How did it feel to work in a scene where you knew all of your material was going to matter to a lot of people?
That part is wonderful fun. That remains a great joy in working in comics today. I adore the fact that people read and react to my work. One of the really nice things about the comic book business is we remain relatively accessible creative people so you go to a comic convention or go to an appearance at a store and people show up who have read your stories and they have strong feelings, saying you did this well or you did this not as well. I think, I don't know why, I wish that had been more fun. Or the occasions when I have the privilege of having a conversation with someone who vividly remembers an issue that I wrote, that their parent brought them when they were 12-years-old home in bed and 30 years later they’re able to remember the cover of it, how they felt about it emotionally, and why that started them reading comics. Also by the way, they’ve lived this really interesting life, doing creative work themselves now and their doing work I am a fan of in some other field. Life doesn’t get any cooler than that.
Speaking of those ardent fans, can the people who fiercely debate characters and the intention behind their stories find all answers within the books?
Hm, well the purpose of the book is not to live within the fiction. There are other DC projects that have been done over the years, encyclopedias and the like that live within the fiction as it’s created at a particular moment in an attempt to give a definite point of view, saying this is the official origin of the character as of today. That wasn’t the mission here and it wasn’t a possible mission when you are looking at something over a 75-year-period that has evolved and changed. In many ways the characters have become folkloric in that we recognize the essence of them but we’re comfortable with the somewhat different retellings. The story Smallville is not the same story as in the Chris Reeves movies or as it is in this month’s issue of Superman comics. But we recognize Superman in all of them and we’re comfortable with all of those creative people who are in some way or another acknowledging each other’s work and respectful of it.
Some people don’t know you have been a professor at Columbia and Pace University, teaching classes in transmedia storytelling and publishing. Incorporating your academic background into the comic book world, you once said that the skill sets of writing fiction, nonfiction, or marketing communications are reflections of each other. Can you expand that idea?
Sure, it basically comes out of how I work with my students in the writing courses. When you hit kids of a college age one of the base concepts that I try to convey is the importance of writing and storytelling within their lives because they haven’t yet usually been introduced to the idea that writing is a skill, storytelling is a skill that spills out from English class. They’re still in many cases mentally assigning it the same utility in life as algebra. As most adults learn over the years, particularly ones that get into interesting lines of work, storytelling becomes a very important part of what you do, whether it’s making a case for a business, or whether you’re trying to convince your boss to give you more funding for whatever you want to do. And certainly writing and storytelling for entertainment and information are finally important things for society, so I try to introduce a certain amount of the interconnectedness. One of the ways I spend time talking about that, I talk about poor Steve Jobs occasionally as an example and I’ll point out to the kids Steve Jobs as he was presented to the world was just to some extent an invented figure, an avatar. Not in the sense that it was a lie, but in the sense that this is clearly a polished identity that served powerfully as a spokesperson for Apple and whether it was physically how he presented himself, wearing the trademark black turtle neck routine, or the emphasis on his concern on design, there was a clear story being communicated. I don’t know whether that was Jobs’ own definition of himself as time went on or whether or not that was inspired by the great PR person, marketing person, or whether that emerged from something some writer wrote about him years ago that he looked at and said ok if they’re looking at me that way, that’s working, they’re respecting me because of that, let me work with that image. I try to use that to get the kids to think about the concept that nonfiction and fiction is fundamentally related. If you are reporting a story, you define the who, what, where, when, how, classic stuff you learned in journalism school. But if you’re creating a character, you need to know who, what, where, when, how too. And it there are really two sides to the same coin.
That's genius. How do you think the different characters of DC relate to that idea?
Oooph. That idea is probably worth a whole series of books. The stories are so complex. You look at Batman, and I just did an essay for an update of a book that the British Film Institute published a few years ago where I did about 4,000 on just why Batman is the most protean of the superheroes. There have been thousands of Batman stories. There have been dozens of important creators, never mind guys like me who wrote a couple of stories along the way but people who defined the character, whether a writer or an artist of the era, the number of influences are enormous and you really would have to dive in deeply and analyze to think about the things that happened in Denny O'Neil’s life that lead him as a former journalist for example, as a guy who had at least briefly been on a crime beat in his youth to craft the kinds of story of Batman that he did and at the time that he did versus the things that let Frank Miller as a young creative person in this field to have the fire to do a Dark Knight Returns and to introduce a level of politicization, a different social outlook. Some of it is a difference in generation, the medium and it’s openness, but some of it is in fact who the creators were, just as you were asking. It’s a long analysis, and I’m not sure you could ever get it right. The most challenging thing I think from a scholarly standpoint is always trying to address authorial intent because speaking as a creator, as people analyze my stories I often find people find meaning I didn’t know was there and sometimes it has revealed something that was going on in my subconscious or sometimes I think Uh, what are you talking about?
Influential comic book artist Joe Kubert appears in the work. What does he talk about?
We spoke a little bit about his early years, his interesting observations about the era when he came into the field, whose reputation or whose later work was not as important as their early work and why he thought that to be the case. We talked about the being an artist and how computer technology changed the field. It’s a number of pages long. We weren’t able to exhaustively look at Joe’s enormous career, but I tried in each of the interviews for these volumes to capture the personality of the person and have that come through because these are all people I knew well and also to capture something of the moment and really focus in on things that would be of specific interest to people who were passionate about that particular era and Kubert was an important figure in the field for six or seven decades. It was an astounding career Joe had. But I tried to concentrate mostly in the Golden Age volume interview on things that in some way or another related to his Golden Age experience.
What are the craziest fan dedication to superheroes you remember?
I think one of the most interesting categories that I’ve ever seen is what happens sometimes with sketchbooks. One of the neat things that goes on in comics again because how accessible we are is that there are serious fans who take giant sketchbooks and go to comic conventions and either invite or commission artists to create work around reoccurring themes. So many of them ask the artist to draw whatever they feel like on a given day, and those are fun, nice, and pretty. But over the years, I’ve seen everything like one lady whose sketchbook is composed of asking the artist to draw a comic book character eating his or her favorite food. The wit in the individual drawings is so astounding, of course they’re all moments you wouldn’t naturally see in the comics themselves. The artist stops and thinks about who the character is, and you get a joy out of that. There are also sketchbooks that are entirely draw my favorite character in not suitable for work pictures. But I think that sort of scene where people see the world of these characters is a wonderful thing. In many ways, it’s the greatest tribute because there are people who work on these projects for years.
How do you feel about the future of digital comics?
I think it’s a wonderful moment in the comic world. At least in America, there’s more diverse material being created today using the comics form than ever in history and new things are popping up every single day. The young generation of readers that have matured have pleasure and visual imagination and they really don’t see a boundary in the medium, so they enjoy it as memoir, journalism, genre-fiction... they’re even starting to experience it in educational mode, with more and more textbooks using comics file material to convey information. And I think we’re just at the beginning at that enormous explosive growth. It’s wonderful to watch.