Karen Berger, the executive editor, senior vice president, and basically the creator of DC Comics’ Vertigo line is stepping down from her post. Yesterday, a press release announced that Berger will leave in March 2013 and be replaced by a “new leadership team” likely comprised of current Vertigo editors. This is a sad day for comics, because Karen Berger is why comics are good today.
Do you remember the 1970s? I don’t, seeing as I wasn’t alive, but by all accounts it was a mess. There were some good stories here and there, but the superhero industry faced a massive financial crisis and adjusted to the direct market, and basically just churned out product. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great, and for a while the 1980s weren’t much better. No one was breaking new ground or pushing the boundaries like DC did in the 1940s or Marvel did in the 1960s. Things were sort of stagnant.
But then things got better. People had bigger ideas, told new and crazy stories that elevated the medium, and this led to old creators upping their game and legions of new, inspired creators eager to take things even further. This was largely due to Karen Berger.
These are just a few of the books she was involved with:
There are SO many more. These ones are just my favourites. These pictures could go on for pages and pages.
The top row was the beginning of this new era. Berger worked with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing and V For Vendetta, and with Neil Gaiman on Sandman. Some of the stories were superhero-esque, but had their own distinct flavour. They were more nuanced, dark, and adult, and brought in a new audience. The books were so good and so successful that DC launched a new imprint, Vertigo, just to tell these kind of stories. Other notable creators were part of this initial wave, like Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Peter Milligan, and many others.
When the rest of the Big Two’s output was overly muscled superheroes with gargantuan weaponry and poorly drawn feet, Berger’s Vertigo offered something completely different. And its impressive output never slowed down. As the initial creators moved on, along came Mike Carey and Brian Azzarello and Bill Willingham with their own fascinating series like Lucifer, 100 Bullets, and Fables. There was also a new generation of creators who grew up on Vertigo, which led to series by younger creators like Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man), Jason Aaron (Scalped), Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth), and Scott Snyder (American Vampire). Vaughan is like unto a comic god now, Aaron is one of the big writers at Marvel, and Lemire and Snyder are currently two of the biggest players at DC.
Because of Vertigo, the comics industry as a whole is better. Vertigo has been the model for how good comics are made, and most publishers are reaching for the standard Berger set. Image, which began as a rebellious group of artists in the overly muscled, gargantuanly gunned vein, is now best known for their darker, mature, and experimental comics. They’ve basically become Vertigo 2.0. And the influence of Vertigo on DC and Marvel’s superhero books is obvious, as the past decade or so has seen a turn to more nuanced, character driven storytelling.
Karen Berger not only edited and then shepherded some of the greatest comic book series of all time, her work also inspired countless creators and changed the entire industry as a whole. Her impact was far more than just the books she worked on. The quality of Berger’s books made everyone else have to be better, and now we’re enjoying a much more varied and creative comic book market than we’ve ever seen before.
But now Berger is leaving Vertigo, and who knows what will happen with that. DC has been siphoning off some of their best characters, the brass at DC Entertainment are keen on contracts for Vertigo that most would hardly call “creator owned” so many creators have left for greener pastures, and the general vibe at DC since the relaunch has been “consolidate, consolidate, consolidate.” Vertigo may not last long in its current form, and the departure of Berger could hasten its new role.
One thing’s for sure, though: Karen Berger is going to be fine. Whatever she does next, and I hope it’s more comics, it’s going to be fantastic. She’s been attracting top talent and making amazing, award winning comic books since before I was born, so whatever she does is bound to be a massive success, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for her. It sounds like DC has been a stifling place for the past few years, and an unfettered Karen Berger could be a very good time.
Come back tomorrow, when we’ll look at Karen Berger and her legacy with Wonder Woman!!