After a Turbulent Exit, the Game-Changing Founder of Vertigo Has Returned to Comics

Karen Berger. Photo: DC Entertainment, Richard Bruning, Image Comics

For a certain breed of geek, April 6 was a red-letter day. At the 2016 Image Expo — the annual event where the comics industry’s third-biggest publisher, Image, unveils its upcoming lineup of new titles — a figure clad in blue jeans and black shirt, bearing a calm, confident swagger, strode onto the stage. The crowd erupted into applause. Comics Twitter started freaking out. Comics bloggers typed with giddy excitement. Before she had even spoken a word, the audience had cause for celebration: After a falling-out with DC Comics and three years away from the comics game, Karen Berger was back.

Berger's name likely doesn't register for most comics readers, but there’s no question they’ve felt her impact. For three decades, she worked as an editor at mega-publisher DC Comics, and her long list of accomplishments while there can mostly be traced back to one risky venture: creating and running a mature-leaning imprint called Vertigo from 1993 to 2013. In that position she did more than just about anybody else in comics history to get ambitious, avant-garde, serious non-superhero work in front of a mass audience. The Sandman, V for Vendetta, Preacher, iZombie, Y: The Last Man, Transmetropolitan, 100 Bullets, Hellblazer — those are just a few of the better-known titles Vertigo produced during Berger’s tenure.

But in the latter stretch of her 20 years running the show, relations with her employer turned sour. Their difference of opinion was simple and particularly of-the-moment: Berger felt like DC was abandoning its focus on weird comics in order to put all its resources toward developing superhero stories for film and television. Leaving the publisher in a relative blaze of glory, she bade farewell to the industry and all but disappeared.

This week, she makes her return. Berger has been editing a new Image series called Surgeon X, the first issue of which comes out today. Written by filmmaker and comics newcomer Sara Kenney and penciled by veteran illustrator John Watkiss, the book takes place in a near-future dystopia where drug-resistant disease has crippled the world and a rogue doctor has taken to the streets as a vigilante healer.

When Berger stumbled upon the book’s pitch, she wasn’t exactly in retirement; she’d been doing some consulting for book publishers and working on hush-hush TV projects. Then, inspiration came from an odd avenue. “Sara [Kenney] found me on LinkedIn, of all places,” Berger told me in an interview last week. “She was a Vertigo fan, a big comics fan, and she had this idea for this female surgeon in the near-future London who develops this god complex.” The nightmarishly plausible sci-fi premise intrigued her, but so did the implicit gender politics: “I was really intrigued by the concept of this great female character with an ambiguous morality,” she said.

It’s no surprise that Berger was drawn to such a protagonist, as her own rise is notable for the way it overhauled gender norms. When she joined DC in 1979 as a 21-year-old assistant to longtime writer/editor Paul Levitz, women were dramatically underrepresented in the comics industry. (They still are, though the gap has narrowed significantly in recent years.) And if her status as an empowered woman in comics was unconventional, her editorial vision was even more so. “When I got into comics, I was kind of like, This superhero stuff is what [the industry] is, but there's so much potential here in other genres,” she said. She swiftly ascended the ranks, snagging a plum gig as comics titan Alan Moore’s editor during his star-making mid-1980s run on Swamp Thing.

In 1986, her work with the U.K.-based Moore expanded into a role as British liaison for the company. She traveled to England multiple times each year, and while there would sit with young eccentrics who’d grown up reading American imports from the superhero explosion of the ‘60s and who had visions of the bigger, weirder ideas comics could contain. In the ensuing years, she signed writer after writer from the U.K., many of them becoming the medium’s most respected scribes: Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, and many more. Perhaps her greatest coup was helping a 26-year-old Englishman named Neil Gaiman craft and launch Sandman.

Her big coming-out occurred in 1993, when DC gave her the green light to launch Vertigo, which would take the sensibility of Swamp Thing and Sandman and use it as the foundation for a new approach to big-company comics. She acted as executive editor and was given a surprising degree of creative freedom. She allowed her creators to get vulgar, sexual, and explicitly political. The results were gangbusters. Her stable of titles garnered award after award and appealed to a non-geek readership in a way few comics had ever done, especially in the case of the best-selling Sandman. Berger’s eye for talent remained watchful and she fostered the growth of a second generation of leading lights like Brian K. Vaughan and Warren Ellis.

As a new millennium dawned, Vertigo was more or less the gold standard for high-minded comics creation. But the late '00s brought a revolution in comics, one that left Berger frustrated and alienated. With superhero movies suddenly exploding at the box office, DC underwent a massive restructuring. In 2009, parent company Warner Bros. opted to orient DC Comics’ operations toward spandex-clad characters that could be leveraged for film and television. John Constantine, the foul-mouthed protagonist of core Vertigo series Hellblazer, was cleaned up and shoved into DC superhero continuity, as was Swamp Thing.

Berger chafed — first quietly, then publicly. In late 2012, it was announced that she’d be leaving DC. She stayed on to help with the transition, but made her dissatisfaction known in a May 2013 New York Times profile. In it, she called DC and its rival Marvel, “superhero companies owned by movie studios” — an increasingly true statement, but one tinged with obvious disdain. The next year, after she had left the company, she spoke to me for a feature about John Constantine and earned DC’s ire by being even more explicitly critical, saying, “They've taken the character and put him in a place that's Constantine-lite” and adding, “As far as I'm concerned, he's not the real Constantine."

Despite these occasional statements, Berger was mostly a ghost in the comics world at of the start of this year, so the Surgeon X announcement was a welcome surprise. It makes sense that the series is situated at Image, as that publisher has become the spiritual successor to Berger-era Vertigo in its ambition to tell strange, self-contained, and largely superhero-free narratives — many of them penned by Vertigo vets. She’s especially amped by Image’s choice to let her and the creative team launch a mobile app that provides background information about the series’ science and setting.

She’s diplomatic about DC now, but still more than a little dismissive. “Listen, I had a great time at DC,” she said, “but the company changed and it was clear that the priorities had shifted, and creator-owned comics weren’t something that they were that interested in.” However, she sees comics, as a whole, moving in the right direction. “Superheroes obviously still fuel the industry,” she said, “but the whole independent-comics publishing scene, [with publishers like] Image, Dark Horse, IDW, BOOM!, is a phenomenal thing.” Creators at those companies walk the idiosyncratic path Berger cleared decades ago — and the fact that she's back to pick up where she left off is indeed something worth celebrating.