WHAT IS A BATMAN CHRONOLOGY AND WHY IS IT NECESSARY?
The Real Batman Chronology Project, which started in 2009, tracks the narrative continuity of DC Comics via the lens of Batman, plotting each of his appearances into detailed timelines. To the average comic book reader or especially non-readers, simple questions arise: Doesn’t one just read the comics in the order they are published? Why does there need to be a project dedicated to ordering comics? And if it really is so difficult to figure out a reading order, surely there must be a lot of projects similar to the Real Batman Chronology Project online, right?”
Ultimately, these questions all combine to form the bigger question of “Why is my site necessary?” I’ll try to answer as best as I can. First of all, my site is necessary due to the sheer complexity of how the superhero genre delivers its stories. Superhero universes exist in comics as a vast collection of interconnected serialized fictions. Every Wednesday, dozens of titles come out continuing the story from the previous week’s batch of titles. And all of these titles–week to week, month to month, and so on—tell an ongoing über-story in which the events and characters of said titles all exist in the same shared world, directly influencing each other. (To show how many ongoing titles are released, we can look at a selection of publications from a random Wednesday in 2015: Dark Horse put out 10 comics, DC put out 25, IDW put out 10, Image put out 15, Marvel put out 20, and various indie companies combined to put out 30.) DC and Marvel don’t tell you in what order to read them or how to organize them. Now, to be clear, the Big Two do publish trade paperbacks and their issues are all numbered and can be read in some sort of an order. But when it comes to stitching every title together to make the über-story that tells the whole tale, that is not a task that either company really gets bogged down in. How can all these titles possibly function cohesively? All together, the comics form a puzzle and it’s how the pieces fit together that really interests me.
But why Batman? Why is he so important? Well, he’s not just an awesome character. He’s quite popular, in case you didn’t know—he shows up in almost every DC title at some point or another. Batman is the primary lens through which DC Comics has been able to tell a consistent narrative for the past 75 years-plus. Technically, in the DC Universe, everything kind of revolves around the Holy Trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman—but the Dark Knight of Gotham City seems to be prominently featured a tad more than the others. Therefore, sticking with Batman appearances for this project allows for the easiest opportunity to determine passage of time, character age, where events occur, where things need to be rearranged, how things come together, or how things fail to come together. Of course, a ton of variables have to be considered and the process gets complicated. This is the reason why there are so few attempts at what I’ve done. The few attempts that exist—in niche areas of the Internet and in a few rare books—have either been quickly abandoned or left incomplete. Because Batman’s past is so richly complicated, it has not been successfully evaluated and analyzed from the narratological perspective of serial-continuity. I’m sort of a masochist for continuing my project with such diligence!
FICTIONAL CANON: WHAT COUNTS?
For those unfamiliar with superhero comics, the introduction might probably still feel pretty vague and overwhelming. Beyond just the way comics are published, the concept of FICTIONAL CANON is the main factor that drives the necessity of the Real Batman Chronology Project. Therefore, a better grasp of fictional canon can help elucidate why this project is a valid endeavor. When we think of the word “canon” we often think of the classic definition: A body of historical works in music/visual art/film/literature considered to be masterpieces worthy of study. The problem with this form of canon lies in the question: “Who determines what is considered worthy?” Typically, canons have been determined solely by a White male majority of scholars and critics. Only in more recent years has the canon begrudgingly begun to accept other works of non-White/non-colonial/non-male authorship i.e. what we could call diverse works. But in any case, the very idea of this type of canon is outdated and old-fashioned, even in most legit circles of academia. But I digress. Understanding the more modern and interesting iteration of canon—fictional canon—will help us understand the whys, whats, and hows of the Real Batman Chronology project.
Fictional canon exists in serialized media and refers to any source material that is in-continuity as opposed to what is out-of-continuity, or, in other words, what officially “counts” toward story/character development versus what does “not count.” At first glance, every superhero story seemingly falls either into the category of canon OR non-canon. HOWEVER, that is a gross oversimplification. The authors and owners of said conceptual material usually determine what is canon, but most canons exist only because they have been accepted as “official” by a fan base. Since the entire concept of canon is rooted in fandom and fan interaction with the stories, ultimately there’s no way of determining what is officially canon or non-canon. Canon is also often said to be the opposite of fan-fiction, but again this is an oversimplification for the very same reason. Ironically, both are rooted in fandom. Therefore, canons are all malleable constructs that can never be 100% finite.
That being said, my project monitors canon. And I just told you that there IS NO OFFICIAL CANON! This may seem like a complete invalidation of my project, but this contradiction is actually the very reason I do what I do!
To me, the most interesting thing about canon is that it always gets defined as this very scientifically precise concept, something chained to authorship, ownership, and continuity. But because of the nature of superhero comics, so much of what goes into making sense of multiple overlapping stories by multiple creators is done solely in the mind of the reader. So, canon, usually defined so rigidly, really isn’t a rigid concept at all! Therefore, in serialized fictional media, I’ve come to personally define canon as: The collaborative perceptive processing of an ongoing work by both authors and readers, through which the story MAKES THE MOST NARRATIVE SENSE. You’ll see what I mean as we continue.
The collaborative nature of perceptive processing in superhero comic books also is linked to reader-response criticism where “interpretive communities” of fans determine “true narrative.” In this sense, reader-response criticism can be loosely defined as fan engagement with the subject material. Superhero texts control a reader’s response(s) while simultaneously containing “gaps” that a reader creatively fills. (Check out the critical theory of Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, and Louise Rosenblatt for more information in regard to these complex ideas about reader-response. See also “Reader-Response Criticism.”) A great quote from the delightful TV Tropes website that might make it clearer how canon is determined by reader-response criticism/good ol’ fandom: “Canons for completed works with a single author or finite group of authors are descriptive, whereas fans’ attempts to define canon for ongoing works are prescriptive. If a fact is ‘canon,’ you are ‘not allowed’ to contradict it.” So, basically the word descriptive refers to rules based upon information given by the author(s). Conversely, the word prescriptive refers to rules that reflect reader value judgments/opinions. (This is obviously a rigid definition, but it helps us comprehend the relationship between canon and fandom.)
Columnist Travis Hedge Coke adds to the discussion of who has the right to determine canon, saying, “There is no canon. [Readers and fans] can, and have, ordered certain comics into several different, sometimes overlapping canons. Further, belonging to a canon does not ensure that works are aligned by a shared chronology or continuity. Canons are personally established, or they are established for business reasons, for marketing purposes, and that’s about it. It’s not a magic thing, it only means, at essence, ‘these works count towards…’ whatever you want them to count towards. Canon is not a judgment of total value or relevance to all things. And canons are rarely permanent, both the personal and the business sorts.”
Now that we know what fictional canon is and how it works, let’s dig deeper, shall we? Let’s take what we’ve learned and apply it directly to superhero comics. You’ll soon see exactly why a timeline-construction website such as this is needed (and why it is such a difficult endeavor). Unlike classics like Sherlock Holmes or old pulp stories like Tarzan or Doc Savage, which were primarily penned by single authors, contemporary superhero comics are written by a ton of authors and are spread throughout multiple sources of narrative. Tracking a single source’s continuity is much easier than tracking something that has multiple streams. Also, the chance of continuity error increases as you add more streams of information. Take something that has a TON of material—say, TV shows like King of the Hill, Law & Order, Seinfeld, or Full House. Each of these shows has a lot of episodes to sit through to complete the whole picture, but each contains only one SINGLE PRIMARY source of information. It may take a while, but the episodes are in order and all you have to do is watch them to get the chronological tale in full. Superhero comic universes, on the other hand, have multiple sources of narrative information to sort through.
Superhero comics get even wilder in regard to multiple sources of narrative information when we think of the synergistic trans-media experience that permeates most storytelling today. It’s not just different narratives from comic books. What about board games, toys, TV shows, video games, phone apps, novelizations, etc…? Where, when, and how do they fit in? This is not only a subject of much debate, but a subject that further complicates matters as well.
Superhero comics are also uniquely complicated because each superhero company places their titles within the spectrum of a shared world—a universe or multiverse. While all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures occur on a singular timeline in which he, Watson, and Moriarty all existed, the same can be said of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Captain America, who all exist in the Marvel Universe. Or the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or Luke, Leia, and Han Solo in the Star Wars Universe. Likewise, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman all exist in the DC Universe. There is so much going on and so much room for contradiction when working within the confines of a cluttered fictional world, especially one in which there are hundreds of toys in the sandbox, so to speak. Therein lies another part of the problem. To put it bluntly, there are a lot of characters to keep tabs on!
To reiterate the idea of canon being malleable, there’s another great quote from TV Tropes that I’d like to share. “Writers can tweak continuity quite a lot without actually breaking it by using [various methods]. In fan communities ‘canon’ can sometimes boil down to ‘the bits we like.’ Fans will attempt to find any excuse to ‘de-canonize’ facts that they personally find inconvenient.” Basically, while complete works with one author have a less debatable canon, they still don’t have 100% concrete canon. To sum up, the percentage of certainty decreases when you add authors, time, sheer weight of published material, complexity of shared worlds, characters, information sources, and the hot-blooded opinions of fanboys/fangirls. Not only that, but writers and editors act similarly, breaking their own “rules” with retcons—RETtroactive CONtinuity changes that specifically contradict prior established narrative history. There often many retcons in superhero comics, making it is hard to arrive at firm conclusions. In fact, it is because of retcons that many canonical Batman stories become essentially interchangeable on a timeline.
Despite the complexity and messiness of serialized superhero comic narrative, once you understand how canon works, you can figure out what canon is. That’s the business I’m in—wading through all of this information I’ve just explained to you and analyzing all of this knowledge to create the BEST POSSIBLE CANON. And that’s all we can hope to do since there can never be one true perfect answer. For a summary of the previous introduction and explanation of fictional canon, complete with visualizations, check out The History of Batman: Fictional Canon (Part One). In order to move forward and engage in the practice of conjuring up the best possibility, one must first have a comprehension of one final complexity: DC’s reboots.
Please click on the following link to continue reading the next part: RELAUNCHED, REBOOTED, AND BEWILDERED.
ABOUT THE SITE CREATOR/PROJECT MANAGER:
Collin Colsher is a writer, filmmaker, teacher, and comic book scholar that currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He is the creator of The Real Batman Chronology Project and disCONTINUITY. Collin also serves on the jury for the annual Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize, which is sponsored by the US Library of Congress.
-  COLLIN COLSHER: I should clarify, when I say “DC” I refer to the corporate beast that is “DC the company.” Same goes for “Marvel.” Unfortunately, the business of comic books has a long documented tradition of screwing over some creators, writers, and artists. The unethical treatment of workers in the comic book “industry” isn’t something that I will tackle very often on this site, but I felt there should be at least something said. All superhero comics, including Batman books, are the products of many different creative minds, but in the end it is the corporate bigwigs, publishers, and editors that control the characters and the worlds in which they live—even if most of the time these said bigwigs, publishers, and editors have contributed little or nothing towards either. Thus, from a narratological perspective, innovation and strong continuity or story development are tough things to achieve in the capitalist consumer-driven market. It’s a sad state of affairs, and probably a topic of discussion for another venue, but it is interesting to see how the hierarchical dynamics of the mainstream superhero comic book genre directly affect how story and character are shaped. On the other hand, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, I love comics. And without Disney, Warner Bros, and other conglomerates, my favorite characters and stories would not exist in the forms they do today. Plus, it is my wholehearted belief that comic book art and stories, despite everything (and despite what Alan Moore says), are evolving for the better every year! So, as you can see, the complexity of the issue only gets more complicated as you peel back layer after layer. ↩
-  COLLIN COLSHER: Now, before moving forward, a quick interlude about where the very idea of fictional canon came from. The idea of fictional canon was invented by Ronald Knox in 1911 in reference to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. There were a ton of Sherlock knock-offs, so Knox used canon to deem which books fit into the official Holmes-verse and which were mere imitations. (Sherlock Holmes is actually a complicated example to talk about in regard to canon since the character is now in the public domain and has been re-created in various media formats and even since been included into the same world as Batman and Superman. Public domain is another great topic of discussion. Warner Bros and Disney are great at lobbying Congress and putting out material simply to extend copyright—the very reason 75-year-old characters like Batman and Superman haven’t gone into public domain even though they should have by now.) But putting public domain aside, here lies the big mega-difference between Sherlock Holmes, written by one author with one source of narrative, versus superhero comics, written by a ton of authors and spreading throughout multiple sources of narrative. Once you begin to add more streams of information, continuity-building begins to get more difficult. Comics, everybody! ↩