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CBR’s Top Ten Vertigo Titles of All Time

by  in Comic News Comment
CBR’s Top Ten Vertigo Titles of All Time

With the departure of Vertigo’s Executive Editor Karen Berger and the cancellation of the imprint’s longest-running title “Hellblazer,” one thing is clear: we’ve come to the end of an undeniably important and influential era of modern comics.

Upon overseeing the creation of DC Comics’ celebrated imprint in 1993, Berger remained in her position, constantly striving to bring more sophisticated, adult and graphic stories to an audience that isn’t necessarily interested in reading comics involving capes and costumes. As Berger herself once said, her hope was that Vertigo’s titles would “do something different in comics and help the medium grow up.” As we look back on her legacy, illustrated by the critical acclaim, mainstream recognition and enduring popularity of so many of the comics published under her watch, it’s clear she achieved her goal.

After long — and sometimes heated — debate, members of the CBR editorial staff have settled on the following list of titles that we feel best represent Vertigo based on critical acclaim, commercial success and the series’ overall impact on the industry. Cutting the list off at 10 was certainly not easy, especially when discussing an imprint that’s published as many amazing books as Vertigo has, but we believe our list accurately represents the broad swath of Vertigo’s accomplishments over its 20 year history. We invite you to share your own list of Vertigo’s Top Ten in our forums.

10. Swamp Thing

For years, the Swamp Thing character fit into the classic “man made into a monster” theme found in many superhero stories. A laboratory bombing caused Dr. Alec Holland to be engulfed in flames and his own experimental bio-restorative serum. Leaping to nearby water, he emerged as the Swamp Thing, a plant creature who longed to regain his humanity. But when writer Alan Moore took over the title in the mid-80s, things quickly changed.

“Saga of the Swamp Thing” (later retitled “Swamp Thing”) became a very different comic, exploring realms of magic, philosophy and existentialism. After learning his memories were essentially a lie, the hero had to re-establish where he fit in the world and whether or not he was even unique. Stories took a very dark turn, getting the book a “mature readers” warning. It became a place for DC readers who wanted a story of good and evil that didn’t also focus on superheroes (although Swamp Thing still crossed over with many mainstream heroes for years). There were also controversial censorship concerns, such as one issue being held back when it showed a time traveling Swamp Thing being the one to offer a cup of water to Jesus Christ on the cross.

Moore’s long run on Swamp Thing was DC’s first serious step towards mature reader comics, a movement that eventually begat the Vertigo imprint. It also led to the long-running spin-off series, “Hellblazer,” which eventually grew to be considered the imprint’s flagship title. Years after Moore left the series, “Swamp Thing” became one of the inaugural Vertigo titles with the release of issue #129 in 1993. Swamp Thing still made occasional connections with the mainstream DC Universe, such as when he attended Hal Jordan’s funeral or when he fought Batman villain Killer Croc, but for the most part the creature and his adventures stood separate from the DC Universe until his surprising appearance in DC’s 2011 event series, “Brightest Day.” The current “Swamp Thing” series, written by Scott Snyder, is firmly entrenched in the mainstream DC reality, though it certainly retains much of the Vertigo “flavor” associated with the character’s past stories.

9. Animal Man/Doom Patrol

In 1988, roughly two years after DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” reset the publisher’s continuity, Grant Morrison wrote an “Animal Man” mini that quickly evolved into an ongoing series. In it, the previously straightforward, C-list hero Buddy Baker was taken into strange, abstract realms and conflicts. The fact that Animal Man and his fellow inhabitants of the DC Universe were fictional was embraced, with Buddy breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to his readers, strange aliens commenting on continuity contradictions and characters remembering — and temporarily returning from — pre-Crisis stories. After Morrison’s final issue, which saw the writer have a face to face talk with Buddy, things didn’t return to normal for the titular hero as Peter Milligan, Jamie Delano and others shepherded the series and character into the Vertigo stable. The current “Animal Man” series, written by Jeff Lemire, is based in the DCU, but much like “Swamp Thing,” it maintains many of the previous incarnation’s Vertigo sensibilities.

A year after launching “Animal Man,” Morrison expanded his DC of DC’s second-string team books, “Doom Patrol.” After years of the team being portrayed as typical superheroes, Morrison brought it back to its roots as a group of misfits who investigated bizarre foes and off-kilter threats. New heroes included Rebis, a hermaphrodite amalgamation of the previous Negative Man Larry Trainor and his physician Eleanor Poole, and a living street named Danny. The team’s classic foe, the Brotherhood of Evil, was replaced by the Brotherhood of Dada, antagonists who opposed reason and order, with a teammate whose ability to manifest “every power you hadn’t thought of” was pure Morrison. Other menaces included the reality-bending Scissormen and a scientist who sought to better humanity through chaos and destruction. These stories drew the attention and appreciation what would eventually become the Vertigo audience. While “Doom Patrol” was one of the flagship titles of the imprint’s launch, the changeover took effect with issue #64, exactly one issue after Grant Morrison left as writer. Recognizing the importance of the groundwork laid by the writer, the collected editions of Morrison’s runs on both “Doom Patrol” and “Animal Man” carry the Vertigo label.

8. 100 Bullets

Publishing 100 issues in just under ten years, the fourth-longest running Vertigo series in the imprint’s history was brought to life by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso. Readers had little clue what they were getting into when the book debuted in 1999, but the title’s premise was inarguably intriguing: People who have been unjustly suffered are approached by a mysterious man named Graves who brings them proof of who wronged them, a handgun and one hundred bullets which are are flagged in such a way that their presence at a crime scene will halt any criminal investigation. Stories of personal justice and lethal revenge follow, with varying degrees of success. But are these simply random victims Graves provides the weapons and ammunition to, or is there a larger game being played?

With gritty realism, intense emotion, conspiracy twists and memorable dialogue, the series, which never featured any chapter written or drawn by anyone but its co-creators, won several Eisner and Harvey Awards. There have been talks of a live-action adaptation and a few attempts at a video game, though nothing has seen fruition. Years after its final issue hit comic shops, people are still talking about the book. If you pick up the trades, take a moment to notice how each collection’s title is a reference to its numerical order.

7. Transmetropolitan

What if Hunter S. Thompson lived several centuries in the future, where ubiquitous nanite technology has resulted in increased human decadence and apathy to a truly hedonistic level? This is the world of “Transmetropolitan,” created by writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson. Initially debuting under DC’s failed Helix imprint, a sci-fi companion to Vertigo that lasted from 1986 to 1988, the series followed Spider Jerusalem, a gonzo journalist constantly frustrated that his column “I Hate It Here” seemed to only increase his fame rather than cause people to be empowered by the truth and change the world. Armed with cigarettes and an illegal bowel disruptor gun, Spider (and later his assistant and bodyguard) challenged politics, religious leaders, corporations and people who don’t realize that the next generation is becoming more ignorant and morally bankrupt than the last.

Appealing to those who may not necessarily be sci-fi or even comic book fans, “Transmetropolitan” is a mix of commentary and satire that remains relevant today. Spider can be hilarious in a very non-P.C. way, and he can be absolutely heartbreaking the next moment. After all, the reason he fights so hard to bring the truth to people is because under all of his bluster and hyperbole, he does think there’s something worth fighting for, no matter how much the odds are stacked against him.

6. Hellblazer

After debuting and serving as a recurring character in the pages of Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing,” British con-artist and sorcerer John Constantine graduated to his own series in 1988. Immediately moving away from the rest of the DC Universe with stories under a “mature readers” label, the comic was one of 1993’s Vertigo launch title, where it remained for the remainder of its run.

Since its inception, the series has been guided by numerous acclaimed creators, including Neil Gaiman, James Delano, Brian Azzarello, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Denise Mina, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Mike Carey, Richard Corben, Peter Milligan, Simon Bisley and more. Stories have featured parallel universes, vengeful demons, childhood trauma, drinking beer with the Lord of Hell, prison stories and the constant moral ambiguity of its lead character who will sometimes save the world and fight evil but almost invariably betrays his friends and lovers in the process. It reaches its conclusion with issue #300 while a separate, younger incarnation of John Constantine graduates from member of Justice League Dark to his own DCU-based ongoing.

5. The Invisibles

Exploding onto the comics scene in 1994, Grant Morrison’s sprawling masterpiece explored the nature of humanity and people who push the seeming limitations of society, progress and imagination. Liverpool native Dane McGowan a smart-mouthed teen who balks at authority, finds himself recruited by a cell of the Invisible College, a group of apparent anarchists who are trying to help humanity and prepare for the great change that is coming in 2012. Taking the name “Jack Frost,” Dane joins the Invisibles, a group comprised of King Mob (Morrison’s comic book alter ego), Lord Fanny, Boy and Ragged Robin on time travel adventures, magical encounters and battles with vicious, inhuman killers, not to mention a meeting with the ghost of John Lennon.

Intended to count down to the year 2000, delays meant the series’ last issue (which took place at the end of 2012) was not released until April of that year. During its publication, the title ran into censorship issues and threats of cancellation, inspiring other works and writers, including speculation that it may have inspired the Wachowski brothers’ Keanu Reeves sci-fi thriller “The Matrix” which Morrison himself has referred to as “plagiarism.” That the series has remained in print in various paperback collections and a single hardcover edition released in mid-2012, “The Invisibles” continues to be discovered by new fans years after the final issue’s release.

4. Y: The Last Man

Yorick is an escape artist with a monkey named Ampersand and a plan to propose to his girlfriend. Then, every single male mammal except him and his simian companion simultaneously dies. Immediately, the world changes as no one can agree on what happens next. Is this an act of God, or a chemical attack from an unnamed country? Is this the end of the human race or a victory for the planet? For Yorick, there are really only two questions: where is his girlfriend and how can he get to her without getting killed along the way?

While the series by writer Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra found acclaim among critics and fans alike — over its 60 issue run, the series won five Eisner awards for its exploration of the ideas of society, feminism, technology, empowerment, destiny and faith — its true importance to the Vertigo line may lie in the timing of its debut. When “Y: The Last Man” #1 launched in 2002, most of Vertigo’s flagship series had either ended or were coming to a close. Vaughan and Guerra breathed new life into the imprint, guaranteeing a new generation of creators a place to explore high-concept stories. If Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” is viewed as the seed that grew into Vertigo, “Y: The Last Man” marked a the birth of a second generation for the imprint, demonstrating its longevity and viability beyond the lives of its launch titles.
Over the course of “Y’s” run, Vaughn never presented readers with easy solutions to the questions he posed. Answers don’t come easy for anyone, and Vaughn’s story relied partly on what the reader brought to it. Even the title makes you wonder: Does “Y” refer to Yorick (which makes our duo “Y and &”), to the Y chromosome, or is it meant to ask “why” our hero is the last man? Maybe it means all of them, simultaneously.

3. Fables

Before “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” graced the airwaves, writer Bill Willingham brought familiar fairy tales into the modern world in the pages of the multiple-Eisner winner “Fables.” When the mysterious Adversary attacked their homelands, Snow White, King Cole, Prince Charming and thousands of other Fables escaped into our plane of existence, the mundane, or “Mundy,” world. Secretly walking among us, hundreds of fairy tale refugees set up new lives in an area of New York City they call “Fabletown.” What began as a series of stories that modernized familiar characters developed into a multi-faceted saga of war, loss and the many characters and agendas that inhabit it.

For over a decade, Willingham has developed and nurtured the world of “Fables” through spin-off series and one-shots featuring character like Jack (known for killing giants, climbing beanstalks and jumping over candlesticks) and Cinderella (Fabletown’s chief secret agent and, at times, ambassador). Willingham also ventured into the world of prose fiction with “Peter and Max,” a story about Peter Piper, his wife Bo Peep and Peter’s brother Max. For many people who never read a comic book before, this series has been a great introduction to the medium.

2. Preacher

Following their run on “Hellblazer,” writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon exploded in popularity with their creator-owned saga, “Preacher,” a series following the adventures of one Jesse Custer, a southern preacher who found himself suddenly bonded to Genesis, a hybrid demon/angel force. As a result of this bonding, Jesse found himself with the power of the Word, giving him the ability to command anyone (and anything) to do exactly what he demanded. Joined by his gun-toting ex-girlfriend Tulip and a vampire named Cassidy, Jesse went on a quest to find God, who had apparently abandoned Heaven. Along the way, they dealt with a terrorist religious cult, vampire worshippers, gangsters, angels, demons and the literal Saint of Killers. Ennis and Dillon provided a lot of dark comedy to go along with the deeper tehems the series presented, including a man dedicated to writing obscenities into a desert, a pair of “sex detectives” and an awkward situation with cannibals.

“Preacher” was a modern-day western, a love letter to celebrities, political figures and various aspects of the United States presented simultaneously as a dark-humored satire of pop culture and a hard-edged commentary on religion and government. Whether they agreed with “Preacher’s” views or not, readers discovered an epic saga involving truly twisted villains and heroes who simply couldn’t bring themselves to give up.

1. Sandman

Before he wrote for television series like “Doctor Who,” or penned award-winning novels like “American Gods,” “Coraline” and “Stardust,” Neil Gaiman soared to fame at Vertigo. After making several pitches to DC Comics, Gaiman was tasked with re-imagining Sandman, transforming the once brightly-costumed World War II creation into a character decidedly different from previous incarnations. Gaiman took the name literally, and the first issue of “The Sandman” introduced Morpheus AKA Dream, lord of the Dreaming and living avatar of stories.

Initially, Gaiman’s stories utilized many elements from the DC Universe. The first two storyarcs included appearances from known DC heroes and villains, and Morpheus’s cast was comprised mainly of previously existing characters. Dream’s servants Cain and Abel were the hosts of DC’s 1950-60s anthology titles “House of Secrets” and “House of Mystery,” two structures that Gaiman revealed actually existed in the Dreaming. Dream’s brother Destiny had previously appeared in an adventure with Superman, and Morpheus’s raven Matthew was eventually revealed to be the spirit of one of Swamp Thing’s dead allies.

But you didn’t need to know any of this to enjoy the series. Gaiman weaved these elements into his tapestry so naturally, it seemed as if they were all his own creations and had always belonged in his world of living nightmares and pumpkin-headed laborers. “The Sandman” was not merely about Morpheus or his family the Endless (the human personifications of the most powerful forces of the universe), it was about us. Over the course of seven years, Gaiman explored the nature of history, storytelling, sexuality, desires, sanity, family, love and loss. Rather than being an all-knowing, all-seeing god, Morpheus was flawed and often quite petty in the ways he treated people, yet he also brought incredible optimism and insight into the human condition.

Thousands of people who had never read a comic book in their lives became familiar with the world of “The Sandman.” The series’ collections and spin-off graphic novels landed on The New York Times bestseller list, and one issue, a story incorporating William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, won the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, leading to the rules being altered so that comics were no longer eligible for nomination. “The Sandman” proved how diverse the comic book audience could be, counting among its loyal fanbase not only males in their teens and twenties, but readers of all ages and genders.

It also led to many spin-offs, including the long-running “Lucifer” and a variety of miniseries and one-shots starring Dream’s siblings Death, Delirium and Destiny. Gaiman himself has written two “Sandman” volumes since the series ended, and is set to release a 25th anniversary hardcover story that acts as a direct prequel to “The Sandman” #1.

The series ran from 1989 to 1996, first as a DC Comics mature readers title, then helping launch the Vertigo imprint with issue #447. Gaiman’s deal with DC stipulated that the title series not continue under another writer’s pen when he departed, and with the release of issue #75, the series ceased publication. This level of creator control was unheard of at the time, but Gaiman’s deal paved the way for future creator-driven series including “Preacher,” “The Invisibles” and “Y: The Last Man.” Gaiman’s work on the series is so respected, other writers make a point to talk with him before using certain characters from his run in their DC titles. More than any other series, Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” illustrated what Vertigo has to offer and remains to this day the standard all other Vertigo titles are measured against.

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