Why is Vertigo a Proving Ground for DC/Marvel Talent (Instead of the Other Way Around)?

In his article on Karen Berger’s legacy at Vertigo, Sequart’s Julian Darius cites the imprint’s role as a “proving ground” for talent. Many well-known comics writers made their mark with a magnum opus at Vertigo — Grant Morrison with The Invisibles for instance, or Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets — and have gone on to mainstream success at DC and Marvel.

But isn’t that backwards?

I mean, that’s like J.K. Rowling following up Harry Potter with a long career writing Forgotten Realms novels. Or Steven Spielberg following up Jaws and E.T. by directing episodes of shows like Cheers, M*A*S*H and L.A. Law for the next two decades.

If that’s what someone wants to do, that’s great. R.A. Salvatore has carved out such a niche in Forgotten Realms that his name is a bigger draw than the universe’s brand. I’d bet Geoff Johns feels like he has the best job in the world.

But it seems…broken somehow that even when an author makes a splash telling their own stories, the main measure of success is a career working on pre-existing character concepts controlled by Warner Bros. and Disney.


10 thoughts on “Why is Vertigo a Proving Ground for DC/Marvel Talent (Instead of the Other Way Around)?

  1. KoderKev

    Wow. I’d never thought of it that way. It’s always been that way with “brand” series novels, too. Example: The Star Trek novels are all by someone who has had to prove their chops writing something else. I’m going to have to think on this a bit…

  2. Kyer

    I agree, but maybe the financial benefits are worth it? (No idea especially nowadays with everything ‘benefits’ in upheaval due to the new law. However, everyone I ever knew who ‘created’ a product preferred their own creations to working on another person’s. That goes for all sorts of crafts and arts.

    1. Kelson Post author

      The economics are definitely set up to favor working for the big boys. Most of the audience wants superheroes, not other types of stories. And they want familiar superheroes, meaning Marvel and DC, especially their A-list, not some new guy from Image or forgotten pulp hero from Dynamite. We’re talking an order of magnitude here. Check the sales estimates at ICv2 or the analysis columns at The Beat for any eye-opener.

      So Batman pulls in more, plus larger print runs mean per-book costs go down, so a bigger percentage is available to pay people like the writer and artist. And of course it’s more visible. Plus the publisher gets more long-term benefit if they own the content outright (or might as well, in the case of Watchmen).

      So economically it makes sense that Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth is ending now that he’s on Justice League Dark and Animal Man, and American Vampire is going on hiatus so Scott Snyder can focus on writing Batman stories. But artistically, it just seems to me that we – the audience and the industry both – are pushing talent in the wrong direction.

      Spielberg probably could have directed some awesome episodes of LA Law. But if it had cost the world, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler’s List, I think it would have been a net loss.

      1. Realitätsprüfung

        With respect, I don’t think that analogy really works, for 2 reasons:

        1. Working for the big 2 is not all that different from being a director working for the big 6 movie studios – which is what Spielberg does, basically. An analogy to Spielberg would be Grant Morrison; he’s independent enough to do creator-owned material for a select audience, but does most of his work at the big studios – just that he picks his own projects and is given latitude, given his reputation and the respect that commands.

        2. I’m not sure DC/Marvel are, or ever where, in the business of building up the creator-owned business. Their business is exploiting their own IPs…not helping their freelancers to become IP owners themselves.

        If creators want to go off and create/own their own material, that’s great. There is a market for that, and some become really successful doing it on their own, without corporate backing – McFarlane, Kirkman, etc.

        Point being: DC/Marvel don’t stand in the way of independent work, and by their very nature they also aren’t the ones to facilitate an indie market subset.

  3. Aaron Poehler

    It’s because everyone makes more money publishing a book which sells 50,000 copies a month rather than 5,000.

    1. Kelson Post author

      The title was meant more as a philosophical question than one about the mechanism. I’m aware of that, as you can see in my answer to Kyer above. The fact that even A-list writers and artists have trouble selling original material at a level comparable to what they could sell working on X-Men or Batman calls into question the existence of an A-list, at least as far as talent is concerned.

      It just seems ridiculous that the system rewards originality by encouraging people to bury that originality beneath something derivative.

      1. Kyer

        I’m going to take it that by ‘the system’ you are speaking in general because when it comes down to it the reason originality has such a hard time is because people are drawn to the familiar. So we gravitate to Batman or Iron Man because we already know that we like those types of characters/worlds. Its far less likely that John Q. Public will pick up an unknown property in a moment of spare time than something known. The less exposure, the less likelihood of becoming a hit with the masses, the less able the producer of the original fare is able to financially afford having another go. I know that if I hadn’t gotten miffed at DC, I’d likely not have veered off and discovered Marvel and webcomics, being satisfied with buying only DC comics. Even there, I first tried out other superhero comics before frustration drew me back to sf & magical fantasies. Heck, I only found Thrillbent because Mark Waid is tied to (the old) Flash books.

        Still, stuff like Star Wars being sold to Disney made me sad because that had been a story of an entrepreneur beating the odds and making good.

      2. Savitar

        Derivative? That’s a tad harsh I believe.

        I get what you are saying but even working at the Big Two, these creators are making memorable, if not, controversial stories. I can understand their reasons for working there. (Hopefully) better pay rates but more importantly, more exposure.

        If I enjoyed their mainstream work, then I am more inclined to check out their independent work. With operations like Kickstarter, we can help support our favorite creators in their original works.

        What is worse is that the Big Two now seem unwilling to support the original works of their own creators via their own independent lines. Back in the 80s, Epic for Marvel was great in showcasing original material. Vertigo picked that legacy up and maintained it for years. It’s sad to see Vertigo end, but the industry nowadays is more capable to support and publish creators’ own work via different publishers than in the past. While we lose something memorable, we gain something important.

        1. Kelson Post author

          “Derivative” is harsh? It’s a technical description. If I’d wanted to be harsh, I would have called it, I don’t know, rehashes, or licensed fanfic. (Even that *shouldn’t* be harsh, it’s just that fanfic has a stigma attached to it.)


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