I’ve been writing this book for ten years, and it’s hard to believe it’s finally done. At over 160,000 words, Classics on Infinite Earths is the longest book Sequart’s ever published.
Flashback: it’s 2005, and Sequart has just published my Improving the Foundations. It was Sequart’s first book (and also the first ever written on Chris Nolan’s Batman movies). For my follow-up, I had the idea of trying to establish a canon of classic DC Universe stories. I had the sense that people knew of a few major stories, but the idea of a “canon” was still rather amorphous. Even for the more famous stories, readers were lacking the kind of guidebook that could contextualize those stories in terms of DC history, as well as offering some informed critical interpretations. Other stories would be easy to miss.
This was before internet lists seemed to dominate search results, but I had the idea that people liked lists. A numerated list of classics could help make the material approachable. It could point readers to works they hadn’t read. It could also serve as a starting point for deeper critical discussion of these works and for the process of hashing out a literary canon.
The format also had the advantage of grounding the discussion of these characters in stories. I feel like we too often talk about characters in the abstract. Batman is supposed to be this way, Superman that. Or we talk about characters’ histories in a way that can seem a little antiseptic. That’s inevitable, to some degree. But the reality is that character is a function, or even a side effect, of story. Otherwise, you could reduce a character to a file card or a list of characteristics. That’s not character. We care about these characters because of the stories that reveal character. So I wanted to suggest, in a kind of subversive way, that the focus shouldn’t simply be on how cool a given character, or intellectual property, was on its own. If Superman didn’t have cool stories written about him, the character might have a lot of potential, but we wouldn’t love him. Characters mean something because of the hard work of their creators, who have produced stories we remember. Grounding a study of DC’s characters in stories could create a format for analysis that would be uniquely accessible to readers, but it might also hint that super-hero comics are a literary endeavor, in which the key unit was the story rather than an abstract piece of intellectual property.
I actually completed a full draft of the book. It had chapters covering the major characters and teams, along with a couple potpourri chapters covering everyone else. The book clocked in at around 300 pages, and we offered it for sale at the 2006 New York Comic-Con.
That really should have been the end of this story. But instead of making the book available for wider release, I decided to tweak and expand it. And I kept doing so for almost ten years.
One of the things I wanted to do was to expand the analysis. A 300-page book couldn’t go as deep as I wanted, and I felt like I’d shorted works that deserved more attention and space.
Another thing I wanted to accomplish was to expand the “other works” section at the end of each character’s list. Originally, this section was a way to make “honorable mentions,” or discuss material that didn’t make the cut and why. But inevitably, this involved discussing a character’s evolution or larger history. The way this “other works” section works now, readers have finished a detailed discussion of the most classic stories, and then get to see how those works fit into the overall history of a character or a team. Discussing those classic stories naturally involves a discussion of context, such as what was happening with that character or with the DC Universe at the time. But the “other works” section now offers a much broader context. “Honorable mentions” are indeed discussed, along with why they don’t quite reach the status of a classic, but they’re placed within a study with deeper historical breadth.
Of course, I also wanted to update the book’s contents. One of the problems with a book like this is that more material is always being published. While few new works are classics, some are worth consideration, and that “other works” section needs constant updating. Also, new stories often need to be noted in discussing older ones; for example, in discussing Batgirl in The Killing Joke, it’s worth noting that she returned to being Batgirl in the 2011 DC relaunch. Time and time again, I’d make major progress on the book, only to have to stop (usually due to other Sequart duties), and by the time I got back to the book, lots of updates needed to be made.
Over the course of these ten years, the project evolved in a few key ways (besides expanding those “other works” sections). Originally, each character or team got five or ten classics listed in order; Superman and Batman got ten, and everyone else got five. Perhaps as early as 2006, I realized this was rather arbitrary and decided to let myself have 6 or 11 or 14 classics, or however many I felt like talking about. I also learned to relax about the specific rankings; everyone was going to disagree anyway, as we do when discussing classic novels or movies. My own rankings have changed over time, and surely will continue to do so. The point isn’t to nail down specific rankings permanently, so much as offer a tentative and reasonable list, along with the analysis that might serve to further the discussion.
Inevitably, a project like this involves balancing objective or consensus evaluations with one’s own opinions, and I do my best to present counter-arguments fairly and completely, in order to kind of describe the critical terrain, while also offering my own thoughts.
Also, that single 300-page book? It split into a whole series of books. You see, it’s been ten years and it’s still not done. At 428 pages, Classics on Infinite Earths only covers the Justice League and DC’s universe-wide crossovers (which flow naturally from discussion of the Justice League). If the book’s a success, there’ll be subsequent volumes — all of which have drafts going back to 2005.
But don’t let that dissuade you. If you’re relatively new to DC’s characters, I’m confident that you will know the DC Universe remarkably well by the time you’re done. If you’re intimately familiar with DC history, I’m confident that you’ll find context and analysis that’s new to you, expanding your appreciation.
For example, the book concludes with a study of every single DC universe-wide crossover, showing how this format evolved. Each crossover corrected (and over-corrected) the flaws of the previous one, and each reflected the changing tastes of super-hero comics. It’s a longitudinal study in managing a shared universe, offered precisely as cinema is giving birth to its own shared super-hero universes. The section concludes with a quantitative analysis of every single DC universe-wide crossover, complete with a chart.
That probably sounds either insane or really cool to you. But I promise, I’ve taken great pains to make the writing accessible; I’ve kept the jargon and citations to a bare minimum, in order to make a book that, while really big, is also a pretty easy read.
It’s hard to think that this has really taken me ten years. In these ten years, I completed a doctorate and a second master’s degree. I moved twice. My politics have evolved; my perspective on everything has evolved. In 2006, I was pushing 30, had been thinking about comics my entire life, and felt like I had a lot to say. Now, I’m pushing 40, and I feel like I’m downloading my brain, trying to put all these observations onto the page before I die or lose the energy for this kind of massive project.
I hope you like the book. I hope it serves some purpose. I hope it’s fun and that you’ll learn something, or at least feel your thoughts stirred. But if nothing else, the book is big enough to use to swat bugs or to serve as a door stop, even in paperback. We are talking, after all, about a 400-plus-page deep dive into super-hero history, and it’s comforting to think it might be put to some refreshingly practical use.