The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 188 | The Mother of Invention: On Karen Berger’s continuing legacy in comics

Leaving Proof 188 | The Mother of Invention: On Karen Berger’s continuing legacy in comics
Published on Wednesday, June 5, 2013 by
[UPDATED] We reflect on the career and industry impact of former Vertigo Comics executive editor Karen Berger, who is perhaps one of the most influential editors in comics since Stan Lee.

Karen Berger is to comics what Maxwell Perkins was to the history of American letters. My imagination has always been a Vertigo imagination.

- Joe Hill, writer/creator of Locke & Key, via Twitter (03 December 2012)

The New York Times did a piece on former DC/Vertigo Comics editor and executive Karen Berger last week, and it’s worth reading in its entirety for anyone interested in the history of Vertigo Comics and how much the creative and editorial landscape has changed over at DC these past few years. Seriously, go read it. And then make sure to come back here for some more discussion of Berger’s work and influence.

berger_karenIt would be very difficult to overstate the value of Berger’s contributions to the American comics industry: Twenty years ago, a 35 year-old Karen Berger was instrumental in the development of DC’s Vertigo Comics imprint, a publishing line that allowed creators to retain ownership of their original properties, and one that would feature the kind of offbeat fantasy, speculative fiction, and just generally “weird” comics that fell outside of DC’s mainstream publishing family that centered mostly on traditional superheroes. Berger helped recruit top talents like Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey, Bill Willingham, Becky Cloonan, Brian Wood, Jason Aaron, Brian K. Vaughan, among others, and as an editor and an executive, developed a reputation for taking chances on books she believed in and going to bat for creator’s rights, sometimes even going against the company line to do so. Critically-acclaimed titles like Sandman, Transmetropolitan, Preacher, Animal Man, Swamp-Thing, Hellblazer, Fables, DMZ, Scalped, Y: The Last Man, Doom Patrol, Pride of Baghdad, 100 Bullets, and American Virgin all flowered under Berger’s watch. Vertigo’s top books had that most rare combination of qualities: “indie” cred, mainstream recognition, and Big Two professional polish.

With Berger’s departure from Vertigo late last year (after what amounted to a virtual demotion that caught many industry observers by surprise), there was the feeling in the comics community-at-large that DC was consolidating its output to concentrate more on its mainstream, superhero properties and that the spirit of creative daring and experimentation that Berger championed would be mitigated, and in its place would be a remit for safer and less adventurous comics, ones that would be more easily translated to film and TV development and merchandising (an approach that head DC executive Dan DiDio doesn’t deny in the New York Times article).

Neil Gaiman's Sandman became a cult success for DC/Vertigo. (pictured: Sandman #47, the first issue of the series published under the Vertigo imprint)

Gaiman’s Sandman became a cult success. (pictured: Sandman #47, the first issue of the series published under the Vertigo imprint)

Of course, DC isn’t in the comics business to push the creative envelope, the company’s in it to make money, like all the major comics publishers. But Vertigo’s value can’t be stated so plainly in terms of volume market share and units sold. Vertigo earned DC a reputation as a trailblazer in the field, and that’s something that’s difficult to put a price tag on, and it pays off in dividends that aren’t readily apparent in a company’s bottom line but are nonetheless of great value to the promotion of the DC brand. To many of us who stuck with comics through the days of the speculator boom and the post-boom crash of the late 1990s, Vertigo represented mainstream(-ish) American comics that were about more than just foil/hologram/gatefold covers, incessant crossover events, story gimmicks, or tired superhero melodrama. Vertigo was the place where narrative innovation was king, and it was one of the few things that cross-town rival Marvel Comics just had no answer for. When DiDio justifies the recent restructuring of Vertigo as being in line with the company’s pursuit of “the biggest audience” as he does in the New York Times piece, it can also be interpreted as a vote in favor of homogeneity over diversity of content, of aiming for the lowest common comics denominator. “Popular comics” and “good comics” aren’t exclusive domains, of course—many of the best sellers on the shelves are also some of the best written and illustrated titles—but I can’t imagine too many readers and comics professionals being all that enthusiastic about the level of creative flexibility on current publications from DC after reading DiDio’s frank admission of the company’s priorities.

I do think Vertigo has lost some of its hard-earned status as the creator-friendly home for quality comics these past couple of years. It’s certainly no longer as creator-friendly as it used to be at least in terms of original IP control: the story goes that when then-president/COO of Warner Bros. Entertainment Alan Horn learned about the contracts allowing Vertigo creators to retain some of the media exploitation rights to their properties, he immediately had their wording changed to give Warner Bros. more control over how creator-owned, Vertigo-published IPs are licensed and merchandised. Was it a coincidence that not too long after that change was instituted that we started to see the slow exodus of talents like Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, and Garth Ennis from the publisher? Maybe, maybe not. But it is somewhat telling that those writers haven’t returned to do creator-owned comics for the publisher since their departures. Karen Berger actually advised media theorist Douglas Rushkoff to take his occult-meets-WWII-espionage graphic novel pitch elsewhere, as Rushkoff recounted in a March 2013 interview (Rushkoff ended up taking his graphic novel pitch to Dark Horse):

Fuck Marvel and DC and these guys. I have an email exchange—the guy from Image is open to a pitch from me as soon as I’m ready to do one, but I’ve got [Present Shock] and I’m writing a graphic novel now for Dark Horse. I had pitched it to Karen Berger [at Vertigo], and she already kind of knew the writing on the wall, and was like, ‘Don’t, don’t do it here.’ So I’m doing this graphic novel with Dean Haspiel, and it’s basically, ‘What if Aleister Crowley had been enlisted in the occult war against Adolf Hitler?’ Which he was. And then I kind of go, ‘How might that have played out?’ Then it leads to the American advertising industry. So the idea is that Crowley kind of won, but this is what we got. We got another form of fascism, or another sigil.

Rushkoff isn’t the only comics creator who is of the mind that publishers like Image and Dark Horse might have replaced Vertigo as the premier outlet for disseminating their creator-owned comics work. Joe Casey, for one, has made no secret of how he feels about the level of innovation being fostered at Marvel and DC. And when word leaked out late last year that long-running Vertigo title Hellblazer was being canceled and was to be replaced by a “New 52″ mainstream DC Comics version called Constantine, High Moon and Darkstar & The Winter Guard writer David Gallaher tweeted what many readers, I suspect, were beginning to think:

In an open letter explaining his decision to sign an exclusive contract with BOOM! Studios, veteran comics scribe Paul Jenkins echoed many of the same sentiments expressed by creators such as Casey, Ennis, and others have made about the current level of creative freedom being allowed at the Big Two:

… I love to write comics. I have always been captivated by the potential of the medium. Comic book creators enjoy a tremendous advantage in the way we can tell a story, with our wonderfully collaborative interaction between artist and writer. Over the course of my career in this industry I have had the opportunity to work on all of the major characters at Marvel and DC, and for much of that time it has been a lot of fun. But honestly, the entire medium deserves more than we are currently giving it. So do the fans, the people who currently shell out four dollars for each comic that they buy. We have taken away the consequences of the stories we present to them, and I feel the mainstream product is becoming a homogenized puddle of “meh.” I have no desire to appeal to a reader’s indifference, nor be involved in a final product that I do not fully support.

… I am immensely frustrated by the fact that we have come full circle, back to the days of simply managing characters.

… In recent years, I have watched, helpless, as editors made pointless and destructive changes to scripts and artwork that they had previously left alone. It bugs me that the creators were a primary focus when the mainstream publishers needed them, and now that the corporations are driving the boat, creative decisions are being made once again by shareholders. I want to create comics the way we are supposed to.

Over at Marvel, Berger protegé and current Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso is doing his best to recreate the kind of conditions that allowed creator-owned comics to flourish at Vertigo with Marvel’s own Icon imprint. (I think we can all agree that the jury’s still out on that score, given that Icon’s catalogue as it is now seems largely to consist of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar works.)

But what can be taken as evidence of Vertigo’s loss of stature as the imprint of choice for creator-owned comics in the face of competition from smaller publishers can also be viewed as other companies’ recognition of the value of what Berger achieved with her measured, hands-off, pro-creator approach to editing and management, one that allowed her to win three Eisner Awards for Best Editor over the past two decades. Berger’s legacy remains ultimately intact despite her tenure as Vertigo’s leader being cut short, both in the continuing popularity of the Vertigo books she helmed in the reprint market, and in how outfits like Image, Dark Horse, IDW Publishing, BOOM! Studios, Marvel (via Icon), and others now manage their creator-owned titles. And should she choose to build on that legacy, I’m pretty certain there won’t be a shortage of publishers and creators willing to work with her.

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