Collected Editions interviewed in Berlin Tagesspiegel

Thursday, December 02, 2010

When the Collected Editions blog celebrated its fifth site anniversary this past February, one goal of mine was to take some time to consider here how the trade paperback landscape has changed even just since Collected Editions started.

At about the same time, I was fortunate to be contacted by German writer Stefan Mesch for an interview about graphic novels and the Collected Editions site for the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel. Since the summer, Stefan and I have been corresponding on a range of topics related to collecting comics; that interview is now live on Stefan Mesch's website and is scheduled to appear in Tagesspiegel later this month.

Following is an excerpt of Stefan and my larger conversation, which includes thoughts on the beginning of Collected Editions and where I see the industry headed. I hope you'll take time to read the full interview and leave comments here and on Stefan's site.

Stefan Mesch: ... 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, 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 gratuitous 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: 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, 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.

... 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.

Read the full Collected Editions interview with Stefan Mesch at the link. Post header image by Stefan Mesch.

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  1. One problem I always had with Wally Wests origin is that it's exactly the same as Barry Allens origin story. Almost the exact same circumstances note for note. It always struck me as kind of ridiculous that the same accident in the same place repeated itself on Barrys nephew. Not to mention that it becomes a dilution of the original.

    With the new characters of the 90's, my own personal opinion is that many of them weren't quite as strong characterwise as their predecessors. Sure, Kyle Rayners pretty cool, but for every one of him there was a replacement like Conner Hawke, who was never a character I thought was all that great.

    It kind of comes down to a catch-22 and a problem with the "legacy" concept DC likes. Diverse heroes, for whatever reason, tend not to do as well when put out there in their own solo and identity right off. This makes the legacy option rather attractive, as it adds instant cred and recognizability. But at the same time, eventually the chickens are going to come home to roost; the ousted character surely had fans and eventually the dilemma of two Atoms or whatever comes up. Then you've got different sects of fans with "their" Atom or Flash or whatever and it's just a big mess.

    Anyways, nice interview.

  2. Wow, what a comprehensive interview - fantastic to see you recognized as an authority in this field. You made many insightful points about the changes the collections have brought to comics readers and the evolution of the form.

    One minor correction, neither Starman or Hitman were cancelled, both books were wrapped up by their writers when the stories were told (As with Preacher and Sandman).

  3. James Robinson ended Starman as he intended, but I'm not sure about Hitman, Hix -- ye old Hitman page on Wikipedia has this quote from Garth Ennis:

    "I miss Hitman a lot. Preacher finished when it was supposed to, so there are no regrets with it—but Hitman could have gone on a lot longer ..."

    Could be interpreted either way, but I appreciate the correction on both titles nonetheless.

    To open this to a wider discussion, the books' cancellation (or finishing, I might have said) came up in a discussion of how certain genre-bending or "above the norm" titles like Starman, Hitman, Gotham Central, Checkmate, even Grant Morrison's JLA have ended and have not been replaced with similarly distinguished titles.

    Possibly it's hard to see a "classic" in its midst -- since the Starman/Hitman/JLA glory days, I'd argue that Geoff Johns's Wally West Flash run is another "new classic," and not just because it's being collected in omnibus form -- but I don't at the present moment see another "new classic" being published by DC right now.

    Maybe Batman, Inc. will be that "classic" series, or the new Detective Comics run by Scott Snyder, or Paul Cornell's Superman, or JH Williams's Batwoman, or Gail Simone's Secret Six, or any of a bunch of others. But that's a bunch of maybes; my point is that right at this very second, I think we're in the doldrums in terms of breakout, genre-bending DC Comics series right now. It is not, if you will, the Starman days.


  4. To me, I think some classics -- in my eyes, since this is the time I started heavily getting into comics -- are Johns's Teen Titans and Winick's Outsiders. Those trades I love and even though they are on cheap paper there's something about those stories that I enjoy. They were fun and the trades were really cheap and had 7-8 issues.

    Similar trades to those that I've read are BoP, GA, and I just picked up the Manhunter series which I've heard good things about. Most of those are news print but they are cheap and some of the collections are quite thick.

    Johns's JSA run was quite good and got me more interested in the golden age characters. I think it's fair to put that title next to Morrison's JLA. We need a deluxe edition for those trades.

  5. @abu george: I'll agree on Geoff Johns Teen Titans, but to a certain extent. I think mainly of the six trades pre-OYL; I include the Outsiders crossover in that number. After the OYL jump, however, it felt to me like the book lost something and kind of puttered to the finish of his run. A lot of rushed developments post-OYL, not to mention it felt like the book had lost some heart, so to speak.

    But then, on the other side, despite it's heavy flaws the two OYL trades still have enjoyment to mine and the book hasn't been the same since he left it; we're still too early into the Krul/Scott run to know either way if it's going to be consistently good.

  6. I take your point about Hitman, but even as it's sales were declining Ennis was given the space and creative control to bring it to a solid and absolutely final conclusion.

    That leads me to the defining qualities of legendary runs. I think the best of these come out of the blue where no one saw the potential, have a overall story arc, a satisfying conclusion, a degree of creative autonomy and a legacy of editorial respect to not taint the memory. Morrison's Batman run fits with this if you ignore the changing title of his book, and Morrison always like to create toys for others to play with.

  7. @ dl316bh - I agree that the OYL trades did somewhat "lose" some of its magic; both for TT and Outsiders.

    On a similar not, I did just order the Starman omnibuses. I've been going back and forth on whether or not to buy them, I finally caved in. I hear a lot of good things from this "classic" series and I like -- for the most part --what Robinson has done with NK. I've grown more attached to the golden age characters after reading the JSA series and Robinson's Golden Age.

    I'm very proud of myself for reading outside of the "trinity" because there're some really great reads out there. I think there's great stuff now coming from all comic publishers; but I feel they'll be more appreciated down the road.

    It's hard though because much of what happens today was because of what came before. Dark, violent, and long format storytelling was somewhat unheard of in the mid to late 80s so the big titles like Watchmen, DKR, Sandman, etc were distinguishable from other works in the medium.

  8. I didn't like GJ's TT that much. Sure, it started great but it had that Infinite Crisis debacle all over it...the 1st 2-3 trades were nice but after that it builds up to IC & the OYL trades were complete lackluster. I haven't read OUTSIDERS & JUDD WINICK'S GA or TITANS, the chief factor being that the beginning of his run isn't available anymore (Green Arrow: Straight Shooter)
    He tends to be a bit overtly melodramatic at times....see his GL, but at others he's pure entertainment, like in his current JUSTICE LEAGUE: GENERATION LOST.
    MANHUNTER is nice, but the last trade ran out of steam. Besides, I feel that Manhunter was the only book except for John's JSA & Robinson's GOLDEN AGE that had "that STARMAN magic"