Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman in the 21st century:

An interview about the newest audiences for comics - and new ways of publication for DC super-hero stories.

A German translation of this text will be published in November 2010 at the Berlin Tagesspiegel.

Comics are changing: their distribution, their audiences and the amount of attention they are getting from  casual readers. The weblog Collected Editions features some of the best-written and informative reviews for DC super-hero comics. But not for the monthly, 22-page long single issues you can buy at the comic book store - but for longer, increasingly popular collections called trade paperbacks.

"Collected Editions began in 2005, back when a trade paperback collections of your favorite series or storyline wasn't guaranteed. [...] 

Flash forward years later. Now collections of almost every comics title on the market are a sure thing, and trade paperbacks and graphic novels have become an industry of their own, with wider recognition and even their own sections in bookstores. Collected Editions remains the "wait-for-trade" headquarters, featuring weekly trade paperback and graphic novel reviews, a healthy dose of comics discussion, and the latest news on upcoming collections."

Over this summer, 'CEB', editor-in-chief of "Collected Editions", was kind enough to agree to an extensive e-mail interview about the changing face of comics: Who reads them? Who sells them? What stories do they tell?

For some of the best - and most practical - beginners' guides to modern comics, visit the blog.

For an introduction to the highlights, thrills and failures of the medium, keep on reading:

Stefan Mesch: Even five years ago, a lot of comic storylines only happened in single issues. Now, trade paperbacks are everywhere: What happened there? Why did collected stories start, and how are they on the rise?

Publishers collecting their comics in paperback or hardcover format has plenty of precedent; modern DC Comics readers saw collections in the mid-1980s of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, Alan Moore's Watchmen, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and John Byrne's Superman: The Man of Steel, among others.  In the 1960s or earlier, DC published "80-Page Giants" (either standalone, or an extra-sized issue of a series) that might include both new material and reprints of older material, so the concept of a reprint collection has almost always been around.

In the past ten years or so, however, a significant number of readers began to forego buying comics series in monthly single issue format and instead began buying them in collected format (often called "waiting for the trade").  Similarly, the comics industry started to recognize reader interest in collections as a viable reading format on its own.  Whereas before, publishers would usually just re-release a special storyline in collected format (the death of a major character, an event miniseries), now collections are inevitable -- nearly every series from every publisher released as single monthly issues also ends up as a collection.

I understand that trade paperbacks might seem like a new phenomenon to the wider public. In fact, it's just that collected editions are enjoying a new public popularity that they didn't have before.
Stefan Mesch: Does it befit the stories to be collected? Does it create a new market and specific audience? Plus: What are your personal benefits? Why do you prefer trades?

CEB: The rise of trade paperbacks both widened the audiences that comics publishers could reach, and added to the perceived legitimacy of comics in the wider public. I remember watching a number of mall bookstores (when those were still in business) expanding their "graphic novel" sections ("graphic novels" often referring to both collected comics and original, direct to hardcover or paperback long-form comics) likely because of the increased interest in trade paperbacks. There's been a general resurgence of the superhero genre in popular culture, and now someone who enjoyed movies like The Dark Knight but might not know about or feel comfortable in their local comic book store can pick up the latest Batman storyline in their neighborhood Barnes and Noble.
Trades are more comfortable for me and I imagine for many readers because the reading experience more closely resembles that of a traditional novel -- the story is complete, and the collected edition is sturdier and better able to be stored on a bookshelf than a single issue.  Lately we've also seen the release of more collections in hardcover format, which further distances the reader from any perceived impermanence of single issues.

Comics, via collected editions, have gone "mainstream."  It's not just the wide availability of trade paperbacks in bookstores, but novelists like Brad Meltzer, Stephen King, and Jodi Picoult are penning comic books -- DC Comics published the hardcover collection of Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis with two book jackets, one with more of a superhero flair and one that emphasized Meltzer's name in a way that seemed specific to bookstore readers.  The New York Times and Publishers Weekly each have separate graphic novel bestseller lists as well as graphic novel blogs or commentary; we hear about Hollywood regularly optioning comic books for potential movies. All of this speaks to a greater popularity than perhaps comics have ever seen before.

One benefit some comics stories receive by appearing in collected format is that the collected format escapes the vagaries of shipping schedules. That is, comics that come out month after month invariably face occasional delays due to some issue with the creative team or problem with production; in two extreme cases, DC Comics's five-or-six-part Superman: Last Son and Wonder Woman: Who is Wonder Woman? storylines each didn't complete until a year or more after they started because of delays. Both of these stories were collected and read rather well in collected format, and the collection reader experiences none of the frustrations that the monthly reader experienced in waiting months between chapters.

I prefer trades because they offer a longer reading experience for me than one single issue might. I have come to prefer reading one complete story from beginning to end rather than reading a number of parts of different stories in a handful of monthly issues, and then returning the next month to read another handful of parts of these disperate stories. Single issues contain advertisements that I found distracting after many years, while trades don't have advertisements; in this way I find reading single issues like reading a magazine, and reading a trade like reading a book. I can display my trades on a bookshelf in a way I couldn't display my single issues. Also, in the beginning the per-issue cost of a trade paperback was cheaper than the cost of buying single issues, though that's not always the case any more.

Stefan Mesch: What happened that made you realize that this was a "blog-worthy concept", and that there indeed is a new audience for it?

CEB: I collected single issues for much longer than I've been collecting trade paperbacks. When I became frustrated with some aspects of single issues, trade paperbacks offered me an alternative that overcame many of these frustrations. If trade paperbacks didn't exist, I imagine I'd still be reading comics, but maybe not to the same extent -- another benefit of trades is that they let you easily sample a new series like Marc Andreyko's Manhunter or Eric Trautmann's Shield (both recommended), when following the book's first story arc over six or seven months to decide whether to keep reading is a significantly greater committment.

I started "waiting for the trade" in the early 2000s, when DC Comics began to release more of their series in collected format -- Grant Morrison's JLA, for instance -- but for other series like Batman or Green Lantern, a collection was less certain.  I enjoyed comics review websites like The Fourth Rail, but I couldn't read the review of a single issue before DC released the collection without spoiling the story, and reading reviews of the single issues later on didn't equate a review of the collection as a whole. 
In the absence of a review site that focused specifically on collections, I decided to create one.  I also wanted a venue to pool knowledge and speculation on what stories might be released in collected format and what stories, if not collected, I should pick up in single issues. Early posts on the Collected Editions site reflect this -- discussion as to the title of and number of issues in the next collection of Greg Rucka's Wonder Woman or Mark Waid's new Legion of Super-Heroes series, or whether DC Comics would release Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's Batman: Hush in their oversized "Absolute" format (they did).  The Collected Editions site has remained true to these original ideas, though as collections have becomes more certain I've increased the reviews, included more commentary on the comics industry and issues regarding the collected format, and added features like the Collected Editions DC Universe Trade Paperback Timeline reading order.

In starting the site, I considered that if I was interested in the talking about the collected format but couldn't find just the right place to do so, maybe others felt the same way. I've been gratified many times over by the number of thoughtful, friendly people I've met online and through Collected Editions who are just as eager to talk about and share enjoyment of the collected format as I am.

Stefan Mesch: Did comic writing change since TPBs are on the rise? Or did it just lead to more  useless crossovers, padding and decompression?

Comics writing definitely changed with the rise of trade paperbacks. Perhaps a good target length for a miniseries was always five to six issues, but this seemed to become the norm for both limited series and story arcs in ongoing series with the rise of trade paperbacks. Geoff Johns is a popular DC Comics writer (newly named DC's Chief Creative Officer) whom I consider good at writing his story arcs for the collected format -- consider Teen Titans: A Kid's Game collects his Teen Titans #1-7, and his Teen Titans: Family Lost collects #8-12; his Green Lantern: No Fear collects issues #1-6 and Revenge of the Green Lanterns collects #7-13, and so on. A benefit of this is that if a monthly comics arc fits nicely into trade format, all the issues of the series are more likely to be collected, and as a trade reader I'm less likely to miss an issue; there's nothing worse than collections of series that are missing just one issue here and there.

DC even publishes monthly series that I think are ultimately intended specifically for the collected format.  Consider former and ongoing series like JLA Classified, JSA Classified, Superman Confidential, Batman Confidential, and to some extent Superman/Batman -- all of these usually consist of five-to-six issue story arcs that are "stand-alone" or only loosely tied to the ongoing "continuity" of the DC Comics story universe, and written and drawn by rotating creative teams. I don't see these titles as the most popular of DC's monthly series, but they're natural fits for collections and offer casual readers a collection that doesn't require as much outside knowledge of DC's story history.

At the same time, I feel we don't see as many longer creator runs on titles any more.  In the 1990s, Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway each wrote and drew some of DC's myriad Superman titles for as much as ten years, through periods of both major multi-part events and shorter story arcs or single issues; there wasn't the set "new story every six issues" cadence, and it allowed for what I feel was a more organic, detailed take on the Superman characters. In comparison, Teen Titans, Green Arrow [Essay!], Justice League of America, and other DC Comics mainstays have each had three or four different writers in the past few years.  In a sense, such sharply defined story arcs seem to offer creative teams and DC Comics management a set period in which to see if a creative team is gaining popularity with fans or else to change to a different approach sometimes with dizzying regularity.

Of course, there is at times the issue of padding -- comics seeming to be written with no real bearing on the overall story just for the purpose of filling a collection -- and decompression -- similarly, comics arc written with extreme sparseness of dialogue or numerous one-page "splash" pages for the purpose of lengthening a shorter story to fill a trade collection (though decompression, with emphasis on art or characterization, can also be a viable storytelling choice on its own), but this hasn't been the norm at least in my DC Comics experience. I wouldn't say trade paperbacks are responsible for the resurgence of crossovers, though the fact that crossover tie-ins now get collected (the great number of individual titles collecting their tie-ins to the [2009/2010] Blackest Night event, for instance, versus few if any collections of the individual Underworld Unleashed  [1995] or Final Night [1996] event tie-in issues) does, in my opinion, speak well for the viability of collections as a way to follow DC Universe continuity without buying single issues.

The greater difficulty I see is that the excitement over the popularity of trade paperbacks has lead to something of a glut in the market -- any comics fan can give you a list of older comics they'd like to see collected that are yet unreleased, while even a new series that might've only lasted a couple of issues before cancellation will come out in trade paperback. The market is oversaturated to the point where I think it becomes unnavigatable for the casual reader, letting alone the invested fan.
Also, I think recently we've entered a kind of post-trade paperback era at least in DC Comics.  Whereas before, a story arc from an individual title might be collected in one or two trade paperbacks, lately we've seen stories like Superman: New Krypton take place in multiple series -- Superman, Action Comics, World of New Krypton, Supergirl, Adventure Comics, and assorted miniseries; to read the entire story might mean to read over a dozen different collections. The same is true for Grant Morrison's current run on Batman and associated titles, and a Green Arrow storyline that spreads through the titular series, Justice League, a limited series called Brightest Day, and other miniseries.

Stefan Mesch: You said that comics were getting "more mainstream". But how does this growing interest show?

CEB: The most significant sign of the growing interest in collections right now, at least in terms of watching DC Comics, is their increased production of collected hardcovers. Aside from DC now releasing the collections of nearly every one of their big name series first in hardcover before paperback, they've also been publishing a number of thick hardcover "omnibus" or "deluxe" series with high-end production values -- Jack Kirby's Fourth World, Starman [Essay!], and JLA, among others.  Almost all of these have paperback equivalents, but the hardcover releases more resemble coffee table art books than comic books.

The increasing number of these books suggests a shift in mentality among DC Comics and its readership -- both that these stories aren't single issues meant to be read just once and stored in a box, but rather hardcover volumes to be prominently displayed and continually enjoyed; and also that there's an audience among DC Comics readers that are willing to pay upwards of thirty to fifty dollars per volume -- even for five or six volume series -- for good-looking hardcover collections of DC Comics series.  That's a change even greater than readers just wanting longer-form collections of their favorite series; it suggests the hardcover collected form as the very prominent end of what starts (with no offense meant) as a twenty-two page magazine with advertisements between the pages. It's a form that reflects what comics readers have known all along -- that comics are serious business, worthy of being collected as such.

As well, DC published last year's Final Crisis crossover and all of its main tie-ins in hardcover within a few months of one another, all with similar trade dress (that is, all intended to be purchased and displayed together).  Apparently that was successful enough that, this past July, DC released collections of the recent Blackest Night crossover and main tie-ins in seven hardcovers of about $30 each, all in the very same month with uniform trade dress and new covers.  It suggests an expectation on DC's part that there's a percentage of their readership that would rather spend over $200 in one month to read Blackest Night in a high-end collected format than read the series in monthly issues -- certainly that demonstrates a confidence in collections that wasn't there even a few years before.

The trade paperback is in a way the new single issue, collecting only one piece of an ongoing story.  Combine with this that DC is increasingly releasing all of its collections in hardcover first -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Justice League, and more -- and at least some of the benefits for waiting for the trade like costs savings and receiving a complete story begin to dissipate. I still prefer collections over monthly issues, but collecting trades is an altogether different prospect than it was when I first switched to trades.

Stefan Mesch: Who are those (affluent!) readers? Is this the same crowd that you'd expect in your local comic book store? Or are there some surprises, demographically?

I still think of and enjoy the internet as the great anonymous equalizer, but given that, it can sometimes be difficult to categorize Collected Editions's exact readership based on user handles and the option of anonymous commenting.  I know that both men and women leave comments, and I've received feedback from college students and from readers with children -- that is, what I think is a satisfactorily diverse group. 

What has pleasantly surprised me, and perhaps what I didn't necessarily expect when I started Collected Editions, is the blog's international readership; taking a brief informal survey at the time of this writing, I see visitors from the United States, London, Barcelona, Singapore, Canada, Malaysia, Australia, Denmark, and Brazil. There is a Brazilian-based comic book message board that consistently links to Collected Editions, and I recently added a Google Translate button at the bottom of the site to make it more accessible to non-English-speaking readers.

I'd venture the percentage of Collected Editions readers who've just started reading comics or DC Comics in the past three or four years is slightly greater than those who've been reading comics longer, but I don't think the split is too significant. What I hear is that readers tend to come to Collected Editions because they're thinking about transitioning from single issues to collections, or they've just made the switch and they're looking for advice as to what to read. Because Collected Editions reviews tend both to analyze a book's story and also contextualize a book in terms of what it launches from or leads in to -- and because the Collected Editions DC Trade Paperback Timeline works to put all of DC Comics disparate trade paperbacks in reading order -- I think the site is attractive to new readers, who then begin following along with our weekly reviews.

A general criticism one hears about the internet is that people tend to "flame" or be derogatory in discussions of comics and what have you.  If nothing else, I've tried to set a tone in the Collected Editions reviews where I never disparage a book without offering some reason why, and I always leave open the possibility that a book that I didn't like might be someone else's favorite (and that the book has a creative team that presumably tried to do their best). The readers who regularly comment on Collected Editions are a great bunch, and whether by luck or the overall tone of the blog, we have a lot of in-depth and multi-faceted discussions, and sometimes disagreements, that are also polite and reasonable.

Stefan Mesch: What's your personal taste in comics? And what would you recommend to people who are pretty new to the genre?

CEB: My personal taste in comic books tends toward iconic superheroes -- Superman saves Metropolis from disaster, for instance -- which hardly represents the bredth of comics out there, both superheroic and otherwise. There are books I would recommend from a personal enjoyment standpoint -- Superman: Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite and Panic in the Sky; the Superman/Batman story World's Finest by Dave Gibbons and Steve Rude; Mark Waid's Flash: Terminal Velocity; James Robinson's Starman; Grant Morrison's JLA, especially Rock of Ages; Mark Waid's JLA: Year One and Joe Kelly's JLA: The Obsidian Age; Judd Winick's early Outsiders and Greg Rucka and Eric Trautmann's early Checkmate -- but most if not all don't bear on the modern DC Universe. I hope you like them, but they won't help you understand what's coming out next month from DC Comics.

To that end, even as some would argue that DC is too invested these days in company-wide crossovers, one benefit is that crossovers offer signposts as to the important events in the DC Universe.  Both Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis and Geoff Johns's Infinite Crisis, crossovers from a couple years back, are well-mired in decades of DC Comics continuity, but they'll give a new reader a good overall sense of what else they need to read to understand what's going on. Grant Morrison's Batman stories and Geoff Johns's Green Lantern and Flash series are all enjoyable and important to the current DC Universe; those writers wrote the last two DC Comics crossovers, Final Crisis and Blackest Night, and most of what's taking place now stems from those books.

Often what I find in the Collected Editions DC Trade Paperback Timeline is a pattern of events and reactions; Green Arrow and Black Canary married, for instance, and a number of other title reacted to it.  If a new reader can latch on to a certain event, it's possible from there to explore other titles in how they tie-in or react.

Stefan Mesch: When I asked you about demographics, I was tempted to continue with: 'young women... teachers... older women... people of color...' But actually, I have NO idea about these groups and how they are adressed and incorporated by DC.

Take people of color, for example: I do notice that DC made some efforts to appear more diverse. But are people really happy with newer, black heroes like Jakeem Thunder or the new Firestorm? Did fans WAIT for these characters and DC created them as a reaction to a demand? And is a Latino character like Jaime Reyes a success? Or is he just window dressing; too little, too late?

CEB: The transformation of DC to the new DC Entertainment company appears to reflect Warner Brothers's recognition of DC as more than just their comic book arm, but rather as a collection of potential media properties, stemming from the increasing popularity of superhero movies, cartoons, television shows, and the like.

To that end, DC publisher Dan DiDio and others have reportedly talked about simplifying the core basis of what makes up their story universe, with the purpose of making the translation to other media easier.  A telling of the origin of popular Flash Wally West must necessarily start with the fact that Wally became the Flash after the death of his uncle, Flash Barry Allen; that's a story within a story, and to translate to another media a Flash concept that matches the comic books, it's more streamlined for Barry to be the Flash -- to still tell complicated comics stories, but to reduce the characters back to their most basic elements. In about the past five or so years, readers have seen DC make this kind of simplification with Supergirl [Essay], Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Flash, Hawkman, the Atom, Firestorm, and certainly more.

Unfortunately, this has the effect of removing, killing off, or otherwise marginalizing a number of characters that came along in the 1990s and 2000s -- this "back to basics" approach indeed seems a counter-weight to the opposite trend in the 1990s where mainstay characters like Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Green Arrow Oliver Queen were themselves killed off and replaced with younger heroes in the roles.

As products of the modern era, the new heroes -- Green Arrow Connor Hawke, Atom Ryan Choi, and Firestorm Jason Rusch, among others -- reflected modern multi-cultural sensibilities, whereas the original heroes of the 1950s were largely white American men.  I don't believe there's a specific push among DC management to remove all diversity from the Justice League, for instance; instead, I think it's an unfortunate result of this "back to basics" approach, that the make-up of the Justice League becomes what it once was under 1960s sensibilities, for the purpose of better licensing the characters.

As a company telling a serial story about characters that have been around fifty to seventy-five years, this struggle with its past is something DC will always have to deal with, just as unequal representation of female characters (and grown women with superhero names that end in "girl") and unequal representation of homosexual characters. The company can't have a "classic" lineup and also have large-scale diversity; by virtue of their publishing history, the two goals are mutually exclusive.

There are difficulties in combating this both within and without. DC has the problem of not being able to pursue its current goals and also put its multi-cultural characters in the forefront. They have some series with multi-cultural characters; Static is an African-American hero about to have a series, but this is after his first series was cancelled (presumably from lack of sales); Steel, an African-American hero, and Blue Beetle, a Hispanic character, also had their own, later cancelled, series.  Batwoman is a lesbian and Jewish, and about to have her own series, but inasmuch as it seemed DC tried not to make Batwoman's sexuality the defining aspect of the character, the reporting from a number of media outlets sensationalized the debut of Batwoman to a unnecessary degree.

I agree DC sometimes makes what I consider to be wrong-headed or insensitive decisions -- including using gratuituous violence or killing off characters that represent the more diverse aspects of the DC Universe -- but I also know that DC is a business with the primary goal of making money, and if fans give a series a sustainable readership, DC will keep publishing it.  Again, the core make-up of the DC Universe works against any goals it may have toward diversity, but I take its continued attempts at publishing series like Batwoman and Static as a step in the right direction. There's an aspect of our own culture in general that needs to make an effort to continue to move in that diverse direction along with DC.

Stefan Mesch: Most DC books live at the intersection of crime, sci-fi, fantasy and horror and stretch out pretty far into these various genres. What books aren't (only) enjoyable as superhero tales, but stretch the definition of what a superhero comic CAN tell and address?

CEB: DC Comics is not really about stretching the definition of what a superhero comic can address.  DC has published works like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns that have influenced the tone of superhero comics overall, but to some extent the fundamentals of DC's line are the costumed superhero fighting gaudy villain, and in the past ten years it even seems DC has embraced that fundamental more so than it did in the 1980s and 1990s. DC tells great superhero stories, but I see more books that stretch the definition of superheroics coming from Image, Dark Horse, Oni Press, BOOM! Studios, and Marvel's Icon imprint, among others.

Certainly, however, there are examples of where DC series have delivered more than just heroes versus villains. DC is re-releasing both James Robinson’s Starman and Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker’s Gotham Central in special hardcovers likely because of the awards and accolades each series received for rising above typical superhero comics.

In Starman, Robinson took a fairly straightforward superhero premise and mixed in complicated, sophisticated characterization, non-linear storytelling, and a well-planned plot with a specific end point; Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker's Gotham Central was a superhero police procedural with a far greater emphasis on the police than the superheroes, compared to television shows like Homicide and Law & Order.

I also liked Geoff Johns sixty-plus issue run on Flash, where he put greater emphasis on the background and histories of the Flash villains known as the Rogues – and, about halfway through the series, an attack on the Flash’s family brought about a reconsideration of the idea of superheroes and secret identities that I thought was especially masterful; DC recently announced that this series would be re-printed in omnibus hardcovers, too. Of course, for real character detail, readers should go back to the well-regarded 1980s New Teen Titans series by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, collected in DC’s Archive hardcovers.

To some extent I think where DC succeeds is not so much in taking chances with what their superhero stories address, as they do in the chances they take in how they tell those stories. Batman: Evolution is one of the only collections of a Detective Comics run written by Rucka with art by Shawn Martinbrough and others, in which the book's colorist uses a limited color palette for each issue; Rucka's story with villain Ra's al Ghul is good, but the book itself is visually like nothing else I've seen from DC.

Evolution spun off, as a matter of fact, from the Batman: No Man's Land crossover that ran for almost all of 1999. This was larger than most inter-title crossovers, and set standards in my opinion in terms of how intricately planned it was, with specific story acts and beats throughout the year, and also the detail of the characterization. In the story, Gotham City is cut off from the rest of the country after an earthquake, and Batman, the police, and the Gotham citizens have to fend for themselves, resorting to gang warfare and tenuous truces between heroes and villains. In this way, the story worked deeper than just a conflict between the good and the bad, and benefited significantly from its long form (collected in five volumes).

Similar to No Man's Land is the first of DC's most recent forays into weekly comics, called 52, written collectively by Rucka, Johns, Mark Waid, and Grant Morrison.  Each week that DC published the comic represented a week passing for the characters, and the writers took as their focus lesser-known DC characters and demonstrated why they were important.

Previous weekly series included just short or spotlight stories about a rotating cast of characters; 52 is the first time to my knowledge that the weekly comics format had been used to tell a story in virtual real-time, and the four collections are notable both for the story and for the storytelling.

More recently, I’d draw attention to Rucka’s few volumes of the newest incarnation of DC's Checkmate series, and also his Batwoman feature that ran in Detective Comics (collected as Batwoman: Elegy).  The former is wonderfully political, where the challenges the Checkmate spy agency faces aren’t supervillains so much as whether France will vote for their UN charter or if China is funding super-weapons in North Korea; the latter follows Batwoman while she fights crime in Gotham, but also looks at her departure from the US military because of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.  Both of these examine issues larger than the Fearsome Five robbing a bank, and I've appreciated them (and similar strains in other books by Rucka) for it.

Stefan Mesch: While the DC universe is a sprawling, huge place, are there hopes that you shouldn't foster as a new reader? What's missing at DC? Where are the shortcomings of the medium?

From what I can see, there aren't many standalone isssues, not many books with families and no good/important or particularly sexy relationships apart from the marriage of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. 

CEB: A couple things that a new reader of collected mainstream superhero comics will notice is that there’s generally at least one fight scene per chapter or issue, and most chapters usually end with a cliffhanger after twenty-two pages. Because comics are published monthly for returning but also casual readers, they have a conflict between the heroes and villains in each issue to create a semblance, at least, of a complete story; and also to end on enough of a cliffhanger that a casual reader might return the next month for the next part. To that end, even as trade paperbacks are packaged as books, they still don’t read entirely like standalone works; there’s a certain repetitiveness of fight and cliffhanger that’s distracting but unavoidable given the medium.

DC has announced two original graphic novels by J. Michael Straczynski, Superman: Earth One and Samaritan X, about which I’m very excited at least in part because, as books with original content, they won’t be beholden to the same storytelling requirements as collections of monthly issues.

DC Comics seems focused right now specifically on the traditional superhero, with cosmic or space stories a close second. They have an ongoing magic-focused series, Zatanna, and a new incarnation of the fantasy series Warlord, but in general their luck in those genres hasn’t been great; DC recently cancelled Shadowpact and Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis, a supernatural and fantasy book respectively. The DC Universe is a superhero universe in the main, and rarely extends far into other popular science-fiction/fantasy genres like swords and sorcery or vampires.

Additionally, most of the genre-bending titles that quickly come to mind – Starman, Gotham Central, Checkmate, Suicide Squad, Warren Ellis’s Hitman – have been cancelled, and there aren’t descendents that replace them. With the exception of Starman, most of these titles struggled to find an audience despite critical acclaim, and of late it seems DC is finding that high-profile superhero series, like Geoff Johns’s popular Green Lantern, have a wider appeal. I would note DC’s pulp First Wave group of titles, a handful of noir-ish series set in the 1940s, and also a couple of one-shot war titles they have scheduled, but by and large there’s nothing off-sides in the main DC Universe now, and I think that’s unfortunate.

One aspect I enjoy, but that might be offputting to some, is the way in which DC (and other comic book universes) build upon their long history for their current events. Take, as example, the recent popular crossover Blackest Night, which used Green Lantern concepts that are at least twenty years old; Grant Morrison’s recent Batman stories re-examined Batman adventures from the 1950s; the most recent incarnation of the Justice League title started with a Brad Meltzer story that referenced Justice League issues from the early 1970s.

In the 1980s, I think there was a general idea that new readers to comics could catch up on current continuity just by seeking out back issues (or by reading the Who’s Who or character encyclopedias that most comic companies published), but in the  last ten years or so there’s been an ongoing debate about making comics more “accessible.” Maybe this is in reaction to the growing acceptance of comics as a general-audience medium and their increased availability in bookstores.  A casual reader who buys trade paperbacks in a bookstore is not as exposed to the copious bins of old single issues (called “back issues”) available for sale in most comics shops, and so the availability of comics history is not as immediate as it might be to a comics-shop customer.

I’d venture that DC tries to offer “jumping-on” points in their titles fairly often, when one storyline ends and another begins or when a title’s creative team changes, but in general a new reader can’t read very long before they find a vague reference to some past event that they might have to look up.

At the same time, a reader expecting a truly ongoing series may also be disappointed.  Most comics series aren’t one long story so much as blocks of shorter storylines or “arcs,” often tangentially related but sometimes not, and usually with a variety of different creative teams. The Wonder Woman series is a good example; since the mid-1980s, the Wonder Woman title has been written by at least ten different writers, all with different and often inconsistent takes on the character.

Any creative team that a reader enjoys on a title will eventually move on and be replaced, and any major changes especially to an iconic character like Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman (costume change, power change, death, etc.) will eventually be returned to the status quo – these major characters don’t change as much as struggle under the illusion of change, which can be a comfort but is also sometimes frustrating.

Whereas one might watch a seven or ten-year-long television series that remains generally consistent throughout, it seems more common these days for the creative team on a DC title, at least, to switch within six months or a year.

To some extent it seems the secret identity conceit, long a mainstay of the superhero genre, has fallen out of favor in DC Comics titles.  Many of the heroes still have civilian identities, but their friends, families, co-workers or teammates know about their dual lives; most dramatic situations arise from conflicts between heroes rather than a hero negotiating their heroic and civilian lives.  DC cancelled the one recent instance of a superheroic family, a short-lived Flash series from 2008, rather quickly.  Superman and the current Flash Barry Allen are the only married heroes in the DC Universe; heroes Green Arrow and Black Canary married, but that relationship quickly entered a state of flux.  Like soap operas and other serial media, serious romantic relationships don’t tend to last long precisely because of the dramatic potential of bringing characters together, breaking them up, and then introducing them to new love interests; super-team memberships fluctuate for precisely the same reason. Though super-team memberships are a considerably greater constant than long-term relationships.

Stefan Mesch: What scenes and moments shook you up, made you cry, stayed with you in some bigger, more poignant way?

CEB: The longer one reads comic books, the more jaded (or, at least, cognizant of comic book storytelling tropes) one tends to become. The large-scale public mourning over the Death of Superman storyline in the 1990s erupted precisely because the public was not aware -- as many comics readers were – that the death and rebirth of a character in comics is a constantly used trope, and that any major character who dies will inevitably be back some day. This is why, for me, the popular Martian Manhunter’s death in the Final Crisis crossover elicited barely a yawn (he returned a year later) and why DC immediately revealed that Batman did not die in Final Crisis as it initially seemed, to satisfy perhaps the legions of fans who wouldn’t have believed it anyway.

That said, death is a primary basis of emotion in DC’s comics, at least, and I’ve been moved by it quite a few times.  As someone who read almost every adventure of the modern clone-of-Superman Superboy, I thought the character’s death in the Infinite Crisis crossover was sad but poignant because of its necessity, in how it reshaped the current relationship between Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – and it shows DC can still fool me, because not two or three years after I believed DC had really killed off Superboy, the character returned.

Keeping with Superman, I think the World Without Superman aspect of the “Death” storyline is especially moving; even as the reader knows Superman will return, that creative team did a fine job bringing forth the emotion of the Kents having lost a son and Lois Lane having lost a husband. Recently, I thought Geoff Johns did an equally good job translating Superman’s sadness over the death of Pa Kent into the emotion that underscores the subsequent “New Krypton” story.

There’s plenty of smaller, less gimmicky deaths scattered throughout any number of superhero series – when Perry White’s son Jerry of a drug overdose (and demonic possession) in the Superman “Going to Blazes” storyline; when Robin Tim Drake couldn’t prevent his own father’s murder in Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis; and the guilt that writer Ed Brubaker had Catwoman feel over the torture of her sister and murder of her brother-in-law as revenge by the villain Black Mask, to name a few.

As a counterpoint, I don’t have much affection for Superman: The Wedding and Beyond, a somewhat hurried story that details the wedding of Clark Kent and Lois Lane; but I do very much like Superman: Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite, a great Superman vs. Lex Luthor story with a bunch of Silver Age elements in it, that ends quite naturally in Clark’s proposal to Lois.  This, too, was less gimmicky and more sincere, and intended to be lasting; I think the emotion comes through when the comics are honest, and the emotion fails, as with Martian Manhunter and Final Crisis, when the comics themselves turn a bit cynical.

I’m a bit of a continuity nut, as the Collected Editions site’s DC Trade Paperback Timeline will attest, and so the comics that make me smile are often the ones that are celebratory of DC’s long history.  Brad Meltzer’s Justice League: The Tornado’s Path and Grant Morrison’s Batman: RIP both refer well back to DC continuity, but moreover Meltzer’s Green Arrow: Archer’s Quest, Geoff Johns’s Green Lanter:n Rebirth and Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds, and Devin Grayson’s JLA/Titans: The Technis Imperative are all comics that revisit old stories in a way that delights in DC’s history. Certainly, DC’s long history can be confusing, but I favor the books that embrace rather than run from that history.

Stefan Mesch: You have read so many of these comics that you might be one of the best persons to ask my final question to: What do you think is the "bigger philosophy" that's at work at DC? 

Are there thematic, ideological notions that differ from the MARVEL universe? What are the... four? five?... central ideas within these tales? Is DC celebrating humanity? Are these pacifist or explicitly liberal stories?

As someone who mostly reads "Superman"-related titles, I thought that most stories shared their motifs and had small, common ideas like 'a city is defined by the spirit of the people who live there' or 'you should always excuse if someone else is not going all the way, but you should ask of yourself to do everything it takes, every day.'

But then, especially in 'fringe titles' like DC's "Spectre" horror comics or in the dark, bloody humour of series like "Secret Six", sometimes, I can read whole collections without fining anything "typically DC". 
CEB: By and large, the DC Universe still hews to the age-old tenet that heroes don’t kill, or at least that they shouldn’t.  Batman has still never purposefully killed an enemy; in the mid-1980s Superman executed three unrepentant villains in a parallel universe, but suffered a significant space exile afterward and vowed not to kill again, and DC later erased the event from current continuity.

A few years ago Wonder Woman killed a villain that had taken control of Superman, and for a long time the superhero community ostracized her.  That a hero might kill their enemy – essentially, condone capital punishment -- is more common now I believe than in years before, but it’s still frowned upon; the Green Lantern Corps controversially received authorization for lethal force, but Earth’s Green Lantern abstains, and when Green Arrow recently murdered a villain, the Justice League revoked his membership.  At the same time, DC has a few “edgier” titles like Manhunter and Secret Six where the heroes kill the villains as a matter of course.

Yet, even as the DC heroes largely avoid murder, the comics still subscribe to the idea that most problems can be solved with violence.  In Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman: Down to Earth, the first collection of his Wonder Woman run, Wonder Woman doesn’t hit anyone until nearly the end of the book; Joe Casey wrote a lesser-known run on Adventures of Superman where, toward the end, Superman solved each issues’s conflict without ever landing a punch.  These instances are few, however, and most likely it’s because the superhero genre is naturally an action genre, and stories about super-powers lend themselves more toward battle than negotiation.

At the same time, if this more militant approach (pro-war, pro-capital punishment) could be characterized as politically “conservative,” the support of gay rights, acceptance of other cultures, and even the occasional human-alien relationship also represent a socially liberal tack in DC’s titles.

There’s an emphasis on individuality, or trusting oneself over the outside world – Wonder Woman often has to break from her Amazonian sisters to do what she believes is right; Superman fights both Kryptonians and humanity in the “New Krypton” storyline; and the newest Batgirl takes on the cowl even as most everyone tells her to quit – but usually by the end of the story the public comes around to the hero’s viewpoint.

This is often evinced as anti-authoritarianism – Green Lantern has served the Guardian of the Universe in over fifty years worth of comics, but the reader understands Green Lantern knows better than his bosses. Any number of times heroes have broken from the Justice League’s staid politics (presented so for the purposes of the story) to form their own “rebel” group of heroes.  The Teen Titans meet to forge their own identities away from their overbearing mentors (again, often presented as overbearing solely for the purpose of the Titans story, and not as overbearing elsewhere).

Perhaps the most comforting thing about DC Comic books is that if you wait long enough, everything comes back around again.  No super-team – be it the Justice League, the Justice Society, the Teen Titans, the Outsiders, or others – disbands for too long without reuniting (and none of those titles are cancelled for long without restarting); rarely does a hero die without being resurrected a few years later.  Even heroes long considered permanently “dead” like the second Robin Jason Todd or the Silver Age Flash Barry Allen have been recently resurrected; the benefit of fictional characters written by a revolving group of writers is that every hero is some writers’ favorite, and if you don’t like DC’s current direction, it’s bound to change in a few years.

I feel comic books are better now than they were ten years ago.  DC Comics crossovers like 1997’s Genesis and 1998’s Superman: Millennium Giants were inconsequential and seemed hastily drawn versus more recent, mature stories like Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis. There’s a considerably greater emphasis on the shared universe that some readers feel requires keeping up with too many titles, but that I appreciate because at least it demonstrates some editorial attention line-wide – a cohesive vision for all the DC titles.

Certainly even though we’ve mostly left behind the “grim and gritty era” (heroes had a faux toughness that toward the end just made them unlikable), the level of violence found in modern comics is often astounding. DC’s books reflect adult sensibilities such that the stories can be enjoyed by adults, but there’s an ongoing discomfort among the readership in seeing the heroes of their youth like Superman and Batman dealing with storylines that involve torture, rape, and murder. As a reader I might find a story interesting, but there’s a certain innocence lost in Green Lantern handling a case perhaps better suited for 24’s Jack Bauer.

Stefan Mesch: These would be all my questions. I feel like this interview can work as something of a "guide" for interested new readers, too. So please feel free to adress anything that might be important to you: Cool blogs you might want to recommend? Creators that need praise? Warnings? Consolation?

I would only add that in about eight years, both Action Comics and Detective Comics will be close to reaching issue #1,000. With minor hiccups along the way, these two titles are among the world’s longest-running comic books (if not two of the longest-running monthly magazines overall), and reaching their thousandth issue will be an event.

I’m amazed that someone seventy or younger could have gone to a newsstand every month of their life and always found an issue of Action Comics; I don’t believe that’s something that can be said about any other book, television show, radio program, or other form of entertainment.  What’s important about comics slowly losing their “funny  book” status is the opportunity that opens for comics to be viewed in their appropriate historical context – and especially in their appropriate American historical context.  To follow DC Comics over seventy-five years is to see the characters deal with any number of changing social issues as well as wars and national tragedies.

I’m curious whether DC will allow their longest-running titles to be numbered #1,000; 1,001; 1,002; etc., or if they’ll introduce a new numbering system or somehow restart publication – whether, that is, they think a four-digit issue number might be even more off-putting to new readers in some way than a three-digit issue number.  Having a four-digit issue number is something no comic book in existence has ever faced before – something new, that is, after any number of crossovers and resurrected heroes, and I’m interested to see how that challenge affects DC Comics line-wide.

Stefan Mesch: Thank you so much!

final notes:

the hyperlinks were selected and edited by me, not CEB.

contact CEB at: collectededitions at yahoo dot com

contact me at: smesch@gmx.net

thanks for reading!