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January 6, 2008


CR Holiday Interview #12: Karen Berger

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imageKaren Berger split her time this year between the launch of DC Comics' Minx line and continuing care for the Vertigo imprint, solidifying her position as one of American comic books' key players. I thought that the contrast between the caretaker role over a mature grouping of books like Vertigo, where you can argue for the emergence of a fourth or fifth generation of writers and which came about to reflect a run of books DC had been making for years preceding its launch, and a project like Minx, with several brand new writers and informed/influenced by DC's re-furbished marketing and sales department in a way that simply wasn't available to comics in the early 1990s, might prove to be an interesting line of inquiry. Plus I don't get to talk to folks with titles like "Senior Vice President -- Executive Editor, Vertigo" very often, so even if I knew before hand I wasn't going to see a monster I still would have slid into my seersucker suit, hopped into the Mustang and roared over to DC's offices. Unless I'm wrong, 2008 marks both a 15th anniversary for Vertigo and a 30th year in comics for the popular editor, and I was also happy to speak to her on the eve of these two important personal milestones.

DC publicity manager Alex Segura, who arranged the interview, sat in the room with Karen, one supposes to be fired more immediately if things turned ugly.

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TOM SPURGEON: I realized when I was preparing for this interview that 2008 is the 15th anniversary of Vertigo as a formal imprint. Vertigo famously had a long ramp-up period as a group of books within the DC line. Do you have any insight on how having the formal imprint has had an effect on that element of DC's overall publishing efforts?

KAREN BERGER: I think that doing an imprint in the first place just focuses the material, the point of view and the sensibility. That was obviously the reason we decided to do a separate imprint from DC. In terms of does it change things from the time before we had an imprint...?

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SPURGEON: It's a very high-profile imprint, a very recognizable comics brand... almost exceedingly so within the traditional comics realm. Has having a line had a specific impact on the comics that were developed after it was established?

BERGER: I think it's definitely helped. I think in life we all search for groupings or collective ways to describe with something. I think because with Vertigo the six titles, the monthly titles that started Vertigo -- like Sandman, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, etc. -- plus all the new books we've done since then, a very long list, I think the purpose was to create a home where the artist could do significant creator-owned work, although we do do some licensed characters, but to explore the medium in ways you can't do in traditional mainstream comics.

SPURGEON: In a way, its success has made Vertigo something against which other company's imprints, similar and even not so similar, have been judged. Have you seen or had any reaction to efforts over the years to replicate the success DC has enjoyed with Vertigo?

BERGER: I know Marvel has tried, and always tried a different take on it. I think the reason they haven't been able to pull it off, and not to sound snarky or conceited about it, is I think you have to be willing as a company to really make in a stake in the creative people who are going to be writing and drawing the material, in terms of the freedom you give them creatively and the ability to really go the creator-owned route and original-idea route. I think that has distinguished what Vertigo has done from any attempt Marvel has tried. Even smaller companies... there has been a lot of great stuff put out by small presses. At Vertigo we've been lucky to have the backing of a large company to do a lot of stuff, too. It does make it easier.

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SPURGEON: Has keeping the imprint small been a key? It seems like you've kept a core group, a reasonably limited number of titles and projects, despite the general impulse in comics to inflate things once there's a measure of success.

BERGER: We try to keep it to anywhere from 10-12 a month. There have been some years with more, and some with less, depending on what's in the pipeline, what's developed and what's ready. We don't want to overstay our welcome. [laughs] I think we put out a lot of strong material, but we don't want to cannibalize ourselves.

Some retailers tell me, "Oh, you publish too much." It all depends on who you talk to. I like to think we publish what we can support, and we definitely don't want to cause a glut.

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SPURGEON: 2007 seems marked by an increased emphasis on original graphic novels.

BERGER: We definitely amped up that side of our publishing plan. We've always done them, but we're purposely targeting that area more.

SPURGEON: This might be a really dumb question, but what exactly is the appeal of doing OGNs over the traditional model of spreading the cost over a series and then bringing it into a trade?

BERGER: It's really a difference between the types of story that you're telling. The long-form stories versus the episodic stories. It's really the TV movie. Sometimes you have a great HBO series that you'll watch episodically, and sometimes you'll have a great feature film. I'd like to think that the books that we're buying as original graphic novels are self-contained novels in the comics form. The reason we don't do them as a five or six issue mini-series is because we don't feel we have to break them down. That always was the mentality. We worked towards specifically the Direct Sales market and a certain kind of reader. But now that more and more people are getting hip to the idea that comics are this cool thing to read and it doesn't have to be about superheroes.

You see the success of things like Maus and Watchmen 20 years ago -- even Watchmen was episodic at the time, though I don't think a lot of people realize that.

SPURGEON: Maus was serialized, too, in RAW.

BERGER: You're absolutely right. Forget that argument. [laughter]

SPURGEON: Okay.

BERGER: Take Persepolis. The success that book has had -- it's brought a lot of woman readers and young woman readers to the form -- says that you can have great comics but not episodic in form. Look at Will Eisner -- he's the guy! -- and Contract With God.

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SPURGEON: One of the things from your 2007 that I thought was a really interesting publishing venture was Sentences. I thought that was a compelling publishing story, the fact that it was done and how it was received. How was it perceived in the office?

BERGER: I love that book. We got great feedback around the office, and we've received primarily pretty great press on it. Not everybody's going to love something, but primarily the press has been pretty favorable on it. The book actually made three top ten lists. It was on Time's Top Ten list, it was on Washington Post's top ten list, and it was on CNN.com's -- it was runner-up for best comic, actually. I think they had two -- Green Lantern was best comic and Sentences was runner-up. That really blew us away.

SPURGEON: Was there a learning curve at all in getting that book out there? A book like Cairo, to contrast, is more traditionally Vertigo-like in terms of theme and basic approach.

BERGER: You mean in terms of it being a memoir?

SPURGEON: Primarily, sure.

BERGER: Not really. I think what distinguishes a lot of the books that we do is that even though they might be fictional they draw a lot on real life. The reason that our books are so effective is that the reader relates to the character. In any good story or film you feel like you know the characters. In terms of working with Percy [Carey] and him writing his memoir... really, no. There was no difference. I will say this. As an editor, even though I didn't line edit the book. Casey Seijas is the editor in-house who brought the book in and edited it. In my role at Vertigo, if I think something is not working at a script stage or even looking at a book I'll throw my two cents in. With a book like this, I was more reluctant to. If there was anything that was unpolished, I found that to be part of the charm of the book, or part of the personal style. I think there's a real brutal honesty to Percy's work, and he's an excellent storyteller in comics given that this is his first comic. He's a great songwriter. A great writer. A great guy.

imageSPURGEON: Now Alcoholic is a memoir, too, right?

BERGER: Yes.

SPURGEON: Has that been interesting for you as an editor? The memoir has been a hot bookstore category over the last half-decade to a decade.

BERGER: That's one of the roots why we're looking at more material that way. It's popular -- not just a book like Persepolis but in book publishing in general. People like to read memoirs. I think if you've got an interesting story to tell, and you can do it well, graphic novels is a great place to do it.

Actually, Alcoholic is not entirely autobiographical. It's semi-autobiographical. There are a lot of things that are true. But then there are some things that aren't. When we promote the book, you'll hear all about it. It's a great script, a really great script.

SPURGEON: This might too broad a question, but in the last three years DC's sales and marketing departments have transformed themselves, or at least they've appeared to from the shifts in personnel and responsibilities that have been made public. Has this been beneficial for you as an editor and as someone with responsibility over an entire line?

BERGER: Oh, totally.

SPURGEON: Can you describe how that might be beneficial?

BERGER: Beside that we've really amped up our publicity efforts, particularly outside the Direct Market with the book market, and just amped them up in general to the real world, the fact we've been able to get such awesome coverage, I can't tell you how rewarding that is. For someone like me who's been doing it for a long time, to have that press, to have so much of it, and to have the interest has been really great. The publicity efforts have had a huge, huge impact.

SPURGEON: Do you get information coming back in that's helpful as for as building your knowledge as to who's reading?

BERGER: That's trickier, actually. [laughs] That's the other end, in terms of who's buying them.

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SPURGEON: Maybe this is a way to phrase it. I was wondering how the Minx launch compared to the Vertigo launch. If I remember, it was Death: The High Cost of Living #1 with which you launched Vertigo, a choice that seems to reflect a certain way of thinking, and the Minx line was a whole run of books, brand new, which reflects more a of a departure, or at least a different way of thinking. In fact, top to bottom it seems like a wholly different effort.

BERGER: It's totally different. With Vertigo we already had our audience. We had people who were already reading comics at the time who were into innovative, edgy, irreverent, smart literary stuff we were already doing this. So it was saying, "You love this; we're going to give you even more of it and we're going to give you your own imprint."

So it was much easier. When we launched Vertigo it was at the height of the comics boom. It was crazy. It was right around the time of Death of Superman and when Image first launched. It was an insane time where the collectors' market was crazy, and all our sales were wonderful but way too high. [laughs] It didn't mean anything at the end of the day, but we enjoyed it while we had it.

Obviously with Minx we're going after the teenaged girl who is not historically a comic book reader. We were looking at success that manga has had with attracting young women. We said, "Hey, we know there are teenaged girls reading manga. We also know there are teenaged girls that are reading books like Persepolis. We know that there are teenaged girls that read books like Sandman and some of Slave Labor's stuff." We also know that teenaged girls are adventurous readers, and read more than boys. So why don't we come out with a line, really an alternate to manga, that deals with real girls in the real world, real stories, real situations. Give it that human touch with very strong protagonists and independent thinkers.

imageSPURGEON: You've had a few months now to appraise the Minx line. How did the launch go from your perspective? Was it successful?

BERGER: Creatively, creatively we feel it was very successful. I don't think we're reaching a large enough audience at this point, and that's something we're working on to develop. We've gotten great press on the books, and we get great word of mouth. We're finding it harder to build the initial swarm of readers you hope to get when you launch something. We're optimistic with Minx that we'll be able to reach the market that we're intending to reach. Again, it's tough. We're going out with a line of book for an audience that we don't historically we have. We're aiming for the girl that goes into the bookstore and not necessarily the comic book store. There still aren't too many girls going into the comic book store, although it's better than it used to be. We sold fine in the Direct Market on the Minx books. We're hoping to sell more in the book market. We're working very closely. Our marketing and sales people are working with Random House, who is our new book distributor, to really escalate our efforts there with the line -- both what's out and the new launches coming out.

SPURGEON: Did you take to heart any of the complaints about the lack of female creator participation on the launch books? Did you hear any of that?

BERGER: Sure I did. Yeah. We expected it on some level, because it wasn't like we didn't try to ask women writers. We really did. Ultimately we went for the best material at the time that we had. We approached many people. A lot of it as well is that we had a specific point of view in mind. We're really looking for people who could have a sensibility for the books we were trying to produce. Once they came out, we started to find or be approached or be solicited by more female creators who were more unknown, but who had a flair for writing comics. People outside of comics. That has worked out well for us. In our second year we have many more female creators on the books.

I think that like with anything, you can be of any gender. A good writer should be able to write convincingly about the gender that they're not part of. I think that the writers that have worked on the Minx books, the man, have done terrific jobs. End of story. End of my defense. [laughter] It was natural to get that complaint. I wasn't surprised by it. Totally natural.

imageSPURGEON: What is your take on the serial comics market right now? You're still very aggressively launching series -- Brian Wood's new book is one of them, as is Rick Veitch's book, although that's a bit further along. A lot of folks feel that the lower end of the serial comics market may be more volatile than usual. Do you perceive a difference?

BERGER: For Vertigo?

SPURGEON: Yeah, particularly for series to launch in terms of this market as compared to five or ten years ago.

BERGER: As far as the industry in general, numbers are lower than they were. We've always sold lower than superhero books with rare exceptions, like Sandman or something. With Vertigo our sales are in the trades, and that's where we've really built up our... power, I guess. Our force in the market has been the fact that our books stay in print, that we're attracting a reader that doesn't go into the comic store every week. There are many people that don't buy the single issues. From what I've been able to gather all anecdotally, no hard evidence, from conventions, fans I've talked to, retailers, over the many years I've been doing this, the Vertigo reader really breaks into two camps. You have about half of the audience who read the monthly comics and go into the store every week and buy the trades, and then half the readership goes in every few months and buys the trade, waits for the trade to come out. It's tougher to gauge the periodical sales.

SPURGEON: I imagine you would have a longer period to look at sales on a title, too.

BERGER: It takes longer for us to gauge a title because the title might do well as a trade but not so great as a periodical. I give DC a lot of credit for giving us a lot of time, and giving creators the time to see if a book can find its audience before cutting them off. Before they can walk or swim [laughs] -- whatever expression you want to use.

SPURGEON: Is there a signature event or series of events we should look towards in 2008 Vertigo-wise? You have a couple of long-running series coming to close.

BERGER: Yeah, in January.

SPURGEON: Does that set the tone for the year?

BERGER: Absolutely not. It's pure coincidence. I didn't even notice until you mentioned it. With any series, it will run its course creatively or from a sales perspective. Historically, we've known many of our series will end at some point. And that's fine. You get a great series and a creator has so many stories they have to tell. You work towards that. We're always looking at new ideas and new concepts and launching them every year. If I had anything to say about the 15th year of Vertigo is that we're even more committed to giving a showcase to original voices and original visions for the creators and really amping up our original graphic novel as well as producing some good compelling and entertaining monthly books as well.

We have such a diverse line-up of so many new books-- just looking at the first half of the year, there's Brian Wood's action-fused, thinking-man Viking's series Northlanders, Young Liars, written and drawn by David Lapham, a fast and furious read about a girl living with a bullet in her head, new takes on The House of Mystery by Bill Willingham and Matt Sturges and Madame Xanadu by Matt Wagner and talented newcomer Amy Hadley.

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SPURGEON: Let me ask you a kind of silly question. I was looking at forthcoming books and the issue number on Hellblazer made my eyes pop.

BERGER: That's our longest-running title.

SPURGEON: It's kind of an underplayed success story in comics, for a character that's not a superhero character or attending Riverdale High to have a comic for that long -- not just in terms of modern-day books, but for the history of comics, period. I was wondering about this the other day: is John Constantine just a demented version of Dr. Who, in that the appeal is to see all these different writers play him, or is it something else?

BERGER: [laughs] I'd never heard it put like that before.

SPURGEON: You always hear about various writers' versions: Warren [Ellis]' or Jamie [Delano]'s and now Andy [Diggle]'s... Seriously, though, do you have any special insight as to what's appealing about that character? Because very few characters of any kind with that level of recognition and potency, that kind of pop culture weight, have been created in the last 30 years.

BERGER: Beats me. [laughs] He just happens to be a great character. He's got the great fuck-you attitude we want all of our anti-heroes to have. He's got that haunted deep side that makes him more complex. His stories have social relevance -- starting with what Alan [Moore] and Jamie did back in the day. That's always been part of the series, the political backdrop. Some writers mine that differently than other. Some play into the straight, supernatural aspects, too, which is great. I think it's a great horror book, and different writers bring out different aspects of that. He's just such a cool character. That's my take on it.

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* panel from the upcoming Incognegro, one of the line's most anticipated 2008 releases
* photo of Berger supplied by DC Comics
* two pieces of art from upcoming releases: Young Liars, Madame Xanadu
* cover to Cairo, part of the the Vertigo line's emphasis on OGNs in 2007
* from the forthcoming Alcoholic
* from the Minx title Re-Gifters
* cover to Minx title Good as Lily
* cover art to Northlanders #4, one of Vertigo's series-to-trade model titles
* Mr. John Constantine of Hellblazer, as depicted by Glenn Fabry

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Vertigo
Minx

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the CR Holiday interview series continues through Monday with two interviews scheduled for each day. Tuesday, January 8 marks a return to this blog's full array of regular features. We thank you for your patience.
 
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