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On Karen and Vertigo

Brian Hibbs

I’m crazy sad that Karen Berger is leaving DC Entertainment & Vertigo.

As many of you know, I opened in April of 1989, so I “came up” at the same time as Vertigo, in many ways — I still have my very first order form I ever turned in, and I ordered a whopping 15 copies of SANDMAN #6, my single highest ordered comic book for that month (BATMAN #434 came in next at 12 copies). Before the year was out, we’d be selling triple-digits of SANDMAN.

All of the comics that Karen oversaw — ANIMAL MAN, DOOM PATROL, SANDMAN, SWAMP THING being the most prominent — were among our biggest sellers, we were one of a new breed of comics stores, stores for who reading was more important than collecting, per se, where creators matter more than characters, where we were all about trying to find NEW readers for comics.

Vertigo comics were generally one of the best tools for new readership — especially when Karen aggressive started pursuing graphic novel collections. It was EASY to hand someone a copy of “A Doll’s House”, and have them enjoy it immensely. But compared to the other “wide audience” books of the time, EIGHTBALL, HATE, LOVE & ROCKETS, that entire wing, what Karen did was put out comics for literate adults, and have them come out monthly at the same time.

THAT was the critical difference between Vertigo and virtually any other attempt at the time to do “smart” comics — they actually came out frequently enough that one could make a living from selling them.

Quickly we became known as “a Vertigo store” (I believe we were if not THE first one identified as such, it was in the first 10), and I put an enormous amount of my success at the feet of Karen Berger, and her editorial sensibilities and skilled in navigating the market.

More recently, Vertigo became a pale shadow of itself, largely, I am understood, as a result of new contracts which Warners insisted on, which gave them more control and ability to exploit properties. “Strangely enough” people stopped wanting to take new titles to them after that, go figure.

I assume this is functionally the end of Vertigo, with Karen moving on — I think adaptations of “mature” books and movies, like “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and “Django” are much more likely to be the future of Vertigo from here out.

I’ve been prepared for this for a long time — from the day that Paul Levitz left I’ve been thinking that Karen couldn’t really stay past the end of whatever contract she had at that point, and I really hope that Karen has a Second Act in her, because I’d love to see her land somewhere, or start something new, that could teach everyone just why that first Vertigo Revolution happened in the first place — if you put out genre comics that respect their audience, that are produced regularly, that support their creators, you’re 90% of the way there.


12 Responses to “ On Karen and Vertigo ”

  1. I am sad about it but at the same time she must have been tremendously hindered the past few years.

    There must be potential for her to go somewhere else and create something new and awesome.

  2. If you can doo all that – and she did! – you are about 150% there. I am just not sure which leg of the table you can drop to make it possible for mere mortals to accomplish.

  3. I will support Karen Berger in ANY creative endeavor she decides to do. She can have a book of my blank signed checks for the next year.


  4. Sandman #6 and Batman #434, huh? That should be an interesting time capsule. Let’s see…

    Oh. Oh my.

    Quite a contrast between where the direct market was, where it would go… and where it would go screaming back to.

    I can’t say I’ve read much of Vertigo’s output in recent years, but I wouldn’t be reading or writing about comics today if it weren’t for the books Karen Berger edited and the writers she recruited in the late 80s and early 90s. She was directly or indirectly responsible for nearly everything in the Morrison book.

    I don’t think the new DC leadership quite realizes what they had, or what they’re losing.

  5. I started reading comics in 1978 or so and stopped reading comics in 1985 when I left home for college. As a mostly Marvel fan, I had seen some really great things – Marvel’s EPIC magazine, Howard the Duck, Jim Starling, Frank Miller, the Claremont/Byrne X-Men, Michael Golden, Bill Sienkiewicz. I saw the emergence of First Comics and Pacific Comics. Though I did get some Cerebus and Flaming Carrot, I did not really become aware of many indie comics.

    I got back into comics around 2004. The trade paperback market helped me so much – the Cerebus phone books for starters. I checked back in with superhero titles, but a lot of them seemed more formulaic than I had recalled. Then the guy at the local comic book store turned me on to the Vertigo titles. I really found so much to love. That became the part of the store I would go to first, and still go to. I had not been that aware of Karen’s role, but clearly I owe her a great debt.

  6. I would be more sad to see Berger leaving Vertigo if I thought there was a world in which DC and Warners would let her BE Karen Berger at Vertigo, y’know? I’ve always been a huge fan (and how many editors can one say, “I’m a fan,” to? Still zero in my case, as every time I’ve seen her at a con, even in the legitimately approachable moment of standing around in the DC booth, I was too … not starstruck, but just felt like running up to gush “thank you for the Levitz/Giffen Legion, and Amethyst, and Sandman, and Hellblazer, and Vertigo, and, and …” was a little too undignified for a guy on the northern slope of 30 or 35, y’know?).

    I can’t wait to see what she does next, and to spend money on it.

  7. These last years working at Vertigo can’t have been very nice. Must have been an uphill struggle.

    Next to Archie Goodwin Karen Berger was the first editor I actually noticed. Her name on something became an endorsement; even if it sounded like it wouldn’t interest one, you still preordered it. Before the Net and the Preview a huge accomplishment. At times I think I bought the whole Vertigo program. Hers was the corner where one could enjoy comics outside everything spandex, and you could enjoy them regulary. It is funny, I never considered this, but Brian is right. Vertigo was the imprint that worked, where as a reader you could depend on the next issues being published – instead of some hype, 2 issues and then nothing.

    I also never thought about it, but Berger must be one of the most successful editors after Lee. Compared to her success in launching new properties from Sandman to Preacher all the other guys working in the DCU or at Marvel look pretty old. A nice thought.

  8. When I started reading comics in 1997, I had no idea what Vertigo was, but it didn’t take long until I bought almost every series. I never read Hellblazer, but almost every other book, that came out post 2002 (when I really found Vertigo), I bought. Some changed how I read comics, some were mediocre. I was a big fan of the Vertigo Crime line, even if the stories didn’t always meet my expectations. I credit Ms. Berger and Vertigo with keeping me in comics. And I hope she finds a place to develop new stories and new talent. Comics needs that more now than ever.

  9. I quit comics in early 90s. Sure, I got plenty of indies but it was once I lost interest in the mainstream monthly superhero stuff that I ended up dropping out of the habit of buying single issue comics on a regular basis.

    8 years later, I visited a comic shop after moving cross-country and was drawn to a McKean Sandman cover. This gave way to a personal renaissance as I consumed Vertigo’s output veraciously. Ultimately, Vertigo was the gateway back to weekly visits to a local comic shop. Something I maintained up until about a year ago.

    Now that that habit has gone dormant and my interest in the monthly dose has departed it’s an uncanny, melancholy synchronicity that Vertigo be defanged and Berger move on.

  10. This is such bad news for the industry. I can’t remember the last time I hooked a newcomer on comics with a non-Vertigo book. Those are the gateway books. I really hope Berger starts her own publisher or something.

  11. I’m very saddened by this news, though the writing was on the wall. I think Berger may have been the last editorial remnant of the Kahn/Giordano/Levitz era at DC, which was one of the most positive and artistically liberated/liberating periods for the company. As opposed to that era’s open and experimental attitude, DC nowadays seems increasingly narrow in its approach and dominated by top-down editorial and business control (while at the same time neglecting some of the editor’s most basic tasks). I feel a genuine sense of loss.

    With the closure of my local comics store, I may be phasing out my weekly habit of 40(!) years. Among the books I had been keeping up with, either monthly or in trades, were Hellblazer (ending), Scalped (ended), Saucer Country (which I’ve been liking and may follow in trades, assuming it continues), and Unwritten (which I’ve been on the edge about).

    Hopefully Berger will land somewhere where she can continue to lend her obvious eye for talent and editorial perspicacity to comics.

  12. The Vertigo line, for me, was one of the two mainstream comics lines which excited me during the 1990s. The other was Milestone.

    Berger brought readers such indispensable comics as SANDMAN, PREACHER, and THE INVISIBLES. But for every misfire such as SCARAB, there were unexpected surprises such as SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE and NORTHLANDERS.

    My comics loyalty has usually been to the creators I like rather than a particular company. Whichever publishing house Berger ends up at (hello Avatar? hello Image?), I’ll follow her there. DC can keep creatively ripping off its readers with Fuck Alan Moore Comics.

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