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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Now 25, DC Vertigo Relaunches With a New—and Old—Mission

For comic book fans, Vertigo Comics (now DC Vertigo) will forever be the line that gave them Sandman, Fables, Y The Last Man, Preacher, and dozens more. When the "for mature readers" imprint launched in 1993, writers like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison found not just a foothold, but a place to explore their creativity in ways that hadn't been supported by mainstream comics publishers. It changed the landscape—then, in the last few years, slowly faded, ceding ground both to the MCU-fueled superhero boom and to dynamic creator-owned publishers like Image Comics.

Starting today, though, everything old is new again.

DC Vertigo is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a fundamental relaunch that takes the line in new directions—while honoring its original intentions to publish, in the words of 1993’s Vertigo Preview, comics that are “reflective of the times […] challenging, disturbing and creatively singular.”


“One of the jobs of an editor is to ask yourself, ‘Should we publish this?’” says Mark Doyle, who last year rejoined the imprint as executive editor after running DC’s Batman line. “I think it’s in the DNA of DC Vertigo. The name of the imprint gives you the sensation. That’s what we’re trying to do with these books; they should be a little off-putting, whether it’s through horror or political questions, or some fantastic idea. The idea is to make you a little uneasy, so that you question the book and question the world around you, if we’re doing it right.”

What this means in practice is a staggered launch of seven new monthly comic book series, each showcasing its view of the world as it is, and as it could be. With a new series beginning each month from now through the beginning of 2019, the bench of creative talent responsible includes voices as disparate as The Flintstones’ Mark Russell, Nine Inch Nails graphic designer Rob Sheridan, and Crash Override founder Zoe Quinn. (For old-school Vertigo fans, there’s also The Sandman Universe, four new series featuring characters and concepts created by Neil Gaiman, and overseen by Gaiman himself.)

And that launch begins with Border Town, a supernatural teen drama set in an Arizona border town—one that bumps up against not only Mexico, but another dimension. When a fissure in that metaphysical border allows people (and non-people) to pass between worlds, tensions start to rise, setting in motion something that writer and co-creator Eric M. Esquivel describes as a story “all about in-between places: physically, supernaturally, and emotionally.”

Despite pushback from a small but bigoted and vocal section of comic fans, Equivel maintains that the book isn’t overtly political. “All these stories, if it’s a 100% white cast, it’s not political, but when we have a realistic cast…” he says, pointing at the double standard that's often used when toxic fandoms push back against broader stories.

“Cultural identity is unexplored territory for comics," adds Border Town artist and co-creator Ramon Villalobos. "A lot of media in general, actually.”

"Our heroes have always been folks who have integrated both sides," Esquivel says. "You have Batman, this kid of privilege who’s affected by crime, or Hercules, a half-god, half-man, a demigod. There’s a line in the first issue where someone goes, ‘You’re not half-Irish and half-Mexican, that’s the world’s shittiest centaur. You are fully Irish, you are fully Mexican and you are fully American.’ That’s the message of the book, basically.”

If that seems like unexpected subject matter for a comic book series, that’s the point. “I have a point of view that Vertigo comics are comics for people who don’t read comics,” Doyl says. “Sandman was always a book you could hand to someone who didn’t read comics, or, say, [critically acclaimed crime series] 100 Bullets or something like that. We have the opportunity to put out books for someone who likes seeing cool movies, hearing cool music, playing cool games, and maybe they’ve read four or five graphic novels in their life because people aren’t publishing anything that interests them. But if you did, they would come.”

That approach is evident in Vertigo's other new titles. In Mark Russell and Richard Pace’s Second Coming, Jesus returns to Earth to discover his place taken by Sun-Man, a superhero who has replaced him in God’s affections; Safe Sex, by Why Are People Into That?! host Tina Horn and Mike Dowling, focuses on a group of sex workers in a sexually repressive authoritarian future; and Hex Wives, about the reawakening of witches who had been brainwashed into becoming suburban housewives by a patriarchal conspiracy, comes by Thrilling Adventure Hour co-creator Ben Blacker, with art by Mirka Andolfo.

As if that’s not enough, there’s also Bryan Edward Hill and Leandro Fernandez’s American Carnage, about a biracial former FBI agent infiltrating a white supremacist group. “Whenever we see something like this, it’s usually set in the past, because the past is more comfortable," says Hill. "It’s easier to do something like this in the ‘70s, or the ‘60s, but I wanted to do something [that takes place] now. It’s the most uncomfortable place to do it, given what we’re seeing play out daily.”

Zoe Quinn’s comic-book writing debut comes in Goddess Mode, a mix of the Magical Girl genre and cyberpunk that the Crash Override author describes as “a story about examining power dynamics and making techno-libertarians smoke the whole pack, metaphorically. Like, look at all this cool stuff you did, and yet… everybody still has to work for some reason. Instead of automating things so that people can go off and spend time with their family or pursue art or better themselves, we still have to work crap jobs. I think there’s a lot of metaphorical power in using the cyberpunk setting to tell a story about power dynamics and systems, specifically.” (Robbi Rodriguez, fresh from Marvel’s Spider-Gwen, will illustrate.)

Finally, High Level is a post-post-apocalypse story written by Rob Sheridan, with art by Barnaby Bagenda. Again, despite the setting, it’s as much a commentary on today as it is science fiction. “Part of the story is personal, but part of the story is very much my reaction to what’s going on right now,” Sheridan says. “I thought, ‘What if we went way beyond what happens in 20 years, or even a post-apocalyptic type story? What if we looked at what happens after that, what if we look at what kind of story rises from the ashes of the American empire?’”

At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con in July, Sheridan spoke about being part of the new wave of DC Vertigo. “It feels like being on 4AD Records,” he said then. “Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were these labels that, if you saw it, you’d pick it up automatically because you just knew. That’s what Vertigo was to me in the ‘90s. If I saw a new Vertigo title, I’d always pick it up and try it. ‘These guys know what they’re doing.’”

The key to success, according to Doyle, is trusting in the creators themselves. “I think Vertigo is many things," he says, "but I think one of the things that it’s best at is finding new voices, new stories, and new talent." So that's what he and his staff did—and in the process found that if you want to find new people, you have to look outside of comics.

"We looked at everything from podcasts to games to journalists, because it’s all storytelling," he continues. “When you seek out new talent, when you seek out new voices, the message comes after that. It’s not as if we said, ‘I want a book about this,’ or ‘I want a book about that!’ It’s just looking at people saying interesting things in different mediums—some of them already in comics—and saying, they have an interesting voice, we’d like to work with them. Everything clicked after that.”

What draws the new DC Vertigo titles together isn’t just the enthusiasm each creator has for the other books in the line (“It feels like a gang,” Robbi Rodriguez offers, while Zoe Quinn adds, “I’m so excited about what everyone else is doing. It’s a really good environment for me to write my first comic book in”), but the shared effort to actually say something important with these comics.

“This is six of my pitches wrapped up into one,” Esquivel says of Border Town, adding that the series “contains everything I want to do in comics; it’s all the Archie drama that I love, and all the supernatural weirdness my grandma used to terrify me with. [Laughs] It’s everything that I love. We have so many stories to tell. It’s everything. I pitch Latino-centered stories all the time, I’ve been told, but I’ve never had an experience where they go, ‘Oh, cool,’ before. Usually it’s, ‘Can you make this more universal? What if they’re a robot?’”

The result is a combination of contemporary attitudes and subject matter and a nod to the original DC Vertigo mission statement. “When I was younger, the one thing I wanted to do was work in a bookstore,” Doyle says. “For me, the bookstore is always the ultimate goal. Obviously, we’re publishing periodicals and I want everyone to pick up Border Town #1 at the same time they’re picking up Batman, but I also know that there’s a whole swath of readers out there who are interested in new ideas and great stories who aren’t going to go into a comic store, or who can’t go into a comic store, so I want to make sure that we’re building books for that audience of smart literate people who’re going to bookstores for other things—but might be interested in what we’re offering, too.”

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