Five Stars: Karen Berger On The History Of Vertigo And The Future Of Innovation
Karen Berger came to DC comics at the cusp of the 1980s as editor for titles including Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld and House of Mystery. Working with writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, she oversaw the British invasion that changed the American comics industry, and carved out a new space for experimental and subversive comics with the mature readers Vertigo Comics imprint.
As executive editor of Vertigo for almost two decades, Berger oversaw comics including Sandman, Hellblazer, Enigma, Preacher, 100 Bullets, Y The Last Man, Fables, and countless others, in the process making stars of writers and artists who have gone on to dominate the industry. The imprint became synonymous with an experimental, stylistic approach which gave it an added edge over every other publisher.
In 2012, Berger resigned from Vertigo. She has been largely absent from comics since, but at Image Expo earlier this year she announced a new science-fiction series from writer Sara Kenney and artist John Watkiss called Surgeon X, with herself as editor. The comic centers on a vigilante doctor whose black-market, experimental work leads her to develop a God complex, literally deciding who lives and dies.
As part of a week of content celebrating the best science-fiction in comics, ComicsAlliance spoke to Berger to look back at her extraordinary career, and her continued dedication to bringing new and experimental ideas to the medium.
Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld
Written by Dan Mishkin and Garry Cohn, and drawn by Ernie Colón. Edited by Karen Berger.
Published by DC Comics, 1983-84
ComicsAlliance: J.M. DeMatteis helped bring you into comics, where you first worked as an editor with Paul Levitz. It’s often been noted that you weren’t a comics reader when you moved into the industry --- and in fact, that this was something Levitz saw as a huge asset at the time. What are your memories of starting out in the role as an editor at DC?
Karen Berger: I’ve known Marc [J.M. DeMatteis] since I was 17. He used to drag me to this funky comics store on Flatbush Avenue near Brooklyn College. I thought the place was really weird, but I did think it was pretty cool when he showed me one of his first published Weird War stories, which was buried in a stack of comics in a box on the floor! When Marc first told me that there was this assistant job available at DC, I honestly didn’t think it was going to go anywhere.
Happily it did, and I quickly became fascinated with the whole process of comics storytelling. I majored in English and minored in art history, so that came in handy. My job initially was half administrative --- Paul seemed to do everything at DC: he handled the business side of the company, plus scheduling and payments for all of editorial, plus he edited the three Batman books, and House of Mystery. Paul definitely kept me busy, and it was a great experience to be introduced to both sides of the business.
After being there six months, Paul gave me the opportunity to co-edit House of Mystery with him to see if I had any editorial chops. After my first issue, he handed the series over to me, so I guess he thought I had some potential.
CA: Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld was one of the first projects you worked on, and a comic you’ve said was one of the highlights of your career. Would it be fair to say that Amethyst, in some ways, led to some of the ideas that recurred through Vertigo?
KB: I love Amethyst! There’s a lot of me in that book. Not being a comics fan, I basically just wanted to edit stuff that I wanted to read myself. That was true with Amethyst, and true of practically everything that I’ve edited my entire career. It was always especially important to me to try to expand comics content beyond superhero material, and for the readership to follow suit. Yes, I wanted to reach teenage girls and women specifically on some of the books that I edited early in my career, like Amethyst and Wonder Woman, but ultimately, I wanted to edit books that anyone could read. And that underlying thinking carried through to Vertigo.
In terms of genre, I was always interested in horror, supernatural, and dark fantasy, but they always had to have a strong real-world component. As time went on, and Vertigo was firmly established, I published many series without any trappings of “otherworldly” elements. Real life and regular people can be pretty strange on their own --- be it psychological thrillers, historical mysteries, or a compelling memoir, I’m very proud of the diversity of material that I published at Vertigo.
First written by Jamie Delano, first drawn by John Ridgway with Lovern Kindzierski. Edited by Karen Berger.
Published by DC Comics and Vertigo Comics, 1988-2013
CA: By the 1980s you were working on six comics that became the backbone of Vertigo; Swamp Thing, Sandman, Shade the Changing Man, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Hellblazer. With the books already being published by DC, what dictated the need for them to be part of the Vertigo imprint? When did Vertigo become a discussion in the office, and what was important about having the imprint come into existence, for you?
KB: When I was on my first maternity leave, I got a call from my boss, the late, great Dick Giordano, a supremely wonderful human being, and one of the kindest and sanest people I’ve ever known. Seems like the books I was editing were attracting a large and growing audience.
Readers and retailers were anxious to get more of this kind of thing. So during a meeting with Dick, Paul and Jenette [Kahn, publisher], they asked me if I wanted to create a separate imprint. In a heartbeat, I said yes. So when I came back to work, I wrote up a publishing plan, it was approved, and we set sail from there.
Without Dick, Paul and especially Jenette’s encouragement and support for pushing boundaries and taking creative chances, Vertigo never would’ve happened.
CA: I wonder if in some ways Hellblazer in particular represents your interest in risk, as an editor and publisher? Over 300 issues, you were happy to allow big changes. How did you balance out wanting to experiment and take risks with continuing a successful line of comics in the marketplace?
KB: It’s definitely a balancing act. Obviously, from a business point of view, you have to make sure that the line is earning its keep. But as a creative person, my belief has always been, once you stop experimenting and taking chances, you’re dead.
CA: A key factor for Vertigo was the number of writer and artists from Britain and Northern Ireland, like Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison. What factors brought about the "British invasion" of American comics?
KB: At a company editorial retreat, Jenette asked me if I wanted to become "British Liaison" and join her at the London comics convention, UKCAC, the following week. I’d already been working with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing for a few years, and was friendly with Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. Other British writers and artists were starting to do some work at DC, and Jenette thought it would be a good idea if they had an ambassador of sorts.
This was 1986, the time of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, and important revamps of Wonder Woman and Superman. It was great to be an ambassador, but I wanted to take it one step further, and seek out new talent and new ideas to try to further the incredible creative momentum that was happening at the time. I found the British writers had a refreshingly different, smart, and subversive sensibility, which I immediately connected with.
However, if it weren’t for Jenette, none of this would’ve happened. Her no-holds-barred creative vision for comics, integrity, and fearlessness remain a tremendous influence and inspiration to me. Frankly, modern comics would be a very different place if it weren’t for Jenette Kahn.
CA: This was the first new #1 published by Vertigo, spinning out of Sandman with Neil Gaiman and Chris Bachalo as the creative team. What were your considerations when Vertigo launched? What kind of comics did you want to publish, as indicators for what readers could expect from the imprint as it grew?
KB: Quite simply, my reason for creating Vertigo was to do more really smart, provocative, psychological, edgy comics. My original plan was to launch two titles every month; one weird take on a DC supernatural character, and one creator-owned title.
My ultimate goal was to solely make the line a home where creators could bring their original ideas and have a substantial financial and rights stake in their properties.
CA: Did your approach to editing change over the years, as your role shifted from editor at DC to executive editor at Vertigo? What’s key to the role of being an editor?
KB: I’ve always felt that an editor’s role is to help ensure that the writer’s concept be clearly explored and realized. Every writer is different, so naturally an experienced writer will need less of a hands-on story-and-development editor than a newer writer. I’ve always felt that the best editor knows when to edit and when not to.
But, at the end of the day, I personally feel that a story is better off with an editor than without. It’s natural to get too close to one’s own work, and I think it’s essential to have that objective voice in the room. It keeps you honest.
Punk Rock Jesus
Written and drawn by Sean Murphy. Edited by Karen Berger
Published by Vertigo Comics, 2012-13
CA: One of your most highly regarded comics was Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus, which narratively, tonally, seems to represent the shift from Vertigo as the primary publisher for "prestige" comics to Image Comics starting to really up its game
KB: Sean Murphy is a huge talent, as an artist and a writer. I always loved his distinctive art style: lots of points, angles, and immense energy. Plus, he’s a phenomenal inker. Sean can draw anything, and make it look effortless. With Punk Rock Jesus, Sean showed that there’s also an immensely talented writer lurking within. Clear, accessible, and fearless in his point of view, I was very proud to have worked with Sean on one of my last projects at Vertigo.
DC’s extremely lucky to have him writing and drawing a future Batman project. I predict it will be amazing!
Other publishers have been snapping at Vertigo’s heels since day one, and even before, when some retailers were calling my titles the “Berger books.” Competition is a great thing, and it keeps everyone on their toes. Throughout my 20 years of founding and running Vertigo, my editors and I were constantly looking for and developing new talent. It’s one of the great things about being an editor. Finding that new writer or artist who you know has something special, and helping them get there.
Image has done a great job attracting a wide range of top talent (many who had their start at Vertigo), along with newer voices to comics. And though Image’s unique business deal doesn’t work for every creator, their support and encouragement of risk-taking and creative freedom is very appealing, especially in light of the corporate mindset of the big two companies.
Written by Sara Kenney, drawn by John Watkiss with Jim Devlin and Jared K. Fletcher, and edited by Karen Berger
Published by Image Comics, 2016-
CA: At Image Expo this April you were announced as the editor on Surgeon X at Image, with the creative team of Sara Kenney and John Watkiss. What prompted you to want to work on the series --- your first comics role since leaving Vertigo in 2013?
KB: I had no premeditated plan on what my first comics project would/should be once I came back. It just happened. I’ve always operated off my gut instinct, and there was something about the immediacy of this idea that really spoke to me. A “what it” concept that is very real and plausible and could very well be our future in 20 years' time.
Since I left DC, I’ve been spending some time developing material for TV, as well as doing story consulting in other fields. I always knew that I’d be back doing comics in some fashion at some point. But, after three decades, I clearly wanted a break to clear my head and try my hand in other mediums. Surgeon X came to me out of the blue, through a random message that I received from Sara Kenney, a science and health documentary filmmaker and big Vertigo fan.
Sara was shortlisted for a grant to produce her Surgeon X idea as a comic and a separate companion app from the Wellcome Trust, one of the largest philanthropies in the world, which deals with global health and science, second only to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. If she received the grant, Sara wanted to know if I’d be interested in editing the project. Well, I liked the concept so much, and was so impressed with Sara’s writing samples, that I told her that even if she didn’t get the grant, I’d love to work with her on helping bring her idea to comics life.
Not only did Sara receive the award, but she was the only one out of the final pool who was fully-funded. Sara is one of the most multi-talented, capable, and cheerfully ambitious people I’ve ever worked with --- I enjoy bragging about her!
CA: Was it important to you that your return see you bring new talent like Sara into comics? How have you found working with her on the series?
KB: There was something fresh and original about Sara’s approach to living in a post-antibiotic world. I loved the fact the book stars a woman with a morally ambiguous personality, and that her family is integral to her life and to the overall storyline.
Medicine is a popular topic in TV, but most of the doctors in comics have supernatural degrees! So, I was really drawn to the subject matter and the depth of story ideas that this could generate. And I loved the disparity of great medical advancements played against old-school medical methods that have come back in use because of the lack of antibiotics. Like cracking open someone’s ribs to treat their TB!
Another thing that really attracted me to the project was Sara’s ideas for developing a companion app for each issue to enhance the story world of the comic, while keeping the purity of the comic intact. I hadn’t heard of anyone doing anything like this in comics before. Working with an app developer who’s a huge comics fan, Sara’s used her filmmaking experience to help create this brilliant thing --- full of amazing animations, mini-documentaries with many of the medical and scientific advisors on the series, plus great music, and other cool stuff. We also have an awesome website!
I’ve always loved working with new talented writers, and Sara has been wonderful. She’s full of amazing ideas, has created incredible characters, and has a great ear for dialogue. Whenever I’ve worked with new writers, I’ve always tried to get more experienced artists for them to work with, and we really lucked out in getting the fabulous John Watkiss to draw Surgeon X.
CA: John Watkiss has worked on various projects with you in the past?
KB: John and I have worked together on and off over the years, and we’ve always had a great time together. He’s a brilliant artist and storyteller, with a timeless and indelible art style, and characters that look like they could be real people, which was especially important to this series. When I first met John about 25 years ago, he was teaching anatomy at the Royal College in London, and then went on to spend many years working on character and production design for many films including Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Sky Captain World of Tomorrow, and The Walking Dead.
When I was at Vertigo, I was always thrilled to get a call from him when he had a lull in his film work, and we were always able to find a project for him to draw. He’s done such amazing work on Surgeon X, from creating distinctive looks for the diverse cast of characters, to visualizing this near future London and imbuing it with a unique atmosphere.
I want to make special mention also to Jim Devlin, our colorist, whose rich and vivid color palette brings it all home.
CA: Is Surgeon X your sole comics concern for the time being, or do you have other projects in development?
KB: I’ve been having a blast working on Surgeon X. I’ve really missed working in comics, so I’m thrilled to be back in the game.
I am working on several other comics series now with some amazing creative talent, but I'm not quite ready to talk about them yet. And after three decades of being on staff, I love freelancing and really enjoy playing the field.
The first issue of Surgeon X by Sara Kenney, John Watkiss, Jim Devin and Jared K Fletcher, edited by Karen Berger, will be released on September 28th.