From time to time I am contacted by people who are writing articles about comic books and ask to interview me. In some cases, it is about a project or series that I worked on (such as Teen Titans, or Secret Society of Super-Villains, or Hostess Cupcake advertisements). Other times it is about someone that I worked with at DC Comics, or an artist who drew some of my stories.
Whatever the topic, the interview invariably ends with some variation of "What comics are you currently reading and enjoying?" And my answer more often than not is, "Nothing much of the new books."
Back when I first started reading comic books, each issue was self-contained and most of them had three separate stories. Some titles, like Action Comics, would feature a variety of heroes, such as Superman, Congorilla, and Tommy Tomorrow. Books like Superman would feature a trio of tales about the Man of Steel. There was some amount of continuity, particularly as editors like Julie Schwartz and Mort Weisinger would expand the "history" of the characters, but a reader never felt left out because he hadn't read the previous issues. In fact, there would usually be a flashback scene if something from an earlier story had particular significance.
In the 60s, the DC format morphed into a longer lead story and a short back-up. Marvel's superhero books had a full-length story in the team books (Fantastic 4, Avengers) and two stories in the single hero titles (Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales). For the most part, the stories in all these magazines were still self-contained.
One of the things Stan Lee started to do in the Marvel books was add a little "cliffhanger tease" at the end, a way to make the readers anxious to get the next issue. The one I remember most was in Spider-Man and hinged on how Peter Parker kept missing meeting Mary Jane. Spidey would defeat the villain of the month and get home just in time for Aunt May to say, "Oh, you just missed her, but she'll be back tomorrow."
Well, somewhere along the way, the little cliffhangers started getting bigger and bigger, and now they have become the standard "ending" in any given issue. Not that there are any actual stories any more. After all, a story requires a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Most comic books today seem to be an interminable middle.
If you've read any recent comic books, you're no doubt familiar with this issue breakdown. (If you're not a comic book reader, I'm guessing you've already gotten bored with this installment of Anything Goes, so I'll see you back here tomorrow.) The "story" opens with the revelation of who is behind the door/inside the headquarters/driving the truck from the previous issue's cliffhanger. Conversation and a fight ensue (not necessarily in that order), with the fight taking up numerous pages of single-panel fisticuffs. Their "issues" resolved, the characters proceed to the next "Gasp! It's YOU--!" cliffhanger as they open a door/walk into headquarters/ see a truck coming. Come back again next issue.
Every issue seems to be "chapter 7 of a 14-part saga," but even if you ever get to the final chapter, it only seems to be the cliffhanger for the next 14-part saga, rather than an actual ending. Occasionally, the publishers will promote an issue as "a great jumping-on point" for readers who haven't been following the series. Which basically says, "Don't bother buying any earlier issues because you're going to be hopelessly lost and, if you miss this one, don't bother coming back again for another year or so." And they wonder why comics can't attract new readers?
Not so long ago I read an interview with a writer who was taking over one of the major DC characters. She mentioned that she had already plotted out the next two years of issues, meaning she had, at most, three "story arcs" in mind. More likely, it was only two, and it might have been only one. To run for a total of 528 pages!
Back when my contemporaries and I were writing for editors like Julie Schwartz, if you said you had two years worth of issues, you had better have at least 24 separate plots. To fill 528 pages with 8-page back-up stories, Julie would have made us come up with 66 different plots.
As far as the DC heroes I grew up reading about (most of whom I eventually got to write stories about), here is where things stand... I think.
Superman: He's given up being Superman and followed a city full of Kryptonians to set up New Krypton on another planet. In fact, he does not even appear in his own magazine; the current star of Superman is Mon-El. Action Comics, in which he has starred since #1 back in 1938, features Nightwing and Flamebird.
Batman: He's dead. Or maybe he's trapped in the prehistoric past. It depends on who you ask. In any event, a whole slew of other characters, including three different Robins, are vying to become the new Batman. Batman and Detective Comics are not currently being published.
The Flash: Barry Allen has been dead since 1986, but he recently got better. In his absence, Wally (formerly Kid Flash) West became The Flash, then was replaced by Bart (Impulse) Allen, who was recently killed by super-villains but who has also recently gotten better.
Green Lantern: He fought Sinestro and the Yellow Lanterns for about a year. Then GL became a Red Lantern. Now he is half Green Lantern and half Blue Lantern. There are also Orange Lanterns, Purple Lanterns, and Black Lanterns running around.
Green Arrow: He too was dead for awhile, but he too got better and then married Black Canary. His former partner Speedy is now Red Arrow. Can Blue Arrow, Orange Arrow and Purple Arrow be far behind?
Aquaman: I'm pretty sure he's dead at the moment.
J'onn J'onzz, Manhunter from Mars: Ditto.
So, to come back to the question posed at the beginning of this essay, what comics am I currently reading and enjoying? That would be Golden Age and Silver Age stories appearing in the reprint volumes. The stuff that made me a comics fan to begin with.