Friday, February 2, 2018

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, VERTIGO!

Way back in the Before Time, my friend Karen Berger was just out of college, clutching a newly-minted journalism degree, and looking for a job.  One day while I was up at DC (I was still fairly new to the business, just getting my feet wet writing stories for the horror and superhero anthology books), Paul Levitz, the man who bought my first comic book script, mentioned that he was looking for an assistant.  I told him about my smart, talented friend, he asked me to send her up for an interview and the rest is, quite literally, comic book history.
I can take credit for opening the door for KB, but it was her own brilliant creative instincts that made her one of the best editors in the business and, eventually, the architect of the ground-breaking Vertigo line of comics, which debuted in January 1993—twenty-five years ago this month.  (Okay, I'm off by a couple of days!)  I was happy to be part of that launch with the graphic novel Mercy, illustrated by the great Paul Johnson.  (Mercy came out recently in a new edition, from Dover Books, with lots of great extras. If you're interested, you can order it right here.)
So here we are an alarmingly-fast quarter century later and Karen is launching a new line—Berger Books—at Dark Horse.  Looking back, I wish Vertigo a very happy anniversary and, looking ahead, I wish Karen all the luck in the world with the new line.  Here's to more historic success!

34 comments:

  1. I loved the Vertigo line...still do. They were so completely different from anything on the market at that time. I've heard you mention how completely different and fresh and new Marvel was once Stan/Jack kicked off Fantastic Four. I feel the same way about Vertigo. The best compliment I can give them is that their stories still hold up today. I've been re-reading Sandman (for the first time in numerical order) and it's still incredible.

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    1. Yes, the Vertigo line was a breath of fresh air and I'm proud to have been a part of those early years with MERCY, THE LAST ONE, FAREWELL MOONSHADOW and SEEKERS INTO THE MYSTERY. Great times.

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  2. The things that getting turned down for a date by Captain America lead you to.

    I really hope that she can save Dark Horse, because it is on life support. Losing Star Wars hurt them bad, and the biggest creator they have is Mignola. Mignola is great, but he also concluded the story he has been telling for over 20 years. Not a lot of output from him, at least comparatively.

    And Vertigo lost its soul when she left. That is not to say it isn't putting out quality material from time to time, only that it isn't the same feel.

    The best selling book is Astro City, a comic I have loved for longer than it has been at Vertigo. It is great... but it isn't a Vertigo title.

    It is funny how you can still catch that flavor here and there with some indie books clearly inspired by it, ot in the case of one recent Image book inspired by it or trying to be it. I can't tell yet.

    It was fitting that the last issue of Hellblazer came out the month she left. It could have been wrong to have one of the original Vertigo titles edited by someone else (though I do believe Shelly Bond did the actual honors, but I am counting it).

    And I like to think that when you eventually did write John Constantine you contacted her about how to do it right and she would send back piles of notes that said "try again Timmy, John CAN NOT stop being a bastard." I assume she called you Timmy.

    I do have a question about her, since you a re one of her friends. Her current book is "Hungry Ghosts," which centers around Japanese cooks. In her last year Vertigo put out a comic Called Jiro (maybe a few extra words), about a Japanese chef.

    Seriously, is she really into Japanese food or what? I mean I enjoy sushi and Ika tempura as much as the next guy, and don't get me started on baby octopus in plum sauce and the virtues of river eel and shabu shabu... forget about it.

    I just never would think to put out comics on the subject. Is there like a reason for it, or is it just a weird coincidence?

    Also, given that this month will have three comics with Swamp Thing, I think DC may want to do a revival soon. You can kind of feel it.

    Do us comic readers a favor, and try to get a head of this and put int a pitch.

    If anyone can marry the classic Wein feel (by the way one that comes out this week may have his last S.T. story ever) and the Vertigo vibe, its you.

    Also, I should mention, as Moore's original editor on Swap Thing, Wein may deserve a small bit of credit for the creation of Vertigo. Not to take credit from Ms. Berger, more of a grandfather roll.


    Jack

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    1. Timny?!

      JIRO and HUNGRY GHOSTS are both written by Anthony Bourdain, so there's the link.

      I almost wrote the SWAMP THING monthly twice. First time was in the 80s, when Marty Pasko—who had revived the title—left the book. I'd been at Marvel but was pondering returning to DC. They offered me two books: JUSTICE LEAGUE and SWAMP THING. (I was also going to do MOONSHADOW with Karen editing.) I decided to stay at Marvel and do MOONSHADOW there and, looking for my replacement, Len offered ST to a British writer named Alan Moore. And the rest is history! (I would have really screwed up the timeline if I'd taken the assignment.)

      The second time I was offered the book was right after Rick Veitch's run. I had a particular story I wanted to tell—it involved Abby's death, but Karen didn't want to kill off the character. So I passed on the book (and, looking back, it was an idiot move. I should have just come up with another story). So I never got to write Swampy till I took over JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK. But that's not the same as writing his monthly.

      And, yes, Len absolutely get some credit for opening the doo to the British invasion that helped fuel Vertigo. He was also a mentor to Karen, just as he was to me. His influence and impact are still being felt. I miss him.

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    2. Let's try that mangled sentence again: And, yes, Len absolutely gets some credit for opening the door to the British invasion that helped fuel Vertigo.

      Where's an editor when you need one. Hey...Karen!

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    3. "Where's an editor when you need one. Hey...Karen!" J.M. Dematteis

      "DAMMIT, TIMMY! I will not edit your posts, unless you come to Dark Horse." -Karen Berger

      You know, if you did Moonshadow with DC at the time, you probably wouldn't own the rights now.

      That is fascinating that you turned down Swamp Thing TWICE.

      I doubt that you would have been MORE inspired by Gerber's Man-Thing than Alan was. GO back and read it, it was, I don't care if he ever admits it or not, it was. Especially the first 50.

      Of course, then the world never would have gotten John Constantine.

      What were you doing in 1989... other than JLI. I feel like it was something. Well, Dr. Fate. That was kind of Vertigo-ish. It is certainly remembered fondly by the Vertigo lovers I know.

      Was Berger editor on that? If so, it should count along with Swamp Thing, Sandman, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and Hellblazer as the eventually Vertigo books.

      And of course, X-MEn in the 80s dealt with a lot of mature themes, and stressed much of the character growth concepts Vertigo would be known for. Marvel Graphic Novels (Like X-Men God Loves Man Kills and the Death of Captain Marvel)always seemed to carry bit more weight at times.

      Len of course guided Claremont's hand early on. And Claremont himself was inspired by much of the smarter 70s works. Wolfman's Dracula, Starlin, Gerber's Man-thing and Howard the Duck. Much of which seemed to pair with Vertigo fairly well.

      Al lot of that drew inspiration and courage from Lee's Silver Surfer run. Which was an evolution of much of his work previously in teh Decade.

      Then of course there was Eisner, graphic novels and the Spirit, and E.C. comics. If you never read Shock Suspenstories do it. They really get into themes of racism, antisemitism, drug addiction, the issue of nature and nurture in terms of crime, and IMPACT even talked about the Holocaust in the 1950s. All of which was discussed bluntly and without allegory.

      Then of course there is Creepy and Eerie. That had a similar logic.

      So, Karen Berger is the mother of Vertigo, no question, but maybe it has a long lineage of people who saw comics as a potential art form.

      Of course, non of that gets you the job on Swamp Thing now, does it?

      If you don't want to writer Swampo Thing, or have too much on your plate, that's cool. Its your life.

      However, if any part of you does, I honestly think DC is gearing up to reintroduce him in some major way. And I would say to at least submit a proposal.

      I would be very interested to read that book.

      By the way, did Wein ever comment on your JLDark Swamp Thing, or Ms. Berger on your Constantine?

      Of course, you still haven't answered if BErger does really enjoy Japanese food to a strange degree?

      Perhaps as a lashing out at all the KAren Burger jokes she must have gotten. She met her husband or cat, or whatever at a Japanese restaurant.

      Just seems like a weird point for Berger's Books. Not even bad, just weird subject matter.

      Now for the mandatory music offering:


      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTjfl0yhyRk

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cHvdKHgpXg

      I hope I chose well, you enjoy, and it salves the wounds of my words.


      Jack

      Jack

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    4. Yes, Karen was the editor on the first six issues of FATE. Then Art Young (Karen's right-hand man and a great editor in his own right) took over. And, yes, FATE was definitely a kind of pre-Vertigo title.

      And speaking of things that came the before, and cleared the way, for Vertigo, let's not forget Marvel's Epic line, which was a real ground-breaker at the time. Working with Archie Goodwin and Company on MOONSHADOW and BLOOD was a transformative experience for me. MOON was very much a Vertigo-before-Vertigo title. And, of course, Epic had lots of other great titles.

      No, Len/Karen never commented on my JLDark work.

      Thanks for the music!

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    5. I always felt that Goodwin had a lighter touch than Berger. Vertigo books usually felt like Vertigo. You knew it without even knowing it.

      Epic felt more like it was whatever the comic was.

      Also, Epic didn't try to make connections to the Marvel Universe like DC and Vertigo did. Despite being in an imprint, John Constantine (somehow), Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, Animal man, and Sandman, all remained cannon in the DC universe.

      Vertigo also used old titles to create new ones (Weird Sports, Weird War Tales, etc.).

      Silver Surfer: Parable, Wolverine/Havok, and Elektra: Assassian were oddities. The X-book firmly in continuity, and The Surfer firmly out, but Elektra was and is in a nebulous spot.

      I think that made it feel less cohesive, and in many ways less like a force to be reconnected with. Less like something to take notice of. Even if the books deserved it.

      Of course, they were probably created for the same reason, to keep the talent from heading elsewhere. I don't think that ws Ms. Berger's thought process, but probably what actually led to the creation of it as an actual imprint. Or at least allowing some creator ownership.

      January 1993 was about a year and a half after the Marvel artists created Image, and made a fortune. It is also when some established writers came to form the Ultraverse... which had proved surprisingly successful.

      Also, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was still an economic power house.

      There was probably some fear these creators which offered offering different may have a similar idea otherwise... or even some that only had the potential.

      Of course... when Epic was founded that was not a problem. Indie comics were not much of a guarantee of any success. What did happen was that in the late 70s, everyone but Starlin and Claremont who had been firm Marvel talent (okay, and MAntlo) for a decade, migrated to DC.

      Epic was likely just as much about offering their talent something DC couldn't as competing in the indie market.

      Of course, one interesting parallel. When Berger left, Vertigo was more or less over. When Goodwin left, Epic had its days effectively numbered.

      I'm sue that to the creative talent of both companies, it seems incredibly similar on some level. Indie freedom, and ownership, but mainstream distrubution power.

      To many readers, the similarities are certainly there, and it can surely be seen as one forbearing the other. However, it also seems miles apart at times.

      Interestingly, I believe Epic folded about the same time Vertigo came to be.

      And then there were Marvel's attempts to create their own Vertigo: Marvel select, Marvel Edge (which was weirdly where Daredevil, Hulk, and Ghost Rider were planted), Strange Tales, MAX (which became the anti-Vertigo), Epic resurrected, and Icon.

      None of them ever working, giving even more credit to Ms. Berger. Of course, Marvel Edge was only a few mini series (Typhoid by Nocenti comes to mind), and both that and Strange Tales were swimming against the tide after the crash and around the bankruptcy with new titles.

      Not really a fair when you consider Vertigo came out with already proven titles, and at a time When DC was gaining readers every week, and the industry was roaring (admittedly with the help of a soon to burst bubble).


      Jack

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    6. The Marvel Edge line really wasn't a line, it was just a group of existing Marvel titles lumped together—including Daredevil, which I was working on at the time. That was the era when Marvel had five editors-in-chief and each one was essentially tasked with turning their books into its own line. Something that was quickly undone when Bob Harras was made EIC.

      I think (and don't quote me) that one of the reasons Epic came about was because imprints like Pacifiic Comics were offering ownership, or co-ownership, in creations for the first time. Marvel stepped up to meet the challenge and Epic was the result.

      And I don't think Vertigo came about in response to anything; I think it was an outgrowth of Karen's vision and the realization that she had essentially created her own imprint already, so why not give her wings, and a budget, and set her loose.

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    7. I'm aware of what Marvel Edge was... it was the left over scraps of the Marvel Universe during the ill fated time when Marvel was divided up among families of books. Each with its own EIC, robbing Mark Gruenwald of his rightful place as Defalco's successor as was planned.

      However, I didn't mean the whole line. I meant the handful of mini series that was put out under the Marvel Edge name. All of which were either recent alumis or still working at Vertigo.

      There was also the point when Warren Ellis was brought on to Dr. Strange, and made Dr. Strange more John Constantine like... right down to the trenchcoat. Of course if I remember correctly, that was started before he showed up.

      The stories also seemed to be wel, not Vertigo like... but Vertigo inspired...ish. As you may recall, you played clean up.

      I remember looking back on the Ellis story "Earth Quake logic" after I had read it and thinking it would have made more since at Vertgo.

      I have very little doubt that there was an attempt by someone to make Marvel's premeire magic user closer to Dc's then quickly rising star.... even if it ws just Ellis himself.

      Of course, not having been in the Marvel offices, this is all conjecture... but if it isn't the way, it is one Hell of a coincidence.

      As for Epic... who knows? Even you aren't sure.

      I definitely think that it was to keep creators on board... even if it was from indies.

      The big problem with mapping it out is that Epic comics spun out of Epic Illustrated (Hey, there was an original Stan Lee Silver Surfer story in there... that is another connection, and link to my Swamp Thing is DC Surfer theory),

      Dreadstar even got its start there, with Dreadstar getting his start there (is Dreadstar Epic's Sandman?). And Starlin of course owned the story.

      And Epic Illustrated pre-dates APcific COmics by a year.

      Of course, Epic is probably more similar to Eclipse, who along with Marvel and Will Eisner put out a graphic novel in 1978. The content was also a bit similar.

      Interesting fact, They Live the movie, came from a story in Eclipse's Alien Worlds, which adapted a 50s sci-fi story.

      There was even a magazine similar to Epic Illustrated (even had Starlin work in it)

      That magazine however came out a year after Epic Illustrated.

      Now both were probably a response to Heavy Metal, who usurped the Warren lines role.

      PAcific only laster four years, but tehy and Eclipse were the biggest. I believe Eclipse started in 1982 as well with actual comics. I would have to check.

      Pacific only lasted three years, and and started publishing in 1981.

      With Dreadstar hitting shelves in 1982, well, how quickly could Marvel really respond? I don't know.

      AS I said, who the Hell Knows. I personally think that Marvel saw these companies popping up, and came up with Epic upon seeing teh potential.

      As for Vertigo. Maybe it was a response, maybe not. Again, I wasn't in the offices. I will say producing line includes three branches, creative, editorial, and publishing.

      My experience, publishers tend to be reactionary. So, while I believe Vertigo was on an editorial and creative outgrowth. However the decision to allow creators to own rights... I think THAT is something a publisher would only give up if they had to.

      You know the old joke, "it as the saddest day of my life when I found out I couldn't be a publisher, because my parents were married."

      Comics are a very... unique and odd business. When they go away a very interesting part of American business will vanish with it.


      JAck

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    8. I can say for sure that the STRANGE TALES line was definitely an attempt to do a Marvel version of Vertigo. When we started on those books, we were told to push the envelope in terms of language, sex, etc. Then, when the Folks Upstairs got wind of that they said. "Sorry. No." I believe Warren Ellis's SATANNA book was pulled as a result of that. The good news is it didn't really impact our MAN-THING book...toning those elements down actually helped our story because we had lots of guest stars from the Marvel Universe. And, of course, "adult" and cursing/nudity are far from synonymous!

      That MAN-THING series I did with the amazing Liam Sharp is a favorite of mine, despite the fact (or maybe BECAUSE of the fact) that we were essentially cancelled three times! We had big plans for that book!

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    9. "And, of course, "adult" and cursing/nudity are far from synonymous!"

      It was best described (about Vertigo no less) when I heard it described that nudity and sex were used as themes to explore or give weight, never to titillate.

      There is one writer with a history at Vertigo, I'm not going to name names, who everywhere else (and sometimes even there) would use sex and violence with complete gratuity.

      There was even a book they did for Vertigo that sold well, but was cancelled. I read (And disliked the first issue citing that a just out of high school me was even too old for it)and teh gratuitous sex and violence were there... and with little point being made.

      I believe (accurately or not) this is a result of Ms Berger wanting to retain her vision for the series and not compromising on what her proven readers expect for cheap shocks.

      The Strange Takes stuff was good, I sort of consider a few stories in Marvel Black and White, from around the same time, as companion pieces.

      It did seem to be an attempt to be a cut above. And again, with all Vertigo alums.

      speaking of Swamp Monsters...

      I picked up the Swamp Thing Winter special, with the last Len Wein story ever.

      It was good. I am bit torn about the decision to not letter it. But they included the script.

      It is heart breaking that the script reveals this was supposed to be the first issue of an ongoing series.

      The story ends on a cliffhanger, leaving it as another work by a creative masterthat will never be finished.

      The real highlight, for me anyways, was the introduction letter. It was introduces by the editor, with anecdotes about a piano Wein owned but couldn't play.

      It also talked of his natural talent for story telling.

      In my humble opinion, for any Wein fan it is worth the $8.00. The whole thing is a love letter to Mr. Wein and his impact.

      I actually feel bad for Tom King. his story was fine, but not why people bought the book

      Jack

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    10. I'll have to seek this book out. Thanks for the info, Jack!

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    11. Fortunately, there are these stores that sell only comics and get them in new. Shocking.

      Of course, I hear several comic shops under ordered, not expecting people would be as interested.

      Then again, you are working for DC, so they may even be able to help you get your hands on one.

      If you do buy it, you will own a book who this image in it...

      http://www.zonanegativa.com/imagenes/2018/01/Kamandi-Challenge-12-Jose-Luis-Garcia-Lopez-Len-Wein-Tribute.jpg

      If you don't mind, I do have two questions about Len Wein

      Was he a fan of monsters horror?

      Was Batman his favorite character?

      Did he ever say why he resurrected the X-Men?



      Also, I recently saw Spider-Man: Homecoming true story.


      Jack

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    12. I don't know if Len and I ever talked specifically about his love of monsters, but the SWAMP THING book was certainly a testament to it. Add in his long, celebrated run on THE HULK and I think we can safely assume he loved 'em.

      Don't know the answers to your other questions. We never spoke about it. Or, if we did, I don't recall.

      I called a friend at DC and he's sending me a copy of the SWAMP THING book, so thanks for tipping me off about that!

      And what a great illustration of Len with his two most celebrated creations!

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  3. JM, one of the things that I loved (and still love) about your Vertigo books is that they were largely positive ones. But not in a Hallmark card way; there was no stinting on the darkness & despair that life can so often bring, no cheap grace. Growing through & incorporating that darkness & despair is hard work. But it's worthwhile work. That's something that was always clear in your writing: and without ever being preachy or didactic, either. It seems to me that these days, when so many comics offer an adolescent "edginess" & unearned cynicism as a fulfilling philosophy, your insistence on beauty, compassion, understanding is genuinely edgy in its way, genuinely challenging to the reader. God knows we could use more of that in these times!

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    1. "Growing through & incorporating that darkness & despair," crawling through the tunnel of our own pain and confusion and finding light, finding meaning and a life of value, on the other side, is is the journey I've attempted to communicate through my work, Tim. That those attempts have resonated with you means the world to me and I offer my sincere, profound thanks.

      And thanks for checking in. Always happy to hear from you.

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    2. I'm familiar with most of the concepts, but I've never read a lot of DC's VERTIGO line.

      But one of my favorite DC comics runs ever is the Ostrander/Mandrake SPECTRE, which I guess technically isn't branded as VERTIGO, but it certainly seems to fit thematically with that label.

      I have a real soft spot for 'mystic' corners of mainstream comics universes when they're able to mostly do their own thing but also occasionally pull from the larger tradition for an outsider's perspective. Superman and the JSA guest-starred in the SPECTRE run, but their appearances fit the story and never took away from the sense that the mystic is a world within worlds.

      It's tricky to find the balance, suffice to say you want guys like Captain America and Batman to always be uncomfortable around Dr. Strange and Swamp Thing. That's just my opinion, of course, but I never like it when Dr. Strange shows up and the 'grounded' characters are casual about it. But I think it works well that he CAN show up if the story demands it.

      On another note, I'm still (foolishly?) holding out hope that DC will collect your SPECTRE run in TPB and digital. It fell at an odd place when I wasn't reading many comics. I'm not sure they're in a hurry, though, since even though it was well-received it falls during an era that doesn't get a lot of mention now that Hal's back as Green Lantern.

      --David

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    3. I, too, would love to see that SPECTRE run collected, David. It's a group of stories I'm very proud of. In a way, it was a stealth continuation of my DOCTOR FATE run. Thematically, at least.

      I've always said that the problem we had was that a lot of folks wanted Hal Jordan back as GL and a whole other group wanted the Spectre to be the classic "turns into a cheese grater and shreds the bad guy" version. We offered something different. At one point I suggested making Hal GL again and then creating two new Spectres: one a spirit of wrath, the other a spirit of redemption. (I finally got to create my spirit of redemption in JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK.)

      I remember seeing a lot of negativity about the book when it came out, but it's been very gratifying, over the years, to discover how many people took that series to heart. Because I put a lot of heart into it.

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    4. The more I read about it, the more it sounds like you wrote this series just for me! But I guess 2018 me, not early 2000s me.

      I guess I'll have to set some kind of deadline for myself, and if it's not collected by then I'll just break down and buy the print issues.

      --David

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    5. I've said this on this forum many times (and twice to you in person), but your Spectre series (the entire run actually, if you include Legends of the DC Universe) is my all-time favorite comic book run. It edges out Frank Miller's Daredevil, Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, and Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Every issue was great. I've tried reading other Spectre series', and they were never the same. The Ostrander/Mandrake series was good, but I think you guys like it more than me. The stuff before that from the Silver age was just plain silly. Nothing compares to the run you did. Sorry to gush, but I can't help myself.

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    6. Heartfelt thanks, George. That means the world to me.

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  4. By the way, whatever happened to that Puma book that was supposed to come out, with words from you, in the 90s.

    Thank you for your time


    Jack

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    1. Sal Buscema was supposed to draw it, but had to withdraw for reasons I can't recall. (I think he even drew a couple of pages, which means I plotted the first issue. If only I'd kept a copy!) Then we had another artist (I don't recall who) lined up and somehow that didn't work out.

      I suspect, at the point, I got busy with other things and editor Danny Fingeroth and I decided to just let it go.

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    2. Oh, man, a JMD/Buscema PUMA book? I am now aching for the series I never knew I wanted until this moment!

      --David

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    3. I assume it exists in a parallel universe somewhere, so all you need to do is locate that universe, travel there, buy a copy and then return home safely. Good luck! : )

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    4. Found it! But in doing so, I may have unleashed Dormammu and Umar upon our world...

      --David

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    5. That's the third time this week, David! Cut that out!

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    6. Aw, c'mon JMD. This stuff tends to work out in the end...I'm sure the Defenders will show up any minute to sort things out!

      Besides, don't you want to know how your epic BEN REILLY, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN run ends? I'd say that's worth a few ominous red skies and dark forces ascending to godhood!

      --David

      --David

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    7. Yeah, that Ben Reilly run was really a highlight of my career! Well, not MY career...but the career of another me from another universe.

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    8. Of course, I didn't foresee the dimensional overlap that would manifest in multiple post signatures...

      --David

      --David

      --David

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  5. There is one thing that people always overlook about just what Karen Berger accomplished.

    Perhaps it is only in hindsight, perhaps it was a blip. But back around the time Vertigo began, for several years it seems like comics may have gone mainstream, like animation and sci-fi (sort of) did around that time.

    There was a lot there. There was variety, there was also a new sensibility.

    Maybe it was the speculator bubble, maybe it was teh early IMAGE style taing such a hol, maybe it was the corporate raiders taking control of MArvel and not having the same guiding hand (though I think that happened earlier), but it ended.

    Ms. Berger, sort of kept that feeling alive all the time she ran Vertigo. The feeling that maybe comics could go mainstream. No, not buying comics would never be as weird as saying you don't watch TV, but maybe it could have been as normal as buying a sci-fi magazine.

    I personally doubt comics will even survive much linger, let alone become a medium that is widely accepted. But, she sort of kept that feeling alive for a long time.

    That was neat to have while we did.

    Jack

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    1. As I've noted before, people have been predicting the death of comics as long as I've been in the business...and we keep surviving. Things will continue to change, no doubt, but I think we're here for the long haul.

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