After a long career that included creating and helming DC’s Vertigo imprint since its inception, Karen Berger is departing DC Comics.
In an industry where few editors are known to readers and fans, Karen Berger stands out, known for her long legacy of nurturing many of the comics and creators who have proven most influential over the past 25 years.
While she is best known today for Vertigo, Karen Berger began her career at DC as an assistant editor to Paul Levitz. Her interest in horror comics led her to edit House of Mystery and then to take over the editing of Swamp Thing when Len Wein stepped down as editor. Although Berger hadn’t hired Moore, she gave him considerable freedom to renovate the title, which changed tone, direction, and cast dramatically. It quickly gained in popularity and is now regarded as one of the seminal runs in American comics history. It also helped carved a place for ongoing “mature readers” titles at DC, as well as for a focus on the writer and for creative freedom.
Berger was soon tasked with recruiting other British creators, and she brought Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Peter Milligan to American comics. Berger helped Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman come into being and approved Dave McKean as its cover artist, despite his high-art style being unconventional for comics and his covers breaking the tradition of featuring the protagonist on every cover. Like Swamp Thing before it, Gaiman’s The Sandman took off, winning literary respectability and fans outside of the comics industry. The series also pioneered the “limited ongoing series,” or the ongoing series that wasn’t expected to run forever, nor to be transferred to another writer. It also pioneered the practice of keeping an entire run in print through trade paperbacks.
In 1993, Berger supervised the creation of Vertigo, starting with six core series, with The Sandman serving as the new line’s flagship title. All of the titles had been launched or redefined by Berger recruits, which also included Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis. The new line immediately began publishing creator-owned material as well, most of it written by writers Berger had recruited. Vertigo was like nothing else published by Marvel or DC at the time, and it immediately carved out an identity as a home for more adult comics, of different genres, many of which were creator-owned.
Vertigo soon came to be regarded as a proving ground for many of the industry’s best writers. The imprint also became known for limited ongoing series in the model of The Sandman, although now creator-owned. Such a series came to feel like a rite of passage in a major writer’s career, increasingly even the case for writers Berger hadn’t personally recruited. Such series published by Vertigo included Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, Garth Ennis’s Preacher, Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan (after moving to Vertigo from DC’s defunct sci-fi imprint, Helix), Mike Carey’s Lucifer (a follow-up to The Sandman), Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets, Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man, Bill Willingham’s Fables (although not designed to be limited in duration), and Jason Aaron’s Scalped. Even when one of these series didn’t sell particularly well, it almost invariably came to be listed as one of the first works mentioned in connection with that writer. Sometimes, these series helped catapult a writer to A-list status; in other cases, they were concurrent with such a rise, helping to legitimize that writer as a serious mind capable of serious works. Such was the power of Vertigo at its height.
In particular, Neil Gaiman went on to achieve success as a novelist, conferring a status of literary respectability that had eluded past comics writers.
In an industry in which man fans could only name a handful of editors, Berger came to embody the literary intelligence her writers had brought to comics. And it certainly didn’t hurt that writers such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman spoke favorably of Berger. Many fans spoke of Berger with an admiration usually reserved for the writers she’d nurtured.
The renaissance at Marvel Comics, spearheaded by Joe Quesada, owes a real debt to Vertigo. Marvel had previously focused on characters over creators, but soon began to actively recruit prominent writers, several of which were associated with Vertigo. Some of those writers produced landmark runs on Marvel characters, including Garth Ennis on Punisher and Grant Morrison on the X-Men. Spider-Man’s Tangled Web, an artsy anthology series edited by former Vertigo editor Axel Alonso, felt very much like an adaptation of Vertigo to the Marvel Universe. Alonso would go on to succeed Quesada as Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief.
Although Vertigo’s influence began to slide, its output continues to be well-regarded, and it’s been especially successful with its trade paperback program.
Berger continued to innovate. In 2007, she became supervising editor of Minx, a new imprint aimed at teenage girls. The line failed and was cancelled the following year, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a noble experiment.
DC’s faced some shake-ups in recent years, especially with the 2009 departure of Paul Levitz, who had hired Karen Berger. In 2011, as part of the DC Universe’s line-wide relaunch, it reclaimed its corporate-owned characters from Vertigo. (Hellblazer was allowed to continue in its own continuity, although it’s soon coming to an end with issue #300.) Vertigo, now almost entirely a creator-owned imprint, has also had its creator-owned contracts restricted by corporate, placing it in a disadvantageous position relative to other creator-owned opportunities in the industry.
Over the course of 2012, there’s been a lot of speculation over Vertigo’s demise, and Rich Johnston reports that he’s been hearing rumors of Berger’s departure since this summer. DC’s press release for Berger’s departure, however, states that “she will remain on through March 2013 where she will be assisting in the transition to a new leadership team which includes veteran staffers whom she has mentored over the years.” While Berger’s departure feels for many like the end of an era, the fact that DC plans any future for Vertigo at all is good news for many.
Whether Vertigo survives or not, no one doubts Karen Berger’s legacy — not only at DC Comics but on the entire comics industry.