The legacy of Karen Berger and Vertigo
The news of Karen Berger leaving Vertigo spread quickly. It wasn’t so much that it was a surprise, but that it finally happened. DC
Comics Entertainment has been going through significant changes over the past couple of years, including grabbing characters long associated with Vertigo and returning them to the DC Universe, and rumored changes to creator contracts. Despite the unfortunate end, Berger leaves behind an amazing legacy no matter what becomes of the nearly 20-year-old imprint.
I have a very clear memory of high school in the 1990s where kids much cooler than me were reading The Sandman. These were kids who otherwise didn’t read comics, and certainly not the superhero stuff from Marvel and DC. This was not an isolated incident. Vertigo in the ’90s brought a new audience to comics, a maturing audience with interests in horror, fantasy, suspense and mythology. These readers didn’t have access to, and probably weren’t ready for, the underground or alternative comix scene. As superhero comics turned into garish collector items, Vertigo provided the alternative: stories.
Berger has an art history background, but she seemed to understand early on that the narrative experience is what makes comics unique. So she cultivated promising writers like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and Brian K. Vaughan, who have gone on to massively successful careers in comics and beyond, and paired them with artists who told stories in unique and intriguing ways, like Sam Kieth, Stephen Bissette and Pia Guerra.
With the help of Paul Levitz, she helped take care of creators by offering rare ownership contracts that broke away from the historic pattern of simple page rates. It was a smart move because such deals encouraged those creators to build rich worlds that won a devoted fan base and unprecedented acclaim from critical circles that had previously never thought twice about comics.
The notice from literary spheres was a crucial step in broadening the reach and acceptance of comics into bookstores and eventually libraries, and a lot of that credit goes to the material that came through Vertigo, after the initial success of Watchmen, Maus and The Dark Knight Returns. In 1991, the only World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction to be given to a comic book went to The Sandman #21 by Gaiman and Charles Vess. In 2003, Entertainment Weekly called The Sandman “the best comic book ever” years before there was any kind of regular comics coverage in mainstream magazines. The Sandman: Endless Nights was the first time a comic book character made it onto the New York Times Best Seller List, and this was six years before the newspaper began compiling its Graphic Books Best Seller lists.
The Sandman stands so tall that it can be easy to forget there was anything else, but Vertigo (which didn’t launch until a couple of years after The Sandman debuted) has consistently generated popular, award-winning and critically acclaimed comic books. Vaughan and Guerra’s Y: The Last Man and Bill Willingham’s Fables continued the tradition of speaking to both genders while exploring neglected territory in comics. Fables has been so successful and beloved that it may one day surpass The Sandman as a Vertigo franchise. The Invisibles by Grant Morrison and artists including Steve Yeowell, Jill Thompson, Phil Jimenez and Frank Quitely brought an anarchic riff to superheroes and sci-fi. 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso featured award-winning modern crime noir stories. Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon presented a satirical exploration of religion and mythology with a Western twist. These series put their creators on the map as daring storytellers, and won new converts to comics. And more recently, DMZ, Scalped and Northlanders all carried the baton that’s been passed to current titles like The Unwritten, American Vampire and Saucer Country. While success wasn’t always guaranteed, Berger made Vertigo a place where experimentation was welcomed. Rick Veitch’s Army@Love and David Lapham’s Young Liars were two beloved series and personal favorites that simply didn’t captureenough people’s attention.
Serving as a spine to the entire Vertigo line, there has always been Hellblazer — that is, until its recently announced cancellation. As if a tribute to the British Invasion of 2000 AD writers that fueled Vertigo’s early success, the horror comic has starred a character that can only be British. And as such, the title has had a stellar lineage in talented British and Scottish writers: Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis, Mike Carey, Andy Diggle, Peter Milligan and more.
All good things must end, and so Berger will make her way to new opportunities early next year and Vertigo will carry on the best it can without her. I’m always interested to see what people primarily known for one thing, in this case her Vertigo output, do next. She is a well-liked editor with a massive contact list, so the question more is what does she want to do.