There is perhaps no more prolific editor in comics than Karen Berger. For twenty years, she was the Executive Editor of Vertigo Comics, a DC Comics imprint. During her time there, Berger helped champion books such as The Sandman, Transmetropolitan, and Y: The Last Man that would go on to redefine the way comics were perceived in American culture.
A self-described outsider, Berger left DC in 2013. It seems that she felt that thanks to the amount of potential money in superhero films, DC Comics had moved to push their “company-owned characters” over what she describes as more “interesting, innovative titles.”
After a few years away, however, Berger returned to comics with an Image series, Surgeon X, which furthered her reputation as an editor who valued experimentation and fresh ideas. Then, late last year, Berger announced that she had partnered with Dark Horse comics to craft a whole new imprint called Berger Books. Featuring some Vertigo outsider alums such as chef Anthony Bourdain and comics luminaries including David Aja and Dave Gibbons, Berger once again seems poised to redefine what it means to be a comics reader.
Recently at San Diego Comic-Con, the Beat sat down with Karen Berger to discuss her hopes for Berger Books and what we can expect from the imprint’s first set of titles.
Karen Berger: Well, it’s very much the same reader, I think, but it’s a changing reader. It’s not one reader. It’s not really even one niche, because I think what we did with Vertigo is sort of crack the ceiling of what could be done in comics. We showed that you can write comics that are literary, that are experimental, that are like contemporary fiction in comic book form, and that just resonate with you like a good novel or a good film would. Vertigo was about making stories that were a little bit off beat and a little bit off center, but were also stories that people could really connect to even though they were not mainstream. Those books were not the average stories one would expect to read in comic book form.
Over the years at Vertigo, I was lucky to work with so many talented editors, writers and artists who were of a similar sensibility to mine. We sort of really broke down the ceiling of the types of comics that could be done and really did influence how comics have changed since then. I am a modest person, but I will say that, objectively speaking, that the work that’s being done at Image and some of the other independents now is by a lot of people who first started at Vertigo. Not only that, but the whole sensibility of what was being done there has really carried forth into another wave. I feel very proud of that because comics should always be about more than superheroes and the companies on characters. It should be more about personal voices and personal visions.
Lu: Because Vertigo widened the scope of what many considered possible in American comics by so much and because many of the ideas that first found their footing there are now reaching a wider audience, what sorts of ideas and approaches would you consider to be outside the mainstream now? What do you hope that Berger Books can bring to a new audience from outside the mainstream?
Berger: It depends on what mainstream you’re talking about. I was not a comic book reader growing up, so what I’ve always wanted to do in comics is essentially to edit books that I would want to read. As someone who loved to read and loved film and loved art, I always wanted to attract other readers who were sort of like myself, in a way, to comics. The non-traditional—not exactly people like myself—but people who were non-comics readers. And that’s a lot of people in the world.
I think with so much of the work that I did at Vertigo, that we attracted a lot of people who weren’t traditional comic book readers to the form. A lot of that was thanks to the ability to buy the stories in the graphic novel form, which is another big thing that I’m very proud of. Vertigo really pioneered the graphic novel form in a major wide company effort. There are other people who have done graphic novels before, of course— I’m not taking credit for advancing the graphic novel— but in terms of turning whole lines of series fiction in comics into graphic novels in a way that was very akin to what you would see from genre fiction series at a book publisher, we were sort of the first.
Everyone has followed suit because that’s what publishing is all about…is to not throw away…well, some of the stuff done in comics is garbage just like some stuff that’s done in books is, too. Not everything is meant to be read and put on a shelf…or maybe it is meant to be. Whatever. There is a lot of crap, but there’s also a lot of really good stuff. Ultimately, I like to do the really good stuff. And I like the stuff that I do, ultimately, to be on the shelf.
Lu: So, looking at the first lineup at Berger Books, we have stories like Mata Hari, which seems to be planning on examining the way our personal and historical narratives can become skewed based upon who is telling them. We also have stories like The Seeds, which are looking ahead towards a potentially bleak and dystopic future based upon our post-truth present. How much of this crafting of the line’s messaging was intentional?
Berger: Not intentional at all. It’s really what people pitched me and what I responded to. I was pitched a lot of things. I approached a lot of people. A lot of people I approached were interested, but this wasn’t the right time for them…or [they were] not interested and that’s fine, too. I approached people in comics, novelists, people in TV– I really had cast a wide net and I will continue to cast a wide net, because for me, as an editor, I really love working with rising artists I haven’t worked with before.
But, to go back to actually answer your question, which I’m not doing very well right now…no, it was not intentional. But, it was the stuff that I was attracted to and it was intentional in the [sense] that I’m attracted to stories that have a commentary about the real world, and Mata Hari does that. In terms of how women are portrayed and how women are treated. So, I felt this was a very contemporary look at her life.
And Seeds is very much a product, thematically, of the times we live in now. As is Incognegro, which is a polarization of racial divide getting worse and worse, unfortunately, because of our government and our president. These stories are more important now than they ever were before. But it wasn’t like, “I am going to do a book series that has this theme and this,” no. But, again, that’s sort of what I do.
Lu: In a way, the message came out of the pieces rather than the pieces being formed to fit the message.
Berger: Exactly. Exactly. Because, I don’t feel like I do “message.” That’s not what I do. I like to read stories that [are] really about what the characters are going through. it’s great to have messages in [the stories], but to me that’s sort of a sub-layer. I don’t like to do stuff that’s so boxy, or very on the nose, so to speak.
Berger: He and Ann Nocenti approached me. Actually, David had approached Ann a few years ago…I think they worked on a couple of Daredevils a few years ago. They really hit it off and he said, “I love your work. I love your writing. Let’s work together.” So they’ve been trying to work together on something for a while. [The Seeds] came together [and] they approached me. David is a big fan of my work, too, apparently. He grew up reading Ann’s stuff and my stuff.
They just approached me and they said, “Hey, we would love to do this.” I read their pitch and I was blown away by it. That was sort of the real wild card, like where did David Aja come from? Jesus, he’s the Marvel guy.
Lu: Right. Well, more than just being the Marvel guy, he’s just someone who doesn’t do interiors very often.
Berger: He doesn’t do them. That’s another reason why I’m so delighted. He’s a real elite artist. He is someone who has influenced so many artists in terms of the way he synthesized design into his storytelling, and how his work is so accessible and so easy on the eye. Yet, he thinks everything through so carefully, and everything is so layered, and his covers are amazing. The design…you know, he does everything [including] logos. And on The Seeds, he’s doing everything. He’s lettering, coloring, and designing the entire package. So, I am thrilled [to work with] someone like him, who’s never done a creator-owned series before and hasn’t done interior work, I think, since Hawkeye.
And Ann– she did Someplace Strange, which was a graphic novel like almost 30 years ago now, before you were born…but this is the first [creator-owned series] that she’s done, too. Ann is an amazing writer. Such a smart and influential writer. [She was] one of the first women writing super hero comics, back in the day. She’s still…maybe you can count on your hand the number of women who have written superhero comics. Her work has always had a strong political point of view, so, yeah, they just approached me. It’s amazing.
Lu: If you could work with anyone for Berger Books, who would it be?
Berger: I don’t have an answer to that. I really don’t. I really, really don’t. It’s a great question, but you know, I don’t know. There’s so many great writers in comics, great writers in TV and film, great novelists. You know, I, it’s hard for me to answer that one.
Lu: Without revealing anything that’s coming up, I suppose?
Berger: Maybe. Maybe.