Let’s celebrate a quarter century of awesomeness.
This month marks 25 years since DC Comics launched its Vertigo imprint with the purpose of providing mature comics for more grown-up readers. Sure, for most comics fans it’s not as if we matured so much in our post-pubescent years that we stopped appreciating the typical DC fare, but as far as making comics “respectable” for adults goes, Vertigo is pretty hard to beat. Therefore, we thought it was only fitting that we commemorate this incredible milestone with a list that doesn’t even begin to cover the magnitude of its incredible library.
Narrowing the list down to 25 titles (one for very year of Vertigo’s existence) wasn’t the easiest task in the world, but Brad Gullickson and Kieran Fisher joined forces and came up with a selection you can’t go wrong with. Some are obvious choices you’ll find on any list of this ilk, while others are more obscure and may seem random. You’ll also notice some exclusions that you may deem criminal and unforgivable, but different strokes for different folks and all that, right? After all, the beauty of a library this vast and strong is that there’s so much to fall in love with.
Hopefully you’ll find some new discoveries here to pick up and enjoy. But if this merely serves as a fond trip down memory lane as we remember a quarter of a century’s worth of entertainment Vertigo has given us, that’s cool as well. So, without further ado, let’s count down the 25 best comics Vertigo has gifted this cruel world and hope that the future has just as much excellence in store.
25. Scene of the Crime
What’s It About? A detective uncovers more than he bargained for when he’s hired to investigate a missing person case.
Why’s It Good? This was the first time Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark worked together — a formidable duo — and, in this writer’s humble opinion, it remains their best work. Few writers tell crime stories or capture the spirit of classic detective noir quite like Brubaker, and this mystery involving murder, dark secrets, and disturbing free love cults hits the spot perfectly if you’re into that sort of thing. – Kieran
24. The Exterminators
What’s It About? Convict Henry James finds rehabilitation on the outside world through the Bug-Be-Gone extermination company. What begins as a gross, mildly disgusting peek behind the world of cockroach eradication slowly reveals itself as an epic occult saga. What dangers lurk in their new poisonous Draxx formula? What is the box? What’s the deal with its Egyptian motif? Is that a swastika on its side as well?
Why It’s Good? It’s demented! When Tony Moore left The Walking Dead after its first six issues, he partnered up with writer Simon Oliver to deliver one of the most underrated and disturbing horror conspiracy comics in recent memory. Imagine the mysteries of the Dharma Initiative filtered through the mutant minds of David Cronenberg, H.P. Lovecraft, and David Lynch. Cut short before its time, “The Exterminators” was a nasty beast of a comic book. Not for everybody, but for those sickos in the audience, an absolute delight. – Brad
23. Get Jiro
What’s It About? Sci-Fi Yojimbo reinterpreted by Anthony Bourdain? Ok, hear me out. In the future, master chefs rule over the cities as megalomaniacal crime bosses. Gangs will kill each other just to get a reservation at the best restaurants, and sushi maestro Jiro has the most coveted table in town. But if you find yourself across from his particular set of skills, make sure you understand how to properly consume his sushi. Fish down, fools.
Why It’s Good? Yes, Bourdain’s ego has run amuck in this comic, but that’s part of its charm. Who else would transform a sushi chef into the ultimate badass warrior? Whatever eye rolls it might stir are saved by Langdon Foss’s stunning illustrations. Meticulously detailed line drawings that manage to mesh both east and west styles produce one of Vertigo’s most visually engaging books. – Brad
22. Area 10
What’s It About? A psychic NYC detective is on the hunt for a serial killer who has a bad habit of decapitating people and keeping their heads.
Why’s It Good? Titles released on the Vertigo Crime imprint have been hit or miss, but “Area 10” is a masterwork of horror-tinged noir and mystery that ranks up there with the company’s best output. Imagine The Dead Zone meets Se7en only stylistically rooted in classic noir. That description doesn’t even begin to do “Area 10” justice, but fans of those things should find much to enjoy here. – Kieran
What’s It About? A light-skinned black reporter goes undercover to infiltrate racists in 1930s Mississippi.
Why’s It Good? I love “Incognegro” because it doesn’t try to rewrite history. It revisits an era where hostile race relations were rife and tells a riveting tale that’s unfortunately influenced by painful truths. The story was inspired by the real-life work of Walter White, a black journalist and Civil Rights activist who posed as white and investigated lynchings in the South during the 20th century. But “Incognegro” has more to offer than a commentary on racial politics, though that is undeniably one of the book’s biggest takeaways — and a thought-provoking one at that. – Kieran
20. Dark Night: A True Batman Story
What’s It About? Paul Dini was one of the go-to writers on the phenomenal Batman: The Animated Series. One night when he was walking home from a terrible date, he was jumped by a pair of attackers. Beaten within an inch of his life, Dini barely recovered physically, let alone mentally. “Dark Night” is the story of how the very concept of Batman kept him going. Using the Dark Knight as well as his rogues’ gallery, Dini and artist Eduardo Risso illustrate the power fiction can have over our reality.
Why It’s Good? Stories of Dini’s horrendous encounter first came to my attention through Kevin Smith’s “Fatman on Batman” podcast. Dini’s campfire rendition of his horrendous ordeal was harrowing enough, but seeing it come to life through Risso’s pencils elevated one man’s trauma into a profound statement on the importance of creative energy. It also works as this validation of all the hours I (and probably you) have spent consuming these spandex heroes. Batman may not have pulled me from the bottle or the gun, but he has been a constant fixture in my life. – Brad
19. Sgt. Rock: Between Hell & A Hard Place
What’s It About? Sgt. Rock is back, and the war still rages. While trapped behind enemy lines, Rock and Easy Company have to solve the murder of four German prisoners before they get slaughtered themselves.
Why It’s Good? This is just solid, basic World War II combat action. Something we rarely get these days. Cinema often celebrates the grunt horrors of “The Good War,” but comic books mostly just take a tour through the scenery whenever Captain America needs a reminder. Joe Kubert’s G.I. badass defined an era of toughness, and Brian Azzarello does his damndest to translate that machismo into a modern context. – Brad
18. House on the Borderland
What’s It About? This original graphic novel is an adaptation of the classic horror tale from William Hope Hodgson. The novel was originally published in 1908, and was a major influence on the work of H.P. Lovecraft. When a man, who is a bit of a loon himself, spends the night in an oddly-shaped lake house, he experiences visions of creatures that exist beyond our dimension. Come for the spooky, purple language and stay for the pig-faced monsters.
Why It’s Good? Simon Revelstoke does a solid job translating the journal device of Hodgson’s original novel, but artist Richard Corben is the reason why you need this book on your shelf. No one tackles beasties quite like Corben. The spirit of EC Comics drips from his brush, and his pig-men creatures are grotesquely beautiful. We’re all here for the monsters, and rarely have they looked this tangible. The Vertigo adaptation is at once repulsive and transfixing. I imagine William Hope Hodgson would absolutely dig it. – Brad
17. House of Mystery
What’s It About? A group of poor souls find themselves trapped in a house waiting for a mysterious coachman to arrive and take them away. But will he ever come? To pass the time they drink at the house bar, but to pay for their drinks they must tell stories. That’s where the fun really begins.
Why’s It Good? There’s nothing more satisfying than good scare fare. Something designed to get under your skin and give you the heebie-jeebies. “House of Mystery” is horror done right, because what’s more terrifying than the thought of drinking with people you don’t like for eternity? The thought of enduring purgatory is chilling in its own right, but the tales told by the story’s imprisoned inhabitants makes for some gleefully warped and spooky late night reading. – Kieran
16. Sheriff of Babylon
What’s It About? Baghdad, 2003. Saddam Hussein is no more. Military contractor Christopher Henry has been brought in to train the Iraqi police in good, old-fashioned American might. When one of his recruits winds up dead, Henry seems like the only guy who cares to solve the mystery.
Why It’s Good? Before he took over “Batman” and “Mister Miracle” for DC Comics, writer Tom King was a counterterrorism operations officer for the CIA. King brings a tremendous amount of authenticity to “Sheriff of Babylon.” Here is a peek into a world we can barely imagine, and often do our best to ignore. – Brad
What’s It About? The adventures of the British occult detective and magician John Constantine as he goes toe to toe with supernatural forces and the criminal underworld.
Why’s It Good? Hellblazer marked a cornerstone of the supernatural detective story, and it remains one of the best series to combine fantasy and horror elements with the gritty, hardboiled crime yarn to this day. The series is also notable for following a protagonist who aged in real-world time. As such, it’s a fascinating saga due to its ability to tap into the social commentary of several zeitgeists and reinvent itself accordingly, without losing the core elements that made it so wonderful in the first place. Plus there’s lots of cool Satan stuff. – Kieran
What’s It About? The story takes place in the future in a New York City ravaged by a Second Civil War between the United States and the Free States of America.
Why’s It Good? Created by the excellent Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, “DMZ” was released during the height of George W. Bush’s War on Terror and it tapped into the divided national psyche at the time. The story provided a thought-provoking alternative to the blind patriotism rhetoric being propagated by politicians and sections of the media as a result of the 9/11 tragedies and invasion of Iraq, and it serves as a cautionary tale warning of the dangers that can arise from hostile political polarization. It’s an ugly and frightening work in many ways, but sometimes that’s necessary. – Kieran
13. American Vampire
What’s It About? An exploration of the evolution of vampires throughout history.
Why’s It Good? With this series, Scott Snyder gave vampires some much-needed bite again at the time. When American Vampire was released, it was all about the sparkling, sexy emo vampires, but this gave the fanged fiends some credibility. Furthermore, not only can vampires in this universe sustain sunlight, but it also makes them stronger. It’s one of the more original spins to be applied to the lore and it’s just wonderful. – Kieran
12. Sweet Tooth
What’s It About? After some unknown event, human/animal hybrids started appearing on our planet. A father attempts to protect his son from the horrors of the outside world and fails absolutely.
Why It’s Good? I love the tagline often associated with this series, “Mad Max Meets Bambi.” But that’s not really it. Canadian writer/artist Jeff Lemire relishes in a good meander through the wasteland. What’s it all about? Forget the mystery, just enjoy the character work. Wallow in the melancholy. Cheer when the emotional resolution is granted. It’s more sweet than grim, and will certainly earn your tears after every other story arc. – Brad
11. Doom Patrol
What’s It About? A group of misfits and freaks come together to save the world.
Why’s It So Good? Grant Morrison has a good track record when it comes to bucking conventions and subverting expectations, and his run on the long-running “Doom Patrol” revitalized the series by making it weirder, bolder, and so much better. Like the X-Men, the Doom Patrol is a gathering of outcasts who are shunned by a society they need to protect. But by introducing disabled, hermaphroditic, and LGBT characters, Morrison went one step further and gave the real world’s marginalized citizens a mainstream pop culture platform. – Kieran
10. The Invisibles
What’s It About? A group of strange heroes wage war against those that would dare restrain the progress of humanity. “The Invisibles” was the ultimate anti-establishment comic book. Trust no one. Say no to the government, your mother, and even your own teammates. They’re a bizarro gang of whackjob heroes, but really it’s all about King Mob. He’s a mad character you’ll be comparing to a long strand of wannabes for years to come.
Why It’s Good? “The Invisibles” was the book that solidified Grant Morrison as a titanic talent within the industry. For six years, this book viciously skewered super heroics while forever staining future stabs at the genre. “Planetary is great and all, but it’s no Invisibles.” Where did this comic book cocktail come from? Morrison claims that a magical influence took hold of him while writing the book, and it resulted in a major illness at the midway point in the series. The book was constantly raising eyebrows from its readers, and the drive-by fans could barely contain their consternation towards the depths to which Morrison fearlessly plummeted his characters. Gratuitous exploitation? Maybe. But the aggression in which the writer offended sensibilities was a staple of Vertigo, and “The Invisibles” remains one of its most unshakable titles. – Brad
What’s It About? Having lost the war for the South, cowboy Wes Cutter returns from the Civil War to his home in Blackwater. Yankee Doodle Dandies plague his space, and after some rather ridiculous machinations that land the sheriff’s badge on his chest, the comic book revels in exposing the hatred on both sides of the battle. This is not The Outlaw Josey Wales redux; “Loveless” really kicks off when Ruth, Cutter’s wife, makes her presence known.
Why It’s Good? “Loveless” received mixed reviews upon its release, but looking back on the series (which was criminally cut short after only 24 issues), Brian Azzarello crafted one hell of a compelling read. And since Western comics are a rare breed, “Loveless” ranks right there at the top of the list. As is the case with a lot of Azzarello’s work, it’s a mean, angry, and antagonistic book. Characters are ugly, full of hate, and I love every last one of them. Sergio Leone would have killed to assault his audience with these demons. – Brad
What’s It About? A gonzo journalist tries to bring down the government in a future gone mad.
Why’s It Good? The most impressive — and most disturbing — thing about Warren Ellis’s cyberpunk series is just how prescient it was. Reading it now in the current political landscape, it’s difficult not to spot parallels between the current government’s relationships with the press. While it would have been timeless anyway given its surreal vision of the future and anarchic protagonist, its resonance in our contemporary world is what makes it so hard-hitting and impossible to forget. – Kieran
What’s It About? An undercover Native American FBI agent returns to the reservation where he grew up to bring down the corrupt sheriff who owns the land.
Why’s It Good? Jason Aaron’s neo-Western noir is a story with dirt in its nails, set in a world where poverty and crime are rampant and the powers that be are as corrupt as the murderers and thieves. People get drunk and abuse drugs, they fight, and sexual interactions are cold and devoid of intimacy. And of course, there’s plenty of blood-letting thrown in for good measure. The story delivers the visceral thrills we want from a crime yarn, but as a portrait of society’s disenfranchised it’s pretty damn bleak and powerful. This isn’t as simple as good versus bad, but that’s what makes “Scalped” so captivating. – Kieran
6. 100 Bullets
What’s It About? An old man offers people the chance at revenge against people who’ve wronged them without consequences.
Why’s It Good? We’ve all thought about it, right? The perfect crime. If we could get away with wronging someone who’d wronged us, would we take the opportunity to avenge said wrong? Personally, I haven’t thought about killing someone, but the questions posed by “100 Bullets” are fascinating nonetheless and have inspired many a philosophical debate while drinking with friends. Morality tales aside, however, when throw in secret organizations that make the Illuminati look like peons, things get super interesting. – Kieran
5. Y: The Last Man
What’s It About? A mysterious plague wipes out the male population of Earth — except for Yorick Brown, a wannabe street magician who navigates the gender apocalypse with his pet Capuchin monkey. Desperate to reconnect with his girlfriend who was last seen in the Australian Outback, Yorick partners with government agents and scientists in this epic road trip towards idealized love.
Why It’s Good? A perfect partnership between writer and artist (Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra), “Y: The Last Man!” is a kitchen-sink apocalypse. You’ve got mystery, romance, horror, social commentary, astronauts, submarines, and monkeys. After every issue, the reader was left doubting Vaughan’s ability to stick the landing, and yet somehow he miraculously succeeds where others often fail. – Brad
What’s It About? The adventures of a preacher who’s possessed by the offspring of an angel and demon. Because of this, he may very well be the most powerful being in the entire universe.
Why’s It Good? Words cannot describe why Garth Ennis’s “Preacher” is as awesome as it is, but the fact that it’s unlike anything else in the history of the medium is a good start. This is a world that can be revisited time and time again and it feels like catching up on some old stories with an old friend. The violence, monsters, boozing, blaspheming, and all-around chaos is a bonus. – Kieran
3. Animal Man
What’s It About? When Bernhard “Buddy” Baker stood a little too close to an exploding spaceship, he gained the ability to temporarily borrow the attributes of animals. Need a quick trip across town? Buddy can take on an eagle’s flight or a kangaroo’s hop. During this epic run from comic book maestro Grant Morrison, Animal Man battles aliens, eco-terrorists, and his Creator…Grant Morrison!
Why It’s Good? Morrison’s “Animal Man” is a total head trip. What starts off as a quirky, weirdo celebration of an unloved DC character quickly descends into a meta-commentary of the whole superhero genre. This was also one of the first comic books I read where the main character’s family life melodrama is just as intriguing as the punch ‘em up shenanigans. If you think Animal Man is strange, wait until you meet B’wanna Beast! Comic Books have more to offer than Batman and Superman, and Vertigo has been the place to go if you are desperate for left-field ideas. And, damn, did Grant Morrison have some of those here. – Brad
2. Swamp Thing
What’s It About? The exploits of a humanoid swamp creature who uses his powers to fight the good fight.
Why’s It Good? You can’t go wrong with any “Swamp Thing” iteration, but the 1980s run by Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette marked the apex of the saga’s legacy thus far. With a strong environmental message, plenty of monster action and a tragic love story to boot, this remains a pinnacle of horror storytelling — but it’s so much more than that. Monsters though… *insert heart emoticon here.* – Kieran
What’s It About? Dream of the Endless (also known as Morpheus and other names), is the lord of dreams and an ancient being more powerful than the gods. He’s one of seven siblings who embody different aspects of the universe. The story chronicles Dream’s journey as he escapes the clutches of an occultist and embarks on his own quest to rebuild his kingdom, which sees him span various time periods and realms.
Why’s It Good? For me, Neil Gaiman’s fantasy series is the very embodiment of the word “epic” and probably my favorite saga of all time. The story incorporates a myriad of genre, historic, and literary influences to create something that’s just as much a love letter to pop culture as it is its own complex, original, and wholly unparalleled creation. Over time, “The Sandman” became its own distinct entity that was quite far removed from the DC and Vertigo universes, and one which paved the way for incredible spin-offs like “Lucifer.” Gaiman’s imagination is a gift that deserves to be hailed and treasured, and this is arguably the greatest creation to be born from his beautiful brain. – Kieran