Assembling "The Essential Superman Encyclopedia"

Fri, December 3rd, 2010 at 5:58am PST

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer
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Superman's history through June 2010 is profiled in "The Essential Superman Encyclopedia"

When Del Rey Books decided to create the definitive reference guide to Superman, they needed the right man for the job. In comic book veterans Robert Greenberger and Martin Pasko they found two of them. With years of experience and a wealth of knowledge about the industry and its most well-known icon, Del Rey had found their men.

Greenberger has worked for both Marvel and DC Comics in various editorial capacities in addition to working as a journalist and editor for many years, and was an editor at Starlog Press before joining DC. He served as the Director of Publishing Operations for Marvel under Joe Quesada and then later Senior Editor for Collected Editions at DC. As a writer he is responsible for more than a dozen novels and nonfiction books including 2008’s “The Essential Batman Encyclopedia.”

Pasko is a writer with a long list of credits to his name in animation, television and comics. He wrote for “Max Headroom,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “The Twilight Zone,” in addition to cartoons like “Thundarr the Barbarian,” “The Tick,” “G.I. Joe” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” He was an Emmy Award-winning story editor on “Batman: The Animated Series” in addition to his comics work which include stints on “Superman,” “Justice League of America,” and a revamp of JSA hero Dr. Fate.

The two writers spoke with CBR News about their new book, perhaps the most essential and complete book about a comics character as has ever been published.

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CBR News: What is your earliest memory of Superman?

Robert Greenberger: Mom said I received a Superman comic when I was six but couldn't begin to guess which one it was. No, my earliest memories were watching reruns of “The Adventures of Superman” on WPIX in New York City. Those proved inspirational in several ways, from picking my first glasses frames to resemble the ones George Reeves wore on the show to becoming a journalist and writer.

Martin Pasko: The 1950s television show. I didn’t really like it all that much as a kid, but I did like the Superboy comics that my father’s barber had at his shop. It took me a few years to figure out they were the same character. [Laughs] That was my first exposure. Basically my primary frame of reference was the Weisinger stuff of the late sixties before the transition that occurred when Julie Schwartz took the books over.

Greenberg and Pasko's book is the definitive Superman history

Mr. Pasko, you’ve written Superman over the years across a number of different media, as you mentioned. What is it about the character that you find so fascinating?

Pasko: It’s difficult for me to answer the question without sounding like an egomaniac. I have a unique personal background that parallels the character’s in a number of different ways. I was adopted at a very early age by people who were much older than the parents of my contemporaries. I was taken from my homeland, Canada, and brought to the United States and grew up thinking of myself as being Canadian because my parents were always honest with me about being adopted but I had no memory of my homeland. When I started reading the comics as a kid, I could really relate to that idea of having an identity that is the identity you were given, but you don’t really feel that it is your identity, because you have this awareness of having come from another place. The fantasy of Superman being able to gain glimpses of Krypton, which is something that was being introduced in the books when I was first reading them, is something that was very appealing to me. That’s the only reason why I can explain that that character, more than any other superhero that I also like, spoke to me so much. It’s not very illuminating about the character. [Laughs]

As far as what I find most interesting about the character, I was always very attracted to the tragic dimensions of the character. Various retcons have lightened it a little bit and moved away from that. I differ from some of the other writers who believe that Clark Kent is the real character and Superman is the construct. To me, Kal-El of Krypton is the real character and both Superman and Clark Kent are constructs. He has to create these identities. He has to fabricate these identities in order to move among the people that he loves. There’s always that inbuilt alienation. The Superman I grew up with was the Superman who was burdened by that trope of he couldn’t have a normal relationship with Lois Lane because she disdained Clark Kent and he couldn’t get involved with her as Superman because his enemies might strike at her to get at him. All of that in recent years with the consummation of the relationship and the marriage ultimately has been turned on its head.

Also the tragic dimension of for all of his power he cannot do the thing that was most important to him, save his parents from death. When I wrote "Action Comics" #500, 'The Life Story of Superman,' I hit that pretty hard because I always thought that was dramatically very, very powerful. That was undone in the Byrne retcon by having the parents stay alive. I understand the logic behind all of these changes. I’m not making any argument for or against them. All of these treatments of the character are equally valid. But what happens is at some point, or rather at various points in the course of continuity, certain readers become less interested or more interested in the character depending on how the story values change.

One of the things that has always changed back and forth throughout the long history of the character is just how alone in the world Superman is. Every so often someone goes, "We ought to get back to the idea of the Last Son of Krypton," and the superfluidity of the survivors of the destruction of the planet are weeded out or eliminated. Every time the character moves in the direction of being pretty much the lone Kryptonian it’s not long before Supergirl shows up, or you have a new Krypton storyline. Of course more recently the “New Krypton” storyline is as much of a comfort to the character as anything that Weisinger came up with the bottle city of Kandor and the trips back in time where Superman in his phantom self could see his parents. All of those devices have their corollary in more recent inventions. They’ve just upgraded and put a more modern and perhaps darker spin on the idea of Krypton. It’s all equally valid and equally interesting and any Superman fan will tell you that. It’s just that it’s different.

If you look over the long history of the character, you can see how those themes have been emphasized, de-emphasized, revisited and revised and reworked for the sensibility of the era in which they’ve been reintroduced. I think that’s one of the most interesting things about the encyclopedia. If you just sit and read it what you get is a kind of tour of ideas which are so rich and so inventive that they have stood the test of time in the sense that none of them ever really gets too old hat, too old fashioned, too old school. They can always be fresh. There’s a universal appeal to them.

Mr. Greenberger, you wrote “The Essential Batman Encyclopedia,” which came out in 2008, in addition to a number of other major reference books on the DCU and other characters. How did you first get involved in these projects?

Greenberger: One of the reasons DC Comics first hired me in 1984 was my working knowledge of the characters and their continuity. Since then, I have, like Marty [Pasko], been one of DC's Go To sources for information. Having served as the editorial department's continuity cop for some time along with my editorial experience, I have always been asked by other departments to help with material. That did not change when I left staff, as I did work the legal, licensing, and special projects departments. As the Licensed Publishing department grew and began selling projects, I was a logical candidate to be considered. This first manifested itself when, while still on staff, I was asked to help co-author “The DC Comics Encyclopedia” for DK Publishing. That work was well received enough that more opportunities were offered.

The book is a companion to Del Rey's Batman and Wonder Woman encyclopedias

How did you come to be involved on this particular project and what made you say yes?

Pasko: I’ve been associated with Superman in a number of different media and I had been doing some work for the DC Licensed Publishing division. I have to confess I was ignorant when I signed on to just how complex the mythology has become. I’ve written Superman intermittently. I wrote the comic books for a couple years. I wrote a syndicated strip. The most recent thing I had done were some webisodes when I was on staff at DC in the early 2000s. All of that was outside of established continuity. Once I started getting into all of the various retcons and once they started to define just how completist the project was, it was more than I could do in my schedule so Bob Greenberger came aboard and actually did the lion’s share of work on the project.

Greenberger: When Emily Lerner first offered me "The Essential Batman Encyclopedia," it was to be the first in the projected trilogy that has now seen print from Del Rey. Marty made perfect sense for the Superman edition, as did Phil Jimenez for the Wonder Woman book. With Batman the first scheduled, I began writing, setting the tone and editorial approach to the subject matter.

Over time, though, it became clear that Marty and Phil found the material more difficult to sift through, absorb, and address, resulting in scheduling delays. When both cried uncle, project editor Chris Cerasi turned to me and John Wells, respectively, to pitch in.

In my case, I happened to have a hole in my schedule and was literally able to begin work the next day. Marty and I stayed in close contact throughout, making this a painless transition.

What made me say yes was that my friend needed help, I wanted to keep my hand in on the project to keep the books as consistent as possible, and I needed the work. I began writing in late February 2009 and was finished in June 2009. Then it became a matter of reviewing the edits, reviewing the copyedits and proofreading the galleys. At the first two stages, I was afforded the opportunity to go back in and update the relevant entries, allowing the book's information to be current through June 2010.

How does one even start a project like this? I mean that seriously, because it is such a vast undertaking. I think most of us would sit in front of a pile of comic books and become immobile and confused.

Pasko: We had in all three of these books, the jumping off place of the original books that Michael Fleischer did in the seventies. The project originated as an updating and extension of them. And then as they went forward, they became a little bit different. Stylistically the books are very very different in that Michael Fleischer essentially tried to synopsize every single story. For example in his Kryptonite entry, you have what amounts to a laundry list of uses of kryptonite and one lines like “In September of 1943 Luther discovers a way to synthesize kryptonite and trap Superman with and blah blah blah. Then in October 1944 kryptonite appears again...” This is how the entries read and we obviously didn’t go in that direction.

Greenberger: Marty had a working list following a more limited editorial conceit than I used on Batman. The first thing I did was take Marty's list and expand it so the three volumes worked as a unit. Once Marty, Chris and I agreed on the revised A-Z line-up, Marty showed me his completed entries so I could attempt to match tone.

Marty is and always will be a far better wordsmith than me. I'm trained as a journalist and tend towards facts over emotions, going for brevity of language whereas Marty wonderfully uses the vocabulary to paint pictures. Try as I might, I could not match that, although I did try and therefore think the Superman book is better written than the Batman offering.

I pulled out all my collected editions and bookmarked about a dozen different websites. Then, beginning with the first chapter required of me, I did all the research on those entries. Once complete, I went back to the beginning and began writing the entries. As they were finished, I ran them by ace researcher/collaborator and true friend John Wells before polishing and delivering to Chris.

Marty and I went back and forth trying to come up with common ways to reference the repetitive cosmic events such as the various Crisis crossovers and destruction of Krypton.

Both authors have a long history in comics, including recent works for Stone Arch

What were the limitations, restrictions and guidelines as far as crafting this both from DC and Del Rey?

Greenberger: Chris and Del Rey trusted me on this given the completed Batman project and how well it was received. As a result, I clearly wanted this to be as comprehensive as possible for characters from 1938 through 2010 who were part of one recognized DC mythos or another. [Editor] Matt Idelson in the DCU was gracious in answering queries and keeping me apprised of various character status quos allowing the book to be contemporary.

Pasko: The way Del Rey asked us to structure the book, rather than making separate entries out of every iteration of a character or concept, they’re all lumped together in a single entry. Under Luthor, for example, you’ll get all the various iterations of Luthor and how they’re distinguished from one another is also made clear.

There is one entry I looked up and didn't find, and I can only imagine that it's either an insult or oversight. Superman has only ever lost to two people (and death isn't one of them). Doomsday is one. The other is Muhammed Ali. Why doesn't The Greatest have an entry in the Encyclopedia?

Pasko:My understanding about excluding Muhammed Ali was that we were excluding entries on actual living people or dead people. There are a number of real personalities that Superman has encountered over the years. Various pop stars, if they were clean enough for the comics code -- which left out Elvis Presley -- have met Superman over the years. Mort Weisinger was really into trying to get personal appearances of real celebrities in the books as a way of getting sales. There was a decision made early on to eliminate all that; just leave all that stuff out and treat it as non-canonical. I believe it was because of legal clearances. Except the perhaps most famous encounter with a real personality, and the most famous real personality, John F Kennedy. There’s an entry on JFK.

Greenberger: The Muhammed Ali story, as with any of the other Superman pairings with trademarked personalities are not part of the recognized DC multiverse, either the pre-Crisis one or the post-52 one. It's the same reason the Quik Bunny isn't here or the various Marvel heroes he's met through the years.

I know you both have done some just-published work on DC characters. Mr. Greenberger, you also have written the recently published "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" #20 which is the first comic you've written in some time. Mr. Pasko, you wrote the recent childrens book "Superman: Prankster of Prime Time." What was the origin of these projects and how were those experiences?

Greenberger: Stone Arch has a deal with DC Comics to publish 48 young reader titles and I was fortunate to write two Batman entries while Marty was lucky to work with Rich Burchett on his Superman offering.

The "B&B" assignment came about as I spent one afternoon poking my head in the DCU editorial offices, begging for work. [Editor] Mike Siglain said he'd give me a shot on that title and asked for pitches. I did up some springboards, we settled on the one [we eventually] used and I sat down to write. It was tremendous fun doing the script, although at first I was daunted because it's one thing to edit someone else's story and completely another to write one yourself. So far, the comments to date have been kind.

Greenberger recently penned an issue of "Batman: Brave & The Bold"

Pasko: Getting into kids books is something that I’m working on doing right now. I have an eleven year-old daughter and my wife is an educator. Two friends of mine, Bob Greenberger and Paul Kupperberg, had done a lot of stuff for Stone Arch and I pitched them. I’m hopeful of being able to do some more stuff for them. I have a background in doing a lot of comics-oriented material and animation for kids. It seemed to work out reasonably well and we have a good relationship so that’s enjoyable work for me.

I miss, quite frankly, the kid friendly and accessible superhero and relatively non-violent superhero that I had when I was a kid. It doesn’t really exist that much anymore and I believe that there’s a market for it, but I don’t believe that the industry has successfully found it. Most of the kids lines that the major publishers who are in the superhero business produce are really not all that age appropriate at least in terms of language. I’m not talking about necessarily content.

We need to teach kids what goes on in the world, and to be aware of the world, but it’s important to send the message that in one’s day to day life, there are other ways to resolve conflict. Comics have the power to be a powerful means of communication and I think the industry has not found a way to effectively to use the power of the medium to reach kids. I don’t see why they can’t. That was the most interesting thing about writing the Prankster book. I deliberately chose a low power villain. There’s no real violence. In the encyclopedia, you see a lot of stories in the '40s were done on a different scale.

What else are you working on right now?

Pasko: I’ve had some projects in discussion at DC. Nothing definite. I was hopeful it would happen but restructuring has put a hold on them. I’ve done some consultant work on “75 Years of DC Comics” from Taschen. It’s huge, not that heavy, but an enormous coffee table book to beautifully reproduce the art. It’s the history of seventy-five years of DC Comics. I did some research and wrote, with a number of other people, the captions. Paul [Levitz] wrote the text on the seventy-five years of the company. It’s beautiful and I recommend it to anyone who can lift it.

Greenberger: My biggest writing project right now is the new edition of the Who's Who. I spent the summer of 2009, right after completing Superman, working on a new master character list and spent some of the first quarter of this year beginning to write entries. When the new management came in, things slowed down as they tried to figure out how best this book could serve the ever-evolving DC Universe. Work continues to proceed and there should be updated announcements in the near future.

Beyond that, I have several pitches circulating for prose and comics work. I have also started the process to obtain my teaching certification so I can double as a writer and a secondary education English teacher.

"The Essential Superman Encyclopedia" is on sale now from Del Rey Books.

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TAGS:  del rey books, dc comics, superman, martin pasko, robert greenberger

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