Monday, December 3, 2012

I Love Comics Because of Karen Berger

When I was roughly 13 years old I read Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman. While I had read some comics before, they hadn't quite gelled as a medium for me. I'd tried Catwoman and Wonder Woman, X-Men and Spawn, Lone Wolf & Cub, The Hobbit, and Samurai Cat. I liked many of them but didn't quite connect the way I felt I should.

Reading that first Death mini-series by Vertigo was like coming home. The character, the story, the philosophy...it hooked me completely and I became obsessed with Vertigo the imprint. I also made a point of knowing who was responsible for it, and was immediately thrilled to find it was a woman, Karen Berger. This was all in the 90's, in the hey-day, and it meant a lot to 13 year old me to see a woman accomplish so much.

When I was a Junior in college I decided that although I loved art and wanted nothing more than to be a working artist, it wasn't exactly realistic to hang all my hopes on that. Freelancing is tough and even if you were lucky enough to be hired, there was no guarantee it would sustain you. I was curious about the editorial side of comics, so I marched into the internship office and asked if they would find out if Vertigo was looking for any. They asked me if I would take a general DC internship as backup. I said no, it was Vertigo or nothing.

About a week later I was called into the office and they said I had an interview. This was in 2000 or so, before I turned 21. I was really excited and dressed "up" so I wouldn't look like the schlubby art student I actually was. I took the elevator to the 7th floor and waited in reception, where there was a life-size Superman sitting and reading a newspaper, and a huge mural of a collapses Metropolis.

I was expecting to meet maybe an Assistant Editor or whoever I would potentially be working for directly. Instead, Karen herself met me in reception. At first, I didn't realize who she was. She was very friendly, a little flustered because they were doing some office moving around stuff, and they were perpetually under-staffed. Vertigo has always put out a kind of insane amount of books for the number of editors, so they were always happy to have help.

As Karen led me back to the actual office, I realized I was chatting happily with the woman who had actually MADE Vertigo. Who had edited The Sandman and Swamp Thing. She'd been casually asking me about the books I read, what titles were my favorites, and what had made me want to intern there specifically, because apparently at the time it was rare for people to request to work there. I was shocked, who WOULDN'T want to work for Vertigo?? So I told her what I was in school for, how much their titles meant to me, especially Death, and before long I was hired to work two days a week in the afternoons.

I learned a LOT in those first 6 months and apparently was helpful enough that I was allowed to intern for an additional 6 months after that. They even threw me a 21st birthday party. I learned how to balloon pages, edit scripts, and see the original art come in on so many titles before digital became the norm. I got to work on Transmetropolitan and Preacher. Some of my balloons are in the last issue! I worked on all kinds of books and did a lot of the usual intern stuff: making copies, putting together dummy books, making phone calls, etc. Karen was always very encouraging and checked in with me, made sure I was getting something out of it. I was even consulted on the early Hot Topic Sandman stuff, and was given a Death dress when I left by Shelly Bond (who would become my boss over a year later).

When I left, I knew a lot more about comics as an art form as well as the reality of publishing them. It's a complex industry we work in and Vertigo has always had an interesting challenge being technically part of DC, but quite different in terms of structure and audience. I had an enormous amount of respect for the editors there, and Karen in particular, who was always busy and slightly mysterious to me, but also kind and soft-spoken and thoughtful. I felt very lucky to have had the experience and stayed in touch after I left. When I graduated I stopped by the office and gave them my resume, expecting absolutely nothing to come of it.

Which is why I was floored to get a call a scant few months later asking if I'd come in to interview to be Shelly's Assistant Editor. I had only graduated a little while before and was really nervous. I figured, well, do your best. I could write a whole other post on Shelly's impact in my life, but I'll save that for another time. This is about Karen and what she did when she made Vertigo, at least for me.

Somehow, and I'm still not sure how, I got hired. Generally Assistant Editors are quite a few years older than I was when they get hired, with more actual work experience. However, being an intern helped, especially because I had spent my time learning, not pitching (apparently other former interns had done that, so do yourself a favor and LEARN when you intern, they remember it when you don't) or trying to convince anyone to hire me. That attitude was part of it, and it didn't hurt that I was already familiar with how they worked and what they needed.

I worked at Vertigo for the next 4 years. I learned so much from Shelly and Karen that I can't really put it into words, all the ways they influenced my personal philosophies as an editor. I remember how Karen would look at books for final sign off and inevitably catch things you couldn't believe you'd missed. Like, immediately. She's that good.

Of the many things I noticed about Karen Berger, the high level of respect and esteem in which the other editors and creators held her was the most obvious. People -liked- working with her. They respected her opinions even when they disagreed, and she was a huge reason why people wanted to work there. Creators felt understood and encouraged, while also challenged and held to an extremely  high writing standard. Her story notes were always simple and insightful, asking questions, never criticizing, but not letting things slide either. She made sure the story worked and helped the creator tell it, without trying to write it for them or push an agenda. She clearly understood how to be a story collaborator and agent, without ever taking anything away from the writer or artist responsible for its creation.

Although I didn't work with Karen directly most of the time, she would encourage my writing and ask my opinion on pitches from time to time. She was always very fair in her reviews of my work and seemed to really believe I had the ability to be a good editor in my own right. It meant a lot. Before working at Vertigo I had somewhat taken my writing abilities for granted, even though I loved to do it.  During my tenure there I was encouraged to do interviews, press releases, and copy a great deal, and learned a lot about what worked and what didn't.

When I left, Karen was incredibly sweet and kind, wishing me well and thanking me for the work I'd done and re-emphasizing that she felt I was already a good editor and shouldn't stop working with stories. She didn't have to, but I really appreciated it. Later, I would see her at conventions and she would always take some time to ask how I was doing and catch up a little. Considering how busy she was/is, taking even a minute to say hi was incredibly gracious. At this last SDCC I ran into her at the Hyatt and we hugged, chatting for awhile and discussed my current writing. She said she was proud of me and knew when I left Vertigo I would go on to do more of my own work. I got quite a bit emotional. You don't often get a personal hero telling you they're proud of you every day.

It's a testament to the contribution to this industry that Karen stepping down from Vertigo was trending on Twitter today, and the absolute outpouring of support and well-wishes I saw all over my feed. The amount of creators Karen got into this industry has shaped it into what it is today, and Vertigo has contributed stories, worlds, and voices, that continue to be the benchmark of quality, and the works many of the top creators in comics cite as direct influences on their work and introduction to comics. Not to mention an aesthetic point of view distinct and unique from anything else.

I have absolutely no doubt that Karen will go on to do other amazing things, and she'll have people who want to work with her in whatever capacity when she does. But even if Vertigo were all she contributed to comics, what an incredible legacy. How many people can say they helped shape comics and changed the way they were viewed both within the industry itself and in the culture at large? How many people can say they challenged the medium to do more and be more, and created a lasting body of work that shows a breadth and depth of what this art form is capable of?

To that, all I can really say is: thank you, Karen Berger. Many of us wouldn't be here without you or Vertigo, and the industry owes you an internal debt of gratitude. I know I do. Thank you.


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