profile by Caitlin McCabe
From modern masterpieces like Y: The Last Man, Fables, and The Invisibles, to seminal classics like V for Vendetta, Preacher, and Sandman, in a time when superheroes glutted the newsstand and comic shops, the former Executive Editor of Vertigo and original power woman of comics, Karen Berger, saw an opportunity to expand the mainstream outside of the superhero realms of Gotham City and Metropolis and helped shape a space for creators to tell their own unique stories.
Dubbed the mother of “the weird stuff” by the New York Times, in her 30 year tenure at DC Berger has left an indelible mark on the mainstream comics industry and has become a point of inspiration for anyone looking to work in comics. “As a young female writer in a very male-dominated industry,” writer G. Willow Wilson said, “Karen was a such a wonderful role model, because she’d done it all.”
In 1979, fresh out of Brooklyn College with a degree in English Literature and Art History, Berger entered the offices of DC Comics looking for a job. An assistant to Paul Levitz, Berger recalls developing an interest not in the meat of DC’s publishing line, the superhero fare, but in some of the off-beat horror and mystery titles DC held onto in the aftermath of the installation of the Comics Code in 1954. “I was fortunate enough to have started at a time, 1979, when DC was still doing other things besides superhero comics,” Berger told Sequential Tart. She continued:
I could just never relate to them. I thought they were too male orientated. I did like the horror, mystery and fantasy comics though. I was lucky I got my start editing those kinds of books. After six months into the job, I was editing House of Mystery. The work I did on that title was in many ways the seeds of how Vertigo really began.
With an eye for the “weird” and “different,” Berger edited DC’s more fantasy and sci-fi oriented series like Wonder Woman, The Legion of Superheroes, Amethyst, and Arion, but her true editorial calling and the space that she would leave her biggest impact was in identifying and cultivating new talent for DC’s newest imprint, Vertigo. “We talked a lot about the creative direction of the titles and the impact that they had in the market,” recalls Berger. “We decided to create a separate imprint for them, a rare thing to do in those days, and to actively expand this sensibility. I came up with a publishing plan for the imprint, the Vertigo name and then we worked on acquiring many new projects.”
Berger’s business savvy, foresight, and belief that solid storytelling could be done outside the boundaries of an established universe spawned what would become the mainstream creator-driven independent realm and quickly pushed her to the top. “Vertigo is successful because of the many talented writers and artists who created so much quality material… That we were consistent and did what we said we were going to do made Vertigo stand out from the other new publishing lines.”
“Paul and Jenette [Kahn] have given Vertigo a lot of freedom and allowed us to explore and do many controversial things,” notes Berger, and that was one of the imprint’s strongest and most attractive attributes to creators. Because of this freedom in terms of content, Vertigo attracted new audiences and opened doors into library and education spaces. The Sandman in particular would help prove the relevancy of comics as literature.
As Vertigo helped raise the status and visibility of comics, it was only a matter of time until books like Y: The Last Man, Sandman, and Watchmen attracted the unwanted attention of censors and critics who couldn’t wrap their minds around the ideas that comics are literature and they can be created with adult audiences in mind.
Berger left Vertigo in 2013 to start her own creator-owned comics imprint of Dark Horse, Berger Books. For more than three decades, she has cultivated some of the most innovative books in the industry, and inspired a new generation in the process.Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story! Support CBLDF in the fight for free expression and snag signed Vertigo classics!