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Grumpy Old Fan | Karen Berger, Super-Editor

by  in Comic News Comment

I am not certain about a lot of things, but I am pretty sure of this: If you read enough of Karen Berger’s comics, it makes you a better person. It would have to. It just makes too much sense!

In more than 30 years, first as a DC Comics editor and then as head of Vertigo, Berger helped to transform the comics industry by shepherding some of the most acclaimed and beloved series in recent memory. Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, The Sandman and other not-exactly mainstream DC books not only helped define Vertigo’s identity, they established their own, free from the restraints of a shared superhero universe.

As you might expect, though, I am a little more familiar with Berger through her pre-Vertigo work of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. She became editor of House of Mystery in 1981, ironically at a time when DC’s horror books were slowly disappearing. By the end of 1982, Secrets of Haunted House, Ghosts and The Unexpected had been canceled, leaving HOM (and Weird War Tales, if it counts) representing the horror line.

Shortly thereafter, Berger replaced Laurie Sutton as editor of Legion of Super-Heroes. This was toward the end of the “Great Darkness Saga” (December 1982’s #294), but Paul Levitz’s second tenure as writer was far from over. A preview in LSH launched Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, so Berger edited both the Amethyst miniseries and the ongoing that followed.

In 1984 she became editor of two books which, taken together, are probably symbolic of her career generally: New Talent Showcase, a short-lived anthology; and Swamp Thing. She came aboard the latter with June 1984’s Issue 25, six issues into writer Alan Moore’s run, but early enough that she could help it take off.

For the next eight years or so, the books Berger edited tended to be around the edges of DC’s superhero line. 1985-86 was a somewhat unsettled period at DC, but in a good way: The overall effect of Crisis on Infinite Earths seemed to be a looser, more experimental attitude, such that the publisher appeared more willing to indulge its creators’ eclectic impulses. Accordingly, the superhero books Berger edited included Blue Beetle (taking over from Julius Schwartz with October 1986’s Issue 5), a Forever People revival, the Jim Starlin/Bernie Wrightson Justice League miniseries The Weird, Animal Man and Dr. Fate; as well as the ancient-magician series Arion, Lord of Atlantis (starting with January 1985’s Issue 27) and the not-at-all-superheroic miniseries Angel Love (1986-87).

However, Berger also edited two of DC’s foundational properties. First, of course, was the Legion of Super-Heroes family (which included various miniseries like Legionnaires 3 and Cosmic Boy, as well as the semi-spinoffs L.E.G.I.O.N. and Wanderers); and starting in 1986, she oversaw George Pérez’s relaunch of Wonder Woman.

Because I didn’t read the Legion books or Swamp Thing regularly back then, Wonder Woman Vol. 2 was probably my first Karen Berger comic. It may sound overly dramatic, but to me that represented the newness of post-Crisis DC. Like just about every major DC character of the period, the Bronze Age, Earth-One Wonder Woman had accumulated a lot of details over the years, becoming somewhat bland and stolid in the process. I was (and remain) a huge George Pérez fan, which was enough to get me to try the book; but the fact that someone new-to-me was editing it, and coming at it from a nontraditional perspective, was pretty exciting, too.

In his introduction to Gods and Mortals, the paperback collecting his first WW arc, Pérez called Berger “invaluable”:

I cannot overstate Karen’s contributions to the success of my run on the series. One of the most astute, intelligent, and far-thinking individuals that has ever graced this industry, tough, but fair, knowing when to lean in and when to back off, Karen is the gold standard by which I judge all editors. I cannot thank her enough for helping me through my first attempts at writing.

Specifically, Berger questioned many of those old details, like the logic (which went back to creator William Moulton Marston) behind having the Amazons lose their immortality if a male set foot on Paradise Island. That led to Heracles’ emotional reconciliation with Hippolyta, and underscored the series’ humanistic tone.

When Pérez started scripting Wonder Woman with Issue 17, he appreciated Berger even more:

Karen was ripping things apart — again, she made me a better writer for it, but I had to rewrite the first ten pages I handed in. She wanted to hold me to a standard that was up to what she would expect from anyone following Len [Wein, who’d scripted since issue #3]…. I was covering too much of my own artwork and not letting my artwork tell the story at times. I was overexplaining myself. I was doing the type of stuff that I criticized other writers for, but Karen set me straight.

[From TwoMorrows’ Modern Masters Volume 2: George Pérez, p. 52]

Pérez’s Wonder Woman wouldn’t have been the same without Berger’s involvement; and to me, that speaks to her ability to bring out the best in her creative teams. The balance of her pre-Vertigo work includes proto-Vertigo books like Black Orchid; the aforementioned Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Sandman, Animal Man and Dr. Fate; DC’s reprint/continuation of V For Vendetta; the Arkham Asylum graphic novel; Books of Magic, Tempus Fugitive, Shade the Changing Man and Kid Eternity.

Some of those started out as miniseries, but just about all are identified pretty strongly with specific people: Alan Moore on Swamp Thing; Moore and David Lloyd on V for Vendetta; Neil Gaiman on The Sandman and Books of Magic; Gaiman and Dave McKean on Black Orchid; Grant Morrison on Animal Man and Kid Eternity; Morrison and McKean on Arkham Asylum; Peter Milligan on Shade; and Ken Steacy on Tempus Fugitive. Even Dr. Fate, which was pretty much a Justice League International spinoff, distinguished itself quickly through J.M. DeMatteis’ philosophical scripts and Shawn McManus’ expressive art. In that respect it was only natural for Berger to bring many of those books to Vertigo, where they would demonstrate how creator-driven series could work within a corporate-comics environment.

Nowadays, I’m glad to follow Berger wherever her career path takes her. (Not to gloss over the Vertigo years; but at this point they speak for themselves — and, quite frankly, there are others better-suited to tell those stories.) When DC announced she would edit the New 52’s Dial H, it got me interested in the book almost single-handedly; and sure enough I haven’t been disappointed. However, now I wonder what that means for the future of Dial H and the possibility of similarly offbeat books within the main superhero-centric line.

When Berger became House of Mystery’s editor back in 1981, DC’s horror titles were almost gone. That makes the resurgence of horror-tinged titles even more remarkable.  By the end of the ‘80s, Swamp Thing, Sandman,and their mature-readers cousins were carving out their own fan bases.  In 1993, the creation of Vertigo gave those readers a superhero-free imprint of their own.  Naturally, that let DC focus more of its main line on the superheroes. Now the New 52 has its own set of Vertigo-style books, like a quirky neighborhood in the middle of a big city. One might see the return of Swampy, Buddy Baker, John Constantine and other Vertigo stalwarts as a chance to rebuild the main line’s old, diverse lineup; and in principle that wouldn’t be so bad.

However, it’s not enough simply to publish Justice League Dark and Dial H alongside Green Lantern and Teen Titans. The task is not to ensure that Madame Xanadu’s continuity lines up with Superman’s, or generally to make the “darker” books more like the mainstream super-titles. Rather, the challenge is to bring the quirks and distinctiveness nurtured at Vertigo into the mainstream books. DC did it in the 1990s, when Starman and Hitman brought Vertigo-esque sensibilities to the superhero line.

The unique creative voices producing those books have to come through clearly, though; and that’s what Karen Berger’s editorial career exemplifies. Reading a Karen Berger comic makes you a better person because invariably it shows you those unique perspectives in thoughtful, entertaining ways. At DC and Vertigo, she became practically an institution, whose impact on mainstream comics even now might not be fully appreciated.

For now, as Berger says goodbye to DC, I’ll just say thanks for 33 years of great comics. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

 

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[By the way, also pictured in the panels above, alongside Wonder Woman and publicist Myndi Mayer, are then-DC President and Publisher Jenette Kahn (in the double-W shirt), George Pérez (black suit), and Len Wein (pale-purple suit). Yes, Len Wein looks like Terry Long.]