After months of anticipation, all four inaugural titles of DC Comics' Young Animal imprint overseen by former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way have now debuted. Billed as a return to the energy and creativity of early Vertigo, DC's mature readers imprint composed of such enduring classics as "Swamp Thing," "The Sandman," "Animal Man" and "Shade the Changing Man," Young Animal has a huge legacy to live up to -- while also needing to reinvent that legacy for a new era.
Now that the early issues of "Doom Patrol," "Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye," "Shade the Changing Girl" and "Mother Panic" are in readers' hands, how is the new imprint faring? Well, that may depend on what one considers "early Vertigo," and what precisely one was hoping to find in Young Animal.
Before splintering off into its own imprint, Vertigo's anchor books were set firmly in the DC Universe -- the Justice League appeared in "The Sandman," and "Swamp Thing" took part in "Crisis on Infinite Earths," for example. In fact, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison had completed their acclaimed runs on "Swamp Thing" and "Animal Man," respectively, by the time those titles were incorporated into the new Vertigo lineup in 1993. Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" was more than halfway through its epic when it received Vertigo branding. Even "Hellblazer," which spun off from "Swamp Thing," didn't join Vertigo until Issue 63. Nevertheless, these are often the series that come to mind when folks talk about "early Vertigo" -- fair enough, as trade paperback collections of the early issues and acclaimed runs bore the Vertigo brand after 1993, and that will be how many readers experienced these stories.
After its "soft launch" of dark, mature-reader titles set within the DC Universe, Vertigo finally debuted as its own imprint with "The Sandman" spinoff "Death: The High Cost of Living" and Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo's "Enigma," the latter inherited from a similar imprint at Disney that never got off the ground. Led by editor Karen Berger, who was responsible for recruiting that initial wave of British talent for DC's dark corner and oversaw the imprint for nearly 20 years, the Vertigo line held a reputation for intelligent and often experimental comics that, in her words, would "help the medium 'grow up.'"
The line produced some of comics' most extraordinary works, from those pre-launch books up through Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's "Preacher," Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's "100 Bullets," Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham's "Fables," Mike Carey and Peter Gross's "Lucifer" and "The Unwritten," Grant Morrison's "The Invisibles," Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's "Y: The Last Man" and many, many more.
But in recent years, even with critical darlings like Jeff Lemire's "Sweet Tooth," fortunes shifted.
Indie comics were not new in 1993, or even 1984 when Alan Moore and John Tottleben's first issue of "Saga of Swamp Thing" hit the stands. Los Bros. Hernandez's "Love and Rockets," Art Spiegelman's "Maus," Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and more found popularity and acclaim around this time, and of course the underground comix scene (its own beast, surely) had been around for decades. But Vertigo represented something unique on multiple fronts: It offered its creators ownership contracts, making the publisher an appealing place for comics' best and brightest minds to bring their greatest stories; there was, despite a wild variety in the types of stories being told, a relatively consistent perspective -- readers had a sense of what it was to be a "Vertigo book;" and it benefited from the infrastructure and distribution of DC Comics, helping these stories actually get into readers' hands. There was really no other publisher that could offer this full package; Dark Horse and Fantagraphics are probably the closest analogs, though Fanta's sensibility and audience are quite different and Dark Horse was still in its early days.
Over the past 25 years, though, the comics industry has matured, thanks in no small part to Vertigo itself. Berger and her stable of creators showed what comics could be. Dark Horse matured into a powerhouse thanks to its own roster of early hits like Frank Miller's "Sin City," Paul Chadwick's "Concrete," and Mike Mignola's "Hellboy." Trade book publishers not usually associated with comics began publishing more literary graphic novels.
And then there's Image.
Founded in 1992, one year before Vertigo, in those early days no one would have considered Image Comics a direct competitor for Vertigo's readership or talent. Erik Larsen, Todd MacFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino and Whilce Portacio envisioned Image as a place where they could pursue their art -- invariably, superhero art -- with complete creative control. Early series like "Spawn" and "CyberForce" drew heavily on existing popular franchises like X-Men and Batman, and thanks to the talent of the Image founders these quickly found an audience with the superhero set. But the key tenet from Image from the start was creative ownership and control -- Image owns no intellectual property other than its "i" logo -- and this would shape its future.
Image became a haven for creators looking to publish longform series the way they wanted to, retaining full rights to their creations. Even in those blood-spattered early days, careful readers may have caught a glimpse of things to come, with Colleen Doran's "A Distant Soil," Eric Shanower's "Age of Bronze," and David Lapham's "Stray Bullets." Even Terry Moore's "Strangers in Paradise" landed at Image briefly (and Moore weirdly adapted a more MacFarlanesque style for those issues, quite ill suited to the story). While Larsen's "Savage Dragon" and MacFarlane's "Spawn" have continued uninterrupted from Image's founding, today the publisher is better known for series like "The Walking Dead," "Saga," "The Wicked + The Divine," "Chew" and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' crime titles.
Oh, and thanks to its popular founders' massive success, it's right up with Marvel and DC in the Diamond Previews catalog retailers use to place their orders. No need to linger in obscurity.
In short, it's doing a lot of what Vertigo did. And Vertigo has suffered.
A New Animal
If Vertigo no longer has this space to itself, then, Gerard Way is looking to create an entirely new space with Young Animal. But what does this mean, exactly? "Early Vertigo" had a perspective, one thing the insurgent Image Comics lacks -- what's the through line between "WicDiv" and "Walking Dead?" -- and Way seems intent on resurrecting this sense of identity. The two Way-penned series, "Doom Patrol" and "Cave Carson" (co-written with Jonathan Rivera), as well as "Shade the Changing Girl" by Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone, go heavy on experimental narrative and unknowable characters -- an aggressive weirdness that can be very appealing. These three are all, notably, based on existing DC Comics characters and concepts, though Cave Carson is exceedingly obscure, and the leads in "Shade" and "Doom Patrol" are new characters.
"Mother Panic," written by Jody Houser and illustrated by Tommy Lee Edwards, is harder to pin down -- precisely because it is so conventional. It's a solid comic, and of course Edwards' work is stellar, but it feels very much like a Batman family comic with swears. It takes place in Gotham, Batman makes an appearance in Issue 1. Cameos from DC superheroes were not out of place in "early Vertigo," either, but there was never a sense that "Sandman" was a Justice League book just because Martian Manhunter showed up. Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, and Guy Davis's "Sandman Mystery Theatre" might be the closest comparison for "Mother Panic," with its costumed crimefighter adventures, but that series was identifiable by its setting (the late 1930s), tone, and style, as well as its more mature themes. Based again on only the first issue, it looks as though "Mother Panic" will indeed tackle difficult contemporary themes, but for one of four books launching an entire publishing imprint, it wants more to make it unique.
Even "Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye," despite its amazing title, feels a bit tame. It is, again, not at all a bad comic, but it would feel very much at home among Dark Horse's horror-adventure titles.
The problem, then, is not that these aren't good comics -- they are, and "Doom Patrol" and "Shade" shine especially bright. Rather, the challenge for Young Animal is setting itself apart as an imprint. To recapture the spirit of early Vertigo, and to do it in a way that is meaningful to the current comic book ecosystem, Way will have to do a better job of answering the question, "Why couldn't this be an Image book? Or Dark Horse? Or mainstream DCU?"