(Another trip down Memory Lane? Sure! Why not.)
“Wow. This is SO cool.”
The thought flashed continuously through my mind during a bus ride home in late 1993; it followed a visit to my local comic book store (Nostalgia & Comics in Birmingham, England, still going strong!). 13-year-old me was captivated by Hellblazer #68, wherein a drunk, homeless John Constantine came up against the James Dean-resembling King of the Vampires on the streets of London.
Collected in the Tainted Love TPB, the storyline was published shortly after Hellblazer transcended from DC's regular comic book universe to Vertigo, a new imprint created to accommodate stories that scoffed at the Comics Code Authorities’ claptrap guidelines. It was the perfect hub for Garth Ennis' brazen-faced writing and Steve Dillon's inspired artwork; one of many creative teams formed under its jurisdiction since 1993.
Put simply, DC Vertigo is the publishing imprint that made me want to tell stories for a living.
This week sees the release of Sandman: Overtures #6, wrapping up the latest tale in Neil Gaiman’s much-acclaimed world of imagination.
Like Hellblazer, The Sandman first saw the light of day as a standard DCU title, albeit one markedly different than others published at the time. It didn’t officially become a Vertigo book until #47, though each collection of issues was retrospectively emblazoned with DC Comics’ edgier imprint.
It was one of The Sandman’s characters that starred in the first title to bear the Vertigo logo: Death: The High Cost of Living #1 landed in stores on March 1, 1993.
Under stewardship of Karen Berger, DC Vertigo proved itself to be one of the medium’s pioneering powers of creativity, offering countless classic books and launching the career of many a top-notch talent.
Here’s a look back at some of the imprint’s finest—and in some cases, most underrated—moments:
DEATH: THE HIGH COST OF LIVING (1993)
Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Bachelo and Mark Buckingham, this is the title that spearheaded Vertigo’s top-notch trove of comic book riches.
Death: The High Cost of Living presents the embodiment of death as a cool Goth girl who bears utmost respect for life (and those stuck living it). Each century sees Death walk the Earth for one whole day in the guise of a human being, helping fuel her understanding of those she seamlessly shifts into the afterlife. This time around, she encounters a suicidal man named Sexton, along with a peculiar English lady who's looking for her heart.
Collected editions include the Death Talks About Life 8-page AIDS-awareness info story (written by Gaiman and drawn by Dave McKean), in which Death, along with the help of John Constantine, demonstrates how to wear a condom by using a prop banana.
If only important Life Advice was always so deftly delivered, eh? The closest my school came to sex education was, "Don't stand too close to the geography teacher."
Ahem. Moving swiftly on ....
Splendid writing and sensational art ensured Death: The High Cost of Living provided a perfect launch pad for the DC Vertigo imprint. Hurrah!
THE EXTREMIST (1993)
What. A. Book.
Forgotten by many, this criminally underrated mini-series personified Vertigo’s loosening of the reigns re: shocking/surprising/downright crazy content.
Written by Peter Milligan and (brilliantly) illustrated by Ted McKeever, The Extremist was originally conceived by British artist Brendan McCarthy. Alas, he “couldn’t be bothered to draw it.”
Judy Tanner wants only one thing: Revenge. Grieving the loss of her husband, she’s hell-bent on hunting down his murderer. How best to do this? Why, by taking the identity of “The Extremist” and hitting the seediest, most perverse sex clubs in town. And once done with that, working as a hired assassin for a furtive organization called “The Order.” All while decked out in ultra-kinky, totally unsettling S&M attire.
It’s every bit as mental as I’ve made it sound, and Milligan is on top form throughout. The Extremist is a must-read.
THE INVISIBLES (1994)
You want more peculiar, eh? Splendid. The Invisibles offers it up by the bucketload.
Grant Morrison—accompanied by Chris Weston and a ton more super-talented artists—takes readers in some of the strangest storytelling directions ever punched into the comic book medium’s GPS.
The Invisibles are a secret society engaged in a century-old conflict against oppression and forced “reality.” The things you experience in your day-to-day life are merely the product of powerful, manipulative shysters; they control what they want us to see, think and feel.
It’s The Matrix on meth. Only smarter. And much, much cooler.
HEAVY LIQUID (1999)
A bloke addicted to a substance that’s both a drug and an art form: You can’t ask for a more intriguing premise than that.
Paul Pope writes and illustrates this curious and compelling tale, introducing “S,” a former police officer now working as a private detective in NYC. After fleecing a quantity of the substance known as “Heavy Liquid,” “S” finds himself hunted by assassins, learning of the stolen stash’s subconscious, and coming into contact with alien entities.
Believe it or not, that barely scratches the surface of this unique, fascinating Vertigo series.
More Grant Morrison, and for me, this is the Scottish writer’s finest hour. WE3 takes the potential foundation of an oddball family movie and bludgeons it beyond recognition with the creative equivalent of a spiked jackhammer. Frank Quitely's fiendish ingenuity provides the jaw-dropping (and suitably surreal) artwork.
A trio of delightful house pets—a cat, dog and bunny rabbit—have undergone radical surgery in the name of deranged military experimentation.
They're no longer fluffy bundles of love: These animals have become booboos of mass destruction …!
What the pets don’t realize, however, is that they’re mere prototypes—the first step in an unhinged plan to develop people-incinerating weaponry. Decommission is ordered to initiate the program’s next phase, but the pets have other ideas… They want to go home. Where exactly that is remains uncertain, though one thing is clear: Their escape from the government facility has attracted some very dangerous attention. The highest level of Homeland Security is hot on their heels, along with a fresh selection of science-savaged abominations ....
Civilians are left stunned by the sight of the animals, while interaction between them is simultaneously heartbreaking and adorable.
Kidnapped pets bolstered with mine-planting devices, razor claws and machine guns: WE3 is among the most imaginative—and best—comic books of all time.
(Did I mention that I'm rather fond of WE3...?)