Karen Berger has the distinction of being this year’s guest of honor at San Diego Comic Fest. Berger is most known for her long career as the Executive Editor for DC’s Vertigo imprint. After stepping down from that position in 2012, she now oversees Berger Books, an imprint by Dark Horse Comics that focuses on creator-own comic books and graphic novels.
At her own spotlight panel at Comic Fest, Karen Berger talked a great deal of her time at DC.
The moderator of Comic Fest’s spotlight panel on Karen Berger, Rob Salkowitz, began by saying, “You can count the comic book editors on one hand who are so influential to the medium and whose vision for their material is so strong that they really define a brand that gives the audience that kind of confidence. And one of them is here to my left, Karen Berger.” After a round of applause, he asked, “What is the origin of Karen Berger?”
Berger explained that she didn’t have the typical start that most in the industry do; that is, being a reader of comics. “When I was in college, I was good friends with J.M. DeMatteis. He is a comics writer and still a near and dear friend of mine.” She went on to say that when she graduated college at the age of 21, DeMatteis, who was then working for DC, had mentioned a job opportunity. “He had said to me, ‘This guy Paul Levitz, who makes me nervous every time I go up to see him, is looking for an assistant and he really doesn’t want a comic book fan.’” It was then in October of 1979 that Berger began to work for him and DC.
For 6 months Berger worked as Levitz’s assistant, working on scheduling, deadlines, and other administrative items. After this period, Berger states that she was told by Levitz, “Let’s see if you know how to edit. Let’s see if you have any talent or taste.” As a simple explanation, she added, “Paul was very matter of fact.” To test her editing chops, Levitz had her co-edit the book he was currently working on at the time. After the first issue together, he took his name off and Berger stayed on. “I guess I passed the test,” she said. From that point on, whenever Levitz was promoted within the company, Berger said she kept getting “his old positions.”
Over time, DC began to take on stories that dealt with darker themes, which makes sense as Berger said earlier in the panel that her own personal reading tastes “gravitated toward ‘the weird.’” Retailers and the industry began to take notice with this DC shift, even to the point where Berger said they began to call these stories Berger Books. “I sort of filed that name away for later.”
Eventually, when on her first maternity leave, Berger got a call from her then boss asking if she was coming back to the company afterward. The main reason for the call, however, was for an opportunity to continue doing “more of the cool stuff” that she was doing. “They asked if I would like to have an imprint. It was all very simple,” said Berger. “So, I came up with the publishing plan, and just sort of just took it from there.” And so, Vertigo came to be.
After 33 years of working at DC, Berger eventually fully left the company in 2013. “It was a good time for me to leave. The company had gone through a lot of major changes in terms of its leadership and we weren’t exactly on the same page with how Vertigo was perceived and Vertigo’s value to the company… I thought it was a good time to say I had a great career here and leave.”
After taking some time off from working, she began editing Image’s Surgeon X comic, which made her realize that she missed working with comics. “After the election, actually, the presidential election, I was like, ‘Hey, I better get my shit together. I really got to focus on something outside of what’s going on in my head.’” She approached several book publishers, but in her own words found that “Book publishers really don’t get comics.” It was then that she began looking at comics publishers and found that Dark Horse Comics would be one of the best fits for her. She reached out to Mike Richardson, founder of Dark Horse Comics, and thus came about Berger Books, her own imprint through Dark Horse that revolves around creator-owned comics and graphic novels, something that was and still is very important to Berger. Currently, Berger Books has out Hungry Ghosts, a series written by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and acclaimed writer of Get Jiro! Joel Rose, Mata Hari by Emma Beeby, Incognegro: A Graphic Novel and Incognegro: Renaissance by Mat Johnson.
If it weren’t for the likes of Karen Berger, it is unknown how the likes of comics would look like today. Thanks to her passion in publishing creator-owned content and her love for “the weird,” the comic world is a great deal better for her.