Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | Karen Berger, Super-Editor

The post-Crisis Karen Berger (in orange), from 1987's Wonder Woman vol. 2 #8

I am not certain about a lot of things, but I am pretty sure of this: If you read enough of Karen Berger’s comics, it makes you a better person. It would have to. It just makes too much sense!

In more than 30 years, first as a DC Comics editor and then as head of Vertigo, Berger helped to transform the comics industry by shepherding some of the most acclaimed and beloved series in recent memory. Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, The Sandman and other not-exactly mainstream DC books not only helped define Vertigo’s identity, they established their own, free from the restraints of a shared superhero universe.

As you might expect, though, I am a little more familiar with Berger through her pre-Vertigo work of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. She became editor of House of Mystery in 1981, ironically at a time when DC’s horror books were slowly disappearing. By the end of 1982, Secrets of Haunted House, Ghosts and The Unexpected had been canceled, leaving HOM (and Weird War Tales, if it counts) representing the horror line.

Shortly thereafter, Berger replaced Laurie Sutton as editor of Legion of Super-Heroes. This was toward the end of the “Great Darkness Saga” (December 1982’s #294), but Paul Levitz’s second tenure as writer was far from over. A preview in LSH launched Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, so Berger edited both the Amethyst miniseries and the ongoing that followed.

In 1984 she became editor of two books which, taken together, are probably symbolic of her career generally: New Talent Showcase, a short-lived anthology; and Swamp Thing. She came aboard the latter with June 1984’s Issue 25, six issues into writer Alan Moore’s run, but early enough that she could help it take off.

For the next eight years or so, the books Berger edited tended to be around the edges of DC’s superhero line. 1985-86 was a somewhat unsettled period at DC, but in a good way: The overall effect of Crisis on Infinite Earths seemed to be a looser, more experimental attitude, such that the publisher appeared more willing to indulge its creators’ eclectic impulses. Accordingly, the superhero books Berger edited included Blue Beetle (taking over from Julius Schwartz with October 1986’s Issue 5), a Forever People revival, the Jim Starlin/Bernie Wrightson Justice League miniseries The Weird, Animal Man and Dr. Fate; as well as the ancient-magician series Arion, Lord of Atlantis (starting with January 1985’s Issue 27) and the not-at-all-superheroic miniseries Angel Love (1986-87).

However, Berger also edited two of DC’s foundational properties. First, of course, was the Legion of Super-Heroes family (which included various miniseries like Legionnaires 3 and Cosmic Boy, as well as the semi-spinoffs L.E.G.I.O.N. and Wanderers); and starting in 1986, she oversaw George Pérez’s relaunch of Wonder Woman.

Because I didn’t read the Legion books or Swamp Thing regularly back then, Wonder Woman Vol. 2 was probably my first Karen Berger comic. It may sound overly dramatic, but to me that represented the newness of post-Crisis DC. Like just about every major DC character of the period, the Bronze Age, Earth-One Wonder Woman had accumulated a lot of details over the years, becoming somewhat bland and stolid in the process. I was (and remain) a huge George Pérez fan, which was enough to get me to try the book; but the fact that someone new-to-me was editing it, and coming at it from a nontraditional perspective, was pretty exciting, too.

In his introduction to Gods and Mortals, the paperback collecting his first WW arc, Pérez called Berger “invaluable”:

I cannot overstate Karen’s contributions to the success of my run on the series. One of the most astute, intelligent, and far-thinking individuals that has ever graced this industry, tough, but fair, knowing when to lean in and when to back off, Karen is the gold standard by which I judge all editors. I cannot thank her enough for helping me through my first attempts at writing.

Specifically, Berger questioned many of those old details, like the logic (which went back to creator William Moulton Marston) behind having the Amazons lose their immortality if a male set foot on Paradise Island. That led to Heracles’ emotional reconciliation with Hippolyta, and underscored the series’ humanistic tone.

When Pérez started scripting Wonder Woman with Issue 17, he appreciated Berger even more:

Karen was ripping things apart — again, she made me a better writer for it, but I had to rewrite the first ten pages I handed in. She wanted to hold me to a standard that was up to what she would expect from anyone following Len [Wein, who’d scripted since issue #3]…. I was covering too much of my own artwork and not letting my artwork tell the story at times. I was overexplaining myself. I was doing the type of stuff that I criticized other writers for, but Karen set me straight.

[From TwoMorrows’ Modern Masters Volume 2: George Pérez, p. 52]

Pérez’s Wonder Woman wouldn’t have been the same without Berger’s involvement; and to me, that speaks to her ability to bring out the best in her creative teams. The balance of her pre-Vertigo work includes proto-Vertigo books like Black Orchid; the aforementioned Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Sandman, Animal Man and Dr. Fate; DC’s reprint/continuation of V For Vendetta; the Arkham Asylum graphic novel; Books of Magic, Tempus Fugitive, Shade the Changing Man and Kid Eternity.

Some of those started out as miniseries, but just about all are identified pretty strongly with specific people: Alan Moore on Swamp Thing; Moore and David Lloyd on V for Vendetta; Neil Gaiman on The Sandman and Books of Magic; Gaiman and Dave McKean on Black Orchid; Grant Morrison on Animal Man and Kid Eternity; Morrison and McKean on Arkham Asylum; Peter Milligan on Shade; and Ken Steacy on Tempus Fugitive. Even Dr. Fate, which was pretty much a Justice League International spinoff, distinguished itself quickly through J.M. DeMatteis’ philosophical scripts and Shawn McManus’ expressive art. In that respect it was only natural for Berger to bring many of those books to Vertigo, where they would demonstrate how creator-driven series could work within a corporate-comics environment.

Nowadays, I’m glad to follow Berger wherever her career path takes her. (Not to gloss over the Vertigo years; but at this point they speak for themselves — and, quite frankly, there are others better-suited to tell those stories.) When DC announced she would edit the New 52’s Dial H, it got me interested in the book almost single-handedly; and sure enough I haven’t been disappointed. However, now I wonder what that means for the future of Dial H and the possibility of similarly offbeat books within the main superhero-centric line.

When Berger became House of Mystery’s editor back in 1981, DC’s horror titles were almost gone. That makes the resurgence of horror-tinged titles even more remarkable.  By the end of the ‘80s, Swamp Thing, Sandman,and their mature-readers cousins were carving out their own fan bases.  In 1993, the creation of Vertigo gave those readers a superhero-free imprint of their own.  Naturally, that let DC focus more of its main line on the superheroes. Now the New 52 has its own set of Vertigo-style books, like a quirky neighborhood in the middle of a big city. One might see the return of Swampy, Buddy Baker, John Constantine and other Vertigo stalwarts as a chance to rebuild the main line’s old, diverse lineup; and in principle that wouldn’t be so bad.

However, it’s not enough simply to publish Justice League Dark and Dial H alongside Green Lantern and Teen Titans. The task is not to ensure that Madame Xanadu’s continuity lines up with Superman’s, or generally to make the “darker” books more like the mainstream super-titles. Rather, the challenge is to bring the quirks and distinctiveness nurtured at Vertigo into the mainstream books. DC did it in the 1990s, when Starman and Hitman brought Vertigo-esque sensibilities to the superhero line.

The unique creative voices producing those books have to come through clearly, though; and that’s what Karen Berger’s editorial career exemplifies. Reading a Karen Berger comic makes you a better person because invariably it shows you those unique perspectives in thoughtful, entertaining ways. At DC and Vertigo, she became practically an institution, whose impact on mainstream comics even now might not be fully appreciated.

For now, as Berger says goodbye to DC, I’ll just say thanks for 33 years of great comics. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

 

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[By the way, also pictured in the panels above, alongside Wonder Woman and publicist Myndi Mayer, are then-DC President and Publisher Jenette Kahn (in the double-W shirt), George Pérez (black suit), and Len Wein (pale-purple suit). Yes, Len Wein looks like Terry Long.]

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14 Comments

I’m starting to see Karen Berger’s exit as the last dance for the Dick Giordano era at DC. Editors who cared for creators and the work they produce, rather than just jobbing curators of copyrighted characters.

Berger is one of the most respected editors in the industry and deservedly so. I can’t wait to see where she’s going to from here.

Welcome to the new 52 :(

Bless her, she was one of the best in the industry and I am happy she made the industry better. I love so many of her books and will miss Vertigo.

I owe this woman so, so much

DC, I mourn thee.

Even within the DC Universe, newspapers can’t help riffing on Adam West era Batman for comic book headlines. (“Zowie!”)

I too associated Karen Berger’s name in the editor credit with a comic book that dared to be better than just good and even be a little different too. Berger’s departure is more DC’s loss than her’s. Berger’s talent and the respect she has from the creators in the comic book industry should enable to write her own ticket anywhere. Meanwhile, DC has lost a talented, respected and innovative voice when it most desperately needs one more than ever.

I don’t understand what the endgame is at DC. I don’t know how anyone who cares about good stories can see Ms. Berger’s departure as a good sign.The boys running the company, and the lady stooge from Warner (don’t recall any ofher names, don’t care to do the research either) have sold out DC’s reputation for a chance at easy money (Before Watchmen anyone?) and crapped over their old readers in pursuit of that very elusive quarry (new young readers) by using cheap gimmicks (relaunch titles, very novel, Superman leaving Lois for Wonder Woman?? ) without giving any thought to telling good stories (I know that’s subjective, but I don’t find any of the new 52 stuff oriiginal or interesting). I too am a grumpy old fan ()been reading almost exclusively DC since the late 70’s) and I don’t see any of the wonder and excitement in any of the current crop of books DC is producing. I just see corporate trademarks going through the motions in loud, heartless, brainless events that will be long forgotten in time. But the work that Ms. Berger produced, that will have a long shelf life, and will continue to inspire imagination for generations. Sorry DC, you blew it. Ms. Berger, good luck in your future endeavors. Not that you’ll need it. Your work, the words of praise from the respected talent you nurtured, speaks volumes.

Man, this lady was the backbone for like, a million iconic and seminal books. The end of an era, indeed.

I am mostly a Marvel reader so it is weird to realize after reading this article that Karen Berger is the one connecting factor behind all the various DC properties that I love: Post-Crisis Wonder Woman, Sandman, her era of LSH, Animal Man, Arkham Asylum, Dial H, the bulk of the Vertigo line. Seems like she truly is one of the editorial greats: her efforts are invisible in the moment, thereby allowing the writers/artists to shine, but looking back her influence is hard to deny.
Great, eye-opening article for me.

Image or Dark Horse: I hope your war chest is topped up. You could make a very, very, very nice acquisition.

She was the Legion editor during the whole Levitz second run AND she also launched my favorite era of all time, the v4 Giffen/Bierbaum era (then passed on to Mark Waid, Dan Raspler and Michael Eury). But she planted it, and for taking the courage to put a book like that she deserves all the credit she has been taking. I simply can’t imagine a book like that ever again, with so much care, backlog and content.

I owe so much to Karen Berger. Doom Patrol, Animal Man and the Vertigo titles were essential in my life. I wish her good luck, despite with her talent she won’t need it.

When I was a kid reading comics in the 80s, the first time I really connected an editor’s name to the comics they were doing was when I realized that Karen Berger edited most of my favorite comics. (The rest were pretty much edited by Len Wein, Alan Gold, or Mike Gold.) As everyone has commented, she edited a diverse line of quality books, but the one thing they all shared was that each one had a distinct artistic voice and vision.

I agree that while it’s nice to see more diversity added to the DCU lineup, it does seem that the focus is on tying everything together into one big universe rather than telling individual stories that just happen to take place in the same world. There are any number of reasons that Sandman is a great comic, but the fact that the JLA show up in an issue probably isn’t very high on that list.

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