In May 2013, Vertigo is back in business in a major way: The first issue of The Wake, a 10-issue miniseries by writer Scott Snyder and artist Sean G. Murphy, sold an estimated 45,000 units, the highest number for a Vertigo comic book since the year 2000. The imprint’s average comic-book sales increased to 21,000 units as a result — the highest level recorded since Diamond Comic Distributors started providing information on actual sales in March 2003. (To date, the record was held by October 2003, with average Vertigo sales of 18,000 copies.)
This is a very big deal indeed. Even with top-flight creative teams and increasingly desperate promotional stunts, Vertigo never managed to crack 34,000 units with any of its launches in more than 10 years. As recently as January 2010, Joe the Barbarian, an eight-issue miniseries drawn by Murphy and written by top-flight creator Grant Morrison, debuted with an estimated 25,543 units sold — the cover price was $1.00. American Vampire, mainly written by Scott Snyder, managed an estimated 33,762 units in March 2010, at least, by having Stephen King on board as a back-up writer.
There was a fair amount of grumbling recently when DC Comics co-publisher and fan-favorite bogeyman Dan DiDio was quoted in the New York Times expressing some doubts on Vertigo’s recent business model. It was — wait for it — “myopic” to think “that servicing a very small slice of our audience is the way to go ahead,” DiDio told Dave Itzkoff.
It’s understandable why readers and critics, probably feeling nostalgic about one project or another from Vertigo’s 20-year history, are not inclined to agree with DiDio. Especially so considering that the statement is part of a profile of outgoing long-time DC editor Karen Berger, who founded Vertigo, curated many of its signature titles and was one of a select few people left at the publisher who haven’t been subjected to the scorn of fans, critics and estranged creators on a daily basis.
Up to a point, those critics are right. Ideally, Vertigo is the type of imprint where creators get to grow and experiment while finding a voice and an audience, not necessarily starting out with great sales right away, but rewarding the publisher with a strong backlist of titles that will remain in print for years to come — not to mention a stable of homegrown big-name talent, ready to infuse DC’s signature franchises with the new blood they need every few years to keep selling. That kind of idea and talent farm is something worth worth cultivating, even if the immediate sales aren’t stellar compared to, say, Batman.
It’s the opposite of “myopic.”
In practice, though, the last time this model really worked was with Y: The Last Man (2002-2008) and Fables (also launched in 2002 and still ongoing), the two most recent Vertigo properties to register consistently and in significant numbers in the Nielsen Bookscan and Diamond “Graphic Novel” charts. For any new Vertigo series launched in the last 10 years, including titles like DMZ, Scalped and American Vampire, success had to be measured in rather more modest terms.
So, ultimately, once DC’s parent company Warner got involved more heavily and restructured the publisher in 2010, it was to be expected that Vertigo would be affected, as well. Warner doesn’t need comics anymore to make tons of money with Batman and Superman films. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies has probably made the company more money than all of DC Comics combined. As a consequence, it seems, there’s now more of a need to be profitable right away at DC to justify a book’s existence. Among other things, this has resulted in the heavy reorientation of the Vertigo imprint that’s been happening for the last several months, and which is entering a new stage with the release of The Wake.
The Wake included, only four ongoing Vertigo titles are left in May 2013, the lowest number of monthly titles on record for the imprint since at least March 2003. And unlike previous measures taken to streamline and re-energize the brand, this time it appears to working quite well.
Relying on creators who have already enjoyed mainstream success is not how Vertigo started out, certainly. Right now, we’re in the middle of Vertigo’s transformation from a relatively sheltered idea and talent farm to a much more competitive place. In terms of content, it’s not entirely clear what Vertigo will look like once — and if — it emerges from this transformation. Recent and forthcoming additions like Django Unchained, Astro City or Collider don’t reveal a distinctive direction yet.
What The Wake does, at this stage, is to prove that “creator-driven” books (as opposed to “creator-owned,” which only fully applies to Astro City) with high-profile creative teams can sell despite the Vertigo label. Whether or not this is going to help DC in re-establishing the Vertigo brand as a selling point, we’re going to find out in the next several months.