“We’re Living in a Vertigo World” – An interview with Karen Berger

This interview was conducted through Skype on April 20th 2017. I would like to thank Karen Berger for her time at such a busy time in her professional life. 

Karen Berger by Dave McKean – image edited by I.L.G.

Isabelle Licari Guillaume: Your “origin story” is well known: you began editing for DC with very little background on comics, then you launched Vertigo in 1993 and went on to become a living legend [Karen laughs] for many comics fans around the world. Would you say that your being an outsider in the comics industry actually helped you establish an imprint that operated on the margins of the mainstream? In other words, did you want Vertigo to be an outsider?

Karen Berger: I do think that my being an outsider, first and foremost being a woman… especially at the time that I got into comics, there was much less material that I think a woman would necessarily be interested in reading, though there were still women reading comics, there just weren’t that many. The fact that I was a woman and that I was not interested in comics was, I think, an asset in bringing a different perspective to comics.

When I established Vertigo, it was not necessarily about doing it an outsider imprint, but more just working with writers and artists on stories that had more of a shared sensibility that is unusual and provocative, giving a disturbing look at the world… It’s many things really, but it doesn’t come from the superhero Gestalt or whatever.

ILG: Right, because the theory on Vertigo at the moment within academic circles is that it was in-between the absolute mainstream of superheroes and the more independent titles.

KB: That’s how it started out, but as it evolved… If you look at the way Vertigo has evolved, and I’ll just go up to the point that I left which was… whenever the hell that was, four years ago [laughs]! The line was 99% all creator-owned material and we had diversified the line to do more dark fantasy and horror or kind of like, punk esoteric superhero – I’m talking about the Invisibles which was obviously a huge book for us.

So if anything we diversified more in terms of genre, in terms of doing, say, crime fiction, memoirs, historical fiction, near future stuff, and getting further away from the weird takes on a weird supernatural or horror DC characters, which is sort of how the line started.

ILG: How did you convince DC to basically fund that venture? Is it only because of the success of Moore and Gaiman?

KB: I think it certainly helped. It was Alan and Neil’s work, but it was the other work that was coming out of my office at the time too, all those proto-Vertigo books like Shade the Changing Man [by Peter] Milligan, Grant Morrison, Animal Man and Doom Patrol, and obviously Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer, and Rick Veitch was working on Swamp Thing I believe at that time – no that was earlier…

There was a general feeling that the sensibility of the writers I was working with and the look of the art and the feel of the Berger books, which is the name I was given as a sort of… not of an inside joke but an inside term, which always stuck with me and that’s why I am now using that name for my new imprint at Dark Horse – but there was just… These books were doing well, obviously with Alan and Neil having broken out further into the outside world, that certainly helped, but it was not exclusively because of that.

There was a whole sort of vision for the line and the vision of the other writers and artists who were working on this as well too. DC really saw that this was an area they wanted to expand, the retailers really saw it as an area of expansion, readers wanted to see more material like this, writers and artists wanted to do more material like this, so it was like hey, you know…. And we were making money!

ILG: So titles like Shade The Changing Man were considered profitable at the time?

KB: Yes, they were profitable, not as profitable as, say, Sandman was, but it was profitable.

ILG: I was wondering about the fact that Shade the Changing Man was never reprinted as trade paperbacks. Is there a reason for that?

KB: Actually it was: we did print the first story arc and then years later when the series ended we printed the second. The reason why was because at the time it wasn’t selling as well as some of the other books and we were just starting our trade paperback programme and our sales people… I didn’t have the decision-making power on that, to be honest. It was something I fought for for a long time, but DC sales people were very conservative in terms of what they first put into print and in terms of what threshold the book’s projection sales reached.

I think it was a mistake and I told everyone at the time it was a mistake and it was creating a sort of Catch-22 situation, like “your projections might not be as high, say, as on a Sandman or Doom Patrol, but you have to get this stuff in book form because that’s how you’ll build the readers and there’s still plenty of fans”… And so they gave me the one and it didn’t sell as they hoped it to, and so they said “well we’re sorry, we’re not going to give you another one”.

And then a lot of retailers said “well, you know, a lot of people don’t want to start on the series, they don’t want to commit until they know that there are future buyers too”, so that was the retailers’ perspective.

At the end of the day, it was a mistake, the material is still great, maybe they’ll put it back in print, I don’t know. They’re putting a lot of things back in print. But I have no idea. It’s brilliant stuff, Peter Milligan’s one of my favourite writers still. I love working with him. One of the best.

ILG: One of the common points between many of the early series that you edited when you started Vertigo is that of social relevance: homelessness, racism, women’s rights, transgender people etc., with a progressive outlook. Did you actively encourage authors to deal with political subjects or was it entirely left to their own decision?

KB: It was pretty much left to their own decision, we had this opportunity to tell any kind of story we wanted to, this was really what the writers wanted, the stories they wanted to tell, and I was all for it. It was a shared sensibility of my own, wanting to do stories that had social relevance, and thematically had something more to them than a light, throw-away read, and I definitely wanted to do stories that reflected the world that we live in, particularly in all the oddities and disturbing aspects that would really uncover a lot of the dark sides of human nature, as well as the good sides of human nature.

They say Vertigo stuff is so dark and disturbing; a lot of it is, but at the core there’s also a lot of humanity. Characters too are multi-dimensional and complex, obviously it is the key for me to any story, it’s all about characters. But it was not like I wanted people to pitch me a story that deals with A, B and C. It was more like hey, this is the kind of story that writers wanted to tell, and I was all for it. It’s the commonality.

ILG: many of the writers you have worked with have praised your work as an editor. However, from the outside it can be difficult to imagine the type of work that you actually did on the scripts. Could you describe the elements you would typically look for, edit or check in a given script? What was your routine?

KB: It’s never the same, it really depends on the writer. At the proposal stage I always obviously have a lot of back and forth with the writer in terms of the initial development of the series: sometimes I have a lot of input in terms of suggesting other ideas and other possibilities of where a story can go, sometimes I have very little, it really depends on the writer and the particular story. I don’t work with people who give me a finished thing. I like to be at the stage for them to say “hey, I have this idea” and I say “that’s great” and then we talk about it and, again, sometimes I have more of a distinct involvement and sometimes I don’t.

To me being an editor is knowing when to edit, when to not. My role is to work with the writer and the artist and help them deliver their story at its utmost potential, to help steer them on the right track, to say “hey, this really doesn’t make any sense, this is really confusing, do you really need a C storyline, do you really need another character doing this, you’re drifting away from what the main point of your story is”.

Though it’s not me dictating to them, just saying “this is the story you want to do, I think this works or I don’t think this works and let’s talk about it”, so it’s not just one thing, it’s really multiple conversations more than anything, especially beginning and then when the scripts come I… again it depends on the writers.

The majority of writers that I worked with, especially when I started at Vertigo, the writers were all so accomplished – even though they might not have had many years of experience under their belts – they were so accomplished as wordsmiths, in terms of having great ear for dialogue, syntax and everything, that there was very little line editing, maybe a better word here and there or a line here and there.

If anything it would have been more of a comment on the plot aspect of something. A good editor, in the way I like to work… It’s not about me, it’s about the writer. I can help, if I like the idea… Obviously I have to like what they’re doing in order to want to acquire and edit something – I have to love it, actually, because if I don’t love it, why are we all doing this? But it’s about them and it’s about how can I help them do this in a way that makes it a wonderful comic to read.

ILG: Are there any series that you’ve had more input into than others? Do you feel that you were more involved with certain titles than with others? Do you have examples?

KB: Are we talking back in the beginning of Vertigo?

ILG: Or in the later years… but if I’m correct you stopped being an editor of individual series after 1993…

KB: I edited very little hands-on at that stage, yes. I think I kept Sandman Mystery Theatre as my one monthly and I might have edited many series here and there, but overseeing the whole line, working with the editors the way I worked with the editors at Vertigo over the years… I was very active in giving feedback on pitches and the development of the first sample issues of new series, and helping with feedback and consulting on the artistic teams that we chose, and obviously managing the whole line was a lot of work.

I will say towards the last few years of my time at DC I wound up doing more hands-on editing, which I really loved, I really missed it, I was happy to be able to do that.

To answer your question… With Alan Moore there was like nothing to do because he’s Alan Moore and he’s brilliant and when the script was in you said God, this is amazing, Alan, thank you so much, what else is there to say…

Like I said before with those initial Vertigo books there was very little in terms of hands-on editing that I did on scripts, they’re more conversations or directions of storylines, including Sandman Mystery Theatre, which was also one of my all-time favourite books, Matt Wagner I think wrote a couple of years and Steven T. Seagle came in dialoguing and taking over and Steve and Matt are both terrific writers.

I think later on in my career or when I’m working with a newer writer, like with Sean Murphy, I did Punk Rock Jesus with him, which was his first creator-owned – let’s take it back, he had done something at Oni, and I believe Punk Rock Jesus was the only other thing he had written and drawn though he may have done some Batman stuff but I’m not sure, but in terms of a creator-owned thing, with Sean being a new writer and an artist I definitely had more input with him as well as with Willow Wilson on Air because she was again a newer writer. They’re both extremely adaptable and took whatever comments I had and ran with it. I had more work initially work with them than with the guys back in the day, but again they’re extremely talented.

ILG: You focused on trying to really create a conversation between the writer and the artist, and try and make it work as a team, rather than just one person writing his bit and the other one drawing it.

From the outside it looks like you really tried to create a process where everyone can talk to each other and you get a collective production.

KB: Absolutely, especially when we first started Vertigo, it was pre-Internet, phone calls with British creators and talking to sometimes American artists, we tried to encourage that, obviously now it’s so much different… Thank god, it’s so much easier, causing all sorts of problems but that’s not one of them.

When you’re doing anything creative, when you’re collaborating with someone it’s great to be on the same page with them and great to have that connection and that interaction but again everyone works differently and some artists and writers are more into contact with each other directly than others.

It makes everybody happier when they’re all in it together, especially when they’re doing a creator-owned thing too, the writer might come up with the idea individually and they might come in with an artist at the same time, and sometimes they do co-development or sometimes the writer might just come in and I’ll find an artist for them, but I always try to get them together in the same head-space.

ILG: In a recent talk with Paul Levitz, you stated that being a woman in comics was a “non-issue”. I was surprised by that statement because I had the impression that you came into an industry that was virtually devoid of women working in it. Do you think Vertigo was a more woman-friendly environment than other places?

KB: I can only really speak for what I have been involved in, it’s hard It’s hard for me to talk about areas of companies where I have not been, where I have not personally experienced anything.

When I started at DC Jenette Kahn was running the company and she… obviously is a woman [laughs], helped set the tone for the entire company, so it was really like I said a non-issue: yes I was coming into a male-dominated industry but I grew up with two older brothers, wound up having two sons… The company was very small there was not any issue that I couldn’t do anything or was looked at any different because I was a woman. I did my job, I was fair to people, I was professional and people were professional to me. And at Vertigo I think because I also hired a number of women on staff and always tried to work with women writers and artists wherever possible, to me it was always depending on giving opportunities to everybody whose work and sensibility was in line with what I wanted to do at Vertigo.

ILG: Jenette Kahn remained President until 2002. I was curious about your working relation with her. What type of input did she have? Did she help in terms of creating your own imprint?

KB: Jenette is amazing, she is a real close friend of mine, and has been really nice over the years when I was much younger and it was all quite new to me, Jenette has always been a mentor to me and as time went on we became very good friends in the process. In terms of the business aspect of it, the first time I met her I remember her saying to me me “you can tell any kind of story you want in comics.” And here I was, 21, right out of school, and I really had no idea what she was talking about because from what I could see there was only one type so story really being told in comics which was superhero stuff with an occasional horror anthology or an occasional war book so I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that but it always stuck with me and wound up being the code that I went by cause you can tell any kind of story in comics.

It was really [Jenette’s] vision that set the tone for all the creative expansion that happened at DC Comics starting back with Frank Miller’s Ronin, Camelot 3000, Dark Knight, Watchmen, she really opened the door creatively to people in terms of making DC a home where you can really stretch the boundaries of comics and tell any kind of story that you want to and also do it in formats that are more prestigious than the regular floppy comic.

Jenette was always extremely supportive of everything I wanted to do, in terms of creators, she was instrumental, she was the person who basically set me on my path in terms of working with the British creators in a greater capacity. I mean I had been working with Alan Moore, I was friends with Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland, but we worked very little together at that stage – I think Brian might have been doing some covers for me. Brian and Dave were the first British guys who came over to America back in the day. The company was small, we always used hang out together with a couple of the other editors and whenever there was someone coming from out of town it was a big deal because everyone pretty much lived in the New York Area then, so when someone from England came over it was a pretty big deal, I can’t remember, and I ended up with… say it was Brian or Dave.

Then Jenette had said to me in one of her editorial retreats, this was at the time of Dark Knight and Watchmen, and John Byrne had done a whole retake on Sandman, and George Perez a whole retake on Wonder Woman, and so Jenette said to me “why don’t you come with me to England, there are lots of creators there”, she had been going every year to the convention UCAC [United Kingdom Comic Art Convention], so she said “hey why don’t you come over with me and meet more of these British people and be their ambassador cause we’re working with more of them, and from what I hear they feel a little left out”, so I went over there and connected with a lot of people and I realised “I don’t mind being an ambassador, there’s so much talent here, why don’t I go out and further the whole kind of vision of what was started with doing new takes on the flagship characters, why don’t I do that with the weird kind of supernatural and horror stuff”, and these writers responded to that kind of approach, that’s how the kind of proto-Vertigo life started, so Jenette was very instrumental in that happening.

ILG. That’s fascinating, I always imagine Jenette Kahn having to deal with the pressures of being a mainstream company, and censorship etc. It’s difficult to really assess the role that she had…

KB: Jenette doesn’t get the credit that she deserves. By the time she got out of comics (she’s been a successful film producer since then) it was… if anything she was well behind the scenes in that regard. What was so great at DC for those years and with Paul Levitz is that we had a lot of freedom as editors, you were there to sink or swim, it wasn’t like the heads of the company said “this is what we want you to do,” they were basically saying “show us what you can do that keeps within the tone of the company that we’re running”, so we were given a lot of freedom. That does not happen, that has not happened at DC under the new management. I can’t speak critically about this but that’s clearly not the way things are done.

Again everything was very organic too, at the time there were no directives, “you go out there and find this talent”, or “you go out and build an imprint”, I think the best creative movement, the best type of change, be it creative or political, tends to come organically, from more of a grassroots aspect. When you plan things they feel planned, not that you can’t get good things out of it, but the whole process of how Vertigo came to be was really an organic process over ten years or so, and I think the pressures of… Not the pressures but because because DC has gotten more corporate now, everything falls within a corporate perspective, more of a top-down, a whole different way of dealing with producing creative work.

ILG: Do you see Berger books, your new line at Dark Horse, as the continuation of the project that you had at Vertigo, or is it something different?

KB: People have asked me that and it’s almost like… So much of Vertigo was me… so is this a spiritual or creative continuation… It’s a continuation of the material that I like to do, and Vertigo was and is a huge part of my life. I hate to say it’s a continuation because it seems like I ‘m not continuing… To me at the end of the day, like I said when I did an interview with someone else recently, I just want to tell very good stories that stretch the medium, that show you can do any kind of story in comics, that feel fresh and original and move me, working with a diversity of talent and a diversity of stories. Vertigo was a game-changer, I think it changed the game quite a long time ago, and if you look at something like Image Comics now, it’s such a reflection of what Vertigo did for comics. Notwithstanding that so many people working at Image got their start at Vertigo, so it’s all part of the same kind of Gestalt of what Vertigo and the writers and artists did there to change comics. We changed a long time ago and now we’re reaping… we’re living in a Vertigo world. So it’s all great!

What I want to do with Berger Books is do great stuff, do great comics, stuff that is not a throwaway read, stories that resonate, stories that mean something, all types of stories. If people know what I did at Vertigo, there’s not going to be anything drastically different on the types of books that I’ll be doing at Berger Books, but it’s not Vertigo as much as it’s me.

ILG: That’s true, and so many people have described Vertigo as “the stuff Karen likes”, it makes perfect sense!

Pretty much, and that’s a real range of stuff too. Especially with Vertigo, since it was such a big imprint and there were so many editors, I might not personally like a particular story, but I could see that it could really appeal to a vast audience. It might not be something I would personally like or something that I would want to personally edit, but I would see the great value creatively and I think it’s important when you’re running a line to have that openness to recognize that “hey this stuff is really good and the audience really fits within the umbrella of Vertigo”.

With Berger Books this is just me editing. Dark Horse gave me a lovely part time assistant to work with – she assists two other people at Dark Horse –  but it’s just me editing, so it’s more of a selective… It is what Karen likes, because Karen is the only one editing it.

ILG: Did you regard Vertigo as particularly linked to the British invasion, did you see it as part of that phenomenon, since at the start it was only titles created by British creators?

KB: It was not entirely British, there was Matt Wagner on Sandman Mystery Theatre, and Ann Nocenti did Kid Eternity, which is one of the first Vertigo books….

ILG: I was thinking of the period just before that, before 1993.

KB: The proto-Vertigo books, yes, they were all British. Yes. It wasn’t an issue of nationality as much as just looking at the world in a different way, because… I still remember Alan Moore telling me very early on when we started working together, “you know, we might speak the same language but we’re really very different, Americans and the British.” And it’s true, culturally, obviously, historically our countries are so…

Now the class system isn’t as pronounced in the UK as it was, say, thirty years ago when I first started working with Alan but there’s still somewhat some bit of it there. going for the government aspect, and Word War Two and how that affected that country in a different way than it affected America, obviously, America having Vietnam.

So all of this forms… It’s all sort of race memories, our parents and us and how we’re formed as a people and a culture, and how that’s a means creatively in a writers’ work. What I liked about the British is that because they really had a different kind of life as Americans it just showed in their work, I found their perspective and their world-view to be just a bit different, just a bit more offbeat, more provocative, more challenging, more psychological… and drawing more on works of literature and say, film as influence, mythology as influence, as well in terms of their work.

ILG: Do you remember the time the term “British Invasion” appeared? The earliest trace I have dates from 1988 [edit: earlier sources I discovered since would suggest 1983 as a more accurate date, see p. 138] .

KB: 1988 was… I guess maybe about 1988, that makes sense because 1986 was when I first went over to the UK. And I’d been working on Swamp Thing but yeah… Hellblazer started late 1987, and Shade and Sandman started 1988 and Doom Patrol I think 1989, so

But also I guess if you’re yeah, let’s say 1988. Arkham Asylum was a big part of that, 1988, 1989. So yeah? Sure. Sounds fair. Where did you say you saw it? Did I write it?

ILG: Not you personally but a reader, possibly a British reader, I don’t remember [July 1988, Hellblazer #7, the sentence was “Dear Karen. This is great. We’ve got Delano and Ridgway on Hellblazer, we’ve got Wagner and Grant on Detective, and we’ve got Mills and O’Neil (over at Epic) doing Marshall Law [sic]. The British Invasion is proving to be tremendously worthwhile.”]

Do you have the impression that this specificity of British authors is still visible today, if we think of Mike Carey or Simon Oliver for example? Would you say that they still appear very different from the American or has Vertigo expanded into the American world of comics?

KB: I think Vertigo has… it’s less country-specific influence, as we were saying earlier if you look at Image comics the majority of writers working there are Americans, and they are very much in that sensibility. I think Simon Oliver is a terrific writer… He happens to be British. Also he didn’t come up through the normal comic book ladder, he came in from TV and film-writing and so… Yes, he so just happens to be British.

With the Vertigo influence, not only has it influenced creator-owned comics like we see at Image and other publishers, but the way superhero comics have been in the sensibility and the fact that writers are driving, have been driving superhero comics in the past, say 15 years, more than artists. Not that artists don’t matter, it’s still a visual medium and there are plenty of superstar artists, but people really follow writers and when I started that was not the case, and I do believe that that is another Vertigo influence that’s touched DC and Marvel. Beause if you look at the top people at DC and Marvel they came from Vertigo, you know, Scott Snyder started at Vertigo, Tom King first pitched at Vertigo, that was his foot in the door to superhero stuff, Jason Aaron started at Scalped and he’s now Marvel staff. And Axel Alonso worked for me for many years and he’s been running Marvel Comics for quite some time now. It’s all good, working with a great group of very good and really talented and very smart people. It’s all good!

ILG: It’s great that you and Shelly Bond got an imprint at basically the same time. Thing are happening!

KB: It is really great. I’m really happy about that too.

ILG: Finally, do you have any reliable data on Vertigo readership? I think the answer is no but I’m still asking it just in case.

KB: I have reliable anecdotal evidence! Vertigo readers… There tend to be more women reading Vertigo comics than superhero stuff, back when I was working at the company it tended to be older readers, more of a college age, whereas superhero readers tended to be a little younger, though not always because you had a lot of collectors who tended to be older than a Vertigo reader might be. But a lot more women. But I don’t have numbers of anything. I will say that lastly, and that was some of the stuff you quoted, the interview I did with Paul recently… the fact that Vertigo started during graphic novel collections of our series that really helped increase the readership for those titles by bringing in other readers, mainstream readers, or just readers who are not your typical comic reader and might want to pick up a book as opposed to a floppy comic, or the stories sometimes would read better as one six-issue volume than as individual stories. At Vertigo we had this great line of serious fiction that again really pioneered what would become the norm for the rest of the industry. I’m very proud of that.

ILG: You can be, you should be.

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