A tribute to Karen Berger and Vertigo

4 Dec

by Mike Hansen

Even though this news was expected for a while, it’s still a gut-punch now that it’s happened.

From today’s DC press release:

Karen Berger, Executive Editor & Senior Vice President of DC Entertainment’s Vertigo brand, has announced she is stepping down from her post after nearly 20 years at the helm of the award-winning literary imprint. 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.

First off: congratulations to Ms. Berger for her decades of amazing work in comics. She remains one of the best working comics editors (along with Bob Schreck, Diana Schutz, and a very short list of others). Few editors in comics history have had such a range of success or depth of influence. I’m eager to learn where she lands and what she does next: the sky truly is the limit.

I owe a lot of my evolution as a comics reader to Berger and the Vertigo line. For most of the 1980s, I was a Marvel zombie. The only reason I branched out of superhero comics was thanks to Archie Goodwin’s Epic Comics line at Marvel, with Groo the Wanderer and Elfquest first getting my money only because of the Marvel name on the cover. Those titles led me to search out other non-superhero material, and by the end of the ’80s I was a dedicated reader of titles like Usagi Yojimbo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Aliens, and more.

But as wonderful as those titles were, at that point there were still few comics titles that had the literary aspirations that I was unknowingly missing. There were plenty of other terrific comics out there, but many of them were still seen as “underground” at that point (like most of Fantagraphics’ amazing output), and I was still a few years away from finally discovering essential material like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Matt Wagner’s Grendel. But the Vertigo line arrived at the perfect time, as an antidote to the Image Comics revolution that led to often poorly written and edited Image titles, and several years’ worth of even worse Image ripoffs from Marvel and DC.

Thanks to a well-marketed launch effort, I gave Vertigo a shot for the same reason that I’d given Epic a shot years earlier: this was a major effort at non-superhero comics from one of America’s biggest comics publishers (though DC, like Marvel, was and is focused almost exclusively on superhero properties). I tried almost all of those initial Vertigo books (Sandman, Death: The High Cost of Living, Shade the Changing Man, Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol, Enigma, Sandman Mystery Theatre, Hellblazer), and after that first month of eye-opening work I never looked back. (It probably helped that Vertigo debuted right as I was transitioning from high school to college!)

The sophistication and quality of the Vertigo launch led me to try many other publishers’ non-superhero comics in a way that Marvel’s Epic never had (probably in part because of my age and the era): Bone, Strangers in Paradise, Madman, Sin City, Cerebus, Beanworld, The Crow, Flaming Carrot, The Dirty Pair, Milk and Cheese, Martha Washington… it was a whole new Golden Age of comics, and Vertigo opened my eyes to it. (I was lucky to live near a comics shop that carried virtually every comic published every month – it was a great time to be a comics reader.)

And oh, man – the titles that Vertigo published over the years: The Invisibles, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, We3, Fables, The Unwritten, 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, Stardust, Kill Your Boyfriend, Seekers: Into the Mystery, The Filth, Goddess, reprints of Moonshadow and Blood: A Tale, and so many more blew my mind over and over. I am absolutely filled with gratitude for Berger, her impeccable taste in comics, and her talent at mentoring other editors to maintain the line’s quality.

DC tried creating other lines that, thanks to poor marketing and weak internal support, ended up eventually being folded into Vertigo (Helix, Minx, Paradox Press). Had this material been with Vertigo from the start, it’s likely that interest from retailers and readers would have been much higher, and the Vertigo line would have reached even greater heights…

Berger also deserves mad respect for her example as a successful and powerful woman in mainstream comics. Although DC and Marvel are still woefully behind the curve in providing opportunities for women and minorities, the industry as a whole has blossomed into something that offers a wealth of opportunities for talented women in comics. Direct-Market comics retailers may prefer to promote corporate superhero material to their customers, but the outside world has never been more welcoming to diverse talent and material, and Berger deserves credit for being at the forefront of this sea change in American comics.

The last few years have been rough for Vertigo: the line had fewer hits, sales kept dropping, some titles had to find new life with other publishers (American Splendor, Tank Girl, 2020 Visions, The Crusades, Brooklyn Dreams, Seekers), and (thanks to Warner Bros. executive interference) contracts were rewritten to take away many more rights (preventing several media deals from being made) and lower creator payments. And many of the best (and bestselling) Vertigo creators left for good.

From the same DC press release:

DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson stated, “We are extremely grateful for Karen’s commitment and dedication to Vertigo, its books and its incredibly talented team of staff and creators. In Vertigo she leaves a legacy to which we remain committed and on which we intend to build for the future. She will always be a deeply valued and respected member of the DC family.”

I’ll believe this when I see it. So far, DC’s “commitment” to the Vertigo line appears to be to relocate all of the DC-owned properties that reached unimagined heights at Vertigo back to DC’s creatively underwhelming “New 52” superhero line that has seen sales and interest plummeting back down to earth. It seems less like DC is building on the material than watering it down for an audience that doesn’t want or need it, in a desperate attempt at trying something – anything – different. Rather than attract more top talent to create truly different, original work at DC, or invest in a truly effective marketing strategy, the publisher seems to prefer to let Vertigo wither away to almost nothing.

It’s a damn shame that DC has lost yet another of its greatest assets. More often than not, DC’s current output these days reads like poorly edited fan fiction, an amateurish slide towards ever-weaker and more derivative storytelling and away from the groundbreaking originality (overseen by great creative managers like Berger) that elevated DC to greatness in the 1980s and led to the Vertigo line in the 1990s.

Even if DC Comics continues its slow decline into irrelevance, I am certain that Karen Berger will have no trouble finding a new home in which the material she oversees can thrive as it once did for her not so long ago.

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