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Comics

The Birth of DC/Vertigo Comics Was a Messy One

John Tamarri

In the '90s, Vertigo was a brand new day for comics, completely unprecedented. It celebrated grunge and alternative music. And then it became embraced by the mainstream.


House of Secrets Omnibus

Publisher: DC/Vertigo
Length: 752 pages
Writer: Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen
Price: $39.99
Publication date: 2013-04
Amazon
Amazon
See also "The Birth of Vertigo Comics Part One"

Rebelling Without a Cause

Using alcohol, cigarettes, mysterious masks, John Lennon's sunglasses and an ankh, Vertigo caught the eyes of people in comic shops. Partially because of the newness of their titles, but mostly because the intrigue that Vertigo wrapped their books in. With an artistic approach that was different from anything seen until then, titles like Hellblazer, Sandman Mystery Theatre, and House of Secrets would attract young adult audiences that were quickly becoming a cultural mainstay.

By taking on characters and titles from DC's history, Vertigo reworked the mythology to appeal to a new group of people that most likely never heard of those titles, or couldn't afford to read them. The comics boom of the '90s created collectors out of fans when comics from the '50s through '70s were selling for five figures or more. But the fad of looking at comics as investments would end soon enough. As soon as the people buying three issues of the new number #1 figured out that Golden and Silver Age books only sold for such high prices because of their scarcity. The surviving copies of original titles Vertigo was bringing back were expensive and trade paperback collections weren't as popular.

With the new House of Secrets and Prez offering different looks at old characters and titles, and Sandman Mystery Theatre taking a much darker look at the classic character fans were familiar with, Vertigo made it clear that it was publishing books that had never been seen before, comics that gave a reader with predictions "a good hard kick in the assumptions".

Originally the title of a horror anthology that debuted in the '50s, House of Secrets would see publication in 1996, but this time the title would introduce an entirely new high concept. Vertigo Editor-In-Chief Karen Berger decided to re-appropriate the original title and hand the creative reins over to series regular writer Steven T. Seagle and regular artist Teddy Kristiansen. House of Secrets advertised itself with the question, "Can you keep a secret?", warning readers that their "unspoken truths" would "become dread realities in a court of supernatural horror". The image that accompanies this text shows a teenage girl with a sharp knife in her hand and grungy clothes on her back. Standing at the top of a crooked staircase, with a scowl on her face, her and her background are drawn in the jagged, sketchy style Teddy Kristiansen would use to keep readers uneasy.

The advertisement is as unsettling as it is compelling, and also hints at the story of a female protagonist. Since comics were mostly advertised to a male audience, it was a gamble to make your lead character a teenage girl. But this was Vertigo and the aesthetic of the ad would capture a tone that worked perfectly for a horror comic. With the new faces Vertigo was giving to comics, and the success of The Sandman, the number of female readers was increasing. With Sandman's little sister, Death, personified in a female form, The Sandman was attracting new readers, many female. The series would also get a bump from Tori Amos who mentioned the book and its writer in her songs. New readers were coming because comics were showing different worlds than the familiar ones where women mostly wore bikini-like costumes. Instead, comics started showing people fictions based in the world they lived in, a setting that reminded them of their own lives.

House of Secrets wasn't the only title that sought to update the past. Twenty years after Prez Rickard became the first teenage President, Ed Brubaker wrote Prez: Smells Like Teen President. It was a title adapted from a Nirvana song, one of the most recognized songs of the time. Prez is shown on his cover standing on a car filled with bumperstickers. If generation X wasn't excited to read a story about politics, they might be interested in a character that likes the same bands they do. Check the bumper stickers; Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana, these bands were royalty of the alternative airwaves. With its cover alone, the new Prez could have excited kids to go out and rock the vote, just as MTV told them to.

While changing up the past to suit the present is a creative approach that was successful for the books mentioned above, as well as Peter Milligan's Shade, The Changing Man (which lasted for 70 issues), nothing would speak to a generation that tried so badly to separate itself from the previous generations like a brand new cast of characters that would speak their language while trying to create a new one.

With an advertisement for the first Invisible collection, a series of silhouettes build a layer of mystery around the characters with text that promises "the ultimate conspiracy", in a time where The X-Files used the same topic to much fanfare. With a neon hand grenade acting as a period on the corner of the ad, it's hard to know exactly what The Invisibles will be about. Even after reading and rereading it, it could be hard to figure out exactly what The Invisibles is about. Still, it's the mod style of the characters, the idea of what exists in the shadows and the grenade painted in explosive colors that suggest this is a different kind of story about a new type of team.

Tunnel Vision

The new wave of commercial comicbooks on shelves in the '90s brought superheroes that were younger and acted like it (Starman, Hitman). Spider-Man may never hit his 30s, but he'll also never hit a rebellious chord, and Vertigo titles aimed to change the atmosphere of comics altogether. The aesthetic and tone that Vertigo used was so well defined that the Vertigo feel would become easily identifiable and imitated like any other successful brand. More than something that would be found and discussed between the walls of comic shops, titles like The Invisibles and Sandman would get written about and reviewed in popular youth culture magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone.

Even something as mainstream as the Washington Examiner couldn't help but get on the bandwagon to discuss Vertigo when it said: "Vertigo Comics is by far the HBO of the comic-book world". While fans and comics journals had been talking about the dream project of turning Sandman into an HBO series ever since HBO adapted Spawn for TV in 1997 (making it even more gritty, violent and dark than the original) it's no less true when the Washington Examiner says it and Vertigo uses it in an ad printed in a 2007 issue of Hellblazer.

Like HBO, Vertigo created a style that was identifiable and imitated. It's hard to imagine cable TV putting out shows like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy if not for The Sopranos. When Vertigo became popular, other publishers were paying attention. The variant cover for the first issue of Gen 13, is as much an homage to Dave McKean, and the style he used on all of the covers of Sandman and The Dreaming. It was maybe a way to get readers to give the book a second look and wonder what story rests behind the cover. Mixing photographs with painted and drawn images (a technique known back then as "multimedia"), cover artist Joe Dunn imitates McKean's style with precision while also making it eerily reminiscent of Twin Peaks.

This cover may have been a way to attract the same audience as Vertigo readers, but Gen 13 was trying to cast a wide net when advertising its superhero team of generation X characters. With 13 variant covers, the artwork parodied images of the '90s, including a famous cover of a recent issue of Spider-Man, a poster of the movie Pulp Fiction and the Janet Jackson cover of Rolling Stone. If nothing else, when Gen 13 ripped off of Vertigo, it was obvious that the imprint had made something recognizable, big and popular enough to steal. Reinventing comics for an American audience, it was clear Vertigo wasn't just publishing comics, it had officially turned into its own brand.

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