Vertigo vs. Image: A Tale of Two Comic Companies

By Derek Flynn

Once upon a time there were two comic companies. One was an imprint of DC Comics, which featured stories of a mature nature written by many of the bright new stars of the comics world. Its name was Vertigo. Vertigo published – amongst other titles – Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Preacher by Garth Ennis, and Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis. The other company had been set up by a group of superstar artists, including Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee, who had become fan favourites drawing some of Marvel Comics’ biggest characters. That company was called Image Comics.

Vertigo had been the idea of, amongst others, Karen Berger, who had worked as an editor on some of what were known as DC’s “Mature Reader” titles. The flagship “Mature Reader” title was Saga of the Swamp Thing written by Alan Moore. Coming off Watchmen, which he had just finished with Dave Gibbons, Moore was hot property. He took what was a flagging gothic horror title and turned it into an intelligent horror comic with underlying environmental concerns.

At the same time, Berger had a wealth of new writers and artists coming out of England that were pitching ideas to her. She knew these new comics – “Mature Reader” label or not – wouldn’t sit well in the world of mainstream DC. Hence, the idea for an imprint that would feature more adult-orientated stories.

In the early ‘90s, while these comics from Vertigo were making a name for themselves, some of the biggest artists in mainstream comics were working on Marvel titles such as X-Men and Spider-Man. These comics were huge sellers but the artists were working for hire. This meant that they were only paid for the pages they drew, and received none of the royalties from the reprints of their work on posters, t-shirts, and in other media. They soon began to realise that the (not insubstantial) money that Marvel was making from their work could be filling their own coffers. So a number of them joined together and formed the creator-owned company called Image Comics.

It was a noble idea, especially at a time when work-for-hire was becoming a dirty phrase in comics’ circles. Jack Kirby was fighting to get recognition for the titles he created at Marvel, and Siegel and Schuster were doing the same with Superman at DC. The majority of comics’ creators fell in behind Kirby, Siegel, and Schuster. And when those creators saw a creator-owned company, they were delighted and only too glad to pitch in. So it was that Todd McFarlane got Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Frank Miller to write issues of his Spawn comic. Similarly, Moore also wrote the superhero titles Supreme and Youngblood. The only problem was these titles weren’t very good.

Image got these writers because of the goodwill felt by people like Miller and Moore towards what Image was trying to do. But – the fact was – these extremely talented writers were slumming it: writing titles that were far beneath them. Nonetheless, the titles sold by the bucket-load. However, it was Vertigo that was the leading light at the time when it came to quality creator-owned work.

But sometime around the turn of the millennium, things started to change. Vertigo’s flagship titles Sandman, Transmetropolitan, and others had ended by then, and the imprint was struggling to fill the void. There were spin-off titles such as The Dreaming, which – while interesting – never captured the reader’s imagination the way the previous titles had.

Meanwhile, back at Image HQ, things were not going so well either. The company had shifted its focus from creator-driven titles, to movie and toy tie-ins, such as Aliens Vs Predator, and the numerous iterations of that title that would follow. The company was struggling. However, that all changed in 2008 when Eric Stephenson took over as publisher. Stephenson wanted to return Image to its genesis as a publisher of quality, creator-owned original material. He recruited some of the new big name writers of the comic industry, such as, Brian K Vaughan and Robert Kirkman, who created the critical and commercial hits Saga and The Walking Dead respectively. And there were many more to follow.

Vertigo, meanwhile, had achieved a few successes. Bill Willingham’s Fables was a big hit. But they were few and far between. By the time Stephenson was in full swing at Image, Vertigo was very much following in its wake. And Image had achieved this – ironically – by basically becoming a better version of Vertigo.

But all may not be lost for the once great imprint. Vertigo recently launched a new line of comics – titled Young Animals and edited by My Chemical Romance front man, Gerard Way – which saw them revive the once popular titles, Doom Patrol, and Shade, The Changing Man. Time will tell if this venture is successful but – for the moment – Image Comics is still very much the leader of the pack – and the company that stole Vertigo’s crown.

Author Pic

Derek Flynn is an Irish writer and musician with a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. Derek’s short story “The Healer” was recently featured inSurge, an anthology of the best new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press. He is also a regular contributor to where he writes his “Songbook” column. And because he obviously has a lot of time on his hands, he is currently working on his latest solo album.

Like most writers, he is fuelled solely by caffeine and self-doubt.

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