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Friday with Kurt Mitchell and the Justice Society

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday with Kurt Mitchell and the Justice Society

I have to admit, when my old friend Kurt Mitchell first told me that he was back-burnering his new novel so he could work on a book indexing the Earth-2 adventures of the Justice Society, I thought he’d lost his mind. I thought, but didn’t say, An index? Of the adventures of a super-team whose premise has been so mired in continuity craziness that the publisher felt it necessary to blow up the entire fictional universe it inhabits rather than deal with it any more? Who’s going to buy a book like that? Jesus, Kurt, write the novel! You can actually SELL the novel! People read novels!

Except I have to eat some crow now, because Kurt sold the index after all. Well, sort of. And it’s extremely readable and fun.

When Julie and I drove down to Kurt’s to visit for New Year’s, as we always do, he had just gotten his contributor’s copies of The All-Star Companion Volume Two, a great big hunk of which is composed of Kurt’s indexing of Roy Thomas’ 80’s JSA work. We were of course delighted for our friend, and I resolved to get a copy the next time I was at my comics shop.

Now, I’m a huge fan of TwoMorrows Publishing. I love their stuff; the various artist-spotlight books, Write! and Draw! magazines, Alter Ego, all that. But I confess that when I bought my copy of the All-Star book it was more in the spirit of being supportive — just doing my brutha Kurt a solid. I didn’t really need an index to the JSA.

So it turns out that I have to eat even more crow, because the book is great fun. There are interesting historical articles from folks like Dennis Mallonee and the late Jerry Bails, an entertaining speculative piece from Mike Barr about pulp detective archetypes stolen for a JSA story, a viciously funny snarl from Frank Brunner about a JSA cover that’s been swiped/homaged/ripped off WAY too often… and, for most of the back half of the book, there’s our friend Kurt’s work summing up the adventures of the All-Star Squadron.

The whole thing is beautifully packaged and introduced and packed with running commentary throughout by editor Roy Thomas, who somehow manages to keep the entire enterprise bouncing with infectiously nerdy enthusiasm despite all the erudition and scholarship exhibited on every page. Profusely illustrated with rare artwork and even rarer photos, it’s a treat for the serious scholar or the casual fan.

In fact, it’s so interesting and diverting that I find myself thinking that I’m going to have to go pick up the first volume now, as well. And that’s coming from a fellow that didn’t really need one JSA index, let alone two.

So, because I thought it would be fun and because one of the perks of a column is getting to push nice work you like — and because, well, I feel guilty about being so sure this project of his would never amount to anything — I thought I’d let Kurt answer a few questions about the book and how his geeky index thing somehow morphed into a prestigious co-authorship gig with Roy Thomas. Kurt graciously agreed to be interviewed, and here it is.

*

Tell us about the book… what it is, exactly, who’s it for, anything else you’d like folks to know. How’d it come about? How’d you get involved?

The All-Star Companion books are an outgrowth of the TwoMorrows version of Roy Thomas’ pioneering fanzine, Alter Ego. Roy, of course, is one of the founding fathers of comics fandom as well as a former Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics and the writer of dozens of comics featuring the Justice Society of America and other Golden Age heroes for DC in the 1980s.

The first volume examines the original 1940-51 run of All-Star Comics, as well as hero and creator mini-bios, a look at Junior JSA memorabilia, an overview of other Golden Age super-teams and their literary precedents, speculation about three “lost” (scripted but never used) Gardner Fox stories and much, much more. The current volume, the first one I’ve been involved in, spotlights Roy’s ’80s JSA work (All-Star Squadron, America Vs the Justice Society, Last Days of the Justice Society) and also continues to look at the team’s Golden Age history.

I got involved in the project after meeting Roy at the 2005 Emerald City Con in Seattle. I mentioned (after a friendly nudge from our mutual pal Rob Allen) that I was working on my own JSA-related project. Roy invited me to send him a sampler of my work. A few months later, Roy wrote and asked if I’d like to contribute to a projected third volume of the series, condensing my own research into digestable summaries. I wasn’t originally slated to contribute to Vol. 2 but a deadline crunch left Roy unable to finish the issue-by-issue synopsis section of the book. Enter me. I also did some last-minute proofreading and fact-checking before the book went to press.

(Note from Greg — that’s right, Kurt Mitchell’s got enough DC continuity savvy that he fact-checks ROY THOMAS. I’m telling you, that’s some serious geek cred on the street.)

I know that originally you’d embarked on a history of the JSA/Earth-2 stories that were such a big part of the DC Silver Age. Is this still essentially that project, super-sized? Or is this a different animal completely?

My own project, The Collectors’ Guide to Earth-Two, overlaps Roy’s in subject matter but not in approach. He focuses more on the historical context, the creators and the behind the scenes stuff while I’m more into the world itself, the characters and their history as presented in the 400 or so Silver and Bronze Age comics featuring Earth-Two characters. Because I’m approaching the material as if it were real historical documents, I annotate at an insane level of detail beyond what Roy (who wants to sell his books, after all) has the time or space to pursue. My own work is on the back burner while I’m working with Roy but if all goes well I hope to have an online version of the Guide posted on the internet by late autumn of this year.

What’s collaborating with Roy Thomas like? How does that process work, what’s the division of labor there — who does what?

It’s been a great experience so far. Like all good bosses, Roy tells me what he wants and when he wants it, then leaves me alone to do it. In the case of my writing for Volume 2, I struggled with the first few synopses (figuring out which details epitomize the plot is hard work!) until Roy showed me, via his editors’ red pencil, how lean he wanted my prose. Most of our communication is via e-mail but we do occasionally talk on the phone.While Roy has been open to suggestion, I always keep in mind that this is his project and stay respectful of his vision.

Was there anything that surprised you, working on this project? Finding out things you didn’t know, or suddenly looking at old stuff a new way?

As I alluded to above, I was surprised at how much better my writing is after a little editorial polishing. I see so many comics fans treating editors as evil, as an affront to their (usually theoretical) artistic integrity, without understanding the editorial process at all. A good editor is like a good amplifier, filtering out the static to leave your signal crisp and clear. Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of bad editors in the comics industry, only that there’s nothing inherently bad about the job if done properly. As far as the Companion‘s subject matter, I learned a lot of new details about the creative process behind the comics covered but nothing I’d rate as a major revelation.

Who’s the target audience for this book? What do you hope readers come away with?

Both volumes are definitely written for the comics history buff but there’s plenty there to engage the casual reader too, including buttloads of original and previously unseen artwork. And for JSA fans, they’re absolutely indispensable.

What do I hope people come away with? A yen to go out and read the original comics. With all the Archives, Showcases and TPBs gathering the Golden Age and Earth-Two material into affordable collections, accessing them has never been easier.

I can see there’s quite a list of contributors here along with you and Roy — Frank Brunner, Mike Barr, Jerry Bails… did they come to Roy or does he come to you guys?

“You guys” magnifies my contribution to Volume 2 way out of proportion. Most of the other contributors are personal friends and former collaborators of Roy’s. He could tell you better than me how he solicits contributions, though from what I gather some (like my stuff) are commissioned and others (like Frank Brunner’s hilarious rant about the overly-homaged cover art of All-Star #3) originate with the contributor.

Is there going to be a volume three? What would that cover?

There is indeed. It’s tentatively scheduled for a November ’07 release. The contents are still up in the air but the plan is to cover Roy’s Young All-Stars and Secret Origins titles (I’ve already synopsized both runs), as well as various solo and guest appearances of the Earth-Two heroes, including the “Mr. & Mrs. Superman” and “Huntress”series.

(At the moment, I’m trying to condense 800+ pages of notes into a 3-4 page overview of Earth-Two history. Oy.) There will also be a look at the backup material from the original All-Star, interviews with Silver and Bronze Age creators and, if space permits, coverage of Infinity, Inc and post-Crisis JSA appearances. None of this is carved in granite, though, so my suggestion is to wait and be surprised. Whatever’s in it, it’ll be good!

*

And there you have it. Thanks again to Kurt for his time, and I’d urge you all to check out the new All-Star Companion; if you have any interest at all in the Justice Society I think you’d find it hugely entertaining, even if you’re not an enormous nerd like me. (For those of you that ARE enormous JSA nerds? It’s like crack. You can’t put it down.)

See you next week.

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