Vertigo, DC’s mature readers imprint, celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013. While most frequently remembered for its evergreen ‘90s successes like Swamp Thing, The Sandman and Preacher, Vertigo has regularly reinvented itself and found ways to thrive in the 21st century while growing some of today’s biggest talents. Following the removal of darker DC characters from its library, the publishing line has recommitted itself as DC’s creator-owned destination and will soon debut new projects from Gail Simone and Supernatural creator Eric Kripke.
Inspired by the attractive recent reissue of 2002’s The Filth by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston and Gary Erskine, Paste took stock of the 15 best Vertigo miniseries and original graphic novels of the last 15 years. Narrowing down such a diverse slate of contenders was challenging. Determining the 15 best ongoing series of the same time period proved much easier, if only because many failed to find a foothold in the market. Recent launches like Hinterkind and Saucer Country ended before their 20th issue, and sleeper favorites like Air, Army@Love and The Exterminators couldn’t quite edge out the longer lasting series on the list.
The newest title on this list originally launched five years ago. With longtime guiding voice Karen Berger no longer associated with the company, its longest running series Fables about to end and access to legacy characters like John Constantine and Swamp Thing off limits, Vertigo’s future in its new Burbank offices is likely to look much different than its recent past. Doomsayers will always flock during times of change, though, and Vertigo has reinvented itself before—each book on this list is abundant, enjoyable proof of that.
Writers: Peter Milligan, Mike Carey, Brian Azzarello, Others
Artists: Guiseppe Camuncoli, Leonardo Manco, Marcelo Frusin, Others
Run Dates: December 1987 – February 2013
While Hellblazer wasn’t created within the last 15 years, John Constantine’s series has changed hands frequently and its various eras are distinct and vitally important parts of Vertigo history. Created by Alan Moore and Stephen R. Bissette in the pages of Swamp Thing and launched on his own by Jamie Delano and John Ridgway, Constantine’s Hellblazer is Vertigo’s longest running series ever (300 issues, double the next-longest running series). The series has seen creative turns from some of the best in the industry. Highlights of the past 15 years include Brian Azzarello’s pitch-black run (including the establishment of Constantine’s much-discussed bisexuality), Mike Carey’s fantasy-tinged stint and Peter Milligan’s 50-issue streak, which includes Vertigo’s farewell to John as the chain-smoking mage was reclaimed by DC proper. No one can say DC hasn’t made frequent use of the character in the New 52 (and on television), but Vertigo just feels less Vertigo without a smoking working class mage around.
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Run Dates: July 1999 – April 2009
Agent Graves has an offer to make: a handgun with 100 untraceable bullets to take revenge against anyone who has wronged you. It’s a killer deal, and is just the tip of the iceberg in Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s swirling noir masterpiece. Although it launched just prior to this list’s cutoff date, 100 Bullets was a Vertigo stalwart for the first decade of the 21st century, establishing Azzarello as one of DC’s preeminent (if occasionally grumpy) writers and maintaining crime comics as a vital backbone of Vertigo’s line. Special recognition goes to cover artist Dave Johnson for 100 unique and frequently experimental covers, a feat that helped make him one of the industry’s most in-demand cover artists.
Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Peter Gross, Others
Run Dates: May 2000 – June 2006
DC and Vertigo allowed Neil Gaiman to end The Sandman on his own terms, but the mythos spawned plenty of spin-offs throughout the ‘90s and early aughts. Many have been forgotten (The Sandman Presents: Bast anyone?), but Mike Carey, Peter Gross and a host of other artists sparked the alchemy necessary to propel Lucifer for 75 issues. In the pages of The Sandman, the Morningstar chose to vacate his throne in Hell and reject his predetermined fate. Carey’s gentleman devil has to make good on that brash decision and accept his most fundamental role: a child rejecting the ways of his father.
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artists: Mark Buckingham, Others
Run Dates: May 2002 – tbd 2015
If there is any single heir to The Sandman’s place in the Vertigo canon, it’s Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham’s sprawling and beloved Fables. Since its launch in 2002, Fables has blossomed into a small network of spinoffs and is currently marching toward its conclusion in the delayed 150th issue, a number few series ever live to see. Embracing a huge cast of reimagined fairy tale denizens, Willingham and his artistic collaborators have covered vast, empire-shaking wars and intimate, heartbreaking family losses. The quality has occasionally dipped a bit, but a “bad” issue of Fables is still better than most other books on the stands. The looming conclusion will undoubtedly signal the end of an era for DC’s mature readers imprint—which makes the floating release date of the finale a little easier to bear.
Y: The Last Man
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artists: Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka and Paul Chadwick
Run Dates: September 2002 – January 2008
Saga didn’t happen in a bubble. Before co-creating Image’s biggest post-Walking Dead hit, Brian K. Vaughan built an entirely different speculative-fiction world to make readers sob and gasp regularly. Alongside Pia Guerra and a few guest artists, Vaughan introduced readers to poor Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand, the only apparent survivors of a plague that wiped out every mammal, embryo, egg and sperm on Earth with a Y chromosome. The 59 issues that followed covered all the big questions such a catastrophe would create (like how many people in the presidential chain of command would need to kick the bucket for a woman to take office) without ever losing sight of the human element that makes stories compelling. Vaughan and Guerra also, perhaps expectedly given the chromosomal restrictions, created one of the most varied and interesting casts of original female characters outside of a Los Bros Hernandez joint. It’s a blessing that the film version has been stuck in development limbo. Y the Last Man is a serious contender for best comic series of the new millennium and no adaptation is going to hold a candle to what’s already on the page.
Writer: Andy Diggle
Artists: Jock, Others
Run Dates: August 2003 – March 2006
Forget the well-cast but mediocre film adaptation—Andy Diggle and Jock’s government action thriller is some of the most fun Vertigo has had all decade. Sure, there’s ostensibly a seriously plot about CIA corruption, but it’s really just an excuse for Diggle’s crackling dialogue and Jock’s full range of bulletstorm action sequences. Jock is currently producing nightmare fuel with Scott Snyder in Wytches and Andy Diggle seems to have stalled out a bit at the Big Two, but these 32 issues are, as Quentin Tarantino said about the movie, “dumb fun” in the best way possible.
Writer: Brian Wood
Artists: Riccardo Burchielli, Others
Run Dates: November 2005 – December 2011
Vertigo made its name with dark fantasy and horror, but Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s realistic, boots-on-the-ground account of life after a second American civil war is chilling because it feels possible. Told largely from the perspective of Matty Roth, an embedded journalist (and bit of an asshole) who is plopped into the demilitarized zone and refuses extraction from his furious news network and well-connected parents, DMZ is part cautionary tale, part hardscrabble love letter to the toughest fucking city around. Wood explores the ways in which New York, confronted with challenges that would collapse most cities, digs in its heels and survives. This story—and Wood’s adopted city—has guts.
Writer: Steven T. Seagle
Artists: Becky Cloonan, Ryan Kelly
Run Dates: May 2006 – March 2008
If nothing else, American Virgin gave the world Becky Cloonan’s first long-form work, practically a gift from God in itself. But Steven T. Seagle’s story—involving an abstinent Christian teen superstar, his sexually liberal sister and an unraveling global plot—matches Cloonan’s smoldering line work beat for beat. The series was cut short and the ending is a bit of a downer, but this book did things during its run that would make headlines in today’s comic world, and deserves a place among any Vertigo retrospective. Also: Cloonan drawing a ton of attractive people getting down and dirty.
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artists: R. M. Guera and others
Run Dates: January 2007 – August 2012
Scalped wasn’t Jason Aaron’s first work for Vertigo—that was the stellar Vietnam war story The Other Side with Cameron Stewart—but this organized-crime noir set on a Native American reservation was the breakout accomplishment that helped set him on the path toward Star Wars. It was with Dash Bad Horse and crew that Aaron displayed a sensitivity for bringing out the compelling flaws that plague certain communities without falling into dehumanizing stereotypes. Think of it as humanitarian grindhouse, a skill Aaron would later put to use in Ghost Rider and his current Image series Southern Bastards. Aaron’s collaborator, R. M. Guera, is a suitably grimy fit for The Rez’s seedy dealings, but it’s likely series cover artist Jock’s haunting work that readers remember best, including his emotional, self-referential final cover.
Writer: Brian Wood
Artists: Davide Gianfelice, Ryan Kelly, Leandro Fernández, Others
Run Dates: December 2007 – April 2012
For a few years, Vertigo seemed like the perfect creative match for Brian Wood. In addition to housing DMZ and the exemplary Demo Vol. 2 with Becky Cloonan, the publisher was home to Wood’s brutal, frequently beautiful and often anachronistic Viking saga, Northlanders. Fifty issues is quite the accomplishment for what was essentially an anthology series, a format reflected in a trade dress design that downplayed the title’s name in favor of each new story arc’s title. Varied and talented artists stopped by these pages, including Vasilis Lolos, Dean Ormston and a pre-Saga Fiona Staples. Wood is still exploring the historical angle in books like Rebels for Dark Horse, but it’s hard not to wish for a longer voyage on the Viking warship, which looks to be continuing in the author’s new Black Road series at Image.
Writer: Matt Wagner
Artists: Amy Reeder, Others
Run Dates: June 2008 – November 2010
This gorgeously illustrated title from Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder and a host of guest artists flew a bit under the radar during its original run, but it’s the last, best example of the founding Vertigo principle: take a rarely used DCU character from the darker side of the tracks and build a rich fantasy world just a half step out of sync with DC’s capes-and-tights main universe. Under DC Entertainment, characters like Animal Man, Swamp Thing and Madame Xanadu were absorbed back into the primary universe and removed from Vertigo’s roster. Beyond breaking Rocket Girl’s Reeder to a broader audience, Madame Xanadu was a last hurrah for the way Vertigo first made its mark.
Writer: Joshua Dysart
Artists: Alberto Ponticelli and Pat Masioni
Run Dates: December 2008 – December 2010
Joshua Dysart’s thoroughly researched Ugandan war thriller is one of the most politically scathing books to come out of a major company in the last decade, and easily the most interesting use of DC’s regularly recycled Unknown Soldier moniker. A few years before conversations about representation became more commonplace in the industry, Dysart visited parts of Africa to research the Lord’s Resistance Army firsthand and invited artist Pat Masioni, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to do an arc on the book. The series never found an audience that matched its quality, but managed a haunting, satisfying early end regardless. If there’s any short-lived Vertigo book of recent times that deserves your delayed attention (or a convenient omnibus), Unknown Soldier is it.
The Unwritten/ The Unwritten: Apocalypse
Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Peter Gross and others
Run Dates: May 2009 – October 2013/ January 2014 – December 2014
In some ways, it feels like The Unwritten (and its 12-issue conclusion, The Unwritten: Apocalypse) is the last great “classic Vertigo” series. It reunites the veritable Vertigo royalty of Mike Carey and Peter Gross years after their Lucifer finale to tell the tale of Tom Taylor, son of mega-selling author Wilson Taylor and the basis for his father’s boy wizard protagonist. Unlike the fictional Tommy Taylor, real-life Tom has accomplished little of note until a man claiming to be his fictional arch-nemesis attacks him at a fan convention and everything begins to unravel. What feels at first like a fun swipe at Harry Potter spins into a broader meditation on the relationship between “real” life and fiction, with Carey expertly interweaving classics of literature along the way. Carey and Gross know how to work on the same wavelength after years of collaboration, but its illustrator Yuko Shimizu’s elaborate, illuminated covers that push this one over the edge into the highest ranks of long-run Vertigo series.
with Matt Kindt
Run Dates: September 2009 – January 2013
No one was asking for another post-apocalyptic story when Canadian cartoonist Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth debuted in 2009, but barefoot, antlered, chocolate-craving Gus proved impossible to ignore. One part The Road, one part The Island of Dr. Moreau, Lemire’s Sweet Tooth helped catapult the writer into the unlikely role of DC’s top superhero revamp guy, eventually responsible for salvaging Green Arrow and launching a brand-new Justice League title. In the midst of Sweet Tooth’s global catastrophe, Lemire kept the focus on the human (or mostly human) element. His knack for writing about familial bonds led to his critically acclaimed New 52 run on Animal Man, a title that once fell under the Vertigo banner itself.
American Vampire/ American Vampire: Second Cycle
(with Stephen King)
Artists: Rafael Albuquerque and others
Run Dates: March 2010 – January 2013/ March 2014 – Ongoing
American Vampire not only put current Batman scribe Scott Snyder and Ei8ht creator Rafael Albuquerque on the map in a major way, it also gave us Pearl and Skinner Sweet, the two most memorable additions to the vampire canon since 2004’s Let The Right One In. It’s easy to forget, but American Vampire debuted in the middle of the Twilight fog, at a time when vampire stories felt overplayed and defanged by popular culture. Snyder and Albuquerque (with some initial help from a little-known guest writer named Stephen King) brought the danger of the concept back to the forefront, and created one of the modern Vertigo classics in the process. Skipping through time has allowed Snyder to live out all of his nostalgic obsessions, from Depression-era jazz to 1950’s greasers and hot rods. The newly launched Second Cycle has kept the story moving at a frantic pace, expanding the mythology to space, Satan, and beyond.