Rumors started spreading earlier this week that the adult imprint of DC Comics, Vertigo, was finally being shuttered. If you've only been reading comics for ten years or less, you might not think this is a big deal. But for people like me, who've been reading comics since the early 1990s or before, this news carries with it a certain kind of wistfulness.
It's hard to explain now how important Vertigo was in a lot of comics nerds' lives. It's where Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis made names for themselves. It's the only big-name comics publisher that would have given full support to Y the Last Man. A lot of the books that are now considered canonical came from Vertigo.
But Vertigo had not produced a lot of work worth reading in recent years. Or rather, Vertigo couldn't be trusted to consistently publish excellent work. The imprint's track record became erratic, and then it basically disappeared from view.
So what was Vertigo's secret? Why did the imprint succeed so well for so long? Yes, talent had a lot to do with it. And so did a creative environment at DC that allowed creative teams to patiently build their worlds out without fear of immediate cancellation.
But I think Vertigo's secret weapon was in its editors. Karen Berger founded the line, of course, and her stewardship was likely the single most important reason for Vertigo's early success. Berger made space for other editors, like Tom Peyer and Stuart Moore, to follow their own dreams. (Full disclosure: I work with Peyer and Moore at their new publisher, AHOY Comics.) And she allowed some exciting young editors, like Axel Alonso, to shepherd new and exciting projects through the imprint.
Most people — hell, I'd be willing to bet that most comics readers — don't know what comic book editors do. It's especially tricky because a lot of comics editors don't do their jobs. But a good comic book editor is as much a part of the collaboration process as a colorist or artist or letterer or writer.
A good comics editor will help define a book, and ensure that the writer keeps to those themes throughout the book's lifespan. They will fight for the best ideas, and kill the worst ideas before they can fly out of control and endanger the whole project. They'll help every member of the team do their best work possible. And when a good editor leaves, you can tell by the rapid decline in quality.
You can see Vertigo's legacy in publishers like Karen Berger's own Berger Books or in the AHOY line. These are books that are adult without being pornographic or overly violent. They aspire to literature, while still remembering what makes comics so damn fun in the first place. They tell stories about characters and not just plot points. They make room for what's great in comics, in a package that doesn't insult the reader's intelligence. I refuse to believe that this is an endangered market. There will be more Vertigos out there sometime soon.