…continued from RELAUNCHED, REBOOTED, AND BEWILDERED…
BUILDING TIMELINES FOR DUMMIES
My timeline-building ideation factors in many things beyond what we’ve discussed previously regarding publishing, fictional canon, or line-wide reboots. That stuff is just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s look at few examples, just to show you how continuity-building 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. Make sure to chant this shibboleth as you drudge your way through the labyrinth that is superhero continuity: There is no one true correct answer. Even if you come to regard voice of this website as an all-empowered arbiter, don’t forget, the goal here is simply to achieve the best possible reading order, one that makes the most sense narratively and chronologically.
FLASHBACKS are pretty straightforward, but not always. This is a random example of a flashback from Batman Eternal #11 that evinces a seamless flashback—detailing Cluemaster’s provenance—through the form of his daughter Stephanie Brown doing research at the library. Sometimes specific time references are given; sometimes they are not. (It’s better not to give specific time references because dwelling in specificity only exposes an author to greater risk of error or 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 locus 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 now been altered to fit the present. Things sometimes get redefined to such an extent that they will bear no resemblance to their prior understandings. 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 execrable 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 are conducive to 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 crucial 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). Purportedly, Moore was told this story would be out-of-continuity, which likely affected his plot. In 2015, artist Jesse Hamm did his take on an alternate version (pictured above to the right) of the infamously 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 loosely connected 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. A colleague of mine from California actually advocates 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 so in Hollywood (thanks to the ever inflating bubble of superhero film franchises—namely the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Cinematic Universe, and their respective TV universes— and the lasting effect of series like Terminator, Harry Potter, Transformers, Star Wars, and more). Sites like Wookiepedia, and various other wiki-style sties now exist to collect and categorize heaps of story/character data 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 vanguard of that discussion and am eternally grateful to have had such a positive response from fans/readers both on the internet and at my live speaking engagements. For a summary of the history of the DC Multiverse and explanation of my timeline-building process with more visuals, please check out The History of Batman: Fictional Canon (Part Two).
A FEW PARTING WORDS
Now that we’ve detailed the history of DC Comics in regard to its multiple reboots—line-wide relaunches that consequently cause multiple narrative timelines—we can tackle our big question: “What is the correct chronological order for reading Batman comics?” Each section of the website will detail a very specific order and contain notes as to how things are placed—all based upon my process as detailed above. Despite having addressed the ostensible futility of building comic book timelines, the Real Batman Chronology Project is definitely not a complete waste of time. This project is a labor of love and if you examine each panel of as many Batman stories as you can get your hands on, you will see that things do fit into a timeline in the most pleasantly unexpected ways. Of course, the maddeningly opposite happens almost just as often. But that is simply a part of the process. Theoretically, if the perfect suggested order is compiled, then we have the closest thing to answering our dreaded chronological question. Finding continuity is a game. It’s piecing together an impossibly intricate jigsaw puzzle. There’s no greater satisfaction than stepping back and seeing the final picture as a whole.
The zoologist/psychologist couple David Barash and Judith Lipton once said, “Although we seek ultimately to unravel genuine external truths about the natural world, not simply to validate our own preconceptions, one of those truths is that we are readily seduced by our own ideas and just as reluctant to give up on them—even in the face of contrary evidence—as anyone else.” I may not be trying to solve anthropological or biological mysteries by building superhero timelines, but this quote readily applies to my process. This site is meant to be entirely non-opinionated and nonobjective, and not some random fanboy list of my own personal favorite Batman stories. I’ll be the first to admit that I geek out a bit harder (and usually write a bit more positively) about my faves, and likewise, write a bit more negatively about things I don’t like as much. That being said, this does not mean that I’m trying to alienate any fans or tell any of my readers what’s good and what’s bad. I’ll leave that to the reviewers and the critics. This website is not a comic book review or critique site. This website is home to an intensive scholarly research project, through-in and throughout. There are a ton of stories I’ve included on my timelines that I despise and many more that I absolutely adore, which are absent since they are non-canon. I can’t stress this enough: The Real Batman Chronology Project is meant to be uninfluenced, unbiased, and, most substantively, a scientific research-based endeavor that examines the continuity of Batman via a narratological reading based solely upon the facts (admittedly as I see them) in the comic books themselves. Every tale—and I mean every tale—that is slotted into my chronology is done so only after a thorough examination of both narrative content and continuous in-story information. “Proof” comes from what’s literally found in the published materials combined with the application of Occam’s razor theory—the simplest explanation is likely the best. In the final calculus, however, there is no definitive right or definitive wrong when it comes to creating comic-book-world timelines. As the late curmudgeonly genius Robert Anton Wilson quipped, “I don’t think most issues in the sensory-sensual spacetime world (the world of experience) actually reduce to two-valued logic.” The same mentality can and should also be applied to Batman comics that exist in the sensory-sensual spacetime world of the DC multiverse and the greater omniverse in which it dwells.
Please click on the following link to continue reading the next part of this section: WHO I AM, HOW I CAME TO BE.
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.