This past Saturday, I had the distinction, pleasure, and honor of speaking before a wonderful full-house all-ages crowd at the Schlow Library at Penn State University in State College, PA as a part of BookFestPA, a special comic-con even held in conjunction with the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. In case you missed my TED Talk-style presentation, I thought I’d share the transcript here on disContinuity. This is Part Two (of Two) of my lecture, entitled “The History of Batman: Fictional Canon.” The first part addressed what my project is all about and attempted to make sense of the confusing concept of fictional canon. In this finale, I’ll put all of that into context by showing my own personal process of continuity-building when it comes to reading Batman/DC Comics. Here goes.
First and foremost, DC’s major reboots are incredibly important to understand continuity. Reboots influence reader experience, in relation to canon, more than anything else. Superman debuted in 1938 and Batman in 1939, essentially starting DC Comics’ shared narrative universe—and the Golden Age of comics. In the 1950s, DC wanted a fresh start with a new type of modern hero. Thus, the Silver Age was born. However, unlike a total line-wide reboot, DC staggered this reboot title-to-title, which gives the Silver Age reboot a debatable starting point. The Silver Age start-date technically can be plotted anywhere from the mid Fifties to the mid Sixties, depending on how you look at it. I won’t get into those nitty-gritty details, but I’ve written about the Silver Age re-launch extensively on my website if you are interested in learning more. SLIDE TWENTY-ONE. Essentially, DC rebooted approximately twenty-five years after it started. This uniquely created two main Earths—the characters that started in the late 30s and early 40s, now much older and semi-retired, continued on Earth-2 while the rebooted rookie versions got the main focus on DC’s primary line featured on Earth-1.
Almost as if on cue, roughly twenty-five years later, in 1986, the seminal Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover was published, which collapsed the existing multiverse and rebooted it all into one new unified Earth where all characters had a new shared history, which was slowly meted-out bit-by-bit over the course of the following decade. This is the dawn of the Modern Age of superhero comics.
(After this, DC had two minor soft-reboots, 1994’s Zero Hour and 2006’s Infinite Crisis, that are both worth mentioning but not really that important for our discussion.)
Twenty-five years after the original 1986 Crisis (in 2011), Flashpoint rebooted DC yet again into our current continuity that we see today.
(Just this past year, Grant Morrison put out a series called The Multiversity, in which he took DC’s NON-FICTIONAL publication history that I just told to you and turned it into FICTIONAL CANON. We are talking never before achieved or attempted levels of meta-meta-meta-narrative going on. But THAT is a topic for another discussion!)
Now, (believe it or not) that was probably THE MOST BRIEF history of DC Comics that one possibly could have given. By catering to this complex history it might seem as though DC is acting exclusionary and doing itself a disservice by making things so convoluted and sprawling. While knowledge of this history is essential if you want to track canon or continuity, it doesn’t need to be understood or even known to simply enjoy the comics. They stand on their own—you can pick up a collected trade paperback and read a totally inclusive story that begins, has rising action, a climax, and denouement. But the beauty, especially for me, is that if you already like comics, then knowing about this history will only serve to augment your enjoyment.
My process factors in many things beyond reboots. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s look at few examples, just to show you how it works, and why it’s fun.
Be very aware that with most examples that show my process, there can often be various interpretations to open-texted material. Again, this is the idea that fandom dictates canon.
FLASHBACKS are pretty straightforward, but not always. This is a random example of a flashback from Batman Eternal #11 that shows a seamless flashback to Cluemaster’s origin as his daughter Stephanie Brown does research at the library. Sometimes they give specific time references, sometimes they don’t. (It’s better not to give specific time references because dwelling in specificity only exposes an author to greater risk of error/contradiction.)
REFERENCES are anything mentioned in a comic that is to a past event that is unique (and hasn’t been shown before or is not in another issue prior). This happens a lot, especially in the Golden and Silver Age. Batman #69, Part 2, as our random sample, refers to an event that never happened. It must be inserted into history at a point that makes sense.
REFERENCES/FLASHBACKS FROM ONE ERA TO A PREVIOUS ERA (also known as retconning using BROAD STROKES) occurs quite often. Here’s a little thought exercise to help us better understand before looking at a specific random example: Let’s take all of the adventures from 1964 through 1985 that Batman goes through… After reboot in 1986, that stuff all gets totally erased, but casually referenced or flashed-back to by various authors that want to draw upon Batman’s rich history. However, those references and flashbacks cannot happen EXACTLY as they did since they fit into a new updated, modern continuity. Thus, they become retroactive reference material, a mere skeletal framework of what once was that resembles the past, but has been altered to fit the present. And, ironically, we (the reader) do most of this retconning in our own minds with the stimulus being the authorial nod within the current narrative. My example here is Zook shown in Superman/Batman #31 and a subsequent two-panel flashback to a Silver Age story (or approximation of a Silver Age story) within. This canonizes the 60s comedy character Zook, which previously hadn’t been canon in the grim’n’gritty Modern Age—of course, the JLA’s adventures with Zook aren’t folded in as they are, they have to be altered versions that better fit the era.
GOLDEN AGE RETCONS FROM THE 1970s/1980s cause a lot of alteration. In the 1970s Bruce and Selina are retconned to have been married with a baby, so a bunch of stories from the 50s and early 60s don’t fit! Batman #117 is an example of a story that no longer makes sense if Bruce is happily married to Selina. He probably would be sharing a bed with his wife, not Dick. Come to think of it, why IS Bruce sharing a bed with his young ward? Batman #117 is a very curious example for this very reason… which was unfortunately and unjustly used as awful ammunition by Fredric Wertham during his witch hunt against comics back in the 50s.
TIME-SLIDING occurs in both the Silver Age and Modern Age. Retcons in the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s, as gleaned from hints in the narrative of several titles, caused the start dates for DC characters, including Batman, to be “slid-up.” Likewise, DC did the same thing starting in 1994 with a story arc called Zero Hour, and slid things up annually until around 2002.
COMPRESSION / THE LENGTH OF EACH TIMELINE occurs quite often as well. Reboots and retcons cause significant time-compression. Time-sliding, for instance, causes massive compression. Say a story arc (like “No Man’s Land” or “Knightfall”) occurs over a specific nearly yearlong IN-STORY period. When things are made more contemporary, large chunks of story time cannot accommodate the shorter more-updated timeline. Thus, we have to imagine a condensed history. Instead of a full year, “No Man’s Land” only lasted a few months. Or Batman recovers much faster after Bane breaks his back in “Knightfall” etc…
Another significant aspect of compression can be seen in the most recent DC reboot, 2011’s Flashpoint reboot, in which the entire line was re-launched. Editors were weary of the reaction that fans would have to a completely rebooted Batman with no past to speak of, so while Batman still had to fit on the six-year-long timeline, his entire history, including multiple Robins, still existed! This led to crazy speculation on the internet as to how this could be possible. My site maps this insanity out pretty damn well. But basically, as of right now, Batman’s entire history has been squeezed into a seven year timeline. Robins go from side-kicking for years to just having been “interns” for a year or less in order to make things work. The key events and stories are still there, but they are skeleton versions of what they once were. And some of them are merely a casual reference, dropped in conversation between two B-list characters.
TOPICAL/SEASONAL REFERENCES sometimes wind up having to be ignored as well. Many books in the mid to late 80s were prominently about the Cold War and featured Reagan, Gorbachev, the Ayatollah, and Soviet army stuff galore. Of course, two decades after that, DC is telling its readers that Batman hasn’t been around since the 80s, but instead only debuted in the 90s, which means how the hell could those Soviet stories make sense? Christmas stories are rough too. It’ll often seem as though there are multiple Christmases in a single year when writers and editors don’t communicate with one another.
EASTER EGGS are a fun type of example. The Batcave trophy room is filled with them. Basically, the Batcave trophies have long existed as a means for artists to have fun and draw in whatever they please. But when this happens, let’s say for instance someone draws a gigantic mushroom in there, this means that Batman went on some unspecified mission and netted a giant mushroom as a prize. This becomes a part of his history that we can only imagine in our own minds!
CHARACTER CHANGES happen—sometimes personalities, races, or ages change (or don’t change when they should in the case of the latter). Wally West going from White to Black is a big recent change. Likewise, in current continuity, Stephanie Brown no longer was a Robin (even though she was the fourth official and first female Robin once upon a time). Robin’s age in different eras is screwy too. In the Modern Age, the third Robin (Tim Drake) was seemingly in high school for WAY TOO LONG. Likewise, Dick Grayson was the same way in the Golden Age. Stuff like this—i.e. the idea of keeping characters perpetually fresh—can lead to some pretty shoddy continuity.
THE KILLING JOKE is fun to talk about because it’s such a seminal title—so important and yet so polarizing. It has always been hailed as a classic, and only in recent years has it come under scrutiny as being possibly misogynistic and poorly constructed. Even Alan Moore himself has disavowed it (although he’s disavowed all of his work from that era, so take that with a grain of salt). Supposedly, Moore was told this story would be out-of-continuity, which likely affected his plot. Recently, artist Jesse Hamm did his take on an alternate version (pictured above to the right) of the infamous gratuitous scene where Barbara Gordon is thrown into a fridge and paralyzed by the Joker. Hamm added the comment “There, I fixed it.”
You also have the great Brian Bolland redoing the Bat-symbol for the 2008 Absolute Edition of The Killing Joke just because he liked the way it looked better without the yellow oval. But that messes with continuity! Batman’s different costumes are specifically linked to different periods of his crime-fighting career. The original (from 1988) is shown above as compared to the altered (from 2008).
EVERYTHING TECHNICALLY EXISTS IN SOME (ALTERNATE) CONTINUITY, which calls into question the the difference between non-canon and out-of-continuity. There are multiple Earths—(the Big Two used to call stories happening on these planets “Elseworlds,” “What Ifs,” “hypertime stories,” or “imaginary tales”—which means that the idea that everything that gets published can take place on its own timeline is NOT that far-fetched. This hearkens back to my colleague from California (mentioned in Part One of this piece) who is an advocate of timeline placement for all sorts of Batman ephemera from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Overall, continuity is a thing that is getting much more attention from the mainstream eye, ironically not so much in comics, but more in film (thanks to the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the upcoming DC Cinematic Universe, DC’s TV Universe, a new Terminator film, continuation of Star Wars, and more. Sites like wookiepedia, and various other wiki-style sties now exist to collect and categorize heaps of story/character information in encyclopedic, easily-searchable fashion.
And every day, one can stumble upon a plethora of other complicated things involved with canon that I haven’t mentioned. Since 2000, Lucasfilm (and now Disney) has had a single authority in charge of continuity for Star Wars canon. There are now different level-designations of canon within the Star Wars universe—G-canon, T-canon, C-canon, S-canon, N-canon and D-canon. Star Trek itself has multiple canons, which have now become intertwined with reboot films. The Dragon Ball franchise is similar.
Even more mind-boggling terms seem to make the concept of fictional canon even more complex—words like headcanon, fanon, canon immigration, deuterocanon, canon fodder, canon welding, recursive canon, call-backs, and many more are always popping-up on websites and forums these days.
As you can see, there’s always more to say when it comes to matters of canonicity and continuity. It’s a topic I enjoy discussing and it’s one that will hopefully be talked about even more in the near future. I’m always glad to be at the forefront of that discussion and am eternally grateful to have had such a positive response from fans/readers both on the internet and at the Schlow Library this past weekend at Penn State University.