Grunge Rock, Flannel, the Birth of DC/Vertigo, Whatever

Vertigo was a completely unprecedented break in the corporate backing of artistic creativity. But it needed the '90s to come into being.

See also “The Birth of Vertigo Comics Part Two

From a time when I can remember little more than flashes of fantastic images printed on a pulpy paper stock that would smear when wet and absorb light, comics have been a part of my life. It wasn’t long before superheroes started feeling old to me. At that time, DC’s Vertigo imprint brought a perspective and aesthetic that mirrored the tone of the new alternative grunge culture, even though most of the writers were from across the pond.

Today, the paper has changed along with the talent. Karen Berger, the person responsible for cultivating the talent that would change the face of comics, is no longer the editor for Vertigo. Today, Vertigo still prints stories that don’t belong in the same continuity as most of DC’s other properties. The only difference today is that Dark Horse, Image, IDW, and many other publishers have started publishing stories with a Vertigo feel.

When Vertigo started out, it wasn’t a completely new style. While it’s hard to say where it officially began, a key part of the origin story might be Heavy Metal and Marvel. Heavy Metal did something that caused Marvel to respond in turn with the Epic imprint which would publish two great stories: J.M. DeMatteis’ Blood: A Tale and Moonshadow. Later Vertigo would reprint both.

A little spooky, a little sexy and a little “other”, one thing I loved so much about the Vertigo line from the ’90s to the early ’00s, which I affectionately refer to as the Berger books, is that it seemed like anything could happen. There was something about the titles that was undefined and almost improvisational. But when you look back at the books that were coming out together, it’s obvious they were all meticulously cultivated in the same lab. There was something about reading those titles that felt dangerous and I don’t think it had anything to do with the presence of profanity or the occasional nude figures. It was the overall tone of the time, the cultural shift of the ’90s where teen angst didn’t only bond high school friends, it had a fierce presence in the beats of pop culture, fueling the movies, music, television and comics of the time.

At some point in the ’90s, cynicism, greasy hair, Seattle, torn jeans, flannel, black and white photographs, Kurt Cobain and the term “alternative rock” coalesced in an orgiastic marketing strategy. It birthed the term “heroin chic” live on MTV. It would be discussed on daytime television by men with slicked back hair and women in pant suits. This was the culture of the ’90s. This was the world Vertigo spoke to and of.

Hellblazer: Empathy is the Enemy by Mina and Manco, DC/Vertigo (2005)

It’s impossible to know how much of the general aesthetic of Generation X came from Seattle before being co-opted by marketers. Would acid-washed jeans and mismatched clothes have lasted and been as popular if the visually hypnotic media of television, film and magazines weren’t as common? Would “extreme” have been such a ubiquitous adjective? It’s not important to find an answer. What’s important is to identify the markers that created the aesthetic, the attitude behind the generation.

Or is the attitude something the generation was shown and then imitated? It’s a slippery slope with a chicken/egg dilemma. Disregarding the answer, if there actually is one, the look and feel of the extreme/grunge culture was everywhere in the ’90s. Two teenage characters from Rosanne, Darleen and David, not only dressed in the style of the ’90s, but cover the walls in the ’90s aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic found in posters of two comics that are benchmarks in ’90s comics: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and James Robinson’s The Golden Age.

With The Golden Age, James Robinson brought superheroes into environments where moral ambiguity takes the place of justice and absolute authority to examine characters with human flaws. These flaws dealt with drug abuse, guilt and power-hunger, similar to how Alan Moore used Charlton/DC characters in Watchmen. The Golden Age is a book that looks at the aftermath of WWII on the superheroes of that era. While the story doesn’t take place in the ’90s, it’s a perspective on classic heroes and the possible lives they lived after WWII that became popular in the ’90s. After all, how better to appeal to a cynical teenager, frustrated with recycled superhero stories, than to show him an alternate history where heroes are just as crooked as the people on color television, with cops that are caught beating unarmed men on the news and voyeuristic real-life scandals on Hard Copy? The book also launched Robinson’s version of Starman, which cast an actual member of Generation X in the lead role.

After taking a look at the characters of the past through a present tense perspective, Robinson had Jack Knight inherit his father’s Starman mantle to recreate the superhero in a modern and very ’90s fashion. With a leather jacket, blue jeans, tattoo and bad attitude that stemmed from the resentment of having to take on the role of Starman, Jack has to pick up the pieces from the mess his father left behind. While not a Vertigo title, the new Starman (along with titles like Hitman), gave readers a taste of the time by using characters that live in, look like and act like the ’90s. Similar to the flagship Vertigo titles filled with offbeat characters, Starman and Hitman (a character in an interracial relationship that virtually lives in a bar and kills people for a living) don’t play well with the rest of the toys in the chest.

Animal Man #57 Delano and Pugh, DC/Vertigo (1993)

Maybe Starman and Hitman don’t play so well with the other characters in the DC Universe (DCU) because they were new characters without 40 years of backstory to draw from. Maybe it’s because they were Americans created by men from the United Kingdom. While both titles are very different than the other superhero books being published in the ’90s, they couldn’t really fit in with Vertigo either. Starman and Hitman may have been the bad boys of the DCU, but Tommy Monaghan and Jack Knight only pushed the boundaries.

Vertigo, on the other hand, is the place boundaries would be beaten, broken and forgotten. While there’s a lot to say about what Vertigo did to comics, the point here is not to break down Sandman, The Invisibles, Shade, the Changing Man, or any other title. Instead, the purpose is to look at the general aesthetic, the visual and narrative tone, to show the ways the imprint mirrors and is an extension of the ’90s culture they reflect and capture. To look at the way the books were publicized, with their covers and advertisements.

Making comics that weren’t intended for children was not a product of the ’90s. R. Crumb and the rest of the Haight/Ashbury scene made that clear in the ’60s. But when ZAP came out, it was mostly found in head shops, not comic shops, and certainly not published by DC. The challenge Vertigo faced was in talking to a mature audience while the kids are still awake, grabbing the attention of readers that may be ready for something new and keeping readers that may be outgrowing superheroes by offering them something they hadn’t seen before they walked away from comics for good.

Textless cover, Preacher #1, by Fabry, DC/Vertigo, (1998)

For the most part, if a burning church was seen in a comicbook, it would likely be there to give a superhero the opportunity to save someone, to right a wrong and (no pun intended) play god by saving the lives of those in danger. It was a new sensation to see the image of a burning church on the cover of a comic. And to see on that same cover someone dressed like a priest smiling with hands clasped in villainous intent. The entire cover was painted, with realistic details stressing the believability. For this cover, the caricature-like images of superheroes are distant. When Glenn Fabry painted a cover for Preacher, it was clear the story behind the cover would be something you don’t see in superhero books.

A main theme Garth Ennis wrote about in Preacher was the role of certain elements in pop culture as artifacts of an American religion. Another theme Ennis explored was uncovering the horrors in American culture by digging under the surface. Those horrors are made perfectly clear in the first cover of Preacher, which is destructive, blasphemous, scary and begs the question of what kind of bizarre story and characters await. Not only would such a book and cover not exist on your average DC book, it wouldn’t look like this without the ’90s changing the cultural attitude towards censorship and what made for audience appropriate material. In the early ’90s, shows like NYPD Blue pushed the boundaries of what could air on television with its notorious reputation for broadcasting scenes with nudity (such as NYPD Blue) and realistic violence.

Ellen Degeneres made headlines when her character came out as gay. My So Called Life challenged how people viewed teenagers with a cast of high school misfits that questioned the motives and actions of their parents as easily as parents questioned their children. This was a family drama unimaginable to the audience of the Father Knows Best generation. While the shape of television was changing into something more similar to a movie, comics that were more like books started to fill comic shops with the Vertigo imprint. More importantly, these covers lacked the approval of the Comics Code Authority.

With the term “graphic novel”, comics were given a makeover that tried to make them get the public to think of them more as literary books with pictures in them. Still, comics are the books that beg you to judge them by their cover. The cover of a comic is the first point in advertising. If the cover doesn’t give a potential reader a good idea of the story that will be found under it, then it has failed.

The cover of a 400-page novel does not work the same way; it’s supposed to provide an image that generates a tone that reflects the story of the book in some way, while the blurbs on the back do the job of giving a reader a description of the story within. With Vertigo, an interesting phenomenon in comics happened, the covers didn’t always act like comic covers, at least not the way comic covers usually did. With Sandman #1, Dave McKean hints at what will be within. In a multimedia style that blended digital photography with original paintings and illustrations to form beautiful, rich imagery, McKean asked readers to dream about what could be in the pages of Sandman. This is a technique and style that McKean would repeat every issue of Sandman, adding to the mystery, allure and general tone of the book.

It would be this tone that gave Vertigo comics a distinct style, feel and general attitude. Those are the elements that Vertigo would use to advertise itself. Like the Frank Zappa and Velvet Underground albums in an older sibling’s record collection, Vertigo wanted to give readers stories they didn’t know comics could tell. Vertigo’s goal was to make its audience question how the horror genre worked while it cast a shadow of question on what comics were and could be. Looking at the advertisement featured in DC comics the month before “Vertigo” would be printed on the cover of Sandman, Shade, the Changing Man, Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, and Hellblazer, the flagship titles are given the element of danger with a black, white and red splash page that dares readers to take a look by asking the subconscious to fill in the hidden face with a mental image of itself.