mike Carey, Richard Corben, Peter Milligan, Simon Bisley and more. Stories have featured parallel universes, vengeful demons, childhood trauma, drinking beer with the Lord of Hell, prison stories and the constant moral ambiguity of its lead character who will sometimes save the world and fight evil but almost invariably betrays his friends and lovers in the process. It reaches its conclusion with issue #300 while a separate, younger incarnation of John Constantine graduates from member of Justice League Dark to his own DCU-based ongoing.
5. The Invisibles
Intended to count down to the year 2000, delays meant the series’ last issue (which took place at the end of 2012) was not released until April of that year. During its publication, the title ran into censorship issues and threats of cancellation, inspiring other works and writers, including speculation that it may have inspired the Wachowski brothers’ Keanu Reeves sci-fi thriller “The Matrix” which Morrison himself has referred to as “plagiarism.” That the series has remained in print in various paperback collections and a single hardcover edition released in mid-2012, “The Invisibles” continues to be discovered by new fans years after the final issue’s release.
4. Y: The Last Man
While the series by writer Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra found acclaim among critics and fans alike — over its 60 issue run, the series won five Eisner awards for its exploration of the ideas of society, feminism, technology, empowerment, destiny and faith — its true importance to the Vertigo line may lie in the timing of its debut. When “Y: The Last Man” #1 launched in 2002, most of Vertigo’s flagship series had either ended or were coming to a close. Vaughan and Guerra breathed new life into the imprint, guaranteeing a new generation of creators a place to explore high-concept stories. If Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” is viewed as the seed that grew into Vertigo, “Y: The Last Man” marked a the birth of a second generation for the imprint, demonstrating its longevity and viability beyond the lives of its launch titles.
Over the course of “Y’s” run, Vaughn never presented readers with easy solutions to the questions he posed. Answers don’t come easy for anyone, and Vaughn’s story relied partly on what the reader brought to it. Even the title makes you wonder: Does “Y” refer to Yorick (which makes our duo “Y and &”), to the Y chromosome, or is it meant to ask “why” our hero is the last man? Maybe it means all of them, simultaneously.
For over a decade, Willingham has developed and nurtured the world of “Fables” through spin-off series and one-shots featuring character like Jack (known for killing giants, climbing beanstalks and jumping over candlesticks) and Cinderella (Fabletown’s chief secret agent and, at times, ambassador). Willingham also ventured into the world of prose fiction with “Peter and Max,” a story about Peter Piper, his wife Bo Peep and Peter’s brother Max. For many people who never read a comic book before, this series has been a great introduction to the medium.
“Preacher” was a modern-day western, a love letter to celebrities, political figures and various aspects of the United States presented simultaneously as a dark-humored satire of pop culture and a hard-edged commentary on religion and government. Whether they agreed with “Preacher’s” views or not, readers discovered an epic saga involving truly twisted villains and heroes who simply couldn’t bring themselves to give up.
Initially, Gaiman’s stories utilized many elements from the DC Universe. The first two storyarcs included appearances from known DC heroes and villains, and Morpheus’s cast was comprised mainly of previously existing characters. Dream’s servants Cain and Abel were the hosts of DC’s 1950-60s anthology titles “House of Secrets” and “House of Mystery,” two structures that Gaiman revealed actually existed in the Dreaming. Dream’s brother Destiny had previously appeared in an adventure with Superman, and Morpheus’s raven Matthew was eventually revealed to be the spirit of one of Swamp Thing’s dead allies.
But you didn’t need to know any of this to enjoy the series. Gaiman weaved these elements into his tapestry so naturally, it seemed as if they were all his own creations and had always belonged in his world of living nightmares and pumpkin-headed laborers. “The Sandman” was not merely about Morpheus or his family the Endless (the human personifications of the most powerful forces of the universe), it was about us. Over the course of seven years, Gaiman explored the nature of history, storytelling, sexuality, desires, sanity, family, love and loss. Rather than being an all-knowing, all-seeing god, Morpheus was flawed and often quite petty in the ways he treated people, yet he also brought incredible optimism and insight into the human condition.
Thousands of people who had never read a comic book in their lives became familiar with the world of “The Sandman.” The series’ collections and spin-off graphic novels landed on The New York Times bestseller list, and one issue, a story incorporating William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, won the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, leading to the rules being altered so that comics were no longer eligible for nomination. “The Sandman” proved how diverse the comic book audience could be, counting among its loyal fanbase not only males in their teens and twenties, but readers of all ages and genders.
It also led to many spin-offs, including the long-running “Lucifer” and a variety of miniseries and one-shots starring Dream’s siblings Death, Delirium and Destiny. Gaiman himself has written two “Sandman” volumes since the series ended, and is set to release a 25th anniversary hardcover story that acts as a direct prequel to “The Sandman” #1.
The series ran from 1989 to 1996, first as a DC Comics mature readers title, then helping launch the Vertigo imprint with issue #447. Gaiman’s deal with DC stipulated that the title series not continue under another writer’s pen when he departed, and with the release of issue #75, the series ceased publication. This level of creator control was unheard of at the time, but Gaiman’s deal paved the way for future creator-driven series including “Preacher,” “The Invisibles” and “Y: The Last Man.” Gaiman’s work on the series is so respected, other writers make a point to talk with him before using certain characters from his run in their DC titles. More than any other series, Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” illustrated what Vertigo has to offer and remains to this day the standard all other Vertigo titles are measured against.