Monday, May 18, 2009

What Comics Do I Read?

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.


  1. So let me get this straight: the superhero stars have retired to Miami Beach? The second stringers are fighting crime in their place?

  2. Well, if you go to Miami Beach when you're dead and then you get better, I guess that's where they are!

  3. Bob,

    Someday, I hope (foolishly, I know) that a story will be written - maybe for the Justice League, whomever they are at the time (and who are also currently officially disbanded by the current leader, Black Canary, since Batman is dead, Superman is gone, Wonder Woman is...well, probably in WW obscureland - or Miami Beach, and there are a handful of other heroes who are claiming the name... and goodness knows, you wouldn't want two teams called Justice League. You'd have to go as far as Europe to avoid something like that... :)

    Anyhow, I want a story where the JLA's done with this mission or that, they're standing around talking about it afterward, and a young boy or girl comes up to them and asks when they're going to bring his/her parents back to life. The child will cite that every single member of the original Justice League has been dead at one time or another, and they were brought back by this miracle or that - so why isn't the JLA bringing back other good people, regular everyday heroes who deserve to live just as much as Aquaman or Flash.

    I'd love to see it, but no editor would ever approve it.

    At 48, I find that I agree with you very much Bob, and I think we exchanged a couple of E-mails on the matter. I will say that there are one or two current books worth reading, in the format you and I remember. Some of the kids' books have had "done-in-one" stories, or maybe two parters, and there's been some awfully good talent on those. I especially remember the Batman Adventures (or whatever title) using the animated series as a genre - darned fine stuff (and I recommend them highly if you've not read them.)

    Some of the "property" books (Star Trek, Conan, etc.) are not bad, if you can get around the fact that sometimes you can't recognize characters drawn by the artists; they, of course, not being up to the standard that was so high that artists had to actually, you know, be able to DRAW to have a job DRAWING.

    Bob, I do have one question for you regarding this trend. You were a professional, and I'm pretty sure that back in your day, books had one editor. That was the editor. These were people who knew about the books they were overseeing, who knew about the characters, and who were knowledgeable about things such as grammar, anatomy, story construction, etc. Lately - probably up until today - I see assistant editors and associate editors and a variety of what I have to think of as hangers-on. Are these just glorified coffee boys, xerox and pencil sharpener girls, chauffeurs, etc. or do they really do a job at DC or Marvel? (And no, it's not a rhetorical question - I really would like to know if you do.)

    The mind boggles... the heart breaks. Thank you for your consideration.

    I remain,
    Eric L. Sofer
    The Silver Age Fogey

  4. Eric,

    Don't get me started on what seems to be consider "art" in some of the comics today. There have been a few series where I found the drawing so ugly that I did not care whether the writing was any good and could not even look at them.

    When I became Julie Schwartz's assistant, he had me proofreading the finished art, making color notes for the colorist, writing the letter columns, and, eventually, doing the first read and editing on the scripts. In addition to making photocopies, mailing things out, etc.
    Back then, the editor plotted out the story with the writer before a word was committed to paper. A writer did not leave Julie's office without knowing exactly how the story was going to go. If you decided to revamp it afterwards, you needed to be prepared to defend the changes when you delivered the script. Julie would edit the script when it came in and that often meant he did some heavy rewriting. He would meet with the penciller and give him the script, then go over the pencilled art when it came in, asking for changes if he didn't like something. He'd go over it again after it was lettered, after it was inked, and when the coloring was delivered.

    By the time I left DC in 1998, many of the editors were doing little more than trafficking scripts and art. Whatever the writers and artists delivered, well, that's what was going to be published.
    As far as assistant editors and associate editors, well, they aren't writing letter columns and I don't think anyone makes color notes any more. Maybe they proofread, but that requires a knowledge of grammar and spelling that many seem to be lacking.
    And they have (or have had) art editors, cover editors, and color editors as well, further subdividing the job that an editor was once responsible for.
    Maybe that's why the books are as bad as they are...they're created by a committee!