Punching Through Reality #1
Worried for Vertigo
By Ryan Miller
Of all the news that came out of a little comic convention in San Diego, one piece of news stuck out to me. It wasn't that Marvel Studios was planning to give Rocket Raccoon his cinema debut before Warner gave us the Wonder Woman and Flash movies the fans have been demanding for years. It wasn't that Deadpool was getting a video game, for some reason. It wasn't J. Michael Straczynski finally creating his own company to produce his work, presumably to avoid bitter editorial destruction of his work. Hell, it wasn't even that some 53 year old Twilight fan was hit by a car.
It was Sandman.
I know what you're thinking: "Why should I care about Thomas Haden Church?"
I'd of course reply that Thomas Haden Church is a respected actor, and not the Sandman I referred to. You're thinking of the Spiderman 3 abortion.
At this point you're probably wondering how I got into your head and should check yourself into a clinic.
Where were we? Oh, right. Sandman. In the 80s, Neil Gaiman(Yes, that Neil Gaiman) had talks with the then DC editor, Karen Berger, about a new series featuring a new character created by Neil called Sandman. The titular character being the Sandman, bringer of dreams. I'm sure just once you've heard reference to the song "Hey Mr. Sandman... bring me a dream!"
The series went on to be one of the most universally praised pieces of fantasy fiction in history and landed itself on the New York Times best-seller list. Not many comics can make that claim. By issue 47, Sandman officially transitioned over to the Vertigo imprint. Vertigo, at that time and for years after, was publishing some of the best comics ever made. Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis. Y the Last Man by Brian K Vaughan. Preacher by Garth Ennis. The Invisibles By Grant Morrison. 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello. These were comics for adults with big concepts, unique premises and great stories. More importantly, these were stories by fresh new talent.
Cut to June 2012. Vertigo isn't what it once was. Most of the titles being published at this time, with few exceptions, are lackluster. It can be argued of course that some of the titles are still good. Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire is a good example of this. It's also a good example of a title that won't be around much longer. Jeff Lemire is ending the title with issue 40. Fables and Hellblazer are still good, but they have been very long running, quality books. Is that bad? Yes and no. Fables and Hellblazer are the only two books that have no definite end, which is awesome, but were not exactly seeing anything new. By now we know these titles and there isn't anything new being brought to the table. Mike Carey is writing a book called The Unwritten, but the finale for that can't be more than a couple years away.
As for the new books, I can't even give a melodramatic "Meh" for them. The New Deadwardians hasn't grabbed me at all, Saucer County is a book that even its fans aren't sure why they're reading, and Fairest is just a spin off of Fables. Why is this happening? For the answer we have to look to another comic publisher, namely Image.
"Image?" you ask with a raised eyebrow. Yes, Image. The same company that pretty much ruined the 90s for everyone else.
"Ruined?" you ask with obvious fanboy disgust. Image was formed by a bunch of creators to get away from Marvel and DC and house the creator owned work they wanted to write. Most of it was derivative garbage, with some definite exceptions, but they all sold like Beanie Babies circa 1995. Needless to say, other companies took notice.
The books themselves were mostly poorly written stories about anti-heroes with art that, with the exception of Rob Liefeld, was admittedly pretty solid. So why did these book sell so many copies? Probably the same reason you bought thirty copies of Spawn and Youngblood #1. First off, you like the idea of comics aimed at teenagers with giant boobs, thin waists, big guns, and bloodbloodblood. I mean one could obviously argue that boobs have, as a general rule, always been big in comics, but have you ever read old image comics? Of course you have! You have thirty copies of Youngblood #1!
When other companies took notice, they started following the path of darkness and changed everything into a mess of nonsense where things had to follow the Image path to sell. Anti-Heroes littered the land and heroics were pretty scarce.
Cut to today. Image, due to great contracts, is the new Vertigo.
"Contracts?" you ask with a confused look. "What do great comics have to do with contracts?"
I can answer this with one word: Everything. Anyone can make a book at Image Comics. You, your grandmother, and even Rob Liefeld can write comics that Image will publish. Here's the deal: You write a comic, you draw a comic, and you fund it while they publish it and send you a check based on sales. It's true that I'm over-simplifying. You do have to get approved by the publisher. However, anything you do under Image is entirely creator owned. Everything. You make the book, you own it, and they publish it. At Vertigo, they pay you a page rate and own the book. They own it and can do what they like with it(See: Before Watchmen)
"Okay, so what does this all mean?" you're asking.
It means that the top talent in the funny-book business who can afford to make their own books will be flocking to Image. It means that Robert Kirkman can write the Walking Dead and make his very own television show based on his book as opposed to Alan Moore writing Watchmen and Warner telling him to fuck off when he says he doesn't want a movie based off his work.You have control at Image, while Vertigo controls you and your hardwork.
Let's have a scorecard for Image VS Vertigo right now, shall we? These are series that are current and recent, or recently announced, by industry greats.
Robert Kirkman's Invincible, Thief of Thieves and Walking Dead
Brian Wood's Mara
Grant Morrison's Happy
Jonathan Hickman's Secret and Manhattan Projects
Ed Brubaker's Fatale
Brian K Vaughan's Saga
Joe Casey's The Bounce and Sex
Greg Rucka's Lazarus
Matt Fraction's Satellite Sam
James Robinson's The Saviors
Bill Willingham's Fables and Fairest
Scott Snyder's American Vampire
Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth
Peter Milligan on Hellblazer
Sean Murphy's Punk Rock Jesus
Mike Carey's The Unwritten
It may not be completely fair that I left off some of the lesser known creator's projects, but those projects aren't exactly something I'd be willing to throw money at. Image continue to stockpile talent by the kilo and it seems Vertigo is barely able to hold any of the top talent creators.
"What does this have to do with Sandman and Neil Gaiman?" you ask, obviously annoyed with how long it's taken me to get to the point of this editorial.
At San Diego Comic Con, it was announced that Neil Gaiman would be doing work for Vertigo again. Not only that, but he's coming back to work on the beloved series he created that rocketed him to stardom. Not only that, but he's bring JH Williams(Promethea, Batwoman) along for the ride for art duties.
This is a big deal and not just because it's more Sandman. Gaiman wanted to do this project years ago for Sandman's 20th Anniversary, but the contract was lacking. Apparently Vertigo offered him pretty much what his contract was initially when he started Sandman. Let's repeat that: Vertigo offered superstar author Neil Gaiman the same page rate from 1988 twenty years after Sandman came out. Since that time, Neil has become a prominent novelist and celebrity and married Amanda Palmer. He's practically become a rock-star(See: 8in8)
It's been revealed that since the initial contract was rejected, Vertigo had a change of heart which may or may not have anything to do with Before Watchmen's incredible success, despite the fact that all the whiny fans pretended to boycott it. The sales had to come from somewhere, guys.
"So what does this mean for Vertigo?" you're now asking. I'm glad you asked.
I've been asked several times if I was worried for the Vertigo imprint and it's future. A month ago, I'd have said yes, most assuredly. However, knowing that Vertigo was willing to re-negotiate even one contract tells me that a storm of change is coming. I'm not saying that suddenly Vertigo will change the declaration of ownership from their contracts or various other bits, but I am saying if they're willing to work with one creator, it's likely that they'll begin working with more of the top talent again. Working for Vertigo doesn't have the incentive it used to, so it's time they change that. I'm confident that instead of shutting down the imprint, we'll see a veritable hailstorm of new titles with shiny new contracts for creators. DC isn't a stupid company and comics are an evolving industry. They'll take notice, if this isn't an indication they already have. In this industry, it's evolve or die. Vertigo isn't dead yet.
- Ryan Miller