Talking with Vertigo's Karen Berger

Wed, August 26th, 2009 at 12:48pm PDT | Updated: August 26th, 2009 at 1:28pm

Comic Books
Jeffrey Renaud, Staff Writer
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A multiple Eisner Award-winner herself, Karen Berger knows what it takes to make good comic books. As the Executive Editor of Vertigo, the Mature Readers imprint of DC Comics, Berger has overseen some of the most critically acclaimed comic books of the past 15 years, including such megahits as “Y: The Last Man,” “Fables,” “The Sandman” and “100 Bullets.”

The long-serving mastermind of Vertigo not only initiated the wave of British talent unleashed on American audiences in the early nineties - including the likes of Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Peter Milligan and Grant Morrison -- but Berger has since continued to work with the industry’s top talent. Indeed, every Eisner winner for Best Writer of the past decade, except for the Marvel-exclusive Brian Michael Bendis, has produced seminal works under the Vertigo banner, including Brian K. Vaughan, Bill Willingham and Ed Brubaker.

Three new series nominated for Eisners in 2009 apparently wasn’t enough for Vertigo. The imprint has already launched a slew of new titles this summer, and another, Jeff Lemire’s “Sweet Tooth,” debuts next week for only a buck. Roll in a new crime line that saw its first two original graphic novels arrive in finer bookstores this week and Vertigo is primed to continue doing what it does best – delivering graphic content to the masses.

In this in-depth conversation with CBR News, Karen Berger discusses Vertigo’s success in 2009, the imprint’s plans for 2010, and why she believes Vertigo is delivering the best work in the industry.

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CBR: Historically, and currently with a title like “Fables,” Vertigo has always been home to some truly marquee tiles like “The Sandman,” “100 Bullets” and “Y: The Last Man.” And yet at the same time, you’re introducing new titles all the time. In fact, you had a very impressive three books up for Best New Series at this year’s Eisner Awards – “Air,” “Unknown Soldier” and “Madame Xanadu.” Is it important to have that one main hot-selling franchise? Or is the ebb and flow of new titles rising to the top completely natural? Are you always waiting for “The Next One?”

KAREN BERGER: I think we have all that right now. “Fables” is definitely our lead title in terms of its presence out there, but I’d say some of our titles do extremely well as trades, like “DMZ,” “Northlanders,” “Jack of Fables,” and “House of Mystery.” And the newer titles we have coming out this year like “Air,” “Unknown Soldier” and “Scalped” -- “Scalped” in particular, which came out a couple of years ago -- have really started cementing a strong readership base on the book side and in the collections.

The graphic novels "Filthy Rich" and "Dark Entries" from Vertigo's new crime line

“Air” and “Unknown Soldier” have also enjoyed great critical acclaim and as you mentioned before, were nominated for Eisners, so we have a great passion and interest in those books, too.

This is probably our overall strongest year that we’ve had in many, many years in terms of everything we’ve been doing on a monthly basis and with the crime line coming up. And we also have a whole bunch of original graphic novels coming up too, so it’s been an amazingly strong and fruitful time for Vertigo.

You’re heavily involved in “Air,” serving as series editor. Why do you think fans have responded to that book so well?

I think because it’s different, even for Vertigo. It appeals to women. It appeals to people who don’t traditionally read comics. It has this everyday yet surreal aspect to it. And it really doesn’t fit into any kind of genre. Again, I just think it’s just very fresh and different and accessible and the romantic angle appeals to a lot of readers. And the whole aspect of flying and Blythe’s whole hyperpract ability and where it takes her and her mysterious boyfriend Zayn, there are a whole lot of elements going on there.

On top of the three books up for Best New Series, you’re also introducing yet another new wave of titles including “Unwritten,” “Greek Street,” “Sweet Tooth” and “I, Zombie,” not to mention an entire crime line. This must be a very exciting – yet busy – time around the Vertigo offices.

Absolutely. We’ve always prided ourselves on the new creations and new visions that we’ve been able to bring to the readers, obviously through the writers and artist’s visions. It’s a great time for us and we’re getting great support from the retailers, the readers, the direct market and the book side. Vertigo has a great rep as a publisher and I think that the more and more people who read our material see that we have a real range, as well, in terms of genre and in terms of appeal. Vertigo has become very large in the 15 years since we started the imprint.

Vertigo's "Air" and "Madame Xanadu" were nominated for the Best New Series Eisner Award

Is that why you started the new crime line, to find yet another targeted audience? And will we see more such lines moving forward?

We don’t have any plans for that right now. We are increasing our original graphic novel output, just in general. We’re really upping our acquisition and publishing of original graphic novels. This year, 2009, we’ll have five original graphic novels. We had Jeff Lemire’s “The Nobody.” We have “Luna Park” by Kevin Baker, who is a best-selling novelist of historical fiction. And that’s coming out in November. And we have the “Fables” novel “Peter & Max.” So we have three original graphic novels and the two [just released] crime books, “Filthy Rich” by Brian Azzarello and “Dark Entries” by Ian Rankin.

And next year we have six crime books and, I believe, nine or 10 original graphic novels coming out in 2010. So between the crime line and the OGNs, we have close to 15, if I’m doing my math correctly [laughs], but it’s stuff that’s been in the works for a long time. The amount of time it takes to write and draw original graphic novels is considerable, so as publishers, we make sure we give the writers and artists enough time to be comfortable with having the time to get the work done.

Brian Azzarello is, of course, no stranger to Vertigo readers with his series, “100 Bullets,” but how did Ian Rankin, a best-selling crime novelist, come to write a book for Vertigo?

I believe that [editpr] Will Dennis had approached Ian Rankin because Denise Mina -- who is also a Scottish crime novelist, who did a “Hellblazer” run for us and also has a crime book coming out -- is friends with Ian and Denise told Jonathan Vankin, her editor, that Ian Rankin was a comic fan as well. And Jonathan mentioned that to Will when he was actively starting up the crime line.

Pages from "The Chill"

Ian originally came up to the office a couple of years ago and was a real “Hellblazer” fan and he was first going to write a “Hellblazer” storyline and then we realized, “Hey, we’re launching this crime line. Wouldn’t it be perfect, for all the obvious reasons if Ian’s story was made into a graphic novel?” Obviously, Ian’s profile as a novelist is huge, so he was more than happy to turn his story into a long, full-length book as opposed to a comic storyline. So that’s how that came about.

I hate to make you choose your favorite child but is there a difference in the type of excitement you get from a new project coming in from somebody you’ve worked with before and have a real history with, like Peter Milligan’s “Greek Street,” versus someone completely new to Vertigo who comes in with a really cool new concept?

It’s definitely a thrill for me personally to have a real history with Peter Milligan and Grant Morrison, in particular, both of the original Vertigo guard, so having Pete come in with “Greek Street,” which is a phenomenal, phenomenal new series, is just really wonderful on all levels. And working with Grant Morrison continually over the years – next we’ve got his newest miniseries, “Joe the Barbarian” with Sean Murphy – is really great. That’s an eight-issue miniseries coming out in January. As well, Grant has the continuing adventures of Seaguy and he’s gearing up for the last part of the trilogy with Cameron Stewart. That will probably start up in a year or so. But it’s thrilling to work with old friends again, who continue to wow me, and I think everyone out there, in terms of the stellar quality of their work.

And it’s equally exciting, but in a different way, to work with Willow Wilson or Jeff Lemire, who are relatively new to comics but are fresh voices and different perspectives. And particularly working with Willow, working with a female writer, which I haven’t done in quite some time, is great.

Pages from "The Chill"

Another project which offers fresh voices and new people for Vertigo is “Daytripper” by Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon. We announced it last year but it’s coming out this fall in December. Being able to work with them – the two Brazilian brothers who are best known for their work on “Umbrella Academy” – is terrific. And for them to write and draw a very personal work about their country- it’s fictional, but it’s got a lot of themselves in it, in terms of their culture and the way it plays in the sensibility – is also something very different for Vertigo.

Another book you have coming is “I, Zombie” from Chris Roberson and Mike Allred. You’ve worked with Allred before but Roberson is new -- although he’s pals with Bill Willingham and Matt Sturges from the Clockwork Storybook writer’s collective. What is about those guys from Austin, Texas that makes them a good fit for Vertigo?

It’s just worked out that way. New writers cross our paths all the time but those guys have a lot of talent and they have a great sense for Vertigo. And we’re thrilled to be working with each of them.

Chris Roberson is also writing a new “Fables” spin-off miniseries in “Cinderella: From Fabletown, with Love.” With that and the “Peter & Max” novel coming soon, as well, is the plan to continue rolling out additional “Fables” material beyond the two monthly books?

Bill announced at Comic-Con “The Werewolves in the Heartland” graphic novel for next year that Jim Fern is drawing. We do plan and we hope to do a “Fables” graphic novel each year. That’s something that Bill and Shelly Bond, his editor, are planning. I know Bill loves the series and is open to doing as much, I guess, side work outside of the main monthly book as his schedule permits, but we really follow his lead on that.

The "Fables" franchise continues to expand with "Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love" as Vertigo brings out new work from longtime authors like Peter Milligan's "Greek Street"

Brian K. Vaughan has announced he’s left “Lost” to pursue some new projects. Are we going to see something new from him at Vertigo in the months ahead?

We don’t have anything planned but he totally has an open door to work with us again, but there’s nothing with us that’s planned right now.

Recently, you’ve been launching a lot of new titles with a $1 first issue and you’ll be doing it again next week with Jeff Lemire’s “Sweet Tooth.” What can you tell us about this initiative? How do you measure its success? And do you plan on continuing the practice?

The cost only works for us on a monthly series and not on limited series. So far, it’s been a great vehicle for us. It’s still very new for us but we’ve received a great reaction from it.

It’s already been stated but 2009 has established a real benchmark for Vertigo. Again, you had three books nominated for Best New Series, you’ve launched a new crime line, the “Fables” story just keeps getting bigger and bigger -- how do you improve in 2010 and, specifically, are there some titles that you have some high hopes for as you prepare for next year?

I think we look at each book as creatively trying to do the best job that we can on it. And we don’t try to single out one book going forward. When you are an editor, you realize you just try your best to work with a writer and try to bring their story forward. We obviously try to reach a large audience and we want everything to be good but not everything is going to be for everybody. We do have a high quality standard for our work and the people who work with us really produce some phenomenal work. The best work in the industry.

Sweet Tooth

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TAGS:  vertigo, karen berger, sweet tooth, the chill, fables

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