Earlier this week, it was announced by DC that Vertigo’s long-running Hellblazer series would end with issue #300 and be replaced by Constantine, a new DC series based on the title character. The announcement has caused quite an uproar with fans and readers from all over, and it’s not quite for naught. Hellblazer’s end could be the beginning of the end for DC’s Vertigo imprint.
Twenty years ago DC started Vertigo as a place to put all of their more mature series. The imprint began as an in-continuity section of DC Comics, with books like Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol, Sandman, and of course Hellblazer. These titles were more mature than anything from DC but were still happening in the same continuity. Time passed and Vertigo lost it’s ties with DC’s continuity and most of those series tying the imprint to it’s father publisher together ended. All but Hellblazer, which would stay behind to tell of the exploits of the aging black magician, John Constantine.
Fast forward to now and we’ve got an aged John doing his business over in that book while DC has resurrected the old, young version of John during their New 52 movement. Many characters who had previously been part of Vertigo now existed once again in DC continuity such as Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Tim Hunter, Black Orchid, and several concepts like the Houses of Mystery and Secrets and the Books of Magic. It’s been exciting for DC to bring back all these elements, and it’s made sense for them to use a younger version of John, given both that characters in the DCU have de-aged since the reboot and that they never aged that quickly to begin with. Given that this was another version of the character, there was no real reason that both young John and Hellblazer John couldn’t both exist on the shelves.
However, now, DC has decided that the shelves aren’t big enough for two versions of this character and Vertigo’s longest running staple is coming to a conclusion next February. While many might look at this and say it’s not that big of a deal since he’s just moving over to another ongoing book, they might not be realizing a couple of important factors that come out of this.
One thing that separated the Vertigo universe from the DC Universe, and the reason that a whole imprint had to be created for these mature-reader books, is the fact that they were leagues more mature than DC’s titles. Dealing with thematic elements such as racial politics, sex, drugs, and extreme violence, these books just couldn’t be published by the same people who were, more or less, trying to stick by the Comics Code of Authority. Moving these books over to Vertigo gave them some levity and the ability to go as extreme as they wanted with all the drug addled violence, sex, and language that they could dream of inserting into the book. And it wasn’t for naught, as it really characterized John, himself, as this man who wasn’t averse to doing whatever it was to get what he needed, even if it meant violently killing someone or taking copious psychedelic drugs. Or both. However, with John moving back under DC, seemingly permanently, he’ll be a lot more watered-down. That’s not to say that whatever writer comes onto the series isn’t going to present a great story, it’s just that they won’t be able to utilize the popular elements that have been at hand for the past twenty years (you won’t be seeing another scene with drugged out punks fornicating with dead dogs, I’ll tell you that much).
Another important factor is in the rapid and noticeable decline in ongoing books from Vertigo. In the past year or so, we’ve seen many series get canceled or come to conclusions while barely any new ongoing series are announced. House of Mystery, DMZ, iZombie, and Scalped have all recently ended, and Sweet Tooth has one issue left. Meanwhile American Vampire is about to take a year long hiatus and the one book that seemed like it would always be around, Hellblazer, is being canned. That leaves the long running Fables, it’s spin-off Fairest, The Unwritten, and the fairly young Saucer Country. Meanwhile Vertigo’s biggest announcements are all about upcoming mini-series and Original Graphic Novels and absolutely no talk of new ongoing titles has happened in many, many months. At this rate, it wouldn’t be surprising if in a couple of years Vertigo had but two remaining ongoing series and started focusing all it’s effort on OGN’s, which would be a sad change of pace for the imprint who seemed to previously be the go-to place for quality creator-owned storytelling.
Meanwhile, indie publishers like Image have been seeing a heyday of sorts. With about a dozen new high-profile creator-owned titles announced in the past few months, Image alone is becoming the new place for readers to go for non-caped comic goodness. There’s nothing wrong with this as a good comic’s a good comic, regardless of where it’s being published from, but it seems like more than a coincidence that there’s so much happening over at Image while less and less is happening as time goes on over at Vertigo. Could it have something to do with the creative differences writers have been having with editors over at DC? This could also explain the fact that the two upcoming high-profile titles from Vertigo are minis by DC’s biggest writers right now, Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire.
At the end of the day, the canceling of Hellblazer has to be acknowledged as more than just another book ending. It’s a big step in a downward direction for DC’s Vertigo imprint that is definite cause for alarm, and we’re not just being facetious when we say that DC’s Constantine is going to be a “watered-down” version of John, it’s a sad fact. I’m also still wondering to myself why both Hellblazer and Constantine couldn’t exist on the shelves together, not unlike Marvel’s Punisher and Punisher Max have.