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#602144 - 05/30/13 10:25 AM Dan DiDio: Vertigo was "myopic" approach to comics
Lawson Offline
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The New York Times profiles departing Vertigo editor Karen Berger, and assorted industry folks, including Dan DiDio, discuss the imprint's future.


Comics’ Mother of ‘the Weird Stuff’ Is Moving On

The New York Times - May 29, 2013

For Karen Berger, a day at the office used to mean happily invading other people’s dreams and bringing them to life. As the executive editor of the Vertigo imprint at DC Comics, she oversaw illustrated tales of fantasy, speculative fiction and outcast characters who did not fit into the publisher’s mainstream lineup of costumed adventurers.

“It’s the weird stuff,” Ms. Berger said recently. “The stuff that makes you different.”

But these days, simply visiting DC’s Midtown Manhattan offices is a weird experience for Ms. Berger, who helped start hit series like “Fables” and “Y: The Last Man,” and the careers of writers like Neil Gaiman, the author of “Sandman,” and Grant Morrison, who has written titles including “The Invisibles.”

In December, Ms. Berger announced plans to leave the company where she worked for more than 30 years. She left her full-time position in March but continues to consult on a few coming Vertigo projects. Shelly Bond, the DC and Vertigo veteran, succeeded her as the imprint’s executive editor.

In its 20 years of operation, Vertigo has been a brand name fervently embraced by readers who were interested in imaginative graphic storytelling but who did not necessarily care for the familiar fisticuffs of characters like Superman and Batman.

For the roster of artists she leaves behind, Ms. Berger’s exit raises questions about the future of Vertigo and where its renegade spirit fits into an industry and a company that seem increasingly focused on superhero characters who can be spun off into movies and TV shows.

“It’s really hard to tell at this stage,” said Mr. Gaiman, a best-selling novelist and fiction writer who was scouted by Ms. Berger in the 1980s. “That was DC Comics, now we have DC Entertainment. It is a different beast, being run by different people.”

Sitting in a DC conference room a few days ago and surrounded by shelves of Vertigo titles that she published, Ms. Berger, a soft-spoken woman of 55, said she quit to pursue new challenges. “It’s time to ply my storytelling skills elsewhere,” she said.

When Ms. Berger joined DC straight out of Brooklyn College in 1979, she was simply “another English major looking for a job” and admittedly no fan of superheroes. “I just fell into the company, fell into the business and fell in love with comics,” she said.

Inspired by the publisher’s more offbeat anthology series, like “House of Mystery” and “Weird War Tales,” Ms. Berger cultivated stories that were sometimes more human and sometimes decidedly not of this earth.

After becoming the editor of the “Watchmen” author Alan Moore, she gathered a lineup of young British writers who were eager to break into American comics and who found Ms. Berger receptive to their ideas.

“She was our generation, and not only that, she was offering us what we wanted,” said Mr. Morrison, who gave new lives, full of angst and existential uncertainty, to discarded DC characters like Animal Man and the Doom Patrol. “It was a perfect storm for a bunch of creative punks from Britain who were suddenly being taken very seriously.”

When the Vertigo imprint was introduced in 1993, it was a way for writers and illustrators to retain ownership of their work and be free of the restraints that governed superhero stories. (Told by a DC editor that the company’s characters did not engage in masturbation, Mr. Gaiman said he replied, “That’s probably why they dress up in funny costumes and hit each other all the time.”)

Under Ms. Berger, Vertigo flourished with hardcover and paperback collections of its monthly comics series, at a time when DC was only infrequently anthologizing its mainstream superhero titles, and she became a magnet for younger talent.

G. Willow Wilson, the author of the Vertigo graphic novel “Cairo” and the series “Air,” said she sought out Ms. Berger as an editor after seeing her name on favorite comics by writers like Mr. Gaiman, Mr. Morrison and Peter Milligan.

“As a young female writer in a very male-dominated industry,” Ms. Wilson said, “Karen was a such a wonderful role model, because she’d done it all.”

But as DC has moved more aggressively to establish its characters as exploitable properties for its parent company, Time Warner, it has shifted some of its Vertigo characters back to its central DC universe. Vertigo contributors say they have seen changes in the kinds of comics being published — less gothic fantasy, more urban dystopia — and believe that DC’s hands-off approach to the imprint has come to an end.

At Vertigo, “it was understood that not all of the titles would make money,” Ms. Wilson said. “This was just a place to experiment.”

Now, she wondered, “is there going to be pressure to cull the interesting, innovative titles” in favor of “more popular but maybe less-innovative titles?”

Ms. Berger said she noted changes in DC’s priorities in recent years. “I’ve found that they’re really more focused on the company-owned characters,” she said. DC and its Disney-owned rival, Marvel, “are superhero companies owned by movie studios.”

Dan DiDio, the co-publisher of DC Comics, said there was “some truth” to these feelings of a shifting landscape, which he said were industrywide. For comics published by Vertigo and by DC, he said: “There’s not a challenge to be more profitable out of the gate. But there is a challenge to be more accepted out of the gate.”

Mr. DiDio said it would be “myopic” to believe “that servicing a very small slice of our audience is the way to go ahead.”

“That’s not what we’re in the business for,” he added. “We have to shoot for the stars with whatever we’re doing. Because what we’re trying to do is reach the biggest audience and be as successful as possible.”

Comic sales have fallen off substantially, Mr. Morrison said, and the qualities that defined Vertigo’s titles have become widely imitated. They have “bled into the mainstream in such a way that you almost didn’t need it anymore.”

Mr. Morrison said he could still remember when his Vertigo series “Sebastian O,” about an assassin in Victorian-era England, sold about 90,000 copies of its first issue in 1993 — a modest quantity that would make it a Top 10 best seller in 2013. (DC said it doesn’t provide sales figures.)

“Everybody learned from Vertigo,” he said. “Everybody copied the tricks that worked, took the cool stuff, left behind what they didn’t like, and turned it into a sellable product.”

Even in her own household, Ms. Berger said, would-be target readers like her sons, Zack, 22, and Alex, 17, were still figuring out their feelings about whether or not comic books are cool, though she said Zack was more positively inclined than Alex.

“There’s only certain ones he likes,” she said. “They happen to be Vertigo books. He’s got good taste, what can I tell you?”

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#602145 - 05/30/13 10:36 AM Re: Dan DiDio: Vertigo was "myopic" approach to comics [Re: Lawson]
Lawson Offline
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It's worth noting that, however unimpressive DiDio may find Vertigo to be commercially, its book collections typically sell well -- especially outside the direct market, in places like Amazon and retail bookstores.

DC has earned a fair amount of money over the years on book collections of SANDMAN, PREACHER, DOOM PATROL, HELLBLAZER, Y: THE LAST MAN, FABLES, 100 BULLETS, SCALPED, DMZ and the like.

Even in the direct market, DC's top-selling trade of April 2013 wasn't nuBatman or nuJLA, it was Vertigo's PUNK ROCK JESUS, retailing at $17 a pop.

By comparison, its superhero titles sell somewhat better on a monthly basis -- pushing 30,000 units on average -- but there is not much demand for them 32 days later. And as far as the publishing arm goes, anyway, that is not a growth sector.

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#602146 - 05/30/13 11:19 AM Re: Dan DiDio: Vertigo was "myopic" approach to comics [Re: Lawson]
Ceci n'est pas une chaussette Offline
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Originally Posted By: Lawson
over the years


That's the nut of it. I remember a few years back, John Byrne (why not, let's bring Byrne into it) made a stink about the fact that Blood of the Demon got canceled, even though it sold more copies than Y: The Last Man, which was in no danger of cancellation.

There were several reasons the comparison was bad, but one of them was: although Y: The Last Man only sold something like 19,000 copies per issue, the first TPB also sold about 19,000 copies. And the second printing of the first TPB also sold about as many copies. As that second printing was being released, the first printing of the second TPB sold that many copies, and so on, up through ten volumes in multiple printings. Go into a bookstore now, five years after the last issue came out, and those Y: The Last Man TPBs are still on the shelves.

tl;dr: judging the sales of a Vertigo title by how many copies the individual issues sold in comic stores is dumb.

Of course, that's unrelated to the freakin' black-is-white-and-night-is-day comment from DiDio. Yes Dan, servicing a very small slice of your potential audience with a narrow focus is f'ing insanity. So you're going to... only publish superhero comics?

Yeah. Yeah you are.
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#602147 - 05/30/13 11:29 AM Re: Dan DiDio: Vertigo was "myopic" approach to comics [Re: Ceci n'est pas une chaussette]
Ceci n'est pas une chaussette Offline
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That being said.

Quote:
Now, she wondered, "is there going to be pressure to cull the interesting, innovative titles" in favor of "more popular but maybe less-innovative titles?"


It's been quite some number of years since Vertigo was especially innovative. For the most part, their releases aren't wildly different in form or tone from standard superhero fare. I hadn't heard of Punk Rock Jesus before this thread, but a Google image search isn't showing me anything that would be out of place in an issue of The Punisher.

I have no idea what the level of quality on the writing is; might be good, might be dumb. But visually, and in the general tone of storytelling, I'm not seeing a crapload of innovation there.
_________________________
"When one says 'Africa,' it refers to Africa in the Euro-colonized sense, not the damn bush country or whatever."
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#602148 - 05/30/13 11:34 AM Re: Dan DiDio: Vertigo was "myopic" approach to comics [Re: Ceci n'est pas une chaussette]
Lawson Offline
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Registered: 11/11/02
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Just for fun, let's see how PHANTOM STRANGER -- the DC superhero title that DiDio himself writes -- is shooting for the stars and capturing a large audience.

01/2013: Phantom Stranger #4 -- 19,903 (-14.9%)
02/2013: Phantom Stranger #5 -- 18,032 (- 9.4%)
03/2013: Phantom Stranger #6 -- 17,375 (- 3.6%)

Huh!

Well, I'm sure that ten years down the road, those PHANTOM STRANGER trades written by DiDio will sell at least as well as those SANDMAN and FABLES trades.

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#602149 - 05/30/13 11:40 AM Re: Dan DiDio: Vertigo was "myopic" approach to comics [Re: Lawson]
Ceci n'est pas une chaussette Offline
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Ha, yeah. That was the other reason the Blood of the Demon/Y: The Last Man comparison stunk. Yes, at the time of cancellation, BotD was selling (these numbers are out of my ass, it's been years, but let's say) something like 24,000 copies, as compared to YtLM's 19,000.

The difference was, BotD started at (let's say) 38,000 copies for the first issue. And the second dropped to 36,000. And the third to 34,000. And so on, lower and lower with each issue. By comparison, YtLM started at 19,000 in the first issue, and stayed at or above that line right through issue 60. Future issues of BotD were clearly a bad investment, while future issues of YtLM were clearly a solid one.

Phantom Stranger seems to be on the same fun arc.
_________________________
"When one says 'Africa,' it refers to Africa in the Euro-colonized sense, not the damn bush country or whatever."
- Ed Gauthier, DCP

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#602150 - 05/30/13 11:42 AM Re: Dan DiDio: Vertigo was "myopic" approach to comics [Re: Ceci n'est pas une chaussette]
Lawson Offline
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Originally Posted By: Ceci n'est pas une chaussette
It's been quite some number of years since Vertigo was especially innovative.


When I canceled my pull-list a few years ago, the Vertigo titles got dropped, too. So I'm out of date.

I remember enjoying a lot of Vertigo stuff through the 1990s and early 2000s, including, toward the end of my weekly comics shop visits, Y: THE LAST MAN and SCALPED. I bought 100 BULLETS in trade and liked the artwork. The overall plot arc left me scratching my head when delivered in near-annual installments.

At some point around the mid-2000s, I came to associate new Vertigo titles with having lovely covers and chicken-scratch interior art. I'm sure that's not entirely fair, but there you are.

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#602151 - 05/30/13 11:48 AM Re: Dan DiDio: Vertigo was "myopic" approach to comics [Re: Lawson]
Ceci n'est pas une chaussette Offline
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Y: The Last Man was probably the last Vertigo title I enjoyed. And it was frustrating. I felt like it was pretty good, with a nugget of great in there, which made me annoyed that it wasn't great. I adored Transmetropolitan. I loved The Invisibles until Morrison panicked and made a sprint for the end too early. I'll never, for the life of me, understand the appeal of Preacher.

Early stuff though, certainly. Swamp Thing, Sandman, Doom Patrol, all good stuff. I sometimes feel like Vertigo's best years were before the Vertigo imprint started getting stamped on covers.
_________________________
"When one says 'Africa,' it refers to Africa in the Euro-colonized sense, not the damn bush country or whatever."
- Ed Gauthier, DCP

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#602152 - 05/30/13 12:06 PM Re: Dan DiDio: Vertigo was "myopic" approach to comics [Re: Ceci n'est pas une chaussette]
Lawson Offline
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Registered: 11/11/02
Posts: 11978
Loc: Lexington, Ky.
Originally Posted By: Ceci n'est pas une chaussette
Early stuff though, certainly. Swamp Thing, Sandman, Doom Patrol, all good stuff. I sometimes feel like Vertigo's best years were before the Vertigo imprint started getting stamped on covers.


There's something to that.

DC published some great comics in the 1980s and early 1990s, some of which got the Vertigo label once the imprint launched. DC seemed more willing to take risks and publish intelligent stories that didn't involve Superman punching giant robots. And by and large, it paid off for DC in the long run, creatively and commercially.

It's interesting in the Times article to see Grant Morrison talk about his experimental SEBASTIAN O selling around 90,000 copies in the late 1980s, making it a "meh" modest success. The Times notes that any comic selling 90,000 today would be in the Top Ten.

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#602153 - 05/30/13 12:13 PM Re: Dan DiDio: Vertigo was "myopic" approach to comics [Re: Lawson]
Allen Montgomery Offline
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Originally Posted By: Lawson
At some point around the mid-2000s, I came to associate new Vertigo titles with having lovely covers and chicken-scratch interior art.

When I worked in a comic shop in the late 90's, that was the problem I was having. Because of our cross-section of products, we got a lot of people in who didn't read comics but were interested in maybe starting if they could find something interesting (i.e. not superheroes). They would inevitably gravitate towards the Vertigo books... something like Fables, pick a copy off the shelf, open the cover and... well, that was the end of that.
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