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Alex Irvine and the Vertigo Encyclopedia

The Vertigo Encyclopedia by Alex Irvine is one of the sharpest-looking books to appear on my doorstep recently. A copiously illustrated full-color coffee table extravaganza, the encyclopedia covers the famous Vertigo comics line from 100 Bullets to Young Liars. Modestly priced for the value, the book includes an introduction by Neil Gaiman, multi-page spreads on the most popular series (including Constantine, The Sandman, and Fables), and features an original cover by one of my favorite artists, Dave McKean.

Readers may be familiar with Alex Irvine as the author of several excellent novels, including A Scattering of Jade, The Narrows, and One King, One Soldier (all of which you should pick up if you haven't already). I interviewed him recently about The Vertigo Encyclopedia to get his behind-the-scenes take on both the book and Vertigo's importance to the comics field.

Vertigo How did you get involved in this project?
Alex Irvine: It was a surprise, but the story is pretty simple. I'd done some other work for DC (Batman: Inferno and a couple of Supernatural-related books), so when they decided to do the Vertigopedia, they asked me to write it, and I jumped at the chance. What's your attachment or involvement in the world of comics prior to this book?
Alex Irvine: I think my story isn't uncommon. I was a hugely devoted fan of comics when I was a kid--especially the out-of-the-way titles like Devil Dinosaur or ROM--and then girls intruded into my worldview and I didn't get back to comics until I was almost out of college. It wasn't until I started working on the Vertigopedia that I fell completely back into the kind of love for comics I had when I was a kid, and even if the rest of the experience had been awful (which it wasn't) I would have been happy about doing it just because it put me back in touch with that feeling.

Also, before I started work on this book, I'd written a couple of short series for Marvel (Hellstorm, Son of Satan: Equinox and Daredevil Noir). That's whetted my appetite to dive all the way into comics again, and rereading all of those classic Vertigo titles...I'm dying to do more with comics. My hard drive is littered with bits of scripts and outlines, both for new stuff and stories involving some of my favorite characters from when I was a kid. I would still give just about anything to write (for example) a Batman comic. Also Dr. Strange. And Devil Dinosaur! In researching and writing the book, did you discover anything that surprised you?
Alex Irvine: All kinds of things. There are so many one-shots and short series--Moonshadow comes to mind, Enigma, WE3, Orbiter, newer stuff like Cairo--that don't always get the same kind of notice as Vertigo's tentpole series, but they're great. And they're optimistic, maybe, or even if they're not optimistic they depart from the tragic dark-fantasy mode of Sandman or Fables or Hellblazer, which people tend to think of as Vertigo's default mode. That's a facet of Vertigo's history that is often overlooked, I think, because of the enormous success of its supernatural/horror/dark fantasy titles. It was also funny to note how many of the comics include visual cameos of Alan Moore...or maybe I just started seeing them everywhere because I was looking for them. With a project of this nature, what're the best and worst parts of doing it?
Alex Irvine: The best part, other than getting reacquainted with so many great comics and getting introduced to others, was the feeling that this book is going to be the first draft of a history of one of the most influential imprints in the history of comics. Writing that first draft was an honor, really. I was proud to have a shot at it. The worst parts were aspects of the best parts, really. I didn't feel comfortable writing about anything unless I had just read (or reread) it, so I ended up with a really overwhelming amount of reading. Something like 20 to 25 linear feet of comics. Every entry was written with the comics open on my desk next to the computer. (Which didn't prevent some errors from creeping in; John Morgan at DC and I are already compiling an errata list.) And one of the things about writing a book of this nature is that there's a huge body of devoted fans who are going to have their own opinions about what should have been in it, how I should have treated certain series, and so forth. That was on my mind while I worked. What kind of influence do you think Vertigo has had on the comics field? Any concrete manifestations you can think of?
Alex Irvine: Well, influence is tough to trace with any degree of certainty, but I think it's probably safe to say that the success of Vertigo had a lot to do with DC and Marvel being willing to take their regular universe books in more mature directions. Also, the Sandman phenomenon brought so much attention to comics in general that it created a huge new appetite for comics with a certain kind of attitude. This in turn meant that people who had worked primarily in indie and underground comics--David Lapham comes to mind, or Paul Pope--had a chance to put their work in front of new audiences. Then that becomes a feedback loop, and because Paul Pope has done 100% and Heavy Liquid (in addition to his previous success in manga), the possibility for him to do a regular DC book comes along, and you get Batman: Year 100. I don't know that it all happened that way, but if it did, you can see how the prominence of Vertigo becomes an opportunity and then creates opportunities for creators in all parts of the industry. Vertigo has also been ahead of the curve in providing opportunities for women creators, and that's had an obvious positive effect throughout the industry. What do you want readers to come away from the book with, besides an encyclopedic knowledge of the Vertigo line?
Alex Irvine: First, of course, I want to give a sense of how much fun the books are. And they are fun--also sad, and angry, and everything else that stories should be. The sheer extravagance of invention and ingenuity, on both the visual and narrative levels, is a blast. I also tried to give a sense in each entry of the literary nature of the stories. One of the things about Vertigo books is that they're smart, and saturated with a particular kind of cultural awareness. I'm thinking of things like the visual quote of the Zapruder film in DMZ, or more generally the profusion of allusions in series like Transmetropolitan or The Invisibles or Preacher...the list could go on. Comics have always been full of winks and nods to other comics, but I came away from writing this book with a clearer understanding of how many Vertigo titles are actively engaged in a kind of conversation with the broader literary and philosophical tradition. Maybe that sentence gives me away as an academic nerd, but it jumped out at me over and over again, and I hope the reader of the Vertigopedia starts thinking about comics not in isloation, or just in conversation with each other, but as part of the 'literary' conversation that happens in any culture. What are you currently working on?
Alex Irvine: Daredevil Noir starts coming out in January, and in March, Del Rey comes out with my next novel, Buyout. After that, I have all kinds of plans: an alternate-history comic with William Blake as leader of an underground cell of literary terrorists, a novel about a famous 18th-century hoax perpetrated by a guy calling himself George Psalmanazar, another novel about a group of refugees from a nuclear war between India and Pakistan who travel back in time to assassinate HG Wells and thus change the history of the 20th century...on and on.


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