A Sense Of Vertigo Returns For Japer

I’m beginning to swoon again.

No, it’s not my relatively minor fear of heights brought on by recently clambering up on some rickety scaffolding to shoo nesting birds away from the roof of the house nor is it my suspected slight inner ear infection, the exasperating remnants of last week’s flu. No, I have not been drinking much red wine lately and no, I have not recently fallen in love.

What’s caused my buoyant leap over our orbiting moon has everything to do with literate and fantastical storytelling and that notion’s relationship with Vertigo, the mature and sophisticated imprint of DC Comics.

Vertigo is the house that Karen Berger, editor extraordinaire, built in the late eighties and early nineties with titles like Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Sandman, and Preacher. She’s the individual responsible for giving writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and Peter Milligan the vehicle to tell the types of stories that had never been published in comic book format before. The comic book niche that Vertigo fits within and its inherent literary success led to further groundbreaking runs by writers such as Grant Morrison, Brian Azzarello and Bill Willingham on The Invisibles, 100 Bullets, and Fables respectively.

Something happened in the last few years, however. Something that was disappointing for all of those early readers of Vertigo comics.

For the most part, Vertigo, in the last decade, lost its magic and its sense of wonder. Sales slipped, titles were cancelled and the creators, those engineers of word and image that helped build Vertigo into the opulent castle that it was, left for other projects and other companies. The imprint, for many readers, lost its raison d’etre, subsequently losing its audience, withering away from the zeitgeist which is had created. The business climate, of course, did not help matters, and although there were still a few strong monthly titles being published, a new direction was required.

In the last year or so, Vertigo has released several creator-owned projects by names more often recognized in the independent scene but no less capable than the imprints founding fathers. The publisher has brought aboard these writers and artists and moved to compete more in the realm of the small, literary publisher. Under the Vertigo banner, readers have seen new works by auteurs such as Harvey Pekar, Paul Pope and David Lapham, while still providing a vehicle for rising stars such as Jason Aaron and Brian Wood among others.

Interestingly, Vertigo has also created a new sub-imprint dedicated to crime fiction that will showcase one-off graphic novels featuring both creator-owned stories as well as proprietary characters. In a bid to open up their market to bookstores everywhere, the first hardcover book in this line will feature Vertigo mainstay and Hellblazer star John Constantine, as written by famed Scottish novelist, Ian Rankin. Dark Entries, billed as a sinister detective story, finds everyone’s favourite occultist acting as a mole inside television’s hottest reality show.

Stalwart Vertigo crime writer Brian Azzarello returns with a story of his own too. Filthy Rich is the expectedly hard-hitting tale of a bodyguard for the rich and troublesome daughter of his boss. It promises to be gritty, sexy and action packed. Both books are scheduled to be released in August with more titles in the line on the way.

Part of the reason Vertigo fell from grace with readers was that when flagship monthly titles faulted or, indeed, ended, the replacements were not successful in tapping into the publisher’s “sophisticated” audience.

For every Fables, there was an Exterminators. For every Y: The Last Man, there was a House of Secrets. Although not poorly written or drawn, these titles never seemed to garner an audience. Readers did not rush out to their local comic shop to purchase each monthly issue as they did with Sandman and indeed, mainstream media no longer had interest in reviewing the titles or following the company.

The advent of the collected version of series in either soft or hardcover format took away from the interest of monthly instalments. This is an interesting paradox in itself. Generally, only successful sales of a monthly book will see that book collected, yet if readers wait on the collection, who would be purchasing the monthly title?

As mentioned earlier, there has been a bit of a renaissance for Vertigo of late and the monthly comic has not been excluded in that ascent.

Last summer saw the release of Matt Wagner’s magic-tinged Madame Xanadu, with spectacular art by Amy Reeder-Hedley, a newcomer to mainstream comics, known more for her manga-styled pencils in the independent arena. The series has sold reasonably well and has turned the heads of critics, being nominated for various awards including an Eisner. G. Willow Wilson’s Air has garnered the same attention as has Jason Aaron’s Scalped, a cop story set on an Indian reservation. Brian Wood’s viking saga Northlanders recently dedicated an entire issue to the scientific, second-by-second breakdown of Norse combat, illustrated sublimely by Vasilis Lolos.

These are the chances Vertigo is taking – once again triumphantly taking up a leadership mantle in comics, exploring areas of storytelling that have not been covered by the medium before.

A new crop of monthly titles aim to build on this momentum. Last week saw the release of The Unwritten, Mike Carey’s return to the publisher. The comic tells the story of Tom Taylor, the real life man who inspired a Harry Potter-type character of the same name, conceived and written by his long disappeared but still famous father. In a startlingly fresh first issue, the series looks to be a dialogue on the importance of story on humanity while a plot unfurls that speaks to historical locations and incidents and the fiction that represents these elements in story.

On the horizon are two titles I’m personally looking forward to. Peter Milligan’s Greek Street, a modern day re-imagining of the Greek tragedies is due out in July while award-winning Canadian writer/artist Jeff Lemire’s first on-going series for the publisher, Sweet Tooth, is released in September. It tells the fairy tale/science fiction-like story of Gus, a boy born with antlers and raised within the confines of a forest, who leaves his idyllic sanctuary, forced to travel through an incomprehensible outside world.

Vertigo has always been at their best when they’ve lived up to the name of the imprint – keeping audiences on edge, pushing them away from convention and into the realm of new ideas. With the return to a directive of groundbreaking story and art, Vertigo could very well see their old audience revisit them while building an entirely new one at the same time.

I’m sure many of us will be along this summer and fall for the coming swoon.

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