DC Black Label is Reviving Vertigo's Legacy

DC Black Label is Reviving Vertigo's Legacy

For those who grew up reading comics in the 1990s, the DC Comics announcement in 2018 that Vertigo was coming to an end was bittersweet. Vertigo emerged out of a trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s where some select books, mostly in the realm of superheroes, started being labeled with a “Suggested for Mature Readers” designation. While the Comics Code Authority was a thing of the past, there was still a pretty standard “all ages” format for superhero books where you would assume things like explicit violence, difficult language, and sexuality would be stripped out. When a number of British authors like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan and others started coming stateside with DC Comics (this was called the “British Invasion” in comics), they started pushing the limits of a lot of these characters. This was most obvious with Moore’s Watchman and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which legitimized the more mature approach to the superhero genre.

What a lot of these authors did was take the genre and characters and pull them out of their original context, recenter the ideas and make the structures of the comics the object of the narrative themselves. Superheroes exist as a “rich text”: how they exist tells us a lot about how our society creates values and assigns heroism. Moore refashioned the origin stories of characters like Swamp Thing and Miracle Man, and took many of their powers and storylines to a more extreme, though in some ways logical, conclusion. Miracle Man became a godlike figure who ran a totalitarian socialist empire based on the infinity of his powers. A series of writer’s took the character of Animal Man, who communed with and controlled animals as his superpower, and made him a cult leader and animal rights campaigner. Grant Morrison took fringe characters and made them into a surreal band of misfits called the Doom Patrol, tearing at the boundary between the page and the reader. What Vertigo accomplished was to “overheat” the comics medium, to create a dynamic artform that respected, rather than obliterated, the storytelling model of the superhero.

Over time, things at Vertigo changed. These books were existing on the edges of DC Comics' larger continuity, but that began to end and new, creator-owned titles took priority. Part of this was that the dark side of superhero books, once popular with readers, started to be relegated back to the fringes as the “sunny side up” approach to superhero lore became more in demand. There were still challenging superhero stories to be told, and the companies could never again reclaim the innocence that earlier generations had afforded these characters, but the avant-garde was now left mostly to non-licensed characters. Vertigo evolved into a creator owned imprint in the vein of companies like Image Comics, publishing mostly genre books and periodically reviving earlier popular franchises like Sandman. The sales did linger near the bottom of the charts, and DC decided to call Vertigo quits.

While the loss of the brand was sad for readers, DC did follow it up immediately with a new imprint: DC Black Label. DC was bringing in all imprint-relegated titles into the larger DC label, likely a piece of a synergistic brand consolidation as they tried to compete with the multi-media powerhouse of Marvel Comics. They announced then that DC Black Label would be home to mature reader titles, most of which would include DC’s favorite characters in stories not hindered by the larger DC continuity (all DC comics exist in the same universe and so arcane narratives make creating dynamic stories difficult). This was the silver linings to the closure of Vertigo Comics: superheroes were again being put on the analyst's couch.

In the run up to the DC Black Label imprint was another one was formed called Young Animal, run by former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, which also took a “mature readers” approach to superheroes. He largely revived contemporary versions of characters popular on Vertigo in the 1990s, and while this approach created an interesting and spastic re-evaluation of these characters, it was mostly unique to Way’s perspective. What DC Black Label promised was an all-voices approach to deconstructing superheroes, which allowed the full vision that Vertigo had created in the 1990s.

Now that we have seen over two-dozen titles released under DC Black Label, we are seeing the early stages of perhaps a new renaissance in superhero creativity. 2021 highlighted this turn as DC released a series of titles that opened up how we can think about their canon, and what they say about the frenetic crisis we have lived in since the Coronavirus pandemic emerged.

Tom King has emerged as one of DC’s most important figures, first with Mister Miracle, the kind of title that would have fit perfectly in the heyday of Vertigo and that takes on some of the subtle complexities that underlie the basic assumptions of superhero lore. Instead of leaving it there, he took a similar approach to Strange Adventures, where he again revived a relatively minor character from DC’s history, Adam Strange, and saw something inside the character’s bio that could draw out a political parable that was especially relevant as we lived in the gap between fact and fiction during the election and its aftermath. Strange Adventures was one of those titles that was fit perfectly for these edge imprints and there were several attempts at reviving the book in the past, including a 2009 Vertigo anthology that allowed an album’s worth of talent take their own stab at an Adam Strange story and an earlier 1999 miniseries.

In 2021’s Strange Adventures, King introduces us to Strange as he runs a victory lap after helping win a war against a hostile alien race on the planet of Rann, the home of his wife. He is hocking a book on his fight, yet questions emerge about what exactly he did in the line of battle and if he was guilty of war crimes. The Justice League hires Mr. Terrific (another forgotten character) to investigate it, and we begin an alternating narrative that takes us through the escalating war on Rann, where Strange tries desperately to stop an impending genocide with the help of other heroes, and the detective work revealing the complex character he actually is.

Like many deconstructionist stories in comics past, what we are left with is a broken person who made a series of morally murky choices, ones that the characters throughout the stories are often unable to process. One thing that will be difficult for new comics readers is the fragmented story, which rarely explains to the reader how to actually approach the material and constantly switches back and forth in time, often even in the same page. In a world where comics companies are now building multi-billion dollar brands, there is something charming about a comic being written to specifically comic book fans, and Strange Adventure uses the medium to its fullest capacity no matter how difficult this could be to the uninitiated. While Vertigo work during its Golden Age was not known for its comics art (though it was often known for its striking cover art by emerging artists like Dave McKean), Strange Adventures pushes the boundaries for how good storytelling panels can look as Mitch Gerads and Doc Shaner double up on creating some of the most striking superhero art of the decade.

The ethically complicated implications of superheroes, their relationship with state power, accountability, and even moral strictures, is part of where these sorts of books shine. Rorschach was another title that took on this model in 2021 and met the heightened expectations that would come for any title featuring this famous character. Rorschach was one of the key characters of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Moore tried in vain to stop his characters from being repurposed in later books. The point for Moore was that Watchmen used the superhero genre to break apart the concept of heroes and heroism and he didn’t want those iconic characters to then become a part of the same DC continuity he was critiquing in the first place. DC held the rights, and eventually published Before Watchmen, a collection of prequel miniseries that, while certainly earning their “mature readers” stamp, did not jump into the philosophic questions that Watchmen did. Later, DC even dropped them into the kind of bloated crossover event that alienated Moore from the comics world in the first place, Doomsday Clock, and so a return to this universe seemed unlikely. The HBO Watchmen show changed things by elevating the material into a worthy sequel, one that took the conditions of the original seriously and took on the crisis of judicial legitimacy we are currently living in.

Tom King’s 12-issue Rorschach miniseries also tries to do this by highlighting Rorschach not as an individual, but as a chosen identity in the same way as the HBO series did. It looks into the future of a multi-term Robert Redford presidency, and an assassination attempt of his Republican rival by an assailant wearing a Rorschach mask. The story takes us into a complicated web of interpersonal narratives: a woman whose father raised her in a militia preparing for the return of the squids (which brought disaster to New York at the end of the original Watchmen); a comic book creator who developed some of the most iconic figures in modern media yet remained an invisible nebbish; an investigator who is trying to put together these confusing pieces and to find out who pulled the trigger, and why. Rorschach becomes less a consistent character throughout and instead an almost ghostly avatar, one that people inhabit when they are channeling their own cynical need to succumb to ecstatic violence. The heroes were now gone, and the people left had to interpret the disappearance in, as one character soliloquies, two ways: they ran without hope, or they passed their legacy on to the rest of us.

“Existence is the gathering of nonsense,” says the artist, pawing through guns with his young admirer. “You wake and you fool yourself into believing there are patterns in the chaos, and you label these patterns ‘words’ or ‘gods.’ You spend your time fitting these words or Gods into other patterns and you try to forget that it was you who fit them together. You think you have a choice in this. You don’t.”

Just as with the original, the idea of heroism, or even of the ability for us to be heroic, is brought into near futility. But this brings us into a more contemporary framework by placing the responsible parties amongst a contested political storm, where conspiracy, distrust, and occultic speculation problematize what is, at its core, a simple story about how human benevolence is so easily reshaped into violence.

This crisis of confidence was seen throughout the titles that DC Black Label released during the pandemic, something which seems as conscious as it was apt, and this included the return of Sweet Tooth. Originally a comic from Vertigo in the early 2000s, Sweet Tooth was picked up as a show on Netflix so it made sense that DC wanted to capitalize on this attention by bringing the book back for a short stint. Sweet Tooth followed an animal-human hybrid as he is raised by his father, only to then enter into a world wracked by a plague and a human society ready to blame him for it. The book is interestingly both written and drawn by Jeff Lemire, someone who has become one of the most notable writers in comics and whose visual style, which we see infrequently, is a distinctive sketch of fragile and often vulnerable human characters.

Sweet Tooth: The Return, which was first released as a six-issue miniseries, avoids simply rehashing the past to tie into the television show and instead jumps headfirst into a dystopian story of its own that would require a pretty solid understanding of the earlier series to make heads or tales of what is going on. Set three hundred years after the conclusion of the original, our main character Gus is now living in an underground world run by a priestly caste that forces him into solitude. We quickly learn that this is a ruse and Gus is simply part of a ghastly experiment to try and save the rest of humanity who believe they are still under threat from a globally lethal virus, despite evidence to the contrary. Those in power in this cave-dwelling society have tied their fear and anger around the pandemic to a class of people, the animal-hybrids, who they believe are responsible, and enacting cruelty onto those who appear profoundly different to themselves becomes more important than simply returning to a life worth living.

While Sweet Tooth: The Return is a noble addition, it doesn’t quite capture the steam of the original. It does, however, pick up a Vertigo classic character, revives them, and allows it to shed an even more analytical eye to the original while creating a pressing commentary on our own conflicts around public health, immigration, and scapegoating. What seems relevant here is the choice that was made, where Lemire was encouraged to take Sweet Tooth into an even more controversial space, one that allowed it to be a vessel for a challenging narrative rather than just a celebration of the characters. This is the kind of approach that had kept Vertigo on the edge of comics for so many years, and that will hopefully set the tone at DC Black Label as well.

Lemire has been on a streak since the creation of DC Black Label, taking characters in a darker direction that challenges their sanity and builds a resonance beyond die hard genre fans. His recent book The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage he revived an almost forgotten character and with Joker: Killer Smile he takes on memory and identity, the underlying psychological fear we aren’t who we believe ourselves to be, in such a striking way that he completely obliterated the tired tropes we have come to know these DC characters with. This is exactly the reason that Vertigo had been such a breathtaking success in its earlier generation, and now a procession of titles have recaptured some of this lightening for a new readership.

These books established the imprint in 2021 as a place to carry on the legacy it inherited form Vertigo, as well as republishing new additions of older Vertigo books over the past two years. Again, the choices were distinct, often republishing less popular books like Peter Milligan’s surrealist teen comedy Girl or an Omnibus edition of Nancy A. Collins’ Swamp Thing run. These show a commitment to maintaining the well manicured niche that people expected of Vertigo, and disallowing the imprint to simply be another place to replay the same character stories that have been anchoring comics continuity for fifty years.