DC was Ninth Art's pick for the best publisher of 2004, but its track record was far from perfect, and the recently announced cancellations show up the publisher's weaknesses. Can Vertigo's taster book shore up some of its struggling titles?
17 January 2005


DC were the publishers of the year for 2004 in the Ninth Art Lighthouse Awards, in recognition of the high quality of much of its output, its willingness to provide a solid platform for top creators to produce some of their best work, and a general commitment to transcending an industry rife with mediocrity and avoiding the complacency of its lacklustre competition. However, there are still areas where even DC's conduct as a publisher leaves a lot to be desired.

DC has some of the strongest titles in the sales charts at the moment, all from its DC Universe imprint. According to figures from Diamond, in the past year DC has had the highest seller in terms of quantity (SUPERMAN #204) and in terms of total retail value (IDENTITY CRISIS #1). It's been equally successful in the trade paperback charts, with BATMAN: HUSH being the highest unit seller, and the oversized $75 JLA/AVENGERS collection being the best seller in terms of retail value. Forthcoming books like Frank Miller and Jim Lee's All-Star BATMAN AND ROBIN and Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's SUPERMAN will only serve to cement DC's position.

'DC has some of the strongest titles in the sales charts at the moment.' However, it's at the other end of the table that the really interesting stuff is happening, where DC's lesser imprints currently languish. Chief among these imprints is Vertigo, once the jewel in DC's crown. Now, with stagnation and apathy apparently firmly entrenched, it is a sorry shadow of its 90s heyday.

This has been made all the more apparent by a couple of recent news stories. Firstly, Milligan, Pulido and Chiang's HUMAN TARGET has been cancelled as of issue #21, having lost about a third of its readership, which had fallen below 9,000 over the course of last year. This is a shame, as it was a good book that was worthy of praise, and it must be a blow to Peter Milligan, whose idiosyncratic X-STATIX also came to a sudden end at Marvel last year.

It's disappointing news for readers, too, as Vertigo titles traditionally receive a little more leeway in their sales figures than mainstream DC titles. Although the sales figures on Vertigo titles occasionally dip below a level from which other titles never return, the eventual trade collections often sell in profitable enough numbers to support the continuation of the series.


The other news story to catch my eye is the announcement that Vertigo is releasing a collection entitled VERTIGO: FIRST TASTE. This is to be a sampler of the first issues of six of its most successful books, divided among current titles like 100 BULLETS, BOOKS OF MAGIC: LIFE DURING WARTIME and Y: THE LAST MAN, and past favourites like DEATH: THE HIGH COST OF LIVING, Moore's SWAMP THING and TRANSMETROPOLITAN.

This is obviously aimed at new readers, and so it's wise that Vertigo included some 'greatest hits' (books already wholly available in trade form), and the titles chosen suggest that Vertigo is targeting a mature, discerning audience. With a price tag of less than $5, it's good value - if you've not experienced any of these stories before - and should provide a good springboard for the curious.

'Vertigo titles traditionally receive a little more leeway in their sales figures.' So, does this mean that DC is perhaps concentrating on selling trades and jettisoning its lower end titles? Non-Vertigo books like KINETIC and BLOODHOUND have been cancelled, and even books with big name creators, like Peter David's FALLEN ANGEL, and success stories like THE LOSERS are creeping closer to the danger zone.

It's surprising to consider that only recently THE LOSERS was being held up as a big, bold example of how Vertigo was still able of producing good, vibrant new stories, as well as bringing to wider attention top quality creative talent like Andy Diggle and Jock. However, the series was originally pitched as a six-issue mini-series, until Vertigo decided it could be a much longer - and possibly ongoing - series. Perhaps this means that the concept is running out of steam?

Whether or not this is the case, Diggle has quashed speculation that the series will be cancelled, announcing that it will run its course, concluding after about two or three years. As THE LOSERS is currently up to issue #22, we can expect it to wrap in the next year or so. An early ending might be a blessing, though, as Vertigo is as prone as any publisher to overextending the lifespan of its success stories. With books like SANDMAN and HELLBLAZER, Vertigo expanded the franchise to the point where the original material is in danger of being swamped by the tired later stories.


Speaking of HELLBLAZER, judging from the comics adaptation of the movie adaptation of the comic, I very much doubt that Vertigo is going to get any sort of a shot in the arm from this film. Beyond the extraordinary liberties the film seems to be taking with the character, it also just doesn't look like a picture that will encourage punters to seek out the original source.

Even if they do seek out the comics, they'll have trouble getting in to them. After all, the comic is called by a different name (the movie is called CONSTANTINE), the character looks entirely different, and even the style of story is wildly divergent. On the slim chance that a copy of HELLBLAZER might be procured, the buyer may well be looking for a rip- roaring Keanu Reeves-style action adventure, not a story about a cynical and foul-mouthed chain-smoking Brit magus in a raincoat.

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