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 lineup, has had difficulty building an audience and developing new properties.
DC, whose parent company is Time Warner, is hoping to change Vertigo’s fortune this fall with six new series premiering from October to December. The most anticipated project, “The Sandman: Overture,” a mini-series by Neil Gaiman, will begin on Oct. 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 center of an shadow war that spans eons. No capes or utility belts are to be found 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 for reasons internal and external. 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 in the Southwest, which began in March 2012, had its final issue in April with estimated sales of fewer than 5,700 copies. The top DC book that month was “Batman,” with 132,100 copies.
DC’s biggest rival is Marvel Comics, which has 37.59 percent of the market, just slightly more than DC’s 36.75, according to John Jackson Miller, who tracks industry figures on his Web site, the Comics Chronicle (comichron.com). Vertigo is not tracked separately. DC’s market share has been steadily rising from just under 32 percent in 2008.
The industry overall also has been growing. Mr. Miller estimated that comic book sales were $700 million to $730 million last year, up from $660 million to $690 million in 2011.
Other companies, like Image Comics, have raised their profile as publishers for creators who want to retain full control, and profits, of their work. “The Walking Dead,” the zombie phenomenon from Robert Kirkman, began life at Image.
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 Mr. Gaiman, who seems to write in every form these days, including fantasy novels, screenplays and television scripts; his most recent novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” was published by William Morrow in June.
“The most peculiar thing for me about returning to ‘Sandman’ is how familiar it all feels,” Mr. 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 scrutinizing ever word.” (Mr. Gaiman has about two million followers on Twitter.)
For the six-issue “The Sandman: Overture,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Gaiman said. “I ask him to do the impossible, and he gives me back more than I asked for.”
The series will be published every other month and will alternate with a special edition of each issue, which will include more of the artwork (because of translucent word balloons developed by the letterer Todd Klein), as well as behind-the-scenes commentary and character sketches.
Another of Vertigo’s new series, “The Dead Boy Detectives,” due in November, is tied to the “Sandman” mythos. It features two characters that were introduced in “Sandman” No. 25 from 1991. The characters, 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, will join them.)
Ms. Bond sees comic books as having been “accepted as an integral part of pop culture with all the TV shows and film franchises.” Among the ventures were the 2005 film “Constantine,” with Keanu Reeves as a man involved in the occult, which had ticket sales of around $75 million. She is eager to continue the legacy of Ms. Berger, who was known for developing emerging talent.
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.
Mr. Snyder is one of the recent success stories for Vertigo. His “American Vampire,” which began in 2010, is about a new breed of those bloodsucking creatures. The series is on hiatus and will return in December. Mr. Snyder also writes “Batman,” which was the second-best selling comic for May, at an estimated 129,039 copies. (The top seller was the first issue of a new X-Men series, from Marvel, at 177,633 copies.)
“Right now, we’re in the middle of Vertigo’s transformation from a relatively sheltered idea and talent farm to a much more competitive place,” Mr. Frisch wrote. “Whether or not this is going to help DC in re-establishing the Vertigo brand as a selling point, we’re going to find out in the next several months.”