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.
New reviews coming Monday -- thanks!