DC Comics, which overhauled its comic book line-up of superheroes, including Superman, in 2011, is now turning its attention to Vertigo, its struggling imprint for mature readers.
Superheroes are the lifeblood of the comic book industry and have proved to be a big draw at the box office. But Vertigo, whose slate includes fantasy, horror and speculative fiction outside of the publisher's mainstream line-up, has had difficulty building an audience and developing new properties.
DC, whose parent company is Time Warner, is hoping to change Vertigo's fortune with six new series premiering from October to December. The most anticipated project, The Sandman: Overture, a miniseries by Neil Gaiman, will begin on October 30.
Vertigo, which was introduced in 1993, became known for developing new talent and presenting illustrated stories that eschewed the never-ending battles between superheroes and arch villains.
The new series continue that trend and include Hinterkind by Ian Edginton, which focuses on a post-apocalyptic world in which the creatures of myth and legend have returned, and The Discipline by Peter Milligan, an erotic thriller about a woman at the centre of a shadow war that spans eons. No capes or utility belts are in the mix.
"It's so liberating to know that I can talk about all these wonderful books," said Shelly Bond, the executive editor of the imprint, who joined DC Comics a month before Vertigo began.
The future of Vertigo has been a source of speculation. In March, Karen Berger, Vertigo's founding executive editor, left her full-time position. New concepts have struggled to build an audience. Saucer Country, a series about politics and alien abductions, began in March 2012 and had its final issue in April with estimated sales of fewer than 5700 copies. The top DC book that month was Batman with 132,100 copies.
DC's market share steadily rose from just under 32 per cent in 2008 to 36.75 per cent. Its biggest rival is Marvel Comics, with 37.59 per cent of the market, according to John Jackson Miller, who tracks industry figures on his website, Comics Chronicle. Vertigo is not tracked separately.
The industry overall also has been growing. Mr Miller estimated comic book sales at $US700 million to $US730 million last year, up from $US660 million to $US690 million in 2011.
Although Sandman, which began in the late '80s, predates the imprint, it was branded as a Vertigo book in 1993 and became one of its biggest successes: a perennial seller of collected editions, critically beloved, winner of multiple awards. Sandman helped shape the career of Gaiman, who also writes fantasy novels, screenplays and television scripts; his most recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, was published in June.
"The most peculiar thing for me about returning to Sandman is how familiar it all feels," Gaiman said. What is new, however, is the level of attention. "When I was writing Sandman from 1987 to 1996, I never had the feeling at any point that approximately 50 million people were looking over my shoulder scrutinising ever word." (Gaiman has 2 million Twitter followers.)
For the six issues of The Sandman: Overture, Gaiman has been paired with J.H. Williams III, an illustrator known for his moody imagery and innovative page layouts. "They are the most beautiful pages I have ever seen in periodical comics," Gaiman said. "I ask him to do the impossible, and he gives me back more than I asked for."
Another of Vertigo's new series, The Dead Boy Detectives, due in November, features two characters introduced in Sandman No.25 from 1991. Edwin and Charles are boarding school students who died tragically and returned as ghost detectives. (In the new series, a girl, whose mortality status is unknown, joins them.)
Some good news for Vertigo was found in an analysis of the imprint's May sales on The Beat, the news blog of comics culture run by Marc-Oliver Frisch. The first issue of The Wake, a 10-issue series by the writer Scott Snyder and the artist Sean G. Murphy, sold an estimated 45,000 units, "the highest number for a Vertigo comic book since the year 2000", he wrote.