In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore and Animal Man and Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison ranked amongst DC Comics’ most successful or critically acclaimed titles. Moore and Morrison, along with young writers Neil Gaiman and Peter Milligan, were spearheading a new wave of comics with the company, clearly aimed at adult readers and tackling mature content and darker themes. Editor Karen Berger, who oversaw the work of each of these writers at DC Comics, then advocated for the company to develop a new imprint, associated with but distinct from DC, to publish their work and the work of similar writers looking to reach an older audience. In 1993, DC responded by creating the Vertigo imprint, with Berger as its executive editor. Though Moore’s Swamp Thing run and Morrison’s runs on Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol ended before its creation (hence their absence from this list), other writers stepped in to fill their void, both on those titles and on new material adored by the same readership that enjoyed their titles.
Berger finally left Vertigo and DC Comics in March 2013, leaving behind one of the most important legacies in the history of comics. Vertigo, however, continues under new leadership to create lasting quality work. Four of its series have won the Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series, and some of the greatest writers of the last twenty years either started with Vertigo or created their greatest work for the imprint.
Vertigo demonstrated a desire for mature material that has only grown since, and proved that comics are capable of telling some truly ambitious and wildly creative stories uniquely suited to the medium. While it was hard to narrow it down to just ten series from their extraordinary catalogue (leaving off Scott Snyder’s current series American Vampire was a particularly difficult decision), here are my choices for the best Vertigo has produced since their inception over twenty years ago.
10. DMZ by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchelli
Set in a mostly depopulated near-future Manhattan which has been transformed into a demilitarized zone between the US government and the forces of a secessionist group called the Free States, Wood and Burchelli crafted one of the most fully realized fictional worlds ever seen in a series. A war-torn meditation on patriotism, survival and loss, the series captured many of the feelings and opinions swelling in the post-9/11 environment, as well as the experiences of the US invasion of Iraq and the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. With great characters, a fully realized environment and a timely look at some of America’s most pressing issues, this 72 issue series, published from 2005-2012, stands as one of Vertigo’s best.
9. Preacher by Garth Ennis
Deeply religiously controversial, but equally deeply loved by its fans, Preacher has consistently polarized its readers. Over 66 issues from 1995-2000, the series follows Jesse Custer, a small town Texas preacher who is possessed by Genesis, the offspring of an angel and a demon and thus becomes possibly the most powerful being in existence. Among the series’ cast are an invincible Angel of Death, an organization named the Grail who profess to protect Jesus’ bloodline and control world governments, several fallen angels, a drunken Irish vampire, and God as the ultimate antagonist of the series. Preacher won Eisner Awards for Best Continuing Series, Best Writer and Best Colorist, and is currently in development to become a TV series on AMC.
8. Scalped by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera
Spanning 60 issues from 2007-2012, Aaron and Guera’s crime series centered upon Dashiell Bad Horse, one of the Oglala Lakota members of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Bad Horse, an FBI agent sent undercover to the home he left fifteen years before, fits into the popular anti-hero trend in television from the past 10-15 years, and critics and reviewers have compared Scalped to TV series like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and The Shield. Examining the issues of drug and alcohol use, poverty levels in Native American communities and the cultural and political problems faced by Native Americans in the United States, the series deftly offers social commentary and emotional moments in the midst of a gripping crime saga. Unlike The Sopranos, however, the ending is widely praised as one of the best to any series, offering a fitting conclusion to a series that thrilled loyal readers for years.
7. Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robinson
Spider Jerusalem, the journalist main character of Transmetropolitan, is a tribute to the great Hunter S. Thompson. Set in a cyberpunk-like futuristic science fiction landscape most similar to Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix, the series begins with Jerusalem exploring his city and telling smaller stories before moving into a larger arc concerning his efforts to uncover the corruption of President Gary Callahan, nicknamed “The Smiler.” One of the most memorable characters in Vertigo’s history, Spider Jerusalem’s exploits throughout the 60 issues published from 1997-2002 are worth reading for any fans of science fiction, investigative journalism or inventive storytelling.
6. Fables by Bill Willingham
Years before the TV show Once Upon a Time, Tim Burton’s film Alice in Wonderland or Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent movie were conceived, Willingham re-imagined many of the most iconic characters of fairy tales and folklore into members of a displaced community in New York City called Fabletown. With one of the widest casts of any Vertigo series, ranging from Snow White and Cinderella to Mowgli and Santa Claus, the series is similarly able to capture a wide variety of tones, from its initial murder mystery arc, domestic drama, grand adventures or war stories.
Debuting in 2002, the series is currently ongoing but will conclude with issue 150 early in 2015. It has also spawned the completed fifty issue spin-off series Jack of Fables, another spin-off series entitled Fairest in 2012, which focuses on the series’ female characters and will also conclude in early 2015, and several other mini-series. The series won Eisners for Best Serialized Story Award in 2003, 2005 and 2006, Best New Series in 2003, Best Writer in 2009 and several others for lettering and cover art. While several others have since copied Willingham’s repurposing of fairy tales, in the words of Carly Simon, “nobody does it better” than Fables.
5. The Invisibles by Grant Morrison
Written over 59 issues in three volumes from 1994-2000, The Invisibles allowed Morrison to unleash his creativity, imagination and philosophy to the fullest. Centering on a group, which includes a chaos magician, a transgender shaman and a Liverpudlian hooligan who could become the next Buddha, that use time travel, magic and violence to fight the Archons of the Outer Church, a group of interdimensional aliens. They secretly hold humanity as its slaves, so nobody can accuse Morrison of holding back or diluting his ideas. Best suited to those who have experience with Morrison’s other work or a great deal of comfort with equally bizarre storytelling, The Invisibles offers a unique telling experience for those willing to take the leap, and will delight some while confounding others.
4. 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
A violent, gritty pulp noir comic, Azzarello and Risso began the series with one of the simplest and most utterly engrossing premises in comics history: if you had the ability to take revenge without any chance of being caught, would you take it? Many characters are given a choice by Agent Graves to accept or refuse his offer of a handgun and all the information needed to find their target and 100 completely untraceable bullets, each arriving at different decisions and achieving varied levels of success and satisfaction. Aside from the pulp drama and moral implications, however, the series eventually constructs a larger mythology to form a meta-arc that encompasses much of the latter part of the series. The 100 issue series, published from 1999-2009, is one of Vertigo’s best and most decorated, winning Eisner Awards for Best Continuing Series, Best Writer and Best Artist.
3. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
The 60 issue series, published from 2002-2008, follows Yorick and his pet monkey Ampersand as they navigate a world in which they are the only living mammals left on Earth. Throughout its character driven but action packed tale, Y: The Last Man explores many gender issues, while also providing political intrigue, adventure, and a series of complex and brilliantly crafted characters. Winning the Eisners for Best Continuing Series in 2008, Best Writer in 2005 and Best Artist in 2008, and accumulating a huge fanbase, the series carries tremendous depth and is worth re-reading if you have already completed the series. There have been several attempts to adapt the series into a film, series of films or a TV show, but none have been successful so far.
2. Hellblazer by various writers
First created as a secondary character in Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, magician and occult detective John Constantine gained his own series in 1988, preceding the creating of Vertigo. Hellblazer ran 300 issues until its conclusion in 2013. Originally written by Jamie Delano, the series also had runs by five of the writers on this list – Garth Ennis (Preacher), Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan), Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets), Grant Morrison (The Invisibles) and Neil Gaiman – as well as Paul Jenkins, Mike Carey, Andy Diggle and Peter Milligan. Wearing his iconic trench coat and smoking cigarettes, John Constantine worked in the gray areas, manipulating, misdirecting and deceiving others to meet his ends or solve problems and made enemies more easily than friends. Often tinged with horror and the supernatural, Hellblazer is by far the longest series in the Vertigo’s history and is in many ways its definitive series.
1. Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenburg and Sam Kieth
Neil Gaiman has since become a literary phenomenon, with adult fantasy novels like American Gods, Anansi Boys and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and film adaptations of Stardust, another of his adult novels, and Coraline, a novel targeted at teen readers. He started, however, as a comics writer, and his dark fantasy series Sandman stands as arguably the greatest comics series of all time. The series centers on Dream, or Morpheus, his actions after escaping a decades-long imprisonment and his interactions with his fellow members of the Endless: Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium and Destruction.
The series attracted a greater number of older and female readers, as well as readers who did not collect or read any other series, and went on to win a multitude of awards. These awards included 26 Eisners, including three for Best Continuing Series and four for Best Writer, as well as a World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1991. The series is one of four graphic novels to make the New York Times Best Seller List, and one of five to be featured in Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Best Reads from 1983-2008 list. After several failed adaptation attempts, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has partnered with David Goyer and Gaiman on a proposed film version.