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The Bleeding Edge 

A decade ago, Vertigo started a revolution by making comics for adults

Wednesday, Feb 12 2003
It was supposed to be make-believe, a disturbing but ultimately uplifting work of science-fiction from a celebrated author of grim futurama and glorious fantasy. The subject matter of Orbiter, a hardback graphic novel about a spaceship that disappears for years and returns sheathed in skin after visits to faraway places in the final frontier, has been the stuff of film and literature for decades. Rare is the year that passes in which a crew of astronauts doesn't travel to Mars or wander aimlessly in space, awaiting rescue from someone who looks like George Clooney.

But Orbiter is that rare and accidental bit of lit in which the front page has caught up with the fantastical and rendered it almost pointless: The Orbiter of the book's title is a space shuttle that crashes back to earth after a decade missing in action. Its disappearance--the "final NASA disaster," as it's referred to in the comic book written by Warren Elllis--forced NASA to stop sending humans into space. Though it's all make-believe, written months ago, the book's dialogue sounds as though it were penned only last week, and its images--of a damaged shuttle streaking and smoking across clear daytime skies--look eerily familiar. "What's that noise?" asks a boy staring out at Cape Canaveral. "Something blow up back there? Huh. Heard something go boom." He turns to find the sky on fire.

Vertigo Comics, the adult arm of comic-book monolith DC Comics, has no plans to delay the hardback publication of Orbiter, due in June. (The book has already been ordered by retailers, which means it's too late to be withdrawn now.) Instead, Warren Ellis, creator of such revered titles as Transmetropolitan and Planetary, is writing a new introduction.

This is a situation Vertigo's executive editor Karen Berger never expected, because Vertigo's books, for the most part, do not take place in the real world. Sure, Marvel Comics, home to Spider-Man and Captain America, had to rethink its output after September 11, 2001, because its stories unfold entirely in Manhattan; the company spent much of 2002 putting its heroes at Ground Zero. But Vertigo's titles exist in imaginary states, surrealistic realms, hyper-exaggerated realities. Its titles are populated by shape-shifters and teen magicians, demon-chasers and fairy-tale outcasts, vampires and vagrants, futuristic journalists and anachronistic superheroes, comics-drawing gorillas and busty private investigators, sandmen and swamp things. For exactly a decade this month, Vertigo has been the place where writers and artists gather to chart the unknown and exorcise their demons. These stories could have been novels, screenplays or just bad dreams. Instead they are comic books too oddball for the mainstream, too conventional for the indie crowd--brilliant 'tweeners, in other words.

Reality, the kind replaying over and over on nightly newscasts, wasn't supposed to creep up on Vertigo. Least of all when the company is in the middle of a birthday party. (For a 10-year-old, Vertigo sure does smoke, drink, screw and curse a lot.)

"My vision was always the same," says Berger, who founded Vertigo after returning from a maternity leave in the early '90s. "I was never like, "OK, we have to do dark fantasy.' Or, "We have to do dark and nihilistic and edgy.' There was never sort of one flavor. I like to kind of use HBO as an example. You know, Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm are very different from Oz and The Sopranos. Each show has an edginess to them. So do our titles."

Vertigo officially launched in March 1993, though it already had been around--in spirit, if not in actual name--for several years. A decade earlier, English author Alan Moore started writing for an early-'70s creation named Swamp Thing, an unjolly green zombie who used to be a scientist till he was offed and dumped in the muck. Moore was the first Brit to write for American comics, and Berger, his editor at the time, liked that he was a grown-up writing for grown-ups, not some inner child stuffed like a sausage in superhero spandex. By '84, Moore's story had become so adult, in fact, the Comics Code Authority--the antiquated governing body left over from the days when Batman and Robin were branded by Congress closeted queens turning little kids queer--refused to give Moore's book its stamp of approval. So Swamp Thing went behind the counter, and the home of Superman was suddenly peddling books too mature in content for kiddies.

From Moore's Swamp Thing would come another adult DC title: Hellblazer, about a chain-smoking occultist in a trench coat named John Constantine, who moved from backstage to center stage in 1988 when Berger rounded up two more Brits, writer Jamie Delano and artist John Ridgway. By then, Berger had become DC's British liaison--its overseas talent scout--and she would return from her travels with suitcases full of crotchety Brits who would resurrect extant characters everyone at DC, and everyone who'd ever read DC, had forgotten about: Animal Man, Sandman, Doom Patrol and Shade, the Changing Man. It was like rock and roll's British Invasion all over again: When the Euros reconstructed an American art form, and American superheroes, in their own image, they seemed once more relevant, if not revolutionary. Len Wein, creator of Swamp Thing decades earlier, might have been Buddy Holly, but Alan Moore turned out to be the Beatles.

By the time Berger had stopped collecting talent, the way an 11-year-old collects comics, she wound up assembling a gang who would influence generations while remaining viable more than a decade later: writers Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis; illustrators and artists such as Dave McKean, Simon Bisley and John Ridgway.

"When I became the British liaison, I went out there with the purpose of, "I want to find writers who can think that same way, that really want to do different things than comics,'" Berger says. "These guys were new guys, they had very little published, and, you know, it was a gamble then. They used these DC characters as a backdrop to write stories about politics or relationships or environmental stuff or strange sex."

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky


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