The comic book industry – much like the wider pop culture machine it exists within – owes a greater debt of gratitude to its female talent than it typically acknowledges. That’s why this International Women’s Day, I’d like to profile someone who happens to be one of the most influential figures in comic book history: former Vertigo editor Karen Berger.
Who is Karen Berger?
After graduating from Brooklyn College with a dual major in English literature and art history in 1979, Karen Berger joined DC Comics as an assistant editor. Although she was initially assigned conventional superhero books – her first gig was working alongside future DC president Paul Levitz on The Legion of Superheroes – Berger gravitated more towards the publisher’s line of horror comics, so it wasn’t long before she traded the bright-eyed, futuristic optimism of Legion for the Gothic trappings of the anthology title, House of Mystery.
Her tenure overseeing House of Mystery established Karen’s knack for bringing out the best in DC’s darker books, paving the way for her to take over as editor on another horror-infused property, Swamp Thing, in 1984. Teaming up with legendary British writer Alan Moore – the scribe behind Watchmen, V for Vendetta and other acclaimed works – Berger helped to redefine what mainstream comic could be.
Berger gave more Moore and artists like Jon Totleben and Rick Veitch carte blanche to radically reinterpret the titular plant monster’s history, while also encouraging them to explore mature content and themes (one issue memorably serves as an extended meditation on depression) and the result was a runaway sales success.
At around the same time, Berger also recruited another Brit, Neil Gaiman (of Good Omens and American Gods fame) to reimagine obscure 70s superhero The Sandman as an adult-oriented horror/fantasy title. Like Swamp Thing, The Sandman soon found a devoted audience, and – along with a host of avante garde series shepherded by Berger, like Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol – led to the formation of Berger’s most lasting contribution to the comics medium: the Vertigo imprint.
Launching in 1993, Vertigo was a place for comics’ unique voices to tell stories that didn’t belong alongside the conventional “cape and tights” books that were (and largely still are) the bread and butter of DC and its rival, Marvel.
Until she stepped down in 2013, Berger and Vertigo’s dedicated editorial team – a quick shout out here to Shelly Bond, another supremely gifted female comics pro – toiled away in their own private storytelling garden, planting the seeds that would grow into ground-breaking hits such as Preacher, Y: The Last Man, 100 Bullets, Fables, The Invisibles and many more.
So yeah, Karen Berger is kinda a big deal.
One of modern comic’s most underappreciated architects
Now, I’m not alone in thinking that Karen Berger’s achievements should be celebrated. Over the course of her career, Karen’s been inducted into the Comics Hall of Fame, won three Eisners (think Oscars, only for the comics industry) and an Ink Pot Award, and had the market cornered on Comics Buyer’s Guide’s “Favorite Editor” category for eight consecutive years – so she’s no stranger to praise.
Even so, Berger remains one of comics’ unsung heroes; somebody who doesn’t get namechecked enough whenever the key players in the modern era of comics are discussed – probably because editors usually only come up in conversation when we’re looking for someone to blame.
To put it bluntly, that ain’t right. It’s not just that Karen was a driving force in elevating the artistic standard of mainstream comics by giving countless writers and artists their big break, and allowing them to craft stories that put creative expression ahead of commercial concerns, presaging the steady shift away from superhero comics as the medium’s dominant genre.
It’s that she was instrumental in changing the entire business landscape of the comic book industry, as well. For one thing, she managed to integrate the principles of creator ownership into DC’s otherwise staunchly “work for hire” model, whether directly or indirectly (famously, when Gaiman decided to call time on Sandman with #75, another writer wasn’t appointed to continue the lucrative series, despite DC owning the character).
Sure, Image Comics rightly deserves the lion’s share of praise when it comes to the creator-owned revolution of the mid-90s, but Karen’s participation shouldn’t be overlooked, either. On the contrary, if the rumour mill is to be believed, Berger’s departure from Vertigo (and the imprint’s eventual demise) were at least partly motived by corporate displeasure at the generous contracts being offered to creators she employed.
And then there’s the part she played in the rise of trade paperbacks in the retail market. Collected editions of comic books existed long before Vertigo, but during Karen’s time at the helm, these were produced regularly and, crucially, they were kept in print.
Aside from making Vertigo’s back catalogue more readily accessible to new readers, this also made the imprint’s comics an easier sell to bookstores, broadening Vertigo’s prospective audience – something the wider comics industry took note of and quickly emulated.
Today, sales of trade paperbacks have largely overtaken those of monthly periodicals, with several of the highest selling titles only existing in the standalone graphic novel format, and it’s largely due to the pioneering efforts of Karen and Vertigo.
How did she do it?
So how did Karen Berger do it? It’s simple.
She championed intelligent, challenging storytelling that wore the label “weird” as a badge of honour, and proved that there was a room on the shelf for quirky material targeted at a diverse audience of older readers.
She advocated on behalf of creators, treating them as valued collaborators and not simply hired guns, and created a space where they could share their stories free of censorship or editorial interference.
And to top it off, she was just plain smart – able to see the long-term value in products like trade paperbacks long before many of her peers.
But best of all, Berger’s still doing it, too. At present, Karen is in charge of her own imprint at Dark Horse Comics (the aptly-named Berger Books), where she continues to do what she does best: curating a daring, varied line of off-beat titles produced by new and established creators, that pushes the boundaries of sequential art.
So, it’s safe to say that Karen Berger isn’t finished with the comic book industry just yet – and we’re all the luckier for it.