In 1986, DC had had enough and blew everything up. Their dynamite of choice was called Crisis on Infinite Earths and with it they attempted to ditch decades’ worth of their characters and stories and forge a brave new world. One year earlier they had begun to catalog their entire creative warehouse… and the very stuff they were planning to blow up.
Cue Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Bob Greenberger, and Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe.
Beginning in March of 1985, Wein served as Editor of Who’s Who through #13, with Wolfman as Contributing Editor, and Greenberger as Associate Editor. With #14, and Wein’s increasingly heavy workload drawing his attentions elsewhere, Greenberger took the reins as Editor of one of DC’s largest projects ever. He guided it though the remaining thirteen issues and the entire 5-issue 1987 Update. Greenberger then served as Consulting Editor for both the 1998 Update and the 1990 loose-leaf edition.
It’s been 20 years since the first go-round of the now-famous (or perhaps infamous) Who’s Who finished out its first twenty-six jam-packed issues. Twenty years later, Who’s Who is not only not forgotten, but quite frankly cherished by fans and professionals alike. It was an ambitious project: present and explain almost every single hero and villain who had ever graced a DC comic since 1938. And do it artistically. And make it fun.
I sat down with Bob recently and inflicted a series of rambling and unfocused questions upon him. He in turn gave me coherent and focused answers, stand-up guy that he is.
Jim Beard (JB): It’s been said that Who’s Who was DC’s answer to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, a similar A-Z compendium from 1983. True?
Bob Greenberger (BG): You’d have to confirm this with Len [Wein] or Marv [Wolfman], but as far as I know, the idea of the Who’s Who was a natural outgrowth of the Crisis planning. Just as [Marvel editor] beat us to the racks with Secret Wars, they scooped us with the Handbook.
JB: Did the Who’s Who project get off the ground fairly easily or was it a hard start?
BG: I came in on January 9, 1984, after Peter Sanderson spent two years reading and cataloguing every title in the DC print library, so a lot of the leg work was completed. From his notes a master character list was cobbled together which was expanded and contracted as we learned new information. Remember, we were announced as 24 issues but things developed and we wound up with 26.
JB: You got a promotion with issue #14. What happened?
BG: Len was transitioning from staff editor to freelance writer and there was no way he could manage all the moving parts that made up the Who’s Who from his apartment. Since I remained with Marv on the Crisis, it made logical sense to entrust the Who’s Who to me.
JB: It was a huge undertaking to be sure. Who came up with its exact format and scope?
BG: Again, check with Len and Marv, but I believe it stemmed from their fevered brains. Format developed after I arrived as assistant editor. We had our lists and began assigning lengths from one-page to two-page spreads, then counting to 32 pages and cutting off and issue’s worth of characters. We then adjusted to fit so some half-pagers got expanded or others got cut down. From there, we discussed the visual approach and with Production manager Bob Rozakis’ input, we came up with the background visuals being color surprints (that is, the black lines were reproduced in color). Art Director Neal Pozner joined in the fun as we came up with a grid approach to allocate space between text and art. Neal came up with the logo which included the Go-Go checks and the yellow dot pattern for the pages, which was inspired by the wallpaper used on the office hallways. From there, we then drafted three lengths of entries to try and reach the right balance. The three flavors of Aquaman, which was then presented to (then DC President) Jenette Kahn for input. She went for the shortest entry only to have Len and Marv decide to ignore the input and go for the middle length. From there, we did word counts for each length entry (half, single or spread) and began thinking about art choices.
JB: Which makes me think of those fantastic wraparound covers, each inhabited with an army of characters.
BG: Yes, the wraparound covers which George Perez ambitiously thought he could do all 24. When reality intruded that became the biggest headache every month. At first we thought Paris Cullins could do them given his manic style but he was having trouble keeping up with Blue Devil let alone a cover featuring a few dozen people. As you can tell, we got some great work from folk like John Byrne and then others where we were just thankful to have artwork.
JB: Who’s Who came out at an interesting time, while Crisis was beginning to unfold, and making for a strange set of entries. Why would DC bother to give information for a multitude of characters and situations they were effectively in the process of ditching? Did it hamstring you to often have to think things like “The Crisis may change this”?
BG: The title that was settled on included the promise of being definitive and it remained a part of the company’s 50th anniversary celebration. To be honest, I also suspect everyone saw this as the first real step in creating a property catalogue which Licensing could use in the future. As a result, everything and everyone needed to be included. We never felt hamstrung only because we knew what was happening simultaneously and plowed ahead with gusto.
JB: Why was Who’s Who “lighter” than the Marvel Handbook, as far as being in a less-formal style, and with less pseudo-technical jargon, etc.?
BG: I think that largely stems from the difference between Len Wein and Mark Gruenwald. Each approached their work with varying levels of studiousness and Mark really wanted to apply the pseudo-science to explaining as much of the Marvel Universe as possible. Len felt it necessary to fill some gaps, the Arkham Asylum history comes to mind, but didn’t fell it important enough to explain the science behind Barry Allen’s ring which contained the Flash costume in compressed form.
JB: The series contains one of the greatest cornucopias of artists anywhere in comics. Which artists would you say were a coup to get? Which ones didn’t you manage to get that you really wish you had?
BG: As we drafted the lists we got it into our heads that there should be at least one new artist every issue. That proved challenging as we looked at specific issues where so many characters were “naturally” assigned. Coups probably included Jaime Hernandez on a few Legionnaires and Peter Laird on Turtle Man (at Peter Sanderson’s suggestion). As for the ones that got away, personally it was John and Sal Buscema. We almost had Sal on Starman but at the last moment he just couldn’t tear himself away from being a Marvel man.
JB: Another bonus for longtime fans was that Jack Kirby was able to draw most of his own characters for the series, making for some of his last comics work anywhere. Was he keen to be included?
BG: Jack was really game to do the artwork since he appreciated the respect we were showing him for the characters he created. It was a thrill to be working with one of the industry’s pioneers and each package received was like opening a gift on Christmas. He was not just the King but a real gentleman and delight to work with.
BG: The logo idea was Len’s and thankfully DC has always tended towards the anal-retentive. To this day there remains drawers full of logos – either original art or stats – for just about every title, feature, and character that was introduced since the mid-1950s or so. That certainly made it easy for a lot and then we had Todd Klein, then on staff, work with us to design the remainder.
JB: The readers were, to put it lightly, a bit nit-picky in their commentary of Who’s Who (as evidenced by the letter pages). Did it ever drive you crazy when they found errors or lingered on avenues you didn’t wish to pursue, like locking down characters’ ages, etc.?
BG: In those days before a lot of the computer technology – I mean before DC had computers for editors and therefore no MS Word or Excel, let alone the World Wide Web – we recognized we couldn’t possibly be perfect. The nitpickers had every right to come in and find the stuff we missed. In some cases, we all slapped our foreheads feeling really dumb and in other cases it came down to a matter of interpretation. If we erred consistently in anything, it was assigning weights to the women, largely because we really didn’t consult any of the female staffers to reality-check our estimates.
JB: That must have been a minefield in itself. Any comments on the new printing process at that time, which gave the first few issues a decidedly, well, extreme hue? Were you personally disappointed in the results?
BG: World Color Press really thought they were on to something with using the flexographic presses for paper printing. It was originally designed for packaging such as milk cartons, but they saw this as a way to compete with the arrival of offset printing on higher grades of paper stock. While the initial tests showed promise, the reality proved way too garish and World Color seemed unable to adjust the brightness. George Perez was so disheartened by the process that he threatened to quit drawing Crisis if we didn’t go back to a traditional press.
JB: The series is arguably an unparalleled project, even by today’s standards. Did it accomplish what you wanted? What do you feel was its greatest achievement?
BG: The greatest achievement was that it never missed shipping even with the addition of two issues. It also helped define the universe and resurrect characters for readers who may had heard of Johnny Peril or the Trigger Twins but never saw them. It reminded editors, writers and artists of DC’s greatest strength – its deep library of characters in every possible genre.
JB: Let’s take a step back and get down to basics: outline the process, please. Who did what? How were writing assignments divvied up?
BG: Okay, once the character lists were finalized, we looked for the natural writing and drawing assignments. Len and Marv each thought they’d have time to bat out entries while handling their other editorial and writing responsibilities. After a few issues that proved not to be the case so we definitely brought in extra hands. Thank goodness Bob Rozakis, Peter and I were quick writers. Anyone writing and editing their own titles had first dibs on their characters and Mike Barr proved essential. Marv, somehow, managed all the Titans entries even while pulling his hair out over the Crisis.
JB: What about with artists?
BG: We wanted “definitive” looks for the characters so in some cases we had to make tough choices, such as Dick Giordano doing Batman when Tom Mandrake was the series’ regular artist at the time. For other artists, Len invited them to submit wish lists and we kept those on hand and scanned them once a month for assignments. Other times, we grabbed whichever artist was in the hall and offered them a character.
JB: The fickle finger of fate! I love it! Hey, you mentioned Mike Barr; how was he essential as you say?
BG: Mike was essential in that he brought a passion to his characters, who at the time, were significant players in the DCU. He also looked after his personal favorites such as his ground-breaking Camelot 3000 and a handful of other personal favorite characters. Having someone that enthusiastic helped a lot.
JB: I see Art Young listed as “researcher”. What exactly were his duties?
BG: As I recall, Art joined as proofreader and had some time on his hands so volunteered to help us research facts about characters or even pull art reference. It was a title granted to acknowledge his going above and beyond the scope of his duties.
JB: I also see Len Wein worked as a colorist on Who’s Who! How did that come about?
BG: When Len couldn’t find the time to write anymore, he did have time to break out the dyes and do a few main figures. He liked to keep his hand in. Other times, we were racing the clock so Bob Rozakis and I would also do some figure work to help out. This also happened on Crisis during some of the crazy crowd scenes. Anthony Tollin and Adrienne Roy [Who’s Who‘s official colorists] did yeoman’s work but on issue #9 we were behind schedule. One night, the three of us jammed on those villain pages, which made life somewhat interesting. But I digress…
JB: Wait, you said “figure work”. You mean that…
BG: Bob and I did the coloring on the main figures for upwards of a third of an issue each in the later months. The last step each month was flipping through the colored pages and determining the color of each surprint so whenever we ran two of the same color on a spread. While important, it was also a relaxing way to wrap each installment. Len and Marv began their comics careers thinking they would get work as artists but things turned out differently. They each were determined to pencil one figure each, which happened.
JB: Okay. I see how Who’s Who and Crisis were linked on levels I wasn’t even aware of!
So, how did it work with keeping up with the ever-changing DCU at the time? Regular meetings with Editorial? Was there a plan at the very beginning to do updates periodically?
BG: We read everything because we had the Crisis to contend with as well as early 1986 planning. We also read everything because we were, and remain, fans of the material. Keeping up was never a problem since the stories were plotted and/or written well ahead of our beginning a specific issue. I can’t recall any Who’s Who-specific meetings with the editors.
JB: It seems incredible that none of the editors were asking “What are those crazy Who’s Who people up to?”
BG: At the time we were producing Crisis and Who’s Who, Len was the Senior Editor that most everyone looked up to. He and Marv were veterans and everyone understood what they were being asked to achieve so just about everyone was supportive. Our offices were closely spaced so it was Len and Janice Race in one, next to that was me and Alan Gold with Karen Berger around the corner and Julie Schwartz and Murray Boltinoff down the hall. At the time, Michael Fleisher, Ross Andru, Mike Barr and Roy Thomas were all freelance editing from home so we had in house assistants for them, guys like Greg Weisman and this Mark Waid fella. As a result, there was little created s
pecifically for the Who’s Who that would have perturbed any of the editors.
JB: Jumping ahead a bit, but I just gotta ask: Was the section with “civilians” at the end of the ’88 Update planned or did that come out of reader requests? For that matter, did anything things during the entire Who’s Who run change mid-stream due to fan input?
BG: Fan feedback didn’t really alter our planning. The civilians came about when we realized there’d be pages left over at the end, after all, and this was a chance to expand our scope ever so slightly.
JB: Why were non-DCU characters, like Spanner’s Galaxy and the aforementioned Camelot 3000, included?
BG: Again, we were definitive as to DC’s publishing history, not just the DC Universe. Was it the right call? For the time, yes. Clearly, when other editions merged, it became DCU-specific which fit the needs at the time.
JB: Any comment about DC going with the loose-leaf format Who’s Who format in 1990?
BG: Well, I wrote for that and had a lot of fun just being a freelancer. Sure, I could quibble with aspects of it, but this was Michael Eury’s brainchild and I supported his efforts. I still flip through it now and then.
JB: Despite its age and its out-of-date info, does the original Who’s Who hold up today?
BG: Being clear, concise, and not overly wordy or stuck on minutiae (either pseudo-science or listing every girl Bruce Wayne ever dated), the book stands up as a readable guide to the characters, their origins, and their powers. Sure, some of the details have changed over the last 20+ years, but a writer today could still get a lot of good information for use. I remain very proud of what we managed during somewhat chaotic times.
Having said that, I wish editors and artists would remember that this is a two-decade-old piece of work and that many characters have either changed appearance or died. Through the years, when artists needed a cluster of villains, it was clear the flipped through the books and drew a bunch of colorful people without stopping to think about how they’d all appear together. The art of research, despite the resources now available online, has reached new lows, creating inconsistencies and annoying the readers.
JB: What do you think about DC’s intention to eventually collect Who’s Who in their Showcase Presents line of black-and-white trade paperbacks?
BG: Having both this and the forthcoming Suicide Squad volume get collected is, to me, a sign of age. My editorial efforts have aged enough to be collected in this “archival” format. It’s very, very cool to have it available for those who came in after 1986.
BG: I grew up with comics starting at age six and an issue of Superman. To be an adult and suddenly contributing to that world was a dream come true. It exposed me to the company’s history in ways I had never had the opportunity to explore previously as well as getting to meet artists whose work I admired.
JB: Okay, to lead us out, give me a final Who’s Who anecdote, Bob. Make it a good one!
BG: A great story and maybe a proud moment: We’d take a sheet of 11×17 paper marked in a grid. For every assignment, I would indicate where the text would go and how much space was left for art. This was accompanied with a sheet listing the art assignment, the character and which elements we felt were necessary for the background, such as an unmasked headshot, girlfriend, power being used, etc. We’d include reference, a deadline, and a voucher. Sometimes, artists got confused and drew the piece where the text was to go or get elements wrong. For the Superman spread, we asked Curt Swan to give us things like Krypton blowing up, Superman flying, Lois, Jimmy, Perry, and so on.
Curt drew it as a single page, everything tidily in place. We had to call Curt and explain he did a magnificent job but had to redo it for two pages. Which he did with a chuckle. The best part, though, was his telling me to keep the pencilled one-pager for myself, which has to be a unique addition to anyone’s art collection. Talk about definitive images of Superman!
JB: And that was definitely a good one. Thanks, Bob. Who’s Who is a keeper.