I have blogged about the results this deck has given me and I recommend it all the time, but I still haven’t reviewed my main tarot deck: The Vertigo Tarot by Dave McKean. It was definitely a learning process, because I didn’t feel as if the cards were very clear to me at first. I read the companion book written by Rachel Pollack many, many times. It provided me with the base meanings I use nowadays, almost faithfully. While I allow the cards themselves to imply meaning now, it was a very useful book when I was just getting started.

Now there is fraying along the corners and even chipped spots from constant shuffling, and I know the symbols without even reading the titles of the cards. The Vertigo tarot set is by far my favorite above all tarot decks. I don’t think I could replace it with another, it just wouldn’t feel right! When you find the deck that is just right for you, you stick to it. Currently I am on my second copy, and it looks just as worn out as the first one did.

The way in which this tarot deck came into my life deserves mentioning. I began my journey in the world of tarot five years before, with the Faeries Oracle by Brian Froud and the Voyager Tarot by James Wanless. I first found it in late 2006 through Aeclectic, and found that it was out of print after 1995 and 2001. On Amazon, the prices fluctuated from $500 to $150 for the first edition, and from $120 to $91 for the second edition. For many it is a formidable price for a limited edition, but being in college, the investment was a little costly. I read with the Voyager tarot for years, but had a print out version of the Vertigo tarot set to admire. At the end of the spring semester in 2008, I went to the Ringling College campus bookstore to return some of the books I had used during the semester. As I passed by the comic books section, I noticed a familiar logo glimmering in gold ink. After years of searching, a copy of the 20th Anniversary Vertigo tarot had found its way to my campus. I exchanged the books for the set and walked out of the shop with an inflated sense of victory.

I remember running back to my dorm room and throwing everything aside to sit at my deck and unbox the deck. The very first time I held the complete deck in my hand I heaved a deep breath and started looking through the cards one by one, touching each to connect with it for the first time. I was dissapointed to find my Hierophant card came creased, but in time as other cards creased I started to accept it and to find some sense of pride in how worn out my cards looked. A well worn deck looks used and makes the reader look experienced. Imagine all the stories told to get the deck in this condition. From there on out the deck accompanied me wherever I went, box and all.

It took a while to adjust to the brooding imagery of the Vertigo tarot. The deck whispers secret knowledge, unlike the other decks I had read with before. The images whisper among and to themselves in a serious and eloquent dialogue that represents a story and the influences surrounding that story. Sometimes they read sequentially, other times they show no visible timeline, but they show the individuals involved and their present emotive state.

At this point in my life I only had two tarot decks. I remember spending countless nights shuffling, laying cards out, and staring at them. I didn't understand the language or the manner in which the cards spoke to me. Many times I felt they were just telling me what I already knew, or that they were holding back the things that I really wanted to know. It's crazy to think that an object does certain things deliberately, and I won't say that it did... but that's the way it felt for me when I was getting acquainted with them. Now I know enough to say that I just wasn't reading the images correctly. I didn't know how to tie them together to decipher the messages they offered. As the months rolled by and I studied the cards and the handbook persistently, I began to understand the way in which they interacted with one another. The stories started coming together bit by bit. In a year of intense study, I was stringing them together with as much expertise as I already had with the Voyager tarot. The breakthrough so exciting for me that once I realized I was successful enough, I retired the Voyager tarot and focused solely on reading with the Vertigo tarot. I started to read tarot professionally while using the Vertigo tarot, and that's precisely when I reached my expert level. The images blended seamlessly together, tying ancient symbols to contemporary culture. The overall dark quality of the deck resonated with my personality and character.

The first impressions of the Vertigo tarot unanimously agree that it is a dark deck. Without having had any prior experience with the deck, some people get intimidated with the swords and the many unusual human depictions within the cards. Some have a bit of difficulty in breaking away from the style and just focusing on what the pictures are saying. It is very easy to get stuck looking at the pretty pictures at first, but once those pictures become more familiar, one is able to look into what they are actually saying.

Dave McKean suggests it is an artist deck, and I promptly agree. The Wands suit (fire, passion) is depicted in paint brushes, which ties the deck directly to the process of an artist’s development from the beginning to achieving a master status. The depth of this tarot deck suggests the levels of the unconscious. Once you are accustomed to the style, you will see the Vertigo tarot deck as an informative and even somewhat friendly deck. Keep in mind that there is nudity in this deck. While the nudity puts some people off, I think that it was employed rather tastefully.

The elements are very clear in each suit. Pentacles (Earth) are like stones and moss, depicting the material world as we know it. Wands (Fire) are often replaced by paint brushes with their tips ablaze; they stand for passion and creativity. Cups (Water) are represented by contained, flowing and spilled water. They depict the wild world of emotions in their healthiest and unhealthiest state. Finally, Swords (Air) denote the conflicts among people. They are the most intimidating in the deck, and they warn of heartbreak or ill health in many cases.

The court cards are presented in static portraits with elements that come alive. The Kings and Queens stare at you in the eyes, so there’s no chance you can miss their message even if you can’t really see their eyes. In other tarot decks, the Kings and Queens face the past (left,) present (center,) and future (right.) The knights of the Vertigo tarot do have their inclinations, and could be used as indicators of the court if placed beside the Kings and Queens during a spread.

The backs of this deck are reversible and easy to spot at the same time. The image on the back is not completely symmetric, but enough to distract while you are having a conversation with the querent. There is a thin line of type stretching vertically down the spine of the card that reads “The Vertigo Tarot”, and will indicate if the card is reverse or upright before turning it over. I rather like this indication, but will admit I wasn’t very comfortable with it at first.

The Major Arcana features characters from the DC comics. Naturally, being familiar with the Sandman is an asset, but it isn’t a specific niche. I don’t personally know much about the DC characters, but I have been able to attribute my own archetypes to the deck. In doing so, I have incorporated my own psychic sense of intuition into it and bonded with it. I suppose that the fact I am a blossoming artist helps!

Lastly, I had the pleasure of conversing with Dave McKean at the 2009 San Diego Comic Con. He signed and sketched inside my Mirrormask book while I gloated and gushed at the fact I was in his presence. It isn’t every day you meet one of your favorite illustrators! I delighted (or overwhelmed) in giving him my own impressions and details of his tarot deck, and walked away feeling as if I was floating over Cloud Nine instead.

Many of my friends have decided to get this deck after I have read for them with it. May it grace their lives with deep, insightful advice.


  1. I have heard that the quality of the cards are questionable. I'm wondering if you have any insight to that aspect? :D

    1. Mine have lasted me until today, they're still in one piece. I like their worn aspect, though. It shows experience and gives the deck personality.

      US GAMES tarot decks could survive a nuclear war. Why don't you look into those instead?

  2. A very useful and informative review. The DC Vertigo deck is my first, and favorite. I've had it for years but am now dedicated to truly learning how to read it. It's definitely challenging but also satisfying in a way that no other deck has been.