REFLECTIONS: Kurt Busiek, Part I

Welcome to the 250th anniversary installment of REFLECTIONS!

The anniversary column kicks off a multi-part interview with comic superstar Kurt Busiek, currently helming DC Comics' newest yearlong weekly comic book series "Trinity," now on its seventh issue.

"Trinity" is a self-contained epic storyline that focuses on DC's "trinity" of icons: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Each issue is split into two short stories, with Busiek writing the first and co-writing the second with Fabian Nicieza. In addition, Mark Bagley is illustrating a story in every issue, while the rotating team of Scott McDaniel, Mike Norton and Tom Derenick illustrate the backup stories. You can learn more about the ongoing storyline of Trinity in CBR's TRINGENUITY, a weekly analysis and commentary of the yearlong title.

This week in REFLECTIONS, Busiek talks about the very mixed critical reaction to "Trinity," structuring and pacing a weekly book, and his relationship with DC Comics editorial. Next week, Busiek gets into specifics about Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, their motivations and what's happening next. It's everything about "Trinity" you can't find anywhere else, and it starts now...


CBR: How is "Trinity" shaping up right now behind the scenes?

Kurt Busiek: We're solidly into the second act. The first act's almost fully penciled and may be fully penciled by the end of this week. We're doing very well, schedule-wise. Or at least, so they tell us! Mark Bagley's getting better every chapter and his speed's amazing. He went on vacation -- and apologized, because while he was on vacation he only did a page a day.

With "Trinity" a little into its second month, how would you gauge the reaction thus far?

I've seen an amazing range of reactions, from "I love it! This is the weekly book I have been waiting for!" to "Don't they learn anything? Why are they forcing this crap on us?"

It's interesting to see. Some famous playwright said, "If you believe your good reviews, you have to believe your bad as well, so don't believe any of them." My view has always been that it's worth looking the reviews and seeing what people have to say. Some of the people who love it will be wrong because they love it but miss the point of what they are seeing. Some of the people who hate it will be wrong because they are blind to it and angry about something else entirely. But there will be people who both like and dislike it for reasons that are solid and well founded, and I like to get that feedback, good or bad.

My experience with a lot of projects has been that if I get great reviews I get not-so-huge sales. Or I get mixed reviews and strong sales. I figured out that the stuff with the low sales and great reviews are the books where the only people who buy it are the people who really, really want to read it, who want my take on it, or the artist's take, since it's unique. The stuff that's higher-profile, but gets more mixed reaction, attracts a lot of readers who want it for some other reason than the creative team, and are more likely to say, I want this, but different.

Naturally, it's best to get both the great sales and the great reviews, but I only get to do that now and again. Trinity is one of the mixed-reaction books, at least so far.

Do you think that because "Trinity" stars DC's big three in it, more fans will pick it up without caring about the creative team?

There are a lot of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman fans out there who will pick up a book solely because their favorite's in it. They may yell and fuss at the way the character is being treated in the book, but they'll still read it because they love Wonder Woman, or whomever.

The higher profile a project you're doing, the higher percentage of the audience wants it to be like something they remember fondly from two years ago/ten years ago/thirty years ago. They have an ideal in their minds that can't be present in the book, and they get angry because it doesn't match the ideal. But if it did match their ideal, it's violate of some other group of readers' ideals. That's just how it goes.

When you're doing a high profile book, you get the full range of readers, and therefore a fuller range opinions and criticism. That doesn't mean that books like "Arrowsmith" are necessarily better books, it just means that more people loved that one for what it was because they had no other preconceptions, no previous incarnation that they wish it was more like.

For the first couple of weeks, all I heard about "Trinity" was how terrible it was. And now I'm hearing more people saying "No, we like this! It's fun!" The people who don't like it are still there, but the people who do like it are stepping up and making their voices heard, and it's nice to see that happen.

Up until now, our backup stories have been connected to the lead, but usually loosely, since we're still setting things up. Soon they'll start connecting much more to the leads and readers will see what we're building on those foundations. They see a lot of what's going on, where we're headed and it'll be interesting to see how that changes the reactions.

It's been quite a ride so far, though, positive and negative.

After the all but universal loathing of Spider-Man's "One More Day," in which Peter Parker and Mary Jane's marriage was erased from history, it took some months before readers began saying that "Brand New Day," the post-"One More Day" status quo, wasn't half bad. Similarly, do you suspect some of the criticism of "Trinity" is "Countdown" fallout, with that DC weekly serious being so poorly reviewed?

It might be. But there are also people out there who didn't like "Countdown" and are enjoying "Trinity" because they think it's much better. And of course there are people who didn't like "Countdown" and still don't like "Trinity" because it isn't "52."

Everyone has their own tastes. I wouldn't dream of writing off the early reaction entirely to "Countdown" fatigue because then I'd be saying say that no one can legitimately dislike it. It just might not be their cup of tea, you know? That's a completely fair reaction.

Looking back at the first few issues of "Trinity," how do you feel about them?

Pretty good.The creative experience is that if you get on paper 70% of what you had in your mind, you're doing well. And the nature of collaboration is that some of the things you put down will come out better, and some things you thought would be great would only be functional. If we were starting over today, there are things we would do differently. And five issues into that, we would look back and still want to change things. You always feel like there's more you could do once a book sees print.

But I think we're doing well. If there is anything I think we stumbled over early on, I think it's that we had a little bit of a slow beginning. Slow beginnings are not unusual to me. "Thunderbolts" #1 has a huge hook at the end, but that also had over three times the material that we had in one lead chapter of "Trinity." There is a fairly slow build to that hook -- and it's still the single best hook I've ever written in my career, so I don't expect to hit one of those every project.

In a 52-issue series, there are a lot of foundations to set. But while you're setting them up, readers aren't sure of how events are going to affect the series in later issues. I'm looking at it from the long view, and they're looking at it from the point of view that they just spent three bucks on an issue and want it to be rolling right out of the box, they want it to pay off on their investment.

I think we've been having a fun mix of tones so far. There's been a big superhero adventure in the front and mystery, suspense and magic in the back. I think the book looks wonderful. Even when I look at it and think that we could have gone through things faster, I also think what that would have cost us in terms of the visuals. We wouldn't have had the room to establish things and let Mark Bagley do the wonderful action shots he has done if we rushed.

So I fret about it all, but I think it's building nicely.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer now that you are into the second act of this weekly series?

Ask me next June. I'm still in the middle of it, and I can't step back and say what I've learned. Whatever I'm learning, I'm learning it right now. I'm in the trenches with deadlines every seven days, having fun and watching the surprises come around.

There's also the matter of pacing. We're doing 22 pages a week, but it's not really 22 pages; it's 12 and 10. If you get as much action out of those 22 pages as you would out of a regular 22-page comic, and as much mood and mystery, then does it deliver the same kick? Or does it maybe feel like oil and vinegar, because they don't mix the right way? You've got all the action in one chapter, all the exposition in another? That balance is something we're figuring out as we go, too.

We need to build up enough momentum and promise, every issue, to bridge that seven-day gap. The fact that the gap is only seven days is an advantage because it's less than the 30 or 60 days other series deal with. So your answers are coming faster, but you've still got to deliver the mysteries. We have to hit the ground running every chapter and be moving like a rocket by page 12 so the momentum carries the reader through. In some ways, it's beneficial to have that faster pace, but then you also have the shorter chapters, so there's less room in each segment. I think we're finding way to make it work well, though, and it's a kick to play with the pacing and see how it fits on the page.

It's odd -- every weekly book DC has done, they've done in a different way. We aren't building on what "Countdown" did, and "Countdown" didn't build on what "52" did. "52" figured out how to do a gang-written story. "Countdown" figured out how to do it with a head writer and sub-writers rotating in and out. And here we are figuring out how to do a weekly book with one main writer, one co-writer and two chapters per issue. Every year we build a new machine, and I can't decide whether that is a cool thing or a ghastly mistake. Also, because I didn't work on the last two, I don't know the lessons Mark Waid and Geoff Johns learned. I wasn't there.

How are you dealing with the workload?

I'm not having trouble with the workload. We have much more structure here. It's me, Fabian, [editor] Mike Carlin, one artist and three backup artists. That's four pencillers, two writers, one editor and an assistant editor. That's a total creative gang of eight people. I'm leaving out the inkers and colorists, of course, and their work's very important, too, but they're not in the immediate mix of creators that I deal with day to day.

"52" had four writers, so they had twice as many writers to start with. They had an editor and assistant editor, and that's six guys before they even had any art on the page. Then they had Keith Giffen [producing layouts], and quite a few pencillers. The number of people working on one issue was much larger than it is for us. It's no wonder they were climbing the walls before they were done with it; every one of those scripts was gang-written, and needed so much committee work and coordination.

But here, I'm solo writing the leads and co-writing the back-ups with Fabian. That's one guy on one end of the phone and one guy on the other. This is not to say that by the time I'm working on issue 48 I won't sound like I want to shoot somebody, but it doesn't feel like it so far.

We're also not pushing as big a rock up the hill. "52" was trying to fit in a hole in continuity where both sides of the hole had been defined. "Countdown" spun into some things, out of other things, connected to things, disconnected from things, built up to things, built off of things; there must have been a hellacious amount of editorial coordination involved. With "Trinity," the big event is act three. It's our story. We don't have coordinate things with "Batman RIP" or "Final Crisis" or "Blackest Night" or the Manazons, or whatever else comes down the pike. All of these things can go on separately, but we're on our own -- so the amount of meetings and discussions and coordination is much simpler for us.

Let's talk a little bit about your editor, Mike Carlin.

We work in a very traditional manner. Mike probably puts the bulk of his effort into coordinating the artists, which he's very used to doing -- he was the "Superman" triangle-era editor [when the then-four "Superman" books came out weekly and their storyarcs bled into one another], and has a lot of experience in that area. But writing-wise, it's just a normal approach. We ran an outline for the series and arcs past Mike, he had some comments, then we started writing.

When I turn in a plot, if Mike has any concerns he'll bring them up, but he normally doesn't because he knows what's coming. I'm a pretty experienced writer, so he's confident in what's going to get from me -- and then on top of that, there aren't any continuity landmines for us spinning out of other series, so he doesn't have to tell me to change much to fit in with other books.

Working on a weekly book with Mike isn't particularly different from working on a monthly book. Just faster.

Come back to CBR and REFLECTIONS next week for more with Kurt Busiek.

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