The Bleeding Edge 

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

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"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."

For a while, American creators griped that DC had given the keys to the kingdom to foreign hordes. There used to be a joke circulating among the creative community: Hire an English actor to pitch your idea, because Vertigo will buy anything in a British accent.

"It was a bunch of America-hating English writers writing in the American landscape," says a sorta-joking Howard Chaykin, co-creator of American Century, a pulp-noir about a man named Harry Block who fakes his death and disappears into the Cold War's crannies. Vertigo will also publish Chaykin's Barnum, in which P.T. Barnum's circus performers and sideshow freaks become a sort of team of super friends.

"When I went there, I was anticipating more heat and grief from the editorial department and getting less than I expected," Chaykin adds. "Remarkably little, and that was very cool. Generally speaking, my complaint about my own work is that I tell people exactly what I'm going to do, and when I do it they're always shocked. At Vertigo, they said, 'Do what you want,' and [American Century co-creator David Tischman and I] did it and came up with a book we really liked. We got very little negative reaction, very little, 'You can't do that stuff,' and the you-can't-do-thats were stuff so outrageous we were like, 'Yeah, of course, we can't.' That was the big issue: Vertigo gave us an enormous amount of freedom and let us run with some really wacky ideas."

The Vertigo sensibility existed long before it had a brand name: The shit was deep, dark, weird, surreal, unreal, undead. It wasn't just comics for adults, but lit majors, pot smokers, devil worshipers, Goth fetishists, New Age followers. It trafficked in gore and mysticism, fairy tales and freak shows, the autobiographical and the comical, the macabre and the magical. Gaiman's Sandman sprang from dusty Greek mythology and ancient folklore and Shakespearean tales and old DC comics; Morrison's Animal Man was a vegan superhero; Milligan's Shade transformed intangible thoughts into concrete things. If you think all this too far-out, too dopey save for the most active burner, upon the release of The Matrix in 1999 many comics insiders believed it little more than rip-off of Morrison's The Invisibles. And J.K. Rowling's prepub bespectacled wizard bears more than the passing resemblance to Gaiman's Tim Hunter, star of The Books of Magic, which debuted well before Harry Potter's most fanatical fans were even born.

Still, reminds Roger Sabin in his seminal book Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels, for all its influence, Vertigo at its inception "was undoubtedly successful--but not that successful." DC rarely profited from the line the way it did with such stand-alone titles as Frank Miller's Batman redo The Dark Knight Returns or Moore's subversive superhero tale The Watchmen. "As the 1990s progressed," Sabin wrote, "adult comics increasingly seemed like a false hope--at best, a cultish sideline." And comics retailers will tell you Vertigo books don't keep them in business; Superman and Spider-Man are propping open the doors, not Garth Ennis' Reverend Jesse Custer (the offspring of heaven and hell, literally) or Ellis' crusading journalist Spider Jerusalem.

Though its titles sold by the hundreds, or dozens, Vertigo's influence could be felt throughout the industry; Marvel's recent Max line, in which old heroes curse and much worse, looks like Vertigo at its inception, and Vertigo's editors have been lured away to competitors wanting their own adult comics. And for every dozen titles that went unloved and unread, Vertigo still published the occasional breakthrough must-read, including Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets, which debuted in 1999 and dealt with a man named Agent Graves offering people a shot (or 100) at redemption with a briefcase containing an untraceable gun and ammo. Azzarello, who is resurrecting DC staple Sgt. Rock for Vertigo this summer, notes that when he first pitched 100 Bullets, Vertigo passed.

"If Agent Graves was the devil, then it wouldn't have taken two years to get it started," he says, with a small laugh. "One thing that's really nice about working for Vertigo and why, as long as I am doing comics, I will do probably the majority of my work for them is there's a lot of freedom to tell the kind of story you want to. I could have taken it somewhere else, but I wanted the muscle of Vertigo behind it. I could have gone independent, and it would have lasted three or four issues--maybe."

Last year, Vertigo spawned two surprise hit titles: Brian K. Vaughan's Y--The Last Man, in which every male on earth save one dies; and Bill Willingham's Fables, in which fairy-tale favorites, such as Snow White and Big Bad Wolf, are expelled from their fantasyland and exiled to New York City. These days, the first issues of both titles are selling for as much as 10 times their $2.50 cover prices; rare is the week that their authors don't get calls about a movie deal. (Warner Bros. and DC are owned by AOL Time Warner, so guess who gets first crack.) Why both books succeed outside the comic-book locker room is no surprise: Y reads like classic Twilight Zone, as Yorick Brown and his pet monkey stumble across a dude-free wasteland in search of Yorick's girlfriend, while Fables drops storybook staples into the modern world. Unlike most Vertigo titles, you get them instantly--no translation, or hallucination, necessary.

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