The Vertigo Encyclopedia

Review by KC Carlson

It’s always dangerous to try to explain magic, since, in part, magic is mostly unexplainable. Or else it wouldn’t be magic.

The Vertigo “Universe” (if, in fact, such a thing actually exists) is covered with magic. Not only is a large part of it actually formed of magic, but the fact that it exists at all is quite magical indeed.

The Vertigo Encyclopedia cover
The Vertigo Encyclopedia
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Beginning in the late ’80s, under the aegis of Karen Berger — an exceptional editor with unflinchable, as well as esoteric, instincts — the roots of Vertigo were formed in her dark little corner of the DC Universe where Swamp Thing and Sandman lived. Having previously worked with Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, Berger tapped into the second wave of the “British Invasion” (many of whom Berger discovered) and, combined with the then-new concept of creator-owned comics, launched Vertigo as a successful imprint for DC Comics in 1993.

Within a short amount of time, Vertigo settled into publishing three distinct types of comics:

  • mostly stand-alone creator-owned series or graphic novels
  • the “Vertigo-verse” centered around most (but not all) of DC’s mystery, horror or magic characters, and largely revolving around Swamp Thing, Sandman, and all of their spin-off titles and characters
  • and new incarnations of classic DC concepts (Sandman Mystery Theatre, Shade, the Changing Man, Uncle Sam) that may or may not have anything to do with the original character.

While you might think that it’s mostly all scary stuff, Vertigo encompasses virtually all genres. Among its many titles, you’ll find war, romance, western, crime, SF, and stories of everyday living. And also a lot of sex and drugs and rock and roll…

This is why I was initially bemused when I saw a listing for book from DK (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) called The Vertigo Encyclopedia. I already have a shelf full of DK books about comic books, mostly of the superhero type, so I automatically jumped to the conclusion that it would have facts and powers and statistics all screaming at once, accompanied by page after page of INYOURFACE graphics.

How wonderfully surprised to be mistaken!

The Vertigo Encyclopedia, written by Alex Irvine with important introductions by Neil Gaiman and Vertigo Executive Editor Karen Berger, is not exactly an encyclopedia of the type we normally think of. This book takes 80 or so of the top Vertigo projects and tells the story of each one individually, in features ranging from one page (American Splendor, Seaguy, My Faith in Frankie) to ten pages (Sandman, Fables, Hellblazer) depending on importance, impact, complexity, and number of characters.

Depending on its length, each entry might include a storyline overview, key characters, supporting or other characters, settings, and outstanding moments. Creation notes are also offered for some of the more notable series or ones with complex premises. In addition, each entry features a sidebar with a first issue cover reproduction, an overview of the publishing history (including pre-Vertigo information in some cases), background on the key creative talent, and — when applicable — a list of trade paperback collections. In some cases, where this list is long, it is broken out into its own section.

The book covers a wide range, including pre-Vertigo titles published as part of the DC Universe (Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, and Sandman), books that became retroactively Vertigo (V for Vendetta, Skreemer, The Cowboy Wally Show, and other works by Kyle Baker), and series first published under other imprints, such as Helix (Transmetropolitan, Bloody Mary) or Paradox Press (a single entry covering A History of Violence). The Encyclopedia is also remarkably up-to-date, with entries for new series Air, Greatest Hits, Madame Xanadu, and House of Mystery.

The remaining Vertigo projects (over 120) are included in the Gazetteer, a collection of shorter features covering mostly miniseries and one-shots. Between this and the main section of the Encyclopedia, every Vertigo project to date is represented, with the exception of a handful of promotional or miscellaneous publications, all of which are mentioned in the introduction to the Gazetteer.

The Encyclopedia is not a critical overview of Vertigo (although it can be argued that the amount of material on any given project may be a subtle indicator of its importance). It is a Big Book of Vertigo Facts, and fairly essential for figuring out the differences between all the Sandman spin-off titles and Sandman Presents projects. The book is very nicely designed with lots of well-chosen and representative artwork. There’s a lot of text, but not an excessive amount, and it has an excellent flow and presentation, which makes for a enjoyable read. And, of course, there is a lot of black used in the design — it is Vertigo, after all.

My only serious complaint is that the Outstanding Moments section of the major articles occasionally gives away major plot turns and surprises of certain series — a problem always inherent in projects like this. But since one of the obvious goals of this book is to propel readers into other Vertigo titles, it’s a shame that so much is given away.

The Vertigo Encyclopedia is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the depth and breath of the Vertigo line, as well as a celebration and classification of all of the wonderful projects that it encompasses. It’s the closest you’ll get to explaining magic. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

6 Responses to “The Vertigo Encyclopedia”

  1. Jim Kosmicki Says:

    I had this pre-ordered from Amazon and have been reading it since it came out. I like DK books, and I’m a Vertigo fanboy of long-standing. It’s an interesting book, with lots of information laid out in pleasing design (typical of DK).

    but there are some missing books, even in the Gazeteer at the end. Jamie Delano’s books 2020 Visions and Outlaw Nation are both MIA — probably due to the fact that he took both books to other publishers for their TPBs.

    and what gets emphasized and what gets a minimal listing in the back is an interesting set of choices. Why does Codename: Knockout get a multi-page entry while The Crusades only gets a minimal listing? Both debuted about the same time, with The Crusades lasting 20 issues plus a one-shot debut issue and Codename:Knockout having 23 issues. Neither one got even a single TPB that I’m aware of. But one gets front of the book treatment and the other is relegated to the back. Obviously, I preferred The Crusades, but I don’t see where the listing for Codename:Knockout makes much of a case for it being innovative or influential.

    but then again, with any reference book of this sort, those are the sort of editorial decisions that are going to come up. this is a book well worth the cost if you have any interest in exploring the Vertigo corner of DC.

  2. odessa steps magazine Says:

    I browsed this the other day in Borders and was amazed by its thoroughness and timeliness (as mentioned by KC, like seeing Air in there already).

  3. KC Says:

    Jim, thanks for the update on missing titles!

    I suspect that situations like this (involving creator ownership) will make the Vertigo landscape ever-changing, while rendering this book a snapshot of Vertigo circa 2008. Good thing that DK likes updating many of their books every few years!

    And yes, I suspect that there will be much discussion of the “ranking” of various Vertigo titles in this book. Which is as it should be.

  4. Dave Rose Says:

    Projects like this one are great for introducing readers to series they might like, or reminding previous readers of series they’ve enjoyed but haven’t thought about for awhile.

    Invariably there will be titles which are left out (either by accident or design) which aften leads to revised editions.

    Personally, I really like books like this one. I look forward to reading it.

  5. odessa steps magazine Says:

    Yeah, I thought some of the decisions were curious.

    Just from flipping through the book, it seems like a bunch of Milligan’s stuff was “relegated” to the end section (except of course for Shade), while almost all of Morrison’s stuff was in the front section.

    I’d be curious to see a nerdy kind of break-down to see how projects by the big Vertigo names (Gaiman, Milligan, MOrrison, Delano, Carey, WIllingham) were in each part.

  6. odessa steps magazine Says:

    at the bookstore today, I thought it was odd that they had a bunch of copies of the Updated DC encyclopedia and also one copy of the old version.

    I wonder if that was an inventory glitch or they just hadn’t gotten around to sending the order to pull it yet.




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