This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 15, 2016.
It is a beautiful day. You are standing on the cliffside of an island with the sun setting behind you. Waves crash against the rocks beneath, sending salt into the air, while the verdant grass and bushes blow in the breeze. Out in the ocean, rocks jut out providing a scenic vista against which to enjoy the end of the day. But ahead of you is the barrel of a gun. Less than an inch wide, it is utterly black inside and all you can see is this darkness.
It is a beautiful day, but the only thing you can see is the miniature black hole of a gun barrel. This is what it feels like to have depression.
You have to understand this scene in order to understand both Count Vertigo and Suicide Squad. This is the final page of the series’ 66-issue run and the climax of a character who arrived looking purely like cannon fodder.
Count Vertigo first appeared in the pages of World’s Finest Comics #251 in 1978, created by writer Gerry Conway, penciller Trevor Von Eeden, and inker Vince Colletta. He was designed to be a new Green Arrow villain. Only a couple of things about his original design are of note. Like many villains from the period, Vertigo relied on a singular gimmick. In this instance he was able to affect others’ perception and induce vertigo due to a mechanical fix for his own inner-ear defect. This defect was the result of inbreeding among royal families, where he gained his title to the fictional country of Vlatava. The most interesting element of Vertigo’s debut is his visual appearance, with the complex designs of his inner cape based on Steve Ditko’s most arcanic work. He would wallow in obscurity like hundreds of similar one-note villains for the next decade.
Werner Vertigo’s debut in Suicide Squad was every bit as innocuous. He joined the team in Suicide Squad #24 as part of a recently expanded lineup. Others like Doctor Light and Shrike appeared for the first time as well; both of these characters would lose their lives within the next two years of publication. Vertigo appeared to be expendable, lacking in personality, popularity, or defensive powers. He does not even speak in this first appearance. It is only in Suicide Squad #25 that he finally acts, suggesting a coup against the team leaders only to have Duchess put him down with a single blow to the gut.
Despite the lack of interest here and in the subsequent crossover “The Janus Directive,” Vertigo would grow throughout the second half of Suicide Squad to become one of the series’ most important characters, in both theme and plot. The start of his story and one of the series longest running subplots can be found in a single page of Suicide Squad #31.
This issue is one of the “Personal Files” installments of the series, taking a look at what characters did outside of missions, from the perspective of Belle Reve minister Father Craemer. Over the course of one page, Craemer consults with Vertigo (a Catholic) about his mental state. Vertigo states what will become the foundation of his character in a brief monologue. He merges the origin of his powers (genetic illness) with that of his driving motive: a manic-depressive disorder.
Vertigo speaks to the lack of control he feels over his own life, in spite of the immense power he possesses both as a metahuman and member of the aristocracy. He is torn between depression in which he is incapable of acting and tempted to kill himself and mania wherein he loses control of his actions and risks killing others. Vertigo is not self-pitying in his confession either. He exhibits a sense of humor and assuredness in his understanding. There are a list of solutions that have all failed him, which lead to his current predicament. Vertigo, while lucid, believes he might be better dead than alive. His grounding in Catholicism holds him from committing the act itself, but the Suicide Squad provides him with a tempting workaround to this solution.
In the end, Vertigo says it best himself, “I am tired of being tired, Father—I wish to be well or dead.”
Over the course of the next 34 issues, co-writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale, along with their artistic collaborators, redefine who Count Vertigo is and how readers perceive him. Everything he does in Suicide Squadfrom #31 forward can be defined in relation to his battle with depression, from battles against literal gods to private hallway confessions.
Perhaps the most difficult redefinition of Vertigo’s character comes in how he asserts power. The original trappings of the character provide the auspices of power—royal heritage, wealth, loosely defined superpowers—but don’t speak to the character himself. Ostrander and Yale focused on revealing who Vertigo was when removed from his most obvious signifiers. As a member of the Squad, Vertigo is already lacking the command of a nation or even control over his own life. Yet his actions in missions reveal someone prepared to do the impossible.
When asked to go to Apokolips, Vertigo shrugs and tags along. Unlike cowering co-recruit Doctor Light, Vertigo is open to challenges and believes himself capable of incredible feats. While there he goes toe-to-toe with the New Gods of the hellish planet alongside his colleagues. Darkseid’s personal assassin places a dagger in Vertigo’s belly during a skirmish, leaving him to bleed out. During the final battle of the story, Vertigo drags himself behind Kanto and stabs him in the back asserting, “Mortals have slain gods before.” He then collapses to the ground and is left bedridden for months. The steel of his actions on Apokolips reveal a man capable both of inhuman feats and possessing awesome drive, at least in the right moments.
Vertigo is also shown to be capable of leadership later in the series. During one mission he is assigned to a three-man team also containing Deadshot and Steel Wolf. He is the most stable of the three by far and is the sole factor that ensures neither of the others kill one another or themselves.
The most obvious assertion of Vertigo’s powers comes in how his metahuman abilities are portrayed in Suicide Squad. In Suicide Squad #47, while under immense physical and mental duress, it is Vertigo alone who prevents World War III. He is capable of leaving personal conflict behind and flying into the sky to divert fighter jets from the Dome of the Rock. Just like his battle on Apokolips, what occurs here leaves him exhausted, collapsing into the arms of an ally. Later in Suicide Squad #61 when the team confronts the Justice League for a second time, it is Vertigo who is capable of keeping Superman out of the fight. He leaves the superhero paralyzed on the ground, incapable of flying or using his heat vision for fear of striking the wrong person.
All of these moments are important because Vertigo’s story in Suicide Squad is not one of gaining strength, but losing control. It’s these story beats that inform us of his inner resolve and competency, while in a lucid state. Yet each step forward in the story sees some part of Werner Vertigo stripped away as he is pushed closer to the brink he spoke of with Craemer in Suicide Squad #31.
This dismantling really begins in the second half of the series. Following his near-death on Apokolips, Vertigo reappears one year later after the Squad has been disbanded and reformed as a private organization. Here he becomes the central focus of “The Phoenix Gambit.” After being released from prison, Vlatavan nationals have taken advantage of his mental imbalance to use him as a figurehead in their own civil war. While Vertigo appears like an avenging angel on the battlefield, he is being manipulated by drugs to follow the whims of others.
He is not rescued from the military so much as he is passed along to a new manipulator. Poison Ivy places Vertigo under the power of her own drugs first in an attempt to seize control of Vlatava, and then settles for using Vertigo as a sugar daddy and boy toy. When he finally breaks free, it is only thanks to the interference of Amanda Waller. Knowing what has been done to him, he is driven to madness, almost killing Waller and Ivy both before flying off to save the world. When coming free of the drugs in his system, Vertigo chooses to go cold turkey driving him into a horrific state. His willpower and resolve allow him to resume control of his own mind, but only at an incredible cost.
Vertigo loses the respect of his nation, the wealth of his family, and his own autonomy in Suicide Squad. When he is finally freed from Ivy’s control, Dr. Simon LaGrieve informs him her drugs have had a unique effect on his system. The biological component of Vertigo’s manic-depressive state has been removed. In spite of this he still is not in control of his own emotions, with depression continuing as if out of habit. Even when given a potential boon, Vertigo is driven further into a state of despair.
After receiving this news, he makes a fateful pact with Deadshot in Suicide Squad #51. Incapable of relying on himself and without any hope of being free of his internal demons, Vertigo asks the shootist whether he would be willing to kill him upon request. Deadshot agrees without hesitation and tells Vertigo to be sure of his request, because he will not hesitate to pull the trigger. For the first time in his life, Vertigo has an option to end his own life painlessly by his own decision without the consequences of hell facing him.
This requested “boon” is a mounting source of tension that lasts until the final few pages of the series. After a denouement is provided to the rest of the team upon the completion of their final mission, the focus shifts to Deadshot and Count Vertigo standing upon the cliffside of a fictional island nation. Deadshot stands prepared to pull the trigger at Vertigo’s behest. His only addition is impatience, asking, “Are we going to do this or what?” Deadshot at this point serves as a counterbalance to Vertigo, someone who has come to terms with his own broken status and embraced a soulless, uncaring state of life. Vertigo speaks aloud, more to himself than Deadshot, recounting the torment of his own mind and whether he wishes to continue living with such uncertainty and pain.
The final page of the series sees Vertigo facing down Deadshot, with the sun setting in the background. Over five panels they stare at one another with a gun pointed at Vertigo’s head, until finally Vertigo provides his response.
And with that Suicide Squad ends with a final flourish of “Fin.” Vertigo has made his choice and decided to live. Without land or titles, without certainty or maybe even hope, Vertigo has chosen to continue living and discard the escape he created for himself. This moment is the perfect conclusion to Suicide Squad and the greatest victory in the series’ 66-issue run.
Suicide Squad was a series that brought its characters into confrontation with New Gods and global politics. They battled the USSR and superpowered terrorists. The greatest battles of the series were always personal, though. They were the internal confrontations that occurred among this group of broken and discarded individuals. Amanda Waller battled against her own flaws, while offering people thought to be useless a chance to do something.
Mental illness. Social injustice. Self-loathing. These are the real villains of Suicide Squad. They are often beaten, but never entirely resolved. At the end of the series, those who survive are not winners by virtue of absolute victory, but continuation. Each step forward is a win and with those steps some of what they confront fades, usually.
Vertigo’s final decision is the decisive victory of the Suicide Squad. Facing a future with no guarantee of hope or happiness, Werner Vertigo still chooses to live. Even when facing the immense darkness in a small space of black, a gun barrel that promises release, Vertigo says no.
For a little boy learning to battle his own depression, discovering Suicide Squad and this story in quarter bins was life changing. At the time of his adolescence, Deadshot was the obviously cool character. He was the one who stopped caring and did what he wanted because death didn’t matter. But that’s not enough to live on, whether or not you make it to the final issue.
For a little boy it didn’t matter how capable he saw himself as being or how others perceived him. The inability to affect his own mental state was overwhelming. He had grown up Catholic, but still wanted some form of refuge he couldn’t seem to find. No matter how beautiful the world around him was, all he could see was a little black hole.
For this little boy a man in a cape swooped down and helped him make the right decision. Count Vertigo was the hero he needed. So he said “no” and kept living.