A Conversation With Karen

[ 4 ] March 4, 2017

 

I was privileged to have my good friend and long time colleague Karen Berger at the Columbia class I co-teach with Jeremy Dauber.  Happy to share with you a transcript of that conversation.


 

KarenBergerPL: Karen comes into the story (of comics) at the beginning of the 1980s at your age, basically, fresh out of college.

KB: Younger.  I was 21.

PL: (She was) unread in the world of comics.  It was not something that she liked or enjoyed as a child growing up.  We’ll get her to confess the one or two that she might have touched.  I was hiring for a position to assist me and ultimately within a short period of time replace me as the operations or administration person for the editorial department.   It didn’t strike me that that person have a background in comics.  Karen was friendly with Marc DeMatteis, a writer who was doing a little bit of work for me at that time, as well as work for other editors at DC, and she heard that there was this position.

Why in god’s name did you want to come work for a place that did something you didn’t read and didn’t like?

KB: I needed a job.  I was another English major, fresh out of Brooklyn College.  I majored in English Lit, and minored in Art History, particularly in modern art.  What I really wanted to do was work at an art magazine like Art In America or do something related to modern art.  But those jobs are hard to find.

PL: We all know comic book jobs are easy to get.

KB:  That world was pretty hard to penetrate, and I guess being from Brooklyn College wasn’t good enough, but that’s alright.

Anyway, then Marc DeMatteis, an old friend of mine, a few years older than I am, had started writing comics while I was still in college.  Marc had been in Brooklyn College forever, because in those days as a humanities major, you had to take a language.  Marc always took Spanish, and he always failed it.  He stayed in school just to take Spanish.  He finally went to Empire State University.

House_of_Mystery_v.1_282Marc used to drag me to this funky little comic book shop on Flatbush Avenue.  I didn’t know comic book stores existed.  It was a dusty, icky place.  He showed me the first comic he’d done for Paul, I think it was a Weird War Tales…

PL: House of Mystery.

KB: It was buried in the back of the store in this box.  This place was so weird.  I remember reading it, and it was good.

So when I graduated, I took the summer off, did some traveling with a friend of mine.  When I came back I started looking for a job.  The modern art world wasn’t looking good for me.  Marc said, “Hey, you know Paul Levitz, the editor I always get so nervous seeing when Ishow him a script?  Well, he’s looking for an assistant, and he doesn’t want anyone who is a comic fan; it’s basically an administrative job.  Why don’t you send him your resume?”

Amazingly enough, I guess we hit it off.

PL: And you showed up for work.

KB: What really fascinated me about comics, not really having read any as a kid was the layered approach to comics storytelling.  I think I was like most people at the time, not thinking about a comic was created—they just appeared.  But there was actually a script.  My eyes were really opened to the process, the creativity involved.

And the people.  The people at DC Comics at the time, and the freelance writers and artists, were just really great people.  There’s always a loser here or there.  But most of them were really welcoming, and it was really a great time.  I think my interest in art also helped, and the fact that I liked to read weird shit.

PL: And we weren’t doing weird enough shit, in your definition, early on.  The nature of the evolution of the field at the time was that of a craft that was passed on from those that knew it, to the apprentices.  If you were smart and energetic, you could become a journeyman fairly quickly.

Karen got handed some editorial responsibilities within a year…

ComicsCodeAuthorityKB: Within six months.  Paul was editing House of Mystery and he said, “Well, I want to see if you know how to edit. “ Pretty much, that was Paul.  As you know , he’s pretty direct.  “I want to see if you have any editorial skills, so we can co-edit this first issue together and we’ll see how it goes.”  And after the first issue, he took his name off.  I guess I did a good job.

PL: You didn’t wreck the car while you were taking the driving lesson.  That’s the basic standard for these things.

KB: I don’t know if you remember this, but one of my stories in that issue was actually rejected by The Comics Code.  It was written by Marc.  I was crestfallen.  Now I wear it as a badge of honor.

Three and a half years later, when we were closing down the series because no one was buying it anymore, I did manage to sneak that story in.  The Comics Code at that point was…

PL: Neutered.

KB: …and it went through with flying colors.  The story was called “Government Vampire.”  I think it was a soldier in Vietnam who gets bitten in a cave, and eventually comes back to America and becomes President.

PL: Prescient already.

As you can see, Karen’s more comfortable in long form storytelling rather than short. 

KB: You can write an eight-page story, a really good eight-page story, you can write anything.  It’s a great format.

Legion_of_Super-Heroes_Vol_2_295PL: So, for a couple of years most of your work is doing maintenance work on existing titles. Some fun stuff: we got to work together on Legion of Super-Heroes, during some of the best work that I did.  An incredible editor to work with; she would find—

KB: Right after The Great Darkness Saga.  I started on #295.

PL: She would find where you went off the rails in the process.  Not where she wanted it a different way, but where you weren’t achieving what you set out to do.

She was clearly a restless creature, and this was a time of experimentation.   The direct market was emerging, we didn’t quite know what it would be; the newsstand was disappearing.  There was a lot of freedom to invent new titles as the House of Mystery sort of things were disappearing as creatures of the newsstand.

You did some early experiments that we look back on with great fondness, that are much more viable for today’s diverse audience than they turned out to be at the time.  Angel Love with Barbara Slate, which was a sort of modernized Archie, and Amethyst, Princess of Gemworldwhich was—

KB: My favorite.

angelPL: That was a classic Oz kind of fable.

So how’d you have the guts to come in and suggest these things that didn’t match anything the company had done for decades? 

KB: Because I wasn’t a fan coming into the business, it gave me an objectivity which helped in terms of looking at what was being done in comics.  Also, selfishly, I just wanted to edit stuff I wanted to read.

I didn’t really respond to super hero material.  Being a woman, and back when I was growing up, comics weren’t geared for women at all, outside of Archie, and romance comics—

PL: There weren’t any romance comics left by the time you were in the business. 

KB: But when I was at sleepaway camp they were passed around.  And I read MAD Magazine, because I had big brothers who were MAD readers.  That was a great hybrid introduction to comics.

PL: So this is basically just selfish?  I don’t like what you publish, and I want to edit something I want to read?

KB: Pretty much.  I was reading Stephen King, and a lot of weird stuff in college. Carlos Castenada. I wasn’t a real science fiction reader, as you were. I just loved things that were sort of off the beaten path. I was attracted to the otherness, the outsider perspective.

I sort of relished the fact that I was an outsider to comics. People who got into comics said that they got into comics because they felt like outsiders, and I thought I was a regular—

PL: A normal person?  We fixed that.

KB: But I really liked the fact that I could say, “Why?”

There was a navel-gazing from too much continuity, too much of the same old thing.  Why not try?

I give a lot of credit to Jenette Kahn, who as you know was President & Publisher at DC for many years.  I still remember the first time that I met her, she said to me, “I think we can tell any kind of story in comics.”  I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about—I was 21, it was my first real job.  Well, this is what comics is.  But it stuck with me;always.

I was really fortunate to be at a company—with Paul, with Jenette, and my boss (for years) Dick Giordano—that fosted freedom of expression, and taking chances and taking risks.  If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have been able to do this kind of stuff.


PL: So one of the formative experiences you have at this moment is we’ve started to work with these crazy British creators: Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons; and you’re given editorial responsibility on Swamp Thing, so you’re brought into contact with Alan immediately.  Swamp Thing was not a prestigious thing to be given to edit at this point…

KB: It was a dying title.  Len Wein, who created it had brought it back because we were making these horrible movies—

PL: The guy in the rubber suit.

KB: At the point in my career I was given the choice to either become a full time business person or a time editor.  I’d inherited Paul’s administrative role as editorial coordinator, with schedules, payments and all that kind of stuff.  I edited a few books on the side.  The company was growing, adding books, and Dick said you can take either path.

In a heartbeat, I said “I want to be a full time editor.”  So I got Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, a couple of other awful old titles.

The sales of Swamp Thing were pretty low at the time; I don’t know if it was on the verge of cancellation.  But it canged my life.

PL: It changed comics. 

KB: For sure.

PL: So you started to do this, and because you’re doing so well, we give you the ‘get out of town’ card.  We need more artists because the line is expanding, maybe there’s even a writer over there, they do sort of speak the same language, and Alan’s doing some interesting stuff.  Jenette and Dick were travelling a couple of times a year over to England, but it was clear there was more excavating to be done, and somebody needed to drink much more beer.  I don’t remember if we volunteered you… 

KB: Jenette did, actually.  We used to do these editorial retreats several tiems a year either at Mohonk Mountain Lodge or Tarrytown House, where we would sequester the editors with Paul, Jenette and Bruce (Bristow, the marketing guy at the time).  It was a great time.   The time of Dark Knight and Watchmen and the industry was really changing and expanding.  We had a lot of great meetings, talking about philosophically how comics could change.  It was a really great scene.

Theat’s where Piranha Press came from, an indie imprint of ours that predated Vertigo.  It lasted a couple of years.

Anyway, Jenette said she was going to UKCAC (the UK Comic Art Convention) the next week, and would I like to go.  She was thinking she needed someone to work as British liaison with the artists there, and I knew a couple of them.

My friend was getting married the next week. So ohmigod, what am I going to do?  I called my friend, and said  “This is a good career move, and I can’t come.”  We’re still friends, which is good news.

When I was over there, what really dawned on me was the huge talent pool that I felt was untapped: a great underground scene in comics in England at the time.

DC was doing these great new versions of Batman and Superman (with John Byrne) and George Perez was on Wonder Woman.  We can go back to old DC characters, update them and make them cooler.

swamp_thing_047_parliamentPL: One of the key reasons was the company wasn’t yet ready to offer deals that were enticing people to create original properties.  So one way to overcome that was to bring half of it, an old name, a piece of an idea, and you develop something new around it.  That was a workable thing for a number of projects, many of which are thankfully forgotten.  One or two of which proved the concept. 

KB: Because I liked horror and the supernatural, I looked at those characters.  And the (super hero editors) wouldn’t let me play in that sandbox even if I wanted to, so I had to go into a territory that nobody gave a shit about.

PL: Did they not let you into their sandbox because you were a girl or because you were the new kid? 

KB: I never felt it was because I was a girl.  I never felt that at DC, at all.  It was a non-issue.

If anything being a woman editor gave me a great advantage working with freelancers, (mostly) men because a lot of them were afraid of me.  Don’t ask me why.

PL (whispers): I can explain. 

KB: I’m not bossy.  I spoke my mind, in a nice way, but with a lot of men when working with other men there were a lot of ego issues.  Outdoing each other.  And I wasn’t a threat to them.  I also think because I was on that side of the desk, if there was going to be an issue it was less likely.

PL: But for all you say you didn’t like super-heroes, you were doing Legion, which was the second best-selling book in the line— 

KB: That was soap opera, not the typical adolescent power fantasy.

PL: I’m going to flash forward a couple of years.  You’ve been hanging with the brits,you’ve developed a couple of titles.  It’s the late 1980s and there’s starting to be a defined flavor.  On its good days, in comics there’s an editor with distinct enough taste that you begin to identify a category or style of books with them.  You’re starting to have that reputation, and there’s not a model for what to do about it. 

One of the things that you launch in that time is Sandman, using that model of take an old name and do something new with it.  Let’s pause for that story. 

black-orchidKB: I met Neil on that first trip to London, but I didn’t realize it was him until a year later.  He was a guy outside a bar wearing a suit.  A nice guy, holding court, talking to some other people.

He was a nice guy, and he was sending me short stories as pitches.  Okay, but never quite right.  But he was persistent.  When we re-met I connected the name to him.  On my second trip, we made it a formal pitch session, with meetings every hour on the hour, like being a therapist.

Then and now 2000 A.D. was the main British place we looked, but there’d been WarrioMarvel U.K. and some small press comics.  I had recommendations from Alan and Brian, and Nick Landau, the publisher of Titan Books, had recommended Neil.  And that’s when we reconnected.

At that meeting, Neil pitched us a new take on Sandman, but at that time the character was being used in All-Star Squadron that Roy Thomas was writing, so we can’t do that.  He asked about John Constantine, but Jamie Delano was already working on that—he was ahead of the pack because at the time he was Alan’s best friend.

So he said, “What about Black Orchid?”  I thought he said Blackhawk Kid, with Neil’s funny little British accent.  It turned out to be Black Orchid, and I said I have no idea who this character is.  But Neil’s a great storyteller even back then, and gave us a great pitch, and he and Dave McKean went back and did this great proposal and we went from there.

Sandman_no.1About six months later, we had another editorial retreat, and Jenette remembered Neil pitching Sandman.  I called Neil, and asked him to go back, ditch the continuity and make it his own.  He made this brilliant proposal.

PL: And the rest is history.

KB: When we started, we had no idea it would be.  Or that Neil was going to become the force of nature he became.  Neil was always extremely talented, with such a fertile wild imagination.  But some people can really go with it, and some can’t.  There was obviously something special about him and his gift.

PL: That’s a great moment to diverge on.  One of the many things that makes your career distinguished is that you are significantly responsible for the largest number of new writers in comics in the last twenty years.  The people who came in either  for you or for your team, where you worked on their first stories. 

You saw a lot of people with fertile imaginations, people who were very good at spinning a story, and you can fill a significant portion of this room with writers whose first stories you bought.  There’s a gift in separating the ones with potential from the ones who don’t.  Can you articulate what you used as your ‘spider-sense’ (to borrow from a writer you didn’t recruit) to tell the difference?

KB:  A lot of it is a gut sense.  What  I responded to personally.  And a structural aspect, a mechanical aspect.  Structure is very important: can they plot a story, structure it in a way that’s not predictable.  Can they think out of the box, and then pull it off.  DO they have a great ear for dialogue.  Dialogue is really key.  You can have a feh story, and if you someone who’s really good at dialogue, you don’t even realize it.

Also the passion behind it.  With anything creative, you have to really want it, pursue and perservere.  You also have to be open to feedback.  Most people were welcoming, but some weren’t, and comics are a very collaborative medium.  You’re writing for an audience, and you have to be open to feedback and reactions.

I responded to people who had interests outside comics, people who knew what was happening in the world, in science and politics.  I’m fascinated by people who are fascinated by things.  That was a really key thing.

If you look at the writers I worked with over the years, you can see there influences came from beyond older comics.  Which is I think one of the things  that most of the super hero comics were retelling versions of the old stories.  I just didn’t want to do that.

PL: So we’re starting to have a handful of books that are being jokingly referred to as the ‘Bergerverse’ and they have a characteristic in them that I would later describe in conversation with you as “you know your book is working if it bothers me.” 

KB: I used to drive him crazy.

PL: I’m sitting there as the publisher, and she’s sitting there with the mandate to push the boundaries.  And also to unsettle the readers’ point of view about how the universe works.  If they were about magic, it wasn’t about hocus pocus and the rabbit comes out of the hat, but about how magic’s a force in how things aren’t going right in your personal life. 

We’re trying to figure out what to do with this.  We’re dependent on the direct market, which is the core of our business at this time.  We’ve tried this experiment with Piranha Press, which produced some interesting material, but failed in the marketplace.  That was our first alternate imprint. 

You’re not the most commercial part of our line—that’s still the traditional super heroes—but something is working, and in particular, what’s working is these first trade paperback collections of Sandman.  We’re nervous enough about it that the first trade isn’t the first set of issues, but the second storyline, issue #8.  We think the first cycle is too dependent on DC continuity. 

KB: There was a big feature in Rolling Stone by Mikal Gilmore—a huge thing at the time.  We actually took an ad out, which was huge—we didn’t spend anything (then).  That actually factored into our decision.

#8 introduced Death.

Sandman_8PL: I really think it’s one of the most brilliant single issue comics ever done. 

KB: I think so too.  And I think that’s where Neil crystalized as a writer.  Everything fell into place, his sense of humanity, his accessibility, his originality.  It wasn’t drawing on the other DC characters he used in the first storyline.  That first storyline could have gone off into the weird DC character world, instead of taking this left turn into this magical—

PL: –mythology. 

KB: As a non-comics reader, I felt starting there was right.  Then we quickly went back and did the first storyline.

PL: Also because that first book did well, and the new had something we could follow up with.  It seems like we’re talking about inventing the wheel here, but the idea that we could actually have a sequential reprinting of a series of a comic book was still a really outrageous idea.  We’ve talked about Cerebrus and Dave Sim’s “phone books” (in class) but nothing like had been tried by a publisher that had mainstream distribution.  Comics didn’t do any kind of market research, so we didn’t have any real idea of what was going on. 

But there seemed to be these creatures showing up for events with Neil that didn’t quite look like our regular readers.  Some of them looked a lot like Death, because some of the Goth movement were taking her as a totemic figure, and some of them were ordinary, but female.  We hadn’t seen a lot of females for a while.  Something was going on, and the material was selling in a different fashion. 

The trade paperbacks were continuing to sell over time, and that was changing the publishing model.  It started to say, you can introduce something to the core market, and if works creatively, not even commercially, you can sustain it with these trade paperbacks.

V_for_VendettaKB: We also did V For Vendetta.  The first bunch were published in Warrior in the U.K. before that was cancelled, and we made a deal to bring it over and have them finish it.  Alan and Dave Lloyd finished it, and stuck to the format of short chapters as the originals had been.  And when we finally established Vertigo a few years later—

PL: That was our solution for what the hell to do with her.  We didn’t want to market it as ‘Bergerverse’ and apparently she was saving Berger Books for later.  I probably wouldn’t have signed off on it; she wouldn’t have sold us her name forever… 

KB: Actually, I’m not selling it forever now.  That’s what happens when you go toindependent publishing.

PL: Low blow. 

When we went to create Vertigo, it wasn’t just  taking the creative sensibilities.  We had a lot of conversations about how we would do things differently outside of the more assembly-lined structure of the super-heroes.

KB: And creator ownership.  That’s when we started to do creator-owned deals.  We worked hard on it for a long time, and were constantly revising them.  It was a big deal for a company like DC to invest in creative talent like that, and to break away from the old deals.  I think they were fair deals for the time.  People were paid very well for their work.

PL: Besides the deals themselves, you adopted a different methodology.  We had conversations where we talked about a more ‘authorial’ environment, some of that was about the talent’s faith that you were looking out for their interests as well as the company’s interests and the readers’.  Whether the company asked you to, authorizedyou, or reluctantly put up with it, you would show the writers the covers, involve them in who was coloring…it was an evolving process. 

Sometimes you were ahead of where the company’s willingness was, or where mine was…

KB: I still remember when we started Vertigo we could say shit, but not fuck.  All the writers grumbled.  I went to Jenette because I knew she’d say yes.  Matt Wagner, who did Sandman Mystery Theatre was very strong on this.  And she said, sure I think we can.

I remember going into Paul’s office right after to tell him, and he said, “I wish you didn’t do that.”

PL: I think it’s a natural thing for all children to learn to play mommy against daddy.  Sometimes it works in the corporate environment too. 

KB: Jenette’s amazing.  I remember Paul used to call her “our fearless leader,” and she really was.  If it wasn’t for her, a lot of comics wouldn’t be modern.  We might have gotten there a different way, but it would have been the Bizarro world.

PL: So you’re doing these things differently, you have tremendous affection and respect from your creators.  One of the most entertaining moments in contract negotiation was Stardust.  Neil’s agent, Merrilee Heifetz, had sent this long list of criteria to the bidders, and she lists 20 things she wants—every possible thing an agent can ask.  And down around #18 was “Who can provide Karen Berger as the editor?,” which in a way was shooting herself in the foot, and in another forcing the others to realize they had to way overtop us on other aspects to have a chance.

KB: I don’t remember that, but I’m glad you do.

TRANSMETPL: You’re changing the business bit by bit.  Your team puts out the first title that changes the business model further, Transmetropolitan, where the trades did well enough to have us continue a money-losing periodical—now a very common comics model.  It’s also getting tougher because other people are trying to do what you’ve been doing, reaching for the creators you’ve developed. 

KB: At that time we had a great selection of material out there, and Vertigo was the gold standard, but I never wanted to rest on our laurels.  The editors that worked for me didn’t either.

We were always looking for new writers and artists, because that’s how you keep anything creative fresh.  Nurturing talent, letting them grow.  Alan Moore was the only writer I know who I think was as brilliant on his first script as anything else he’s done.  But every other writer was a new writer, and all went through learning curves.  Really talented but figuring it out as they went along.

Part of being a good editor is being open to new people and always looking to mix it up, keep the bar high, take risks.  Once you get comfortable and just do the things that works…that’s my problem with mainstream comics as done by DC and Marvel, so much is keeping the characters fresh but undamaged.  I’m not putting it down, even though it might sound like I am, but it’s just a whole different ballgame.

As someone who came into comics from outside, what attracted me to comics was this amazing storytelling, this hybrid medium.  There’s nothing quite like it.  The mazing mix of story and art and the different styles of art.  You’re open to so many approaches, not only in the U.S. but globally.

One of the things that I liked to do at Vertigo, and will be doing at my new gig, Berger Books, which was just announced by Dark Horse, is to really expand the talent pool in terms of reaching to other countries’ writers and artists to do original works.

PL: A perfect summation, as well as a good commercial.  Columbia’s going to lower their tuition by the amount they give you as advance orders. Thanks, Karen!

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  1. Brad Barnes says:

    I had no idea, Paul Levitz, that you hired Karen Berger and were material in her spectacular rise through the ranks of DC! Your continuing friendship is testament that respect is thicker than office politics. If I was an editor, I would want to be Karen Berger :D

  2. Andrew Scott says:

    Thank you, Mr. Levitz, for providing this transcript of Ms. Berger’s class visit. I teach university writing courses and often invite other writers and editors to class. Your students must be thrilled at these opportunities.

    And thank you, Ms. Berger, for your massive contribution to so many of the comics I’ve loved for the last 25+ years. As a writer, I would fight an army of drunk donkeys for the chance to work with you.

  3. Shaun Smith says:

    Thanks for publishing this interview with Karen, Paul! As a fan of many of the books you’ve both worked on it’s interesting to hear a little of the behind the scenes history.

  4. This was a fascinating and enjoyable read. Vertigo titles was what got me reading comics again. I picked up the one hundredth issue of Hellblazer, IIRC, as well as the the first Sandman collection and have since amassed quite a collection of Vertigo titles, and quite a few of the Helix comics too – If not for Vermillion, I would probably never have learned about the late Lucius Shepard. Anyway, looking forward to what Berger Books will come up with.

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