Must Have Vertigo Titles
Four graphic novels that should be on every shelf.
January 17, 2012 9:46 amGeorge Solomou
In 1999 my uncle opened a bookshop and due to a silly mistake, the distributor only sent Vertigo and European ‘comix’. The latter were about a group of Gauls doing steroids and fighting Romans, a trench coat sporting mouse and pantless ducks. The Vertigo ones with their dark and fancy glossy covers had ‘FOR MATURE AUDIENCE ONLY’ printed on their back and naturally I assumed tits, so I took a couple home with me. There was some mild nudity of course, but the tag referred to their content, and perhaps the distinction between what we call ‘comix’ and ‘graphic novels’. Of course I still refer to them as comics sometimes, and the subject I think has more to do with a bunch of grown-ups wanting to justify something that was meant for kids by labelling it with a more serious name. Nevertheless, a rose by any other name will still prick you the same. Below are four titles, that among a great and respectable list, I believe stand out for their overall artistry.
The Sandman - Neil Gaiman and various artists
The Sandman ran for seven years, spanning 75 issues including specials. During that time it managed to gather praise from critics and fans alike, winning a dozen of awards in the process, including the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, a feat no other graphic novel has managed to do since. Quoted ad nauseum is the tag-line that the Sandman is a story about stories, and essentially it’s about Morpheus, the personification of Dreams. The author, Neil Gaiman, made his main character infinite, immortal, alive since the beginning of time. In this vein, the Sandman is part of a family called the Endless who are not gods but are greater than gods, their names denoting their functions as perspectives of each concept: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium. Joining the tale is a wild assortment of characters like Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Augusts Caesar, Nordic gods, Shinto gods, fallen angels, myths and fairytales, but above all, real people whose conflicts and lives cannot help but echo stories that we know intimately.
The graphic novel is divided in several story-arcs that directly and indirectly make a complicated puzzle where all the characters and situations are connected to the plight of the all-powerful titular anti-hero. A number of stand-alone issues provide a welcoming addition as interludes allowing the main story to remain fresh while giving the reader a little insight on Morpheus, his family and the members of the Dreaming (where dreams and gods are born). For example, we visit ancient Greece and witness the role the Endless played in the tragedy of Orpheus. Likewise we meet the historical Emperor Norton, First and Last Emperor of The United States. We attend a grim convention for serial killers, stumble in a political war that has the ownership of Hell as a reward, and join a group of travellers telling tales amidst a storm that pulled them out of space and time.
There is an underlying sense of the grandiose, an epic level of story telling painted with masterful strokes by accomplished illustrators. Characters are given their own distinct voices accompanied by an almost poetic narrative; contemporary situations familiarize our own sense of reality in the colourful world Gaiman has provided. What started out as a typical horror story using retired DC characters, transgressed through time to share stories that were dark, sad, funny, old and new.
Transmetropolitan - Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
This one takes place in the distant future, a cyber-punk America where technological breakthroughs allow for better living conditions albeit in a twisted self-indulgent way. The main character, Spider Jerusalem, is a rude and abrasive journalist, often neurotic, occasionally high and always paranoid. Modelled after famous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, the character, just like the novel, is an exercise in absurdities; each situation blown out of proportion, every character larger than life, each issue taken to its outmost extreme. In this version of the future, on top of the race discrimination, there is also species discrimination, since some opted to combine their DNA with alien samples, while others chose to become ethereal specs of dust. A new religion is created every couple of minutes making the constant disagreement almost obsolete and yet continuously rampaging (that is not to say that Spider remains idle).
The series begins with Spider Jerusalem living peacefully in the mountains as a hermit but who is then forced back to the city he so hates because he still owes two books to his publisher. Armed with a rocket launcher and a dead rat he takes the roads back to the smog-pregnant, filth-ridden, scam-infested (that’s just the way he talks) city where he soon finds out that his old partner has sold out and became a suit-wearing editor. Spider tries to assassinate him before he’s offered a job. And for the next 60 issues or so, we follow the adventures of a writer, an investigative political journalist whose personal version of fun is excessive drug use, terrorizing TV hosts over the phone and shooting people with his Instant Bowel Movement pistol.
The comedic approach is what makes this graphic novel stand out in a huge list of sci-fi titles. Instead of the hero being a damaged and powerful being trapped in a dystopian high-tech society, we have a scrawny bald author who fights corruption with obscene behaviour and words. The humour is far from camp, and there is a diverse level of maturity in the subjects which the writer-artist duo tackles. All elements, from the dialogue, to the situations and the overly colourful images contribute in making this comic funny and serious at the same time but above all an enjoyable read.
Hellblazer - Various writers and artists
Unlike the rest entries of this list Hellblazer is the only graphic novel that is still ongoing, and is also DC Vertigo’s longest running title. John Constantine, the titular Hellblazer, first made his appearance in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and because he was so fucking cool, DC gave him his own comic.
When we first meet him, John Constantine is a 40-year old English man just bumming around in London. Soon we get sucked down into his world of guttural horrors and old-school dread as he encounters demons, wizards and just straight messed up individuals. Because of the many writers that had written for the title and because of the many themes and characters introduced in 20 something odd years, specifically pinpointing what the comic is about is a difficult task, save for the basic description: magician, con-man, chain-smoking bastard; that sums it up.
During the first couple of years there was a more primal focus on the horror aspect on the dealings of the black magician. Author Jamie Delano instead of divulging a background story revealing the things that made John who is, his hauntings and personal demons, allowed for the character to grow on the reader, to simmer on the mystery and the occult.
Then Garth Ennis took the title and turned it towards the history of places and people, examining the double-edged outcomes of magic, the flawed humanity of the characters, all against the backdrop of economic recession, showing that horror can exist without the supernatural. All authors stayed true to the spirit of Constantine who hails from a working class background and has a natural loathing for corrupted authority, whether it is the Tory government of the 80s or the presence of Heaven and Hell on earth.
- Original Sins - The first issues collected with pure horror and a witty voice to make fun of it.
- Dangerous Habit - An amazing collection that deals with contemporary issues; loneliness, love, life, death.
- Haunted - A commentary of social decay while Constantine searches for an ex-girlfriend’s killer.
- Hard Times - The first part of a couple of years saga that Constantine spends in the US. In this paperback Constantine is imprisoned giving us truly memorable scenes.
- Stations of the Cross - Taking place after the aftermath of a near-apocalyptic event, both the hero and the world try to recover.
Preacher - Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon ask us to magine a face; young, clean-cut, presentable. That’s the face of religion. Now imagine a hairy fat hand with yellowed cigarette fingers, clenching into a fist, adorned with a barbed wire knuckle-duster, smashing that face into a pulp. That’s Preacher for you.
After the coupling of a demon and an angel, a being of pure will is born with enough power to rival that of God. After the birth, God flees heaven and the being lands on a small Texas church killing everyone except the preacher, Jesse Custer. The being bonds with the sole survivor giving him the Voice of God; the ability to make anyone do anything once they are commanded to. With his ex-girlfriend and an Irish vampire, Custer embarks on a journey to track down God and make him accountable of all things wrong in the creation.
This graphic novel is a tale of Americana, a road trip of sorts that explores fundamental concepts and values inherent in contemporary America. We get glimpses from the Vietnam War, the media frenzy over the ‘whole grunge thing’, the plight of little towns and the impact of history in the every day lives of people. Most of the story takes place in the South portraying the characters in a more primitive yet truthful light when it comes to their behaviour and beliefs. It is also reminiscent of the old American West, but only through the memories of Jesse, watching John Wayne movies as a child; the cowboys are brave and noble heroes who shoot straight and speak the truth, and that is the man the preacher aspires to be.
Rifled with graphic violence and enough obscenities that would make a New York cabbie blush, the butt of all these jokes and scenes is of course organized religion. But to reveal a single scene, even the least offensive or disgusting one, I’d still be unable to show the brutality that Ennis hammers us with. The illustrations by Steve Dillon compliment the work in fascinating ways, from the realistic drawings of people to the huge detailed landscapes. Using frequently different perspectives, the narrative gives us access to the villains, and once we know parts of their pasts we can find redeemable qualities to even cheer for them in the long run. It is a multi-layered story after all, told as humanly possible and in the most crude and honest way.