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June 22, 2008

CR Sunday Interview: Robert Greenberger



Preceding both the summer movie and Christmas gift-giving seasons, I seem to always receive a few review copies for books that exist to support comics and movie properties. I received a pair this summer: one for Iron Man and one for Batman. Essential Batman Encyclopedia is basically what it sounds like: a listing of names and settings described in prose form, an almost-terrifying barrage of past adventures both big and small in summary form. Because they seem to be a significant part of fan culture stretching back thirty or forty years, I always wondered how projects like these came together. I wrote the author Robert Greenberger to ask. Greenberger is a long-time veteran of the mainstream American comics industry, probably best known for high-profile gigs with Comics Scene magazine (in its first incarnation) and at DC Comics in the general orbit of their reprints department. He describes himself accurately as a journalist and entertainment writer with an interest in comics. He's also well-known to many for his commentary, which stretches beyond comics and industry issues into local politics and personal matters such as the treatments his son Robbie has been receiving for cancer. I enjoyed talking to him about this project and various, related issues.


TOM SPURGEON: Can you talk about the parameters of this project and its publishing origins? This is part of a series with Del Rey, if I remember correctly.

BOB GREENBERGER: All I know is that DC Comics and Del Rey started talking about this project back in the winter of 2006. I first heard about it that February at the " title="NY Comic Con">NY Comic Con but wasn't formally offered the project until September, which goes to show you how long it takes to sign a deal between companies.

SPURGEON: Do you know how they settle on you as the author?

GREENBERGER: I gather both Del Rey and DC thought of me as an option. No one ever explained the details but since I know the players at both companies, I guess I was a natural candidate.


SPURGEON: This is one of those books where the more you read it the more you may become astonished concerning the level of peculiar detail. Can you describe in as explicit a fashion as you can stand your work process on something like this? For instance, is it all index cards?

GREENBERGER: The first thing I was asked to do was create a master character list. We started with the Michael Fleisher Encyclopedia [The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes Volume One: Batman, Collier Books, 1976] as the base then I began adding in the characters introduced since then. To accomplish this, I must admit I used every on line resource I could think of, following link to link until I had a master list. DC then asked me to sub-categorize them into new and old entries, heroes, villains, equipment, locations and the like.

Once everyone signed off, I had to start researching and reading. To be honest, there was a lot of cutting and pasting from web sources just to get a lot of the facts in one place in addition to reading or rereading stories in order to get the flavor and tone right. While the research and assemblage occurred from A to Z, when it the research was done, I then sat and plowed through it from A forward with the exception of Batman himself, which I wrote last.

About six or eight letters in, I sat down for a course correction meeting with my editor Chris Cerasi, his boss, Steve Korte, and their colleague John Morgan. We talked about what was working, what wasn't working and how to adjust to improve clarity and conciseness. By then it was also obvious that the 200,000 word assignment was ludicrous so we agreed I'd write and they'd figure out how to handle the package.

I turned in the final chapters in August 2007 and spent the fall picking graphic recommendations and answering queries from the editor, copy editor and designers. I reviewed the copy-edited manuscript in December and then read galleys in February. The final work was writing captions for the two color sections in April and then we closed the book.


SPURGEON: You mention in your acknowledgments that you have a memory for Batman that's different than your son's. Did you find yourself favoring those periods in Batman's publication history for which you have a specific affection? How did you avoid playing favorites?

GREENBERGER: Good question. Fortunately, the era I grew up, Julie Schwartz's New Look, featured the return of the Rogues' Gallery plus new villains like Cluemaster and Blockbuster. All of these have continued to play major roles in the Batman comics ever since so there was little chance of playing favorites. What was tougher was doing justice to each would-be criminal mastermind and alien menace from the preceding decade. So many were non-descript and came and went with little impact. I honestly just wrote what I could about everyone and let the space fill naturally.

SPURGEON: How do you think the book is different for your involvement as opposed to an otherwise equally knowledgeable writer? Is there something about your sense of this character and his accumulated story that might be different than another person's?

GREENBERGER: I'm a trained journalist and experienced writer and editor who happens to love comic books. Say someone who wrote the Batman comic wrote this book. Their approach might not be as easy given the different writing training and experience. Having read the titles continuously since 1964 means I've read it for over half its run which gives me a good global perspective. I also can easily explain the parallel worlds and put each era into perspective which helps a great deal to the book's clarity.


SPURGEON: Where did the decision come from to be explicit in terms of referencing the continuity changes in brought about by the Crisis series? I'm not certain I've ever seen an official DC Comics product that was so matter of fact about where in the character's reality-shifting past each story took place. Did that add a level of difficulty to completing this work?

GREENBERGER: The decision was there from the outset, that this had to be an encyclopedia for today's readership, one that is familiar with every Crisis and continuity re-set. But it also had to be comprehensible to the more casual reader. It added a level of difficulty in terms of making clear which event caused which changes. I find it interesting that in Grant Morrison's approach to Batman, every story actually happened to this Batman as opposed to sloughing off years worth of stories and relegating them to pre-Crisis continuity. That to me is tough to swallow.

SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about John Wells, and what he did for the book? My understanding is that Wells is one of those people out there with a very thorough and specific base of comics knowledge, the kind of guy that all writers about comics access sooner or later. How is the book different if not for John Wells?

GREENBERGER: John graciously shared with me his comprehensive list of DC characters and their appearances. As a result, he broke them down by Earth-1, Earth-2, etc. and every variant under the sun. It was those lists that helped me identify all the parallel worlds list in the Absolute JLA/Avengers project and I was happy to have his help.

There came times when I could not for the life of me identify where an event occurred, such as Martha Wayne's social work and John was able to point me in a direction. Without him, and his lifelong research, I would have spent months more in basic researching and no doubt would have missed bits and pieces. As a beta reader, he pointed out where I garbled facts or missed something.

He remains the greatest underutilized resource for DC. Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid and I have repeatedly tried to have his work purchased by the company and have him put on some sort of retainer but it has never worked.


SPURGEON: From your perspective as a former collected editions editor, what are the best aspects about this decade's sustained interest in collections? Are there any less agreeable aspects to that end of the industry? Granted the full powers of Reprint Emperor, is there anything you'd do to steer that corner of the market differently?

GREENBERGER: The best aspects is that material from the last 65+ years is finally seeing the light of day to address the interests of fans of all ages. Just this week, I read how Fantagraphics was going to collect Wash Tubbs. How cool is that? DC and Marvel are finally mining the stories that proved influential or just plain fun to different generations. One of the collections I was most challenged to assemble and happiest with the results was the Greatest Imaginary Stories volume.

The less agreeable aspects is that there are so many stories from so many eras coming out that feature the same characters that the collections from DC and Marvel really need more introductory context so people understand what they're reading and why the collection exists.

As Reprint Emperor, I would probably try and come up with more comprehensive designs per character or imprint to make the spines more in harmony to make it easier for readers to find what they're looking for. I'd also play with formats from digests to discs.

imageSPURGEON: What's more contentious: the fictional politics of Gotham City, the behind the scenes machinations at your average giant comics company or the Fairfield political scene?

GREENBERGER: Funny! The politics of Gotham has a great consequence as they affect eight million people as opposed to Fairfield's 58,000 or a publishing company of 200. All provide great fodder for storytelling, though.

SPURGEON: Bob, to my recollection you've been living the freelance life for a while now since your departure from DC. With all the publishing interest in comics right now, have you been approached or tempted to jump back into the industry on that side of things?

GREENBERGER: Actually, Tom, I left DC and spent a year at Weekly World News until it went belly-up last August. I'm about to celebrate my first anniversary as a full-time freelancer and so far, so good. Since then, I have rarely been far from comics and have consulted for some company's, written for others. Am I tempted to go back to a full-time staff job? Sometimes I do think wistfully of the camaraderie found in an office. Since no one has made me a full-time offer, I also recognize that while I have things to offer, either right fit isn't there or they want people younger and cheaper. The last year has also taught me to never say never.

SPURGEON: Your family has been open about discussing the cancer treatments your son Robbie has been going through. What has the experience of being open about something so private been like for your family? For those who haven't followed your blog updates, how are things in general?

GREENBERGER: Robbie is completing his fifth and final round this coming week and then we await word if the entire course of treatment has been successful. We, and the doctors, are cautiously optimistic.

Writing about it gave me an outlet and allowed me to communicate with friends, colleague and family in a way that saved me the time of answering countless e-mails for months at a time. I fell into the Saturday updates and it allows me the time to reflect and gather my thoughts about where we've been and let's me share how proud I am of what he has endured. I never would have done it without his permission and he also saw it as a way to keep his own circle of friends apprised especially the weeks he wasn't up to much of anything more strenuous than Animal Planet.


SPURGEON: I've always wanted to ask someone who worked there -- what was your Weekly World News experience like?

GREENBERGER: Wild and chaotic and even more seat-of-your pants than Marvel under Bill Jemas. Our editor-in-chief Jeff Rovin would have us shoehorn in new stories the day before we were due on press. Our publishers sometimes changed their minds and wanted an entirely new cover story produced in two or three days. Yet, we got it down to a system where four of managed to edit, proof, layout and design the 48-pages every week without break too much of a sweat. The articles and columns rolled in, got scheduled and printed and we never had to stay late -- okay, maybe once or twice. We were all incredibly optimistic at the newspaper fortunes as licensing deals were getting signed and we were reshaping the magazine for new audiences and then we got canceled, largely because I don't think AMI ever understood the value of the brand until the week the news broke. It was an incredible delight and a heck of a lot of fun.

imageSPURGEON: if I remember correctly, you first worked close to comics with the first iteration of the magazine Comics Scene, which was a national distributed newsstand magazine about comics. First, what stands out the most about that experience? Do you feel you were ahead of your time? Second, how do you feel about the current state of publications that cover comics?

GREENBERGER: At 23, to create and edit something like that was amazing and certainly reassuring I was in the right field. Clearly, the magazine was ahead of the curve and had it debuted in 1986 when Crisis and Dark Knight and Watchmen
got comics a lot of attention, it might have thrived and remained in business. It was fun finding the balance between comics in the media, comic strips, new stuff, old stuff and what might be breaking news when my only competition back then was CBG.

The publications covering comics today are as reliant on the media incarnations as I was but I think they play favorites more, both with their personal interests and with whatever exclusive deals they could cut with a publisher. CBG is still hanging in there but clearly its time has passed and Wizard's day seems to be coming to an end, too. The real news and information about comics are the online sites and there are plenty for people to pick from for news, reviews and interviews so in many ways, it's never been a better time to be a fan since the information is a click or two away.

imageSPURGEON: What's next, Bob?

GREENBERGER: A few weeks back, I helped re-launch Famous Monsters of Filmland as a web-based magazine and have been its sole writer until some revenue pours in. Next week my novelization of Hellboy II: The Golden Army hits the bookstores. I continue to do project management for Jordan Gorfinkel's Avalanche Comics Entertainment, notably the web comic strip we produce for Microsoft. I've also completed young adult non-fiction projects on Christina Aguilera, Deserts, Early People of the arctic and Subarctic and the Bataan Death March.

Future projects include something and not-yet-announced new for DC, something and not-yet-announced new for Del Rey.


* cover to the new volume
* Batman's modern Rogue's Gallery
* Blockbuster
* one of the early Batman periods Greenberger folded into his reality-spanning book
* the Greatest Imaginary Stories cover art
* Gotham City
* the best newspaper there ever was
* later issue of Comics Scene
* Greenberger's next book


* Essential Batman Encyclopedia, Robert Greenberger, Random House Publishing Group, soft cover, 9780345501066 (ISBN13), 496 pages, June 2008, $29.95

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