This is a very interesting feature from the NYTimes about Karen Berger that I thought I would share.
For Karen Berger, a day at the office used to mean happily invading other people’s dreams and bringing them to life. As the executive editor of the Vertigo imprint at DC Comics, she oversaw illustrated tales of fantasy, speculative fiction and outcast characters who did not fit into the publisher’s mainstream lineup of costumed adventurers.
“It’s the weird stuff,” Ms. Berger said recently. “The stuff that makes you different.”
But these days, simply visiting DC’s Midtown Manhattan offices is a weird experience for Ms. Berger, who helped start hit series like “Fables” and “Y: The Last Man,” and the careers of writers like Neil Gaiman, the author of “Sandman,” and Grant Morrison, who has written titles including “The Invisibles.”
In December, Ms. Berger announced plans to leave the company where she worked for more than 30 years. She left her full-time position in March but continues to consult on a few coming Vertigo projects. Shelly Bond, the DC and Vertigo veteran, succeeded her as the imprint’s executive editor.
In its 20 years of operation, Vertigo has been a brand name fervently embraced by readers who were interested in imaginative graphic storytelling but who did not necessarily care for the familiar fisticuffs of characters like Superman and Batman.
For the roster of artists she leaves behind, Ms. Berger’s exit raises questions about the future of Vertigo and where its renegade spirit fits into an industry and a company that seem increasingly focused on superhero characters who can be spun off into movies and TV shows.
“It’s really hard to tell at this stage,” said Mr. Gaiman, a best-selling novelist and fiction writer who was scouted by Ms. Berger in the 1980s. “That was DC Comics, now we have DC Entertainment. It is a different beast, being run by different people.”
Sitting in a DC conference room a few days ago and surrounded by shelves of Vertigo titles that she published, Ms. Berger, a soft-spoken woman of 55, said she quit to pursue new challenges. “It’s time to ply my storytelling skills elsewhere,” she said.
When Ms. Berger joined DC straight out of Brooklyn College in 1979, she was simply “another English major looking for a job” and admittedly no fan of superheroes. “I just fell into the company, fell into the business and fell in love with comics,” she said.
Inspired by the publisher’s more offbeat anthology series, like “House of Mystery” and “Weird War Tales,” Ms. Berger cultivated stories that were sometimes more human and sometimes decidedly not of this earth.
After becoming the editor of the “Watchmen” author Alan Moore, she gathered a lineup of young British writers who were eager to break into American comics and who found Ms. Berger receptive to their ideas.
“She was our generation, and not only that, she was offering us what we wanted,” said Mr. Morrison, who gave new lives, full of angst and existential uncertainty, to discarded DC characters like Animal Man and the Doom Patrol. “It was a perfect storm for a bunch of creative punks from Britain who were suddenly being taken very seriously.”
When the Vertigo imprint was introduced in 1993, it was a way for writers and illustrators to retain ownership of their work and be free of the restraints that governed superhero stories. (Told by a DC editor that the company’s characters did not engage in masturbation, Mr. Gaiman said he replied, “That’s probably why they dress up in funny costumes and hit each other all the time.”)
Under Ms. Berger, Vertigo flourished with hardcover and paperback collections of its monthly comics series, at a time when DC was only infrequently anthologizing its mainstream superhero titles, and she became a magnet for younger talent.
G. Willow Wilson, the author of the Vertigo graphic novel “Cairo” and the series “Air,” said she sought out Ms. Berger as an editor after seeing her name on favorite comics by writers like Mr. Gaiman, Mr. Morrison and Peter Milligan.
“As a young female writer in a very male-dominated industry,” Ms. Wilson said, “Karen was a such a wonderful role model, because she’d done it all.”
But as DC has moved more aggressively to establish its characters as exploitable properties for its parent company, Time Warner, it has shifted some of its Vertigo characters back to its central DC universe. Vertigo contributors say they have seen changes in the kinds of comics being published — less gothic fantasy, more urban dystopia — and believe that DC’s hands-off approach to the imprint has come to an end.
At Vertigo, “it was understood that not all of the titles would make money,” Ms. Wilson said. “This was just a place to experiment.”
Now, she wondered, “is there going to be pressure to cull the interesting, innovative titles” in favor of “more popular but maybe less-innovative titles?”
Ms. Berger said she noted changes in DC’s priorities in recent years. “I’ve found that they’re really more focused on the company-owned characters,” she said. DC and its Disney-owned rival, Marvel, “are superhero companies owned by movie studios.”
Dan DiDio, the co-publisher of DC Comics, said there was “some truth” to these feelings of a shifting landscape, which he said were industrywide. For comics published by Vertigo and by DC, he said: “There’s not a challenge to be more profitable out of the gate. But there is a challenge to be more accepted out of the gate.”
Mr. DiDio said it would be “myopic” to believe “that servicing a very small slice of our audience is the way to go ahead.”
“That’s not what we’re in the business for,” he added. “We have to shoot for the stars with whatever we’re doing. Because what we’re trying to do is reach the biggest audience and be as successful as possible.”
Comic sales have fallen off substantially, Mr. Morrison said, and the qualities that defined Vertigo’s titles have become widely imitated. They have “bled into the mainstream in such a way that you almost didn’t need it anymore.”
Mr. Morrison said he could still remember when his Vertigo series “Sebastian O,” about an assassin in Victorian-era England, sold about 90,000 copies of its first issue in 1993 — a modest quantity that would make it a Top 10 best seller in 2013. (DC said it doesn’t provide sales figures.)
“Everybody learned from Vertigo,” he said. “Everybody copied the tricks that worked, took the cool stuff, left behind what they didn’t like, and turned it into a sellable product.”
Even in her own household, Ms. Berger said, would-be target readers like her sons, Zack, 22, and Alex, 17, were still figuring out their feelings about whether or not comic books are cool, though she said Zack was more positively inclined than Alex.
“There’s only certain ones he likes,” she said. “They happen to be Vertigo books. He’s got good taste, what can I tell you?”