I've heard it said more times than I can count, "Image is the new Vertigo."
In 1993, when DC Comics founded Vertigo around a handful of more adult-oriented titles, mostly featuring faded properties reimagined by British creators as horror, sci-fi and fantasy comics, the imprint was one the relatively few games in town for high-production-value genre comics for adults
That same year Image celebrated its first birthday, and although it was a sales juggernaut, the publisher was at that point little more than a vanity press for a handful of creators doing pastiches of their favorite DC and Marvel superheroes.
Things sure have changed, and even more so in the past five years, hence the increasing frequency of "Image is the new Vertigo." It seems especially relevant when you see creators with longstanding relationships with DC and Vertigo launch new titles at Image: Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham's Nameless, Scott Snyder and Jock's Wytches, and Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen's Descender, to name but a few
I found "Image is the new Vertigo" rattling around my head again this week, as Image launched three new series. I read two*, both horror, sci-fi and fantasy-tinged comics for adults, by British creators: Injection and Mythic.
The former is the work of Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, whose previous collaboration was the complete reinvention of Marvel's Moon Knight; that run was just six issues long, but the title is still coasting off of the fumes of the template they created.
I should pause here to note that Ellis rose to prominence in America with a long, healthy run on the Vertigo series Transmetropolitan (as is seemingly required of every British writer, Ellis also wrote Hellblazer for a time).
The first issue of Injection is very much a first issue, meaning it's quite obviously difficult to assess the series as a whole, or even guess where it might be going with much accuracy. It opens with the introduction of Maria Kilbride, who's living in a particularly sinister-looking sanitarium; she walks with a cane, is fed by a tube, bears a tattoo of a hypodermic needle on her forearm, and really, really wants a sandwich.
She is – or was, and apparently will be – a member of a team of very smart, very talented people from several disciplines who have been gathered together in a sort of think tank to investigate ... stuff. Exotic stuff, from places other than here (with "here" referring to Earth as we commonly know it).
In flashback we meet the rest of her team, and in the present we see where a few of them apparently ended up – in better shape than Kilbride, obviously. The issue seems mostly focused on introducing a few of these characters, hinting at the premise, and then essentially getting the band back together to investigate something scary, fantastic and mind-boggling (for the characters; you've likely read similar reveals before).
Ellis brings his typical cynical, even world-weary, characters to the most fantastic scenes, so that when two of them are faced with things that should blow their minds, they react somewhere between mildly sarcastic and bored.
As is to be expected, this is a rather gorgeous comic, with Shalvey offering clear, crisp, eloquent artwork that manages storytelling strong enough that, if you stripped out all the dialogue balloons and read the book, you'd still get a pretty good sense of what might be going on. Bellaire adds hints of contrast between the present and past, the mundane and the fantastic.
It's a pretty good comic, in other words, and as all first issues should, it gives you more than enough to decide whether you want to buy Issue 2, wait for the trade, or move on to something else.
The same goes for Mythic, by writer Phil Hester and artist John McCrea (and a major contribution from Rian Hughes, who designed the wonderful logo, which is both the name of the comic and the team of characters). Now Hester, unlike Ellis, Shalvey and McCrea, was not born on the other side of the Atlantic, so this comic's creative team is only half-British, but Hester did work as an artist on Vertigo's Swamp Thing for a time!
This first issue is a rather thorough extrapolation of the solicitation text, which even took some lines directly from the dialogue of the book itself. It opens with Nate, a cell phone repairman who's also awesome at fighting, being attacked by a super-weird and scary monster of sorts, and, upon successfully defeating it, being recruited to join Mythic Lore Services.
The group also consists of a prophet named Cassandra (hopefully the Cassandra, or else that's a bit too on the nose) and a mysterious guy with a scary monster living in his tooth named Waterson. They're apparently something between a police force and a repair service for reality, the nature of which is different than we might have assumed.
In a bit of philosophical jujitsu, it turns out that religion isn't the opiate for the masses, science is, and the world really does run on myth and magic. This whole "science" thing is just another form of superstition, although a rather insidious and effective form, as it casts anything other than itself as superstition.
It's a clever premise, and in McCrea Hester has an ideal collaborator, able to effectively draw serious, representational human beings and environments, but also ready, willing and able to cut loose and depict things bordering on the insane, modulating his style to something looser and more cartoony to contrast just how alien the monsters are from the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, if Image is the new Vertigo, what of the old Vertigo, Vertigo?
Well, the imprint didn't debut Injection or Mythic this week, nor is it publishing Nameless, Wytches and Descender. However, Vertigo is hardly creatively bankrupt. They released five issues of in-progress series this week: Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's long-running Astro City, a spinoff of Bill Willingham's Fables titled Fables: The Wolf Among Us, Caitlin Kittridge and Inaki Miranda's TV-ready supernatural drama Coffin Hill, Simon Oliver and Alberto Ponticelli's sci-fi series FBP, and the third issue of Strange Sports Stories.
That last one is particularly noteworthy, as it's a good example of Vertigo continuing to do one thing that defined the imprint: exploiting old, unused DC intellectual properties in unexpected ways. The original Strange Sports Stories was a short-lived anthology from the early '70s; this is a four-issue miniseries, each issue of which is further subdivided into short stories.
While anthologies have been a tough sell in the direct market since ... well, since I've been old enough to read, it's one thing Vertigo has been doing extremely well over the past few years. It has published over-sized, jam-packed single-issue anthologies taking their names from defunct DC anthologies; Vertigo just wrapped up their "color" series and are launching one based on sound effects, and now there's this.
As with all anthologies, the quality varies from story to story, and each reader will like different stories more than others,=. The new breed of Vertigo anthologies does offer an awful lot of variety though, and a combination of established creators one might not expect to show up in a DC Comic with newer creators.
Strange Sports Stories has been a particularly winning run so far, kicking off with an issue that featured a Paul Pope cover, and a Gilbert Hernandez story within. This issue – the one featuring a chimpanzee boxing a robot – offers four stories. My favorite is Monica Gallagher and Michael J. Dimotta's evocatively titled "Sharks Vs. Mermaids," in which the animation cel-like dart depicts the two parties participating in their annual race ... and then joining forces against a common enemy, humans.
The issue also features a story by a real-life veteran of a strange sport, C.M. Punk, in which he and artist Andy MacDonald have fun with the mascots and team names of various sports teams. Rounding out the issue is a supernatural sumo wrestling story by Brandon Montclare and Natachia Bustos and a brutal football-meets-The Running Man story by Ben McCool, Darick Robertson and Rich Clark.
Is Image the new Vertigo? There are certain weeks where that certainly seems to be the case, at least from the point-of-view of a reader. As long as Vertigo isn't the old Image, though, that's not necessarily a bad thing. If we're getting comics like these on a regular basis, then the more Vertigos the better.
*Sorry Ed Brisson and Brian Level's The Mantle.