Vertigo of the Imagination

In the history of DC Comics, there have been many highly regarded editors:  Archie Goodwin, Mark Chiarello and Bob Schreck whose names are synonymous with quality work. In the last few years, Mark Doyle is shaping up to be one of those iconic figures. With series like Spaceman, Northlanders, Sweet Tooth and American Vampire under his belt, he has been responsible for some of the most critically praised projects at Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics. Vertigo, created nearly 20 years ago as a line of comics aimed at mature readers, has produced multiple award-winning comics projects like Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Fables, DMZ and many, many more. Declan Shalvey caught up with Mark during a visit to Dublin to talk about the appeal and power of comics.

Mark, you’ve worked at Vertigo for a number of years now, but what was your path to working for this publishing imprint?

My background is film, television and journalism. I majored in film in college, graduated in 2001, came to New York and ended up working in the world of documentaries and non-fiction television. I worked a few years in the documentary unit of ABC News as a production assistant, then worked my way over to Development. We made documentaries and series for networks like A&E, The History Channel and Discovery. But I always loved comics. When I saw an opening at DC Comics, I contacted a former colleague who was working at DC, interviewed and got the job. I think Vertigo liked my film and television background as well as my real-world storytelling experience as opposed to just being a straight-up ‘comics guy’, since I could bring a different perspective to the table.

Vertigo has been a place where more long-form cohesive stories can be told. The month-to-month stories generally read better as a whole, collated story. Single-issue sales seem low, but the collected trade books sell quite well. Is this method of serialised storytelling a form you enjoy and are comfortable with?

I love serial storytelling. From series of novels to television shows. I like long stories where you can watch characters grow and change over time. But I also love short fiction from prose stories to ‘done-in-one’ comic issues. You work a different muscle to tell those stories and you work yet another muscle to read them too. The comics medium allows you to do both. Even within a long-form story like Scalped, which was told over 60 issues, you get some of the best stand-alone short stories I’ve ever seen.

You’ve worked on a number of great narratives, some of which were already established by the time you came on board. Which projects you have personally been responsible for since their inception?

American Vampire is my baby. That’s the first book that I took from ‘birth to maturity.’ To watch that book grow from a paragraph pitch to a genuine hit has been amazing. When I’m at conventions like the New York Comic Convention, I have cosplayers walk up to me dressed as Skinner and Pearl from American Vampire. That was surreal. I remember when those characters didn’t exist! Now I’m getting my picture taken with them so that is incredibly rewarding. But it’s also incredibly rewarding to be asked to join a team that’s already great—rewarding and daunting. You want to help the artists attain their vision, and you don’t want to screw it up. The best thing you can do in this case is take a page from Crash Davis in the movie, Bull Durham, and say, ‘I’m just happy to be here and I hope I can help the ball club.’

I love serial storytelling. But I also love short fiction. The comics medium allows you to do both.


With this range of projects, do you think you have developed a “voice” as an editor at Vertigo?

I think I have, but I don’t think people have actually seen it yet. We’re launching a few new titles during 2013, which will be my first since American Vampire. After those books come out, a couple of years down the line, I think people will be able to say, ‘Oh, that’s a Mark Doyle book.’

At DC Comics, but outside of Vertigo, there has been the New 52 initiative in which issues of a title are released every month without fail. However, a year later, we see that books have been plagued with fill-in artists and writers, changes in editorial direction, etc. Do you feel you have an advantage at the publisher to take the time to make a superior and consistent project at Vertigo since the schedule isn’t as relentless?

I don’t know if it’s superior– it’s just different. It’s like network television versus cable television. At HBO they can take a chance on a smaller, artier series because they’re subscription-based and they don’t have to worry about ratings, mass audiences and advertisers. On network television, you live and die by that stuff. It’s the same for us. We can build things on a slow-burn and stand on critical acclaim. But if you can put up with the headaches of worrying about large audiences, sales and advertisers —you get to play with Batman and Superman and that’s pretty cool too.

I recall when we worked together on Northlanders there was a tight time restriction on one issue in particular. How demanding is scheduling talent? Is there a give-and-take with hiring ability over efficiency, or vice versa?
Yes, there is a lot of give and take. When doing monthly comic books you have to make decisions based on time and speed and not just talent or style. The best-case scenario is when you get someone who is both talented and deadline-driven and then it makes life a lot easier for everyone.

Vertigo is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Considering the wealth of amazing material the imprint has produced over the years, where do you think Vertigo is going? More importantly, there would you like it to be in five, 10 or even in another 20 years’ time?

Everywhere. I want to see Vertigo everywhere. With digital readers and phones, people are hungry for smart, serialised content to feed these devices and to feed their need for stories. I think Vertigo fits that bill. I want the woman who just watched Homeland to read DMZ on her iPad during the commute to work the next day. There’s a crossover there. Plus, in the print world, with deluxe editions and absolute editions, we’re creating more content for the distinguishing collector. I think our books belong on the shelves right next to a great band’s boxed set, or a Taschen art book. There’s a smart consumer of pop culture out there whom we should be targeting with our sophisticated stories and collections.

What did you make of the Irish comics community while you were here? Everyone I talked to was impressed with how generous you were with your time during your visit.

Thriving. From meeting very young fans of 12 years old, to older fans who were coming back to the medium for the first time in over 20 years, I met a wide variety of fans and talent who were excited about comics, and that was great to see.  I hope it grows and grows and maybe Dublin will become the hottest place for comics and the comics talent of tomorrow.