Vertigo Digital Aesthetic Redefinition of Comic Books

Julia Round
Julia Round

Traditionally, comic books have been perceived as disposable, low-quality pulp fiction aimed at a child market. However, as the product of a publishing business, the medium is shaped by its production values, and these have significantly altered since the early days of comic books publishing. Early comic strips in newspapers and magazines were limited by thickset black line-work, due both to the letterpress method of printing (in which inked plates “stamp” an image onto paper) and the poor quality of the paper used. In the 1950s, this process gave way to offset printing, whereby comic books were first laid out in pencil, then inked, coloured, shot to film, and finally printed: allowing for more delicate lines. By the 1990s, publishers such as DC Comics had their own “in-house computer colouring department” and, as Steve White confirms, “computerisation [has] more or less brought everything in-house”.

DC Comics launched their Vertigo imprint in 1993, using six favourite series from the 1980s, all of which were reworkings of older DC Comics supernatural or horror characters (‘The Sandman,’ ‘Swamp Thing,’ ‘Hellblazer,’ ‘Animal Man,’ ‘Shade: the Changing Man’ and ‘Doom Patrol’). There was a conscious move away from superheroes, even in their gritty and realistic 1980s incarnation. For example, in the hands of writer Neil Richard MacKinnon Gaiman, ‘The Sandman’ became a mythological epic, sharing little more than a name with Jack Kirby’s golden-age series. Alan Moore had already redefined ‘Swamp Thing’ as a plant elemental with social concerns, rather than a freak creature of horror. Peter Milligan’s rewrite of Stephen J. Ditko’s ‘Shade: The Changing Man’ incorporated a hefty dose of surrealism, as did Grant Morrison’s run on ‘Doom Patrol’. Grant Morrison also revived Dave Wood’s ‘Animal Man’ as a metafictional commentary on alternate realities and under Jamie Delano’s run the character would later be recreated again as an “animal avatar” (a kind of animal god, similar to Alan Moore’s redefinition of the ‘Swamp Thing’). ‘Hellblazer’s antihero, John Constantine, had little to do with (super)heroics from the series’ beginning.

These core titles were reconceived in the 1980s, not merely as “more realistic” superheroics, but instead as mythological, surreal, religious and metafictional commentaries upon the comics medium and industry. Rather than continuing the trend for gritty vigilantes and superhero politics, the content and style of Vertigo instead revolved around dark fantasy and sophisticated suspense. Karen Berger emphasises that Vertigo was conceived as a home for comics that were “led by the ideas, by the writers really wanting to do something different in comic books”. Along these lines, Karen Berger also fought — and won — a battle not to have the DC Comic bullet logo on the Vertigo covers, a “very very big deal”.

Similarly, many of the Vertigo titles used an innovative aesthetic that Karen Berger says was “very deliberate, we really just wanted to show different types of art styles too.” In an industry often reluctant to take risks, Karen Berger continues that “at the time it was a big noticeable deal”. ‘Shatter’ (written by Peter B. Gillis, with art by Mike Saenz and Bert Monroy, and published by First Comics in 1984) was the first comic to feature entirely digitally produced art. Produced on a 128k Apple Macintosh computer using MacPaint, it has an obvious computer aesthetic, as the maximum print level at the time was 72 dots per inch (a figure that is now up in the thousands) that results in a dot-matrix printing effect. The use of technology is also emphasised by its content, which owes much to films such as ‘Blade Runner’. ‘Shatter’ illustrates how the early days of computer-generated comics were not only limited by the tools available, but also by the preconceptions attached to the process and software.

By contrast, john thomas totleben was one of the first artists to use collage and paint for his 1980s ‘swamp thing’ covers and this type of aesthetic experimentation was embraced in the vertigo stable. ‘the sandman’, whose covers declined to show the title character and instead featured david mckean’s idiosyncratic and abstract artwork, is the best-known example of this process. david mckean’s materials range from pencil and ink to collage and acrylic, to photography and mac manipulation. other artists also embraced multimedia; For example, tom taggart’s ‘doom patrol’ covers were sculpted in miniature, arranged in sets and photographed.

Subsequent Vertigo titles (such Glen Fabry’s painted ‘Preacher’ covers, or Gavin Wilson and Richard Bruning’s computer-enhanced photographic covers for ‘Sandman: Mystery Theatre’ also had a distinct look. Innovation extended to the interior pages — certain stories of ‘The Sandman’ are pencilled only (such as ‘Sandman #70-72’, ‘The Wake’, printed directly from Michael Zulli’s pencils) or discard conventions such as panels or speech balloons (‘The Sandman #74’, ‘Exiles’). In ‘Animal Man,’ Grant Morrison often used the artist’s pencilled drafts alongside the finished artwork to visually reflect the various layers of reality and metafictional nature of the story. In this way, the Vertigo books were conceived and marketed to be both conceptually and visually different from the mainstream and superhero fare.

The process of reprinting and reissuing collections was adopted by Vertigo, and the imprint quickly gained a reputation for using the trade paperback format as single issues were often reprinted and re-released as collections. ‘The Sandman’ trade paperbacks (featuring new covers by David McKean) began to be released as early as 1990, and in this way, the format was established by the time of the Vertigo launch in 1993. The releases were dictated by market demands: for example, ‘The Sandman’s second story arc, ‘The Dolls House’, was the first to be released as a trade paperback, due to the success of the massively popular ‘Sandman #8 (‘The Sound of her Wings’)’. As well as imbuing the Vertigo product with a sense of permanence, this process again allowed for a further redefinition of these comic books aesthetic, as the collections were now emphasised by high-quality glossy covers featuring new artwork. The process has continued as, after a second generation of ‘The Sandman’ trade paperbacks (with different covers), ‘The Absolute Sandman’ began in 2006 — each oversized leather-bound hardback reprinting twenty or so single issues, re-coloured using the latest technology.

Experiments of format (such as the alternate cover craze) abounded in the 1990s. However, the trade paperback format was instead used by imprints such as Vertigo to redefine their product and collect a group of titles under a label with a clear identity and distinct aesthetic. Associated marketing also allowed different audiences to access it, as will now be seen.

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