Vertigo since its beginnings at the cusp of the 1990s has been about telling hard stories that have arcs with real creator vision. This was a change where long-standing characters and continuity drove comic book storytelling, where you could rarely make profound changes and stories were intending to go on indefinitely. Through Vertigo we saw many older characters challenged and redefined, but we also saw a certain Auteurship as creators became superstars that overshadowed their creation. It is within this context that miniseries began to have an incredible place in the Vertigo line-up because they often told contained stories that were creator-driven, and the richness was defined by the creativity rather than brand appeal.
With such a rich library to choose from, we have chosen and ranked twenty of the best and most influential miniseries to appear at Vertigo over the years. We have chosen to avoid tie-in miniseries that support ongoing series like Hellblazer, Preacher, American Vampire, and many others, except with a few key exceptions. Many of the most groundbreaking miniseries of the earlier Vertigo days were followed up with ongoing series, and we also ended up including a couple from Sandman because the sheer quality of them were so overpowering. These miniseries tie-ins, and the one crossover event, also have a lot of amazing options, though they are often heavily indebted to their ongoing counterpart.
With no further delay, the 20 greatest Vertigo miniseries of all time!
20. 2020 Visions
2020 Visions is a great example of the way that Vertigo redefined comics in the 1990s while the rest of the crowd were pining over the Death of Superman and selling each other Chromium Variant Covers. The series from Jamie Delano came in four three-issue sections, each with its own theme and artist. They were broad but focused back on the central character that took you through a dystopia that was steeped in Americana. This is the kind of 12-issue miniseries (or maxi-series, if we want to split hairs) that can be returned to at any time and feel just as relevant, as is true of much of Vertigo’s science fiction canon.
This is the most recent entry on the list, and Sandman is certainly the exception to our rule about the inclusion of off-shoot miniseries. The reason here is that this series is able to stand on its own so well and that it is so tremendous, and illustrates what Vertigo does so well that it would seem like a falsehood to not include it. This prequel to the first volume of the regular Sandman series, Preludes and Nocturnes, brings together Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams into an explosion of mythology and color where each issue can stand up as a singular story, but we will not get the entire project until we stand back and look at it as an arc. Delays have plagued the release of Sandman: Overture worse than almost any project in recent memory, so when the sixth issue comes out shortly we will certainly have more to say.
This is again a recent book from Jeff Lemire, who is in full form as he tells a shifting sci-fi narrative that forces you to flip the book and then turn your expectations. It brings you both forward and backwards in time, focusing on explorers with military pasts as they connect with each other through the time-scaling effects of an alien flower known as Trillium. Lemire both writes and draws this epic, and it is one of the most compelling science fiction visions to come out of comics in recent years.
This is one of the great examples of the fantasy books that have really helped to develop the kind of “vertigo type” of book that has been popularized. Comics giant Jeph Loeb weaves a story about a character named Amanda Collins and how she offers to change the lives of people in trouble. Beautiful art, entrancing characters, and a dark yet fanciful sensibility makes this an instant Vertigo classic!
Another recent miniseries from Vertigo, where we see the same dead body in four dramatically different time periods. From the mid 1890s, the 1940s, modern day London, and far into the hyper real future, people begin to investigate, in their own way, what has happened. This surreal detective adventure is best left unspoiled, but this English thriller goes so deep into the psychology of murder and fear that you have an amazing creation that heralds back to the real tradition of these stories on Vertigo. A Vertigo regular Si Spencer pens the book and has four different writers to jump into each section: Dean Ormston, Phil Winslade, Meghan Hetrick and Tula Lotay. They may seem like separate stories, but like all periods of time, they begin uniting as we find the common human experience.
This is the Grant Morrison book for those looking for solid storytelling over metatextual commentaries on philosophy, though that’s in there too. Here Morrison tells a true fantasy tale that happens possibly in the mind of a kid going into Insulin shock and whose home is transformed into a mystical world where he is the hero on a journey. What is often most striking to people first opening its pages is the absolutely unbelievable art from Sean Murphy, which is both radically detailed and stylized. The story itself is one that focuses on rich characters and the undercurrents of a difficult world of growing up in a financially difficult household of a single parent.
14. Kid Eternity (Original Mini-Series)
Grant Morrison is going to show up on this list a few times. Here it is for re-invigorating the forgotten DC superhero Kid Eternity, which is the kind of thing he and the rest of the British Invasion did in the early days of Vertigo. Orphaned by a sexually victimizing grandfather, he remains a sort of nameless wanderer. This first three-issue miniseries spawned a short-lived regular series, but really developed the Revisionist approach to character backstory and that we can take the concept of the superhero into a place of dark myth and parable.
Brian Wood is known for a few different types of storytelling, and his Young Adult fiction is a critical part of his canon. Here we see twelve short stories where young people come to terms with their own superpowers, yet the core of the stories are the problems of growing up. The beautiful black-and-white art only helps to iconize each of these characters and makes for a quite series of stories that are as haunting as they are emotionally satisfying.
12. The Wake
The Wake is also one of the more recent books on the list and from the brilliant pen work of Sean Murphy and the horror sensibility of American Vampire’s Scott Snyder. This ten-issue miniseries is broken into two distinct five-issue arcs that are dramatically different from each other. The first follows a scientist as she begins to investigate a sound coming from deep beneath the ocean and the animal that may be making it. From here the story goes in a myriad of directions, none of which should be ruined here, but it creates one of the most compelling “widescreen” science fiction books of recent years.
11. Terminal City
Terminal City is a great piece of steampunk detective fiction, taking place in a future that seems to be equally of the past. Dean Motter and Michael Lark create an artistic style here that is iconic and like nothing else that was being published. Someone wakes up with no memory and attached to a briefcase. They descend into a world that is controlled by organized crime and a battle between the ruling class and those below.
Paul Pope’s stories really take a dramatic science fiction concept as an excuse to look at characters and relationships, which is what all great fiction do. The difference is that he mixes it with an artistic style where every panel could stand on its own as a stunning piece of ink work. 100% centers around a sort of “strip club” where women are subjected to a kind of x-ray system where onlookers see their inside. This sort of “ultra-pornography” is really a secondary feature as it is the complexity that many of the women that work there have in their lives, from an ill-fated romance with another staff to an ex-husband with good intentions and a boxing past.
9. Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery
This began as a Charles Atlas inspired character from Grant Morrison’s famous Doom Patrol run. The story here really draws a post-modern inspiration of the past, and it is actually this miniseries that stands out so dramatically that you do not need to be tied to the Doom Patrol appearances. The company that produced Charles Atlas ended up being so annoyed at the similarities that they sued DC comics, and this is especially funny when compared to the entire false history of Flex Mentallo that is provided by Grant Morrison and appears in the traded collection of the miniseries.
8. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters
This book was included even though ones tied to regular series were not simply because it is so unique, of such a dramatic quality, and can stand on its own. This is really more of a novella written by Neil Gaiman, which is broken into four parts when it was released and illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano. This is essentially a reworking of an old Japanese folk tale dealing with dreams and animal spirits, and has the feel of classic mythology that bridges east and west images of the dreamworld.
This is one of the most acclaimed mini series in comics, both inside and outside of the industry. Hitting #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for ‘graphic fiction,’ while also pulling in a ton of awards. The work by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá looks at different moments in the life of writer Brás de Oliva Domingos in a painted comic that feels more like a musical poem on the dramatic heartbeats that make up a human life.
Sean Murphy returns to the list once again, and with good right since his work is some of the most stunning in the industry today. Here this black-and-white book is in much more a creator-controlled work as he helms both the script and the art. It follows a clone of Jesus that is taken from DNA captured from the Shroud of Turin and immediately rebels into a world of punk rock. Every part of this book shreds our understanding of religion and iconoclassism, and most people in the industry agree as the acclaim for the book never slowed.
5. Death: The High Cost of Living
Death is a character that began in Sandman as Dream’s sister, who was sort of a fun 90s goth caricature. In her own miniseries, which The High Cost of Living is only one, she stands out as she still acts as adjunct to a human character that has themselves to develop. Here Sexton is deeply suicidal, drawing him closer to Death, which gives her the impetus to take her on discover. He develops a contraditional love for her, one that drives him both closer and away from her, as does all passionate experiences.
4. Heavy Liquid
The second work from Paul Pope, and one that is so fundamental to the experience of Vertigo as an imprint that redefines what is possible. Drawing on his ink-flowing style, the story follows an ex-Cop as he comes in contact with an ink-like substance that can be transformed into an addictive, psychedelic drug. Paul Pope’s work confronts the purpose of art, individual freedom, and a vision of the future that comments on the most personal parts of our experience. Here, the drug itself can produce the most substantial pieces of art, and as it goes forward it becomes a meta-commentary both on this work and on the entire field.
3. Black Orchid
This is the kind of book that will literally make your breath skip as if you jumped in an ice cold lake. The story is a complex post-modern weave from Vertigo staple Peter Milligan, as both a hero and villain from a forgotten b-comic from the past arrive in real life. They are murderous and frightening, also sexual and attractive, and our everyman Michael Smith feels drawn to abandon his meandering life and to go out to see what his connection is to this. Nothing should be spoiled from the plot, but it deals heavily with the draw of cults, the ways that people build both themselves and the world around them, and the way we feel about sexual identity. Not only one of the best comics on this list, but one of the best uses of a superhero in any book period.
1. The Books of Magic (Original Mini-Series)
You have to pick one winner in lists like this, and Neil Gaiman’s original Books of Magic is the clear one. The miniseries, which spawned a later wonderful regular series, follows Timothy Hunter as he is confronted by four characters to show his power as a magician. The characters draw uniquely from the DC universe and remind us that Vertigo was originally a dark corner of the regular DCU, but really it takes heroes as a form of mythology that can inform the mystic possibilities for Hunter’s life. You will likely never see this story told in any other media because of its similarities to another glasses-wielding young magician, but you should expect that this story is best told in the medium it has. The beautiful painted artwork helps to give you a sense of the shifting sands of dreamspace as the power of story and imagination drive the sense of magic that feeds Hunter’s new world. This is the defining miniseries of Vertigo because it brings us down to the core of what the imprint was: about the real power that is embedded inside storytelling as a medium, the ability to change lives and worlds, to take people where they never thought was possible. This is a masterpiece, and took comics in a sharp new direction.
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Definitely agree with a lot of that! Love Grant Morrison especially.
However, wasn’t it essentially a hoax that Dream Hunters was based on a true Japanese folk tale? I believe Gaiman admitted that in later interviews.
Looking forward to seeing the ending of Overture finally…