This year is the 31st anniversary of the launch of Vertigo.

It was actually back in January, but the first wave were all cover dated March 1993. Growing out of the comics that were once labelled Sophisticated Suspense, the line was geared towards readers who were looking for something with a little bit of depth. Something for folks who liked Sandman. Launching with a number of books that skewed towards the weird, the offbeat, the horrific, and the thought-provoking. It started with many of DC’s weird heroes, but quickly branched out into a haven of a variety of genres and a creator-driven, creator-owned ethos.

Sadly, the imprint was shut down in 2020. Though there have been rumours circling around about a revival, thankfully other publishers and creators have embraced that Vertigo verve and created bespoke, idiosyncratic creator-driven series everywhere from Ahoy through to Vault. It’s still fun, though, to go back and re-read the books from those early days. Even beyond the perennial sellers, much of these stories have aged well.

Everything lives on a knife-edge — always just a heartbeat from oblivion.”

“Wild Bunch” in Animal Man #57 by Jamie Delano, Steve Pugh, Tatjana Wood, and John Costanza starts off the book’s Vertigo era with a story that focuses on Buddy’s family. Although ostensibly the most ingrained in the superhero world of the DC Universe (barring possibly Doom Patrol), after all Animal Man was a member of the Justice League, that part of his character always took a backseat to his family life.

And that family life is at the forefront here. The bulk of the issue is family drama. Whether it’s Buddy and Ellen discussing the new development of his powers or Buddy bonding with his kids by taking them to the mall. This latter bit adding some levity and humour to the story. It’s a bit of a breather from the previous arc and a calm before what’s to come.

Steve Pugh’s artwork here is wonderful. There really aren’t many artists in comics like him, his rounded-faces and character designs are unique. His mixture of realism and more exaggerated cartooning works well for the humour aspects of the story, including a rather obnoxious child in the grocery store and the mayhem caused by escaping animals. Pugh’s animals too are exquisite.

Tatjana Wood and John Costanza are cornerstones in the weird and wonderful corner of the DC Universe and Vertigo. Both were long time contributors to Swamp Thing and they help bring a consistent feel to Animal Man. Wood uses a naturalistic palette for her colours, suiting the down-to-earth nature of the story. There’s also a feel to Costanza’s letters, similar to Gaspar Saladino, that just seems to encapsulate DC, especially ’80s horror and the early days of Vertigo, for me.

Animal Man #57

Uh, Mike, don’t you think you oughta put that thing away? It makes you look kinda foolish, y’know?”

Animal Man #57 by Delano, Pugh, Wood, and Costanza is actually the start of the team’s second story-arc on the title. They started with “Flesh and Blood” in #51, which began an arc that helped redefine Buddy Baker’s world. I do recommend reading that first, but if you’re inclined just to jump in to the Vertigo era, you’re not going to be lost.

This is a story that centres the idea that while there will be elements of the weird and wonderful, like the Lifeweb and Buddy’s powers, it centres around family drama. And sets up the pieces for a darker exploration of themes and story beats to come in domestic abuse and sexual assault in the rest of the arc to come. It’s representative of the type of mature themes that these books could take, unshackled from the mainstream DC Universe.

Animal Man #57

Classic Comic Compendium: ANIMAL MAN #57

Animal Man #57
Writer: Jamie Delano
Artist: Steve Pugh
Colourist: Tatjana Wood
Letterer: John Costanza
Publisher: DC Comics – Vertigo
Release Date: January 28 1993
Available collected in Animal Man: Flesh and Blood

Read past entries in the Classic Comic Compendium!