Thursday, March 12, 2009

The highest concepts

Vertigo has carved itself a respectable slice of the comics industry. A lot of the comics that have been released under the Vertigo logo in the past 15 years are pretty rubbish, but they have been outweighed by some absolute gems, from vast sagas spanning time and space to idiosyncratic mini series and one shots.

These days, it is facing far more competition from other publishers who have seen the benefits of the Vertigo model, and gone after the same customers with quality comics. The benefits of creative freedom and ownership that Vertigo pioneered are obvious to everybody.

Vertigo does still have a few advantages over its competitors. It has access to the magnificently deep pockets of its parent conglomerate and has established itself as an imprint that can handle lower readers on its periodicals if the collected editions pay off.

There has always been strong editorial guidance at Vertigo, with Karen Berger leading from the front since the very beginning. But it’s the type of editorial control that offers creators the freedom to tell the sort of stories they want to tell, with minimal interference outside a vaguely guiding hand.

Vertigo has also benefited from a series of titles that have been the spine of the line. Each title has had a finite life as its primary creators strive towards a specific climax, but while they are all completely idiosyncratic and irreplaceable, they have all still been succeeded by another comic that has been steadily picking up readers and become the new success story of the Vertigo brand.

The first to hold that brand together was the mighty Sandman. A slow burner to start off with, it kicked into life somewhere around the Season of Mists and showed that there was an audience that was hungry for comics that didn’t treat them like an 8-year-old moron. Comics that offered more than the traditional slugfests and broad emotions.

And once Sandman faded away, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon were there to pick up the sales slack with Preacher, a comic that couldn’t be any more different than Sandman, but which inherited its role as the biggest Vertigo title. There were certainly other popular series running at the same time, including Grant Morrison’s Invisibles and Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan. But while these books had the most devoted of fans, they didn’t make that popular connection with audiences that preacher or Sandman had made.

And when Preacher reached the end of its run, there were several other series that have been touted as the new backbone. Fables has certainly grown in popularity over the years it has been running, with some new spin-offs of its own, while Y: The Last Man and 100 Bullets have both completed massively successful runs, leaving behind a body of work that continues to attract new readers.

What is most interesting about Vertigo’s attempts to build a successful platform title is that for a company that is so heavily reliant on the burst of new ideas and fresh takes on old stories, it is also one that relies heavily on projects that have a single clear idea to use as a selling point.

Y: The Last Man, DMZ and 100 Bullets are three recent examples that have been built on rock solid ideas, even as each series went off in a completely different direction.  They were launched on the basic ideas of the last man in a world of women, a 21st century war on the streets of Manhattan and the offer of righteous and unpunishable vengeance, before turning into meditations on vastly different subjects.

It’s the high concept idea that Hollywood has fallen in love with over the last couple of decades that gets these series going, before the creators are able to take them into more idiosyncratic areas. If it can’t be summed up in one snappy sentence, Hollywood producers usually don’t want to hear about it, and comic fans seem to display that same reluctance.

There have been many ongoing series launched by Vertigo, only to sink without a trace before reaching their second birthday. And while some of those certainly bring the quality, their relative failure to connect with audiences can often be attributed to the vagueness of their premises.

Summing up interesting and complex works like The Exterminators, Testament and Crossing Midnight in a single high-concept idea was never easy, and each title did not provide enough of a hook to pull readers in.

That hook is imperative for bringing in new readers, but swiftly becomes unimportant as each series finds its feet. Nobody cares if 100 Bullets went years without offering anybody one of his special briefcases, but that one good idea was enough to get things moving before Azzarello got deeper into his own unique conspiracy.

Y: The Last Man has stayed a lot closer to its selling point, if only because the comic saw the entire social and political strata of the world forever changed. But even then, Brian K Vaughn has managed to go off on his own wild tangents that have little to do with the overall idea, but everything to do with the characters who inhabit this strange new world.

The One Good Idea isn’t absolutely necessary, and Hellblazer is one example of a long-running and successful comic that has relied more on the individual visions of its creators than any high concept. The idea of a working class mage remains a core part of the comic after more than 250 issues, but the hook is more about the creators that have come and gone during Constantine’s run.

It’s a little depressing that an imprint that has prided itself on its intellectual reach has had to resort to short, snappy concepts, but it is still bringing in new readers looking for something a little different, and that’s always worth something.

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