The Vertigo Deal by Jordan Ferguson
It's funny how these things go, friends. When I sat down to write this piece, I originally thought I would do a fun, fluffy article on how much I've adored Saga or sweet gift ideas for the comics lover in your life (if anybody wants to leave the X-Statix Omnibus under my tree, I ain't mad at cha).
Instead, I made the somewhat sad discovery that Karen Berger is stepping down as the Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of DC's Vertigo line, citing a need for "professional change," according to Newsarama.
It makes sense. Berger's headed up Vertigo for almost two decades and been at DC for over three; with Hellblazer being cancelled next year as John Constantine joins Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Shade the Changing Man and other typically 'Vertigo characters' being assimilated into the DCU proper, one has to wonder what mountains were left for her to conquer.
I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but Vertigo is utterly essential to my love of comics. My parents consciously didn't monitor my reading habits much, bless them, so books with the tantalizing 'Suggested for Mature Readers' label regularly made their way into my chocolate-smeared hands. Two of them were Berger's early projects, Arkham Asylum and The Sandman. Not to take anything away from Vertigo, but Berger's early UK talent-scouting missions probably did more to define the direction comics would take in the 80s and 90s more than anything else. Can you imagine a world without Neil Gaiman? Granted, talent of that caliber will always make itself known, but without Berger's endorsement and stewardship early on, his career might have taken a very different route, and we never would have read The Sandman.
In the online reaction to Berger's departure, some have likened her to Stan Lee. Anyone who would disagree with that deliberately refuses to remove his head from his ass. So many utterly game-changing books hit the market under her watch: The Sandman. Preacher. 100 Bullets. Fables. The Invisibles. Transmetropolitan. Doom Patrol. Y the Last Man. Sweet Tooth. Any editor could be happy to call it a career on the strength of one of those books. Berger can claim them all, and then some.
The titles themselves would be legacy enough, but the simple fact is that many if not most of the writers that currently astound us on mainstream superhero books cut their teeth on Vertigo titles (Hellblazer's been like a fricking farm team for over 20 years, for God's sake). Even Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire, two creators I've recently commended in this space, gained their first wide exposure doing books for Vertigo.
To me, though, Berger's greatest strength was her ability to fashion perfectly matched creative teams: Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso; Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon; Neil Gaiman and Chris Bachalo; Warren Ellis and Darick Robinson; Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely... one forgets that these teams did not come fully formed. These aren't people who knew each other their whole lives, dreaming as children to one day make comics together. Someone had to pair them up; someone had to recognize the strengths that each person had, and the even greater strengths they could inspire in the other. Karen Berger's talent for that will remain unparalleled.
It's somewhat bittersweet to sit here and celebrate her accomplishments, as the future of the imprint she founded becomes the elephant in the room that everyone is now making assumptions about but no one is openly discussing. Gaiman still has his 'Before Sandman' project with JH Williams III, Scott Snyder maintains his hiatus from American Vampire is a temporary one. But the wholesale absorption of characters into the New 52 has a very 'clearance rack at a fire sale,' feel to it. It's not unreasonable to think that, without Berger's singularity of vision, Vertigo may not be long for the new world.
And that's a terrible shame. For as much as 'Vertigo book,' has sometimes run the risk of becoming a parody or punchline over the years, in the glut of garbage that was pretty well universally spewing out the Big Two for most of the 90s, Vertigo was an oasis in paradise, a place where some of the best creators to ever touch the medium were given the freedom to tell stories they wanted to tell, away from the concerns of movie tie-ins or action figure licensing.
When I visit home in a few weeks, I'll take some time, as I always do, to scurry into my parents' crawlspace to the half a dozen longboxes tucked in a rear corner. I'll run my hands over the tightly bagged edges, peruse what I own and not think about the money I spent. So many of the books in my collection, and certainly the ones I value most, are Vertigo books. The stories Karen Berger helped bring to my life are the ones that I've never forgotten, the ones that wormed their way into the fibers of my being. They're the reason I'm still here, the reason I still pay attention, the reason I'll always believe in this artform, even as corporate comics continue to shit themselves with 'crossover' after 'event.' If Berger never returns to the world of comics, she leaves it as a titan of the industry, and all that's left is to ensure she gets the ovation she deserves.