Saturday, September 11, 2010

Down Vertigo way

Me and Vertigo, we got a history.

Vertigo and me, we go all the way back.

* * *

Somewhere around 1993 and I’m sitting in my freezing fucking cold bedroom in an old house on Richard Pearse Drive, the walls decorated with brand new issues of New Warriors and X-Force and that Joe Jusko Mary Jane Watson poster from the swimsuit special, and all I can do is stare at the ads for Enigma and Death: The High Cost Of Living.

They’re in black and white in a price guide magazine that I bought so I could work out when Morrison started on Doom Patrol. I saw the same ads in colour just recently and they looked weird, because they looked fucking awesome in monochrome. I was 18 at the time and absolutely primed for something more than superheroes. I’d only managed to find a couple of issues of Hellblazer and Sandman and Doom Patrol, but that was enough. I was desperate for more of that thrill, more of that fun.

And it was made even sexier by the fact that I couldn’t get those comics everywhere. I was just out of school and had my first minimum wage job, but the nearest comic shop was hundreds of kilometres away. It took me six years to get Enigma, and another ten before I finally found the first issue of that Death miniseries.

They were totally worth the wait.

So what I could get, I coveted like crazy. Anytime any of my mates were going up to the big city, I asked them to pick up a Sandman trade and went to ridiculous lengths to make sure they got the right one. I still ended up with two copies of Season of Mists, but gave one away to a girl who doesn’t talk to me any more.

And when I could get them, I would read them over and over again. I fell hard for the Hellblazer issue with the skeletal Statue of Liberty on the cover, and all three issues of Sebastian O. I’ve still got them, but they’re all frayed around the edges from this obsession.

I even loved the mediocre stuff that came out, convinced that the whole line was the Way of the Future in that obnoxious way that young adults do. I would score the random issue of Black Orchid, or Kid Eternity or Sandman Mystery Theatre and treasure it as much as any other comic in my collection.

* * *

Marvel was going into places I didn’t want to follow, and I woke up one morning and discovered that every Superman comic I was still reading was fucking boring. It also helped that I was a typically pretentious and reasonably obnoxious teenager, going on and on about shit that had opened my eyes. Especially if nobody else had heard of it.

Like anybody else with half a brain born in a small town on the arse end of nowhere, I was off to the city as soon as I could. It was partly because I was a grown up now and could live wherever the hell I wanted, and mainly because it ensured I could get that comic fix I had for the whole imprint – caught the last few arcs of Sandman, stuck with Hellblazer until the end of Ennis and fell for whole new series like Preacher and The Invisibles.

That six or seven years that those two series were coming out represented the peak of Vertigo interest, which is hardly surprising when you had those two comics dropping a dose of brilliance every month. It wasn’t an unconditional love – Despite trying the odd cheap issue, I never really got on board with comics like the Books of Magic or House of Secrets. They were all enjoyable enough, and still a lot better than many of the comics being published at the time, but they weren’t really thrilling.

And then there was the Trenchcoat Brigade, which was just as awful as any other company’s products. The one panel where vast and mysterious wanderers like the Phantom Stranger, Mr E, Doc Occult and John Constantine tried to defeat ultimate evil by firing magical rays out of the tips of their fingers, a little bit of that Vertigo lust died.

And then it was the turn of the century and The Invisibles and Preacher both brilliantly wrapped up, and for the first time ever, I wasn’t buying a Vertigo series every month. I was still dipping in and out of things like Hellblazer and Swamp Thing, but the monthly series that were launched around this time were only okay.

Maybe I was just turning into an old bastard, growing out of Vertigo’s demographic, but series like 100 Bullets, Deadenders and Lucifer all seemed a bit too serious for their own good. While certainly full of inspired touches and occasional doses of brilliance, they were not the sort of thing I was really interested in any more. I couldn’t even get into some series that found a popular audience, like the incredibly successful Y: The Last Man or Transmetropolitan. They had their moments, but their was something a bit too self satisfied and targeted.

* * *

Periods of poverty and relative disinterest saw me drift away from buying a regular comic from the Vertigo imprint altogether sometime around 2001. Unfortunately, this meant I missed out some stuff that turned out to be pretty bloody decent, like Human Target, The Losers and Fables, but that just leaves something new to search for in the back issue bins, when I’m on the eternal search for cheap issues of Shade The Changing Man. New holes are good holes.

After all, I got the last issues of the Ennis Hellblazer that I wanted the other week, after spending years and years looking for that story where Prince Charles gets possessed by Jack T Ripper. I’ve got all the Swamp Things I ever wanted, and it’s nice to have something to look for when you walk into a new comic shop. And there are still old holes unfilled, I’ve been one issue away from getting all of the Lansdale/Truman Jonah Hex comics for ages and I’m sure I’m still down one issue of the Rifle Brigade.

* * *

Over the years, Vertigo has produced these little bits and pieces of brilliance. Some comics adhere to an unfortunate template – The Unwritten ticking all the typical Vertigo boxes by being a bit literate, mixing up the real world with a fantasy one and indulging in a spot of metafiction – but there has also been a ridiculous amount of experimentation.

Every now and then, something sticks, and the company ends up with an unqualified success like Fables, but the number of Vertigo ongoing comics that never reached #30 is staggering. Some of them are really good, many of them were just rubbish, but at least they’re trying to do something different.

Still, there are always trusted creators like Ennis, Morrison and Milligan, putting out these comics that still thrill. Stuff like the Filth and War Stories and Kill Your Boyfriend and the Minx and Unknown Soldier and the criminally underrated Vinarama. Milligan and Fergado’s Girl is somehow still one of my personal favourite comics of all time – a sweet little three issue slice of kitchen sink fantasy.

I was also particularly fond of the series that were nothing by short stories – comics like Flinch, Weird War Tales, Gangland and Heartthrobs were occasionally clumsy, but always worthwhile.

I still realised I didn’t need to read every series, and never even bothered with stuff like Crossing Midnight and Codename: Knockout. I still tried the odd thing that just didn’t work for me, like DMZ, The Exterminators and Testament. They were taking too long to get to the point, or just weren’t quite as interesting as they should have been or maybe I’m just an old fart.

* * *

These days I live in a house where I don’t have to look at my breath every night, and tastes have radically changed in 15 years, but I still dig some Vertigo.

I still get four Vertigo comics every month – although two are about to end - and the same two are by that old crew of Milligan and Morrison. There are still new series that I haven’t tried yet, although I’m looking forward to jumping in. Despite the disappointment of DMZ, Northlanders is something I’ve been giving the glad eye in the local store, and I’m three trades behind Scalped, but eager for more.

Vertigo isn’t as unique as it once was. Other companies like Wildstorn and Dynamite have picked up on this, the latter doing something right in nabbing Ennis’ current Battlefield stories from the company that produced the similar War Stories, while The Boys follows the template of a finite - but long-form - monthly story that the imprint established.

Vertigo grew out of the comedown from the Comics Ain’t For Kids No More high of the mid-eighties and it’s big brother’s backing saw it tough out the almost-complete collapse of the industry, and it’s still there

There will be more to say about the four comics I still get – Sweet Tooth, Jack of Fables, Greek Street and Joe the Barbarian – over the next few days, but there have been dozens of great comics published under the Vertigo imprint. Those early comic crushes can quickly curdle and go embarrassing, but there is no shame here.

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