Last week, the best-selling Vertigo series Fables came to an end with a special book-length final issue, and so did Vertigo’s reign as a top publisher of creator-owned comics. The DC imprint is down to just seven titles, several of which are slated to end soon, leaving the long-running Astro City as the closest thing to a flagship title. Where does Vertigo go from here?
Vertigo knows it needs to clean house. Earlier this year, it hired a new editor-in-chief, writer/editor Jamie S. Rich, and announced a slate of 12 new titles to drop at the end of 2015. Some of the new series look fantastic: A Gilbert Hernandez/Darwyn Cooke team-up? Yes please. A romantic comedy about a geek girl who accidentally brings Lord Byron into the modern world? Fun! Gail Simone writing anything? Always worth a read.
But none of them screams “The Next Big Thing.” Since its inception in the early ‘90s, Vertigo has always had at least one title that people can’t stop talking about. Swamp Thing. Sandman. Hellblazer. Preacher. Y: The Last Man. Fables was the last Vertigo comic that attracted that level of constant attention, critical support, and fandom. Like the Vertigo hits before it, Fables had a grabby premise—fairy tale characters in the modern world—and executed it stylishly.
Most of those Vertigo hits had something else in common: a large and loyal female readership. Almost from the start, Vertigo targeted young adult readers, many of them women, with a taste for fantasy and science fiction, a demographic under-served in comics. Today there’s a publisher that serves that demographic, but it isn’t Vertigo.
Image Comics launched in 1992, just a year before Vertigo, as a coalition of disgruntled Marvel artists who mostly wanted to draw edgy superheroes with big muscles and bigger shoulder pads. (And pouches. So many pouches.) After floundering in the early 2000s as the market changed, Image has evolved into a streamlined indie publisher gaining ground on Marvel and DC.
Image’s flagship title is the unstoppable Walking Dead, which rules sales charts with help from its blockbuster TV adaptation. But most of its other hits—Bitch Planet, Sex Criminals, Rat Queens, and above all the massively successful Saga—are the type of work that once would’ve been perfect for Vertigo: brainy/sexy science fiction and fantasy aimed largely at young women.
Would it be too on the nose to note that Saga’s writer, Brian K. Vaughan, previously scripted Y: The Last Man for Vertigo? Or that Vertigo’s remaining big title, Astro City, started out at Image? If Vertigo seems to be struggling for an identity, maybe it’s because Image is the new Vertigo. And somewhere along the way, Vertigo became the old Image, struggling to keep up with the times and establish an identity. If Fables were launching today, it’d be more at home with Image than Vertigo.
Vertigo has been doing well in one area that’s also helped Image: TV licensing. Constantine, based on Vertigo’s Hellblazer, died a quick death, but iZombie has scored a second season and there’s a Lucifer series in the works, not to mention a Preacher pilot developed by Seth Rogen. Trouble is, all these projects are based on comics that ended several years ago. Vertigo’s upcoming slate includes a relaunch of Lucifer with a new creative team. The other new titles include a suspicious number that sound like pitches for prime-time TV shows. However good or bad they may be, it seems likely they were selected with an eye toward development.
With Fables finished, Vertigo is clearly looking to become something new. That something should be more than just a clearinghouse for TV concepts. If Image has taken Vertigo’s old niche, Vertigo needs to become something different. Hopefully one of the dozen newcomers will be the next Fables—or something better.