Glimpsing the Beast that Devours DC ComicsA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: David Fairbanks
I don't know if it's the kind of person I am or what, but the majority of panels at conventions don't hold a lot of appeal to me. At C2E2 2013, I skimmed the list of events online and came up with 4 that I wanted to attend. With one conflict, that meant I would be going to three panels, all on the Saturday. It was a nice feeling to know that I could have something to do for roughly 3 hours on what would be the busiest day for the showroom at the convention, and it seemed like an exciting bunch of panels. Even though the Pop Music and Comics panel ended up being 1/3 Kieron Gillen ranting about Kula Shaker and 2/3 not talking much about the similarities between music and comics, I had high hopes for DC's presentation on what's coming next for Vertigo.
Let's start with the attendees. John Cunningham, DC's VP of Marketing, was running the show with Andrew Pepoy (inker, Fables), Sean E. Williams (writer, The Fairest), Will Dennis (editor), and Brian Azzarello (writer, 100 Bullets) in attendance. Azzarello was running a bit late, so Cunningham made a few jokes at his expense that seemed like just friendly ribbing until the show got into full swing.
When Azzarello arrived, he walked up the stage, stopping at Pepoy and asked him what he was doing on the panel in a way that felt both friendly and condescending. Maybe this is just part of the relationship they have, but it won't be the last time inkers are insulted in the 35 minutes of shilling that would follow.
I know that sounds incredibly cynical or naïve, to call a panel announcing upcoming products “shilling,” but it was damn clear that this wasn't being run be a writer, an artist, an editor, an inker, or anyone with any interest in something other than the bottom line. It was being run by the company's VP of marketing, a fact that was repeatedly beat into the ground by his and Azzarello's sustained arguments over the importance of comics becoming New York Times Best Sellers, only interrupted by mentions of new Vertigo miniseries and advertisements for the convention-exclusive superhero toys available in the showroom.
Now, Azzarello strikes me as the kind of character who loves to get into loud and angry arguments whenever possible, whether he's playing devil's advocate or not, but the back and forth between him and Cunningham was something else. The animosity between Azzarello and Cunningham was palpable, showing just how high the tensions are at DC right now and explaining just who it is that's pushing editorial to hold the line hard at 52 books a month, quality and consistency be damned.
This was everything invisible going on at DC given form right before our eyes. It's why Happy was at Image instead of Vertigo, why Hellblazer was canceled, why Karen Berger stepped down from running the brand, and it's probably the very same reason why Berger told Douglas Rushkoff that he may want to publish his new graphic novel at a different publisher.
Vertigo has spent two decades curating some of the most mature and literate examples of comics storytelling. While there are other publishers out there that produce amazing comics and graphic novels (and Vertigo does have comics they would likely rather sweep under the rug than put next to Sandman), Vertigo has done well to push these kinds of works into the hands of more mainstream audiences.
While I wouldn't say that all the credit rests on the shoulders of Karen Berger – Shelly Bond, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave McKean, Cameron Stewart, Mike Carey, Peter Gross, Jeff Lemire, and more all deserve acknowledgement – she deserves a lot of praise for Vertigo becoming what it was.
I say “what it was” because we haven't had a new ongoing Vertigo title announced for some time now, and none were announced at C2E2 either. I'm just as excited as anyone else to see The Unwritten march on toward its conclusion, and you won't hear me say anything but good words about Jeff Lemire's next Vertigo project, Trillium, but the long-form Vertigo work looks to be dead.
I say “what it was” because it looks pretty clear that Berger saw the writing on the wall and looked to take care of the parts of Vertigo that mattered to her: the creators.
And I say “what it was” because Cunningham described Azzarello's polling of the audience's thoughts on the New York Times Best Seller list as a “Karen thing.”
I can't know exactly what Cunningham meant, but do you know what seems like a completely un-Karen thing? Allowing the denigration of an entire profession on a panel, starting with a handful of jokes about why they had an inker there to begin with. Pepoy chimed in with incredulity at an inker being on a comics panel later on while also asking Cunningham somewhat seriously why he was invited. The answer? He “has known Bill (Willingham) for 30 years and might have some funny stories.”
Integrity was a “Karen thing” too, and so was Vertigo Comics.