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Credit: DC Vertigo

Vertigo's closing and the potential danger of ratings systems

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Jun 24, 2019, 3:01 PM EDT

Last week, an announcement was made that Vertigo Comics would be shutting down and merging its current concepts and properties into the overall DC Universe. As DC had only just made attempts to reignite interest in the line in 2018 in commemoration of its 25th anniversary, this caught a lot of readers off guard. The decision prompted many online conversations celebrating Vertigo’s greatest hits, several of which commiserated the loss of a line that had not only established the careers of many beloved creators but also introduced many people to the wild world of mature reader comics.

As is the nature of the internet, the outcry after the fact might outweigh the real-time support the line was receiving in 2019. However, to understate the importance of Vertigo would overlook so much of the truly groundbreaking work produced by mainstream comics of the last 25-plus years. This is a devastating move for a lot of comic fans, but what it means for DC Comics — and indeed, comics as a whole — going forward is the primary question on many minds.

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Credit: Vertigo

The Decision To Close

Vertigo isn’t the only line that DC is sending out to the pastures, but it is certainly the longest-running of them. Zoom and Ink are also being merged into the standard DC universe and their new ratings system. In fact, much of the benefit of shutting these lines down might come in a greater push for YA and children-focused comics. Though comics were for decades dismissed as mere entertainment for children, the push toward mature content that occurred in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s gave us a market that in turn almost completely neglected that core young audience. For years, comics marketing has centered on an adult, and a generally homogenous, readership. Recent hits with concepts like DC Super Hero Girls have proven enormously successful. Ahead of the curve, many book publishers have begun lines centering on comics intended for younger readers.

It’s fair to say that the comics industry overall is long overdue for some kind of content awareness system, though this will likely look better in theory than practice. Mainstream comics have consistently blurred lines between mature content and that which is intended for young viewers. For instance, the inclusion of a Joker whose crimes range anywhere from mass murder in the general comics universe to being merely a family-friendly foil in Lego Batman causes some moral confusion. There is no clear content warning to shy young readers away from the adult subject matter that appears in the general DC universe, and indeed that job has generally fallen upon retailers. Moving forward, there would need to be some more obvious indication of the potential triggers that a younger reader might find in a regular off-the-shelf comic book.

Cause And Effect

However, to define Vertigo as “the line for grown-up readers” is to miss the point of Vertigo. A major part of Vertigo’s importance was not merely its adult content, but the fact that it opened things up for fledgling creators to try exciting ideas with new and familiar characters in a mainstream format. Few things can tie together any kind of a theme in the Vertigo imprint other than an overall sense of creative freedom. Founder and longtime head editor of Vertigo Karen Berger certainly had an eye for what wouldn’t or couldn’t work, but this only allowed for creators to find their own voices. It is the consistent eye for quality and risk-taking that allowed so many to use Vertigo as a platform to break new ground.

Vertigo was far from the first mature comics line. In fact, the early success of Vertigo was hot on the heels of mainstream comics like Watchmen and countless genre-spanning independent comics, from Eastman & Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Love & Rockets. These comics helped crack the decade-spanning censorship of the Comics Code while offering challenging subject matter. Yet there had always been pretty mature themes in comics, regardless of the Code.

In the late ‘70s, there was graphic violence, primarily against minor female characters, appearing in DC on a fairly regular basis. By 1988, post-Watchmen, we were seeing images like Jason Todd getting bludgeoned to death with a crowbar and Barbara Gordon brutally beaten and paralyzed. It can certainly be argued that this content was at least as upsetting as the content being published in Saga of the Swamp Thing, or in Sandman, which debuted the following year, yet generally removed from the same careful planning and empathy found in most of the early Vertigo books.

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Fables #53, cover art by James Jean via DC

Another key element of Vertigo’s appeal was its diversity of both characters and subject matter. Though we can look back and find some cringeworthy storylines in hindsight, this was a highly diverse and progressive cast of characters and ideas compared to other mainstream comics of the mid-’90s. Most importantly, many of these stories were being told with at least a degree of compassion toward their characters, and toward outsiders overall. In contrast to the hyper-masculinization of superhero comics of the time, Vertigo often celebrated marginalized people of many kinds. Though it is a case-by-case scenario and some books fare better than others on this front, it was where we began to see a stronger market developing for marginalized readers, many of whom would later end up contributing to the comics industry as creators in their own right.

So far, DC’s Black Label line has been anything but. Focusing on already established creators and stories about Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, Black Label has essentially read as books with lax editing more than portraying any sense of true creative freedom. Recent releases like Superman: Year One have led a lot of critics to comment on the need for more compassionate editing, regardless of the label on the book. There were certainly missteps along the way, but there was comparatively little graphic violence against women and fridging of characters in Vertigo's output.

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Credit: DC Vertigo

The Danger Of Ratings Systems

At this point, we have to question the actual effectiveness of rating systems in general. Young people shouldn’t necessarily discover a smart, capable Lana Lang in an all-ages comic only to "grow into" reading about an attempted sexual assault on her in a Black Label book. If the underlying problematic nature of much of the treatment of women, queer people, and people of color in mainstream comics is now to be referred to simply as “mature” subject matter and published under a different label, that is an uncomfortable place for many readers to find themselves.

In Hollywood, the rating system has continued to force many creators to exclude a lot of subject matter in accordance with an unaccountable board, which has been covered via documentaries such as This Film Is Not Yet Rated. They are known for targeting political and sexual themes as being overall more worthy of censorship than extreme graphic violence. Though it is more likely that this particular rating system will be in-house, it certainly leads us to question exactly what direction this choice is going to take audiences in over the next few years. It's not so long ago that the industry escaped the oppressive Comics Code, after all.

Opening comics up to wider audiences is indisputably good. Creating an easier guide through which new readers might purchase comics to their age group is a great idea. Yet by ending Vertigo, comics will undoubtedly lose the branch that spotlighted new creators launching their careers and established creators expanding their horizons in interesting ways. Concepts like Fables, Y: The Last Man, or even Sandman might never see the light of day at DC.

The revolutionary spirit of Vertigo, however, is a thing that can never be changed or reversed. So many fans and creators of today have been impacted by any number of Vertigo stories since its inception, and in that sense, we will not see the end of their incredible influence on comics within our lifetimes. Given the people who grew up reading Vertigo now making comics that continue to change the market today, we can only warily hope that the merge will be conducive to that creative spark.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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