Vertigo: A Guide to the Dark Side of the DC Universe

Explore a more fantastical side of the DCU.

Sandman art by Frank Quitely
DC Comics

Any comic book fan who spends much time exploring DC's back catalog will inevitably discover the Vertigo imprint. Vertigo is easily the most famous and sprawling of DC's various comic book imprints. This mature readers-focused label has been host to some of DC's most critically beloved series - Sandman, Preacher, Y: The Last Man. The list goes on and on. And if you're not familiar with the Vertigo universe yet, it's high time for some comic book education.

The History of Vertigo

Vertigo officially came to be in 1993 and was the brainchild of editor Karen Berger. However, the origins of the imprint stretch back about a decade before. Beginning with books like Saga of the Swamp Thing, The Sandman, Doom Patrol Vol. 2, and Animal Man, DC had begun focusing on telling darker stories aimed at older readers. Rather than telling traditional superhero stories, these books focused more on genres like fantasy and horror. These books featured many of the biggest names from the British comics scene in the mid to late '80s, including Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan and Grant Morrison.

It was Berger who finally united these various ongoing series under the Vertigo umbrella. Her vision for Vertigo was a place where DC's creators could tell stories with adult-oriented content that didn't need to adhere to the strict requirements of the Comics Code Authority. Basically, a place for readers who didn't mind comics with profanity, intense violence, sexual situations and all the other things you won't generally find in a Superman comic. Early on, Vertigo's lineup focused mainly on horror and fantasy stories, but it quickly expanded to include all manner of genres - science fiction, crime, satire, even the occasional adults-only superhero comic.

Many of the early Vertigo comics took place in the same shared universe. Characters like John Constantine, Swamp Thing and the cast of Sandman all shared the same world and crossed paths from time to time. Technically, these characters existed in the same DC Universe as heroes like Batman and Superman. However, over time DC developed a habit of keeping the two groups separate (mainly out of a fear of exposing younger readers to characters and comics not suitable). That persisted until 2011, when the New 52 reboot folded the Vertigo characters back into the larger DC Universe.

While the early Vertigo line was driven by DC-owned properties like Hellblazer and Swamp Thing, Vertigo also quickly became a haven for independent, creator-owned comics. These indie projects weren't a part of the larger shared Vertigo universe, but existed in their own little worlds. Two early examples of this were Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Preacher and Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson's Transmetropolitan. Though wildly different in tone and style, these two books helped cement Vertigo's reputation as a place for progressive, challenging comics that weren't afraid to push the envelope or offend readers. Considering the generally lousy quality of mainstream superhero comics in the late '90s, Vertigo was a breath of fresh air for many readers.

Thanks to the success of books like Preacher and Transmetropolitan (and the end of the long-running Sandman), Vertigo began to focus more and more attention on creator-owned series. The imprint became a sort of proving ground for new and emerging creators, many of whom have become some of the most popular voices in the industry today. For example, in 2002, writer Bill Willingham and artist Lan Medina launched Fables, a fantasy series that wound up running for 150 issues and became a franchise unto itself. In 2003, writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra debuted Y: The Last Man, a much-beloved post-apocalyptic tale about a world with only one remaining man. Those books were followed by other beloved series like Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera's neo-Western Scalped and Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque's American Vampire.

Vertigo Today

Vertigo was a dominant force in the comic book industry for many years, but the imprint has seen a decline in sales and general popularity in recent years. Part of this is due to the aforementioned decision to roll franchises like Hellblazer and Swamp Thing back into the DC Universe proper. Between that and the recent conclusion of Fables, Vertigo has come to rely on creator-owned comics almost exclusively. However, the imprint faces increased competition in that arena from rival publishers like Image Comics. Another blow came when long-standing editor Karen Berger left DC in 2013.

Berger was replaced by Shelly Bond, who spearheaded a major relaunch of the Vertigo brand in fall 2015. Vertigo launched a dozen new comics over the course of three months. Of these, only one focused on a pre-existing Vertigo character (Lucifer) and the rest were creator-owned titles. Some of the more memorable titles in this relaunch included Gail Simone and Jon-Davis Hunt's horror series Clean Room, Tom King and Mitch Gerads' war drama Sheriff of Babylon and Rob Williams and Michael Dowling's dark social media satire Unfollow.

While the critical response to these new series was generally positive, none have resulted in significant sales success for the struggling imprint. As a result of these sluggish sales and the general upheaval going on as DC prepares for their DC Rebirth relaunch in summer 2016, Bond's position was terminated. For the time being, DC Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee will assume direct control of Vertigo.

What that means for the venerable imprint remains to be seen. Will Vertigo continue to be a crucial piece of DC's publishing lineup, or is Bond's termination the beginning of the end? It's impossible to say now. But considering how many classic comic books Vertigo has delivered over the past two decades, we can on;y hope that there's more greatness to come from this dark corner of the DC Universe.