The Three Histories of Superhero Comic Books

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This casenote is not about a historic theme in Batman, but rather about an approach to studying history of some comic books.

‘That sounds very boring!’ you cry.

Well, I hope not because it was prompted by questions and comments I get from you fans. Our interactions made me realise that the way I think about Batman’s history as a historian is different from my thinking about it as a Batfan. My approach as a historian is seen as the ‘valid’ one for research purposes, whereas my fandom-influenced approach is not. However, I consider that if you are going to research the history of Batman you should be aware of fandom history. This is because we – the fans – are also part of the cultural history of comic books.

So, in order to tie historian-thinking and fandom-thinking together, I have formulated a theoretical model for the study of long-running serialised comics which are subject to retcon.[1] As such, this model is best suited to the superhero-type comics of DC and Marvel.  I do not assume that my idea is original – in fact, I’m almost sure that other comic book researchers will have written about it in some form or another. I just haven’t found the books or articles detailing their approach yet.

The Model

Just like DC Comics has Earth 1 and Earth 2, comic book history has three ‘worlds’:

History One – human history;

History Two – sequential history;

History Three – retcon or narrative history.

Let me explain what these mean using Batman and my project:

History One is historian’s history; ‘real’ history. It concerns the human process that went into making Batman; the writers, artists, distributors, retailers and readers who produced, sold and consumed Batman comics and merchandise. Their actions and the events which surrounded them – be these explicit (Bob Kane drew the debut story) or implicit (instances of violent crime in New York were high in the late 30s) may be called into question in order to judge whether they were part of ‘the cultural origins of the Bat-Man’.

History Two is the stories of Batman in the sequence in which they appeared – i.e issue-by-issue. Detective Comics #27, May 1939 includes ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’, where we learn that Bruce Wayne is Batman.[2] Detective Comics #28 June 1939 Frenchy Blake Batmanincludes ‘Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang’, in which our hero smashes a jewel-thieving ring.[3] If I wished to chronicle the life of Bill Finger, say, I would state that his first Batman story appeared in issue 27, his second in 28. Therefore, History Two feeds into History One; the sequential history comes out of the human history making the Caped Crusader. However, it is also the story of Batman as he appeared in each subsequent comic, so it is also his ‘history’.[4]

History Three is what makes my research so interesting. As Batman appeared in more and more comics (History Two), the writers added to his storybook. They revealed things about Batman’s past as they went along, introducing ‘new’ characters – some of whom he had apparently known since boyhood yet were previously unseen. Also, DC is fond of the type of retcon where previously established ‘facts’ are changed or even erased. All of this might seem confusing, but we fans deal with it marvellously by creating History Three. In History Three we take the chaos of History Two and make it so that Batman’s life appears to us in a chronologically sensible order. In effect, we write the narrative history of Bruce Wayne/Batman.

Why I Have to Battle History Three

But whilst History Three is fantastic and I take part in it as much as the next fan, I constantly have to battle against it in my historian life. This exchange I had with a fan online about Batman in 1939 [the character] illustrates my meaning:

Fan: But the first truth of the character is that he was never alone. He always had Alfred.

Lady Batman: He didn’t get Alfred until 1943. He got Robin in 1940. So, you’re thinking of retrograde[5] adjustments.

Fan: Then there has been some retconning. My mistake!

Yes – this fan was mistaken, but we are all ‘guilty’ of this. As a fan of Batman inhabiting History Three, I am happy to state that he had Alfred by his side from the very beginning. However, as a historian operating in History One and Two, I cannot do that. Read the Dark Knight in 1939 and you see a man completely on his own; no sidekicks, no home-help. A factually sound history requires me to take into account the sources available and the evidence they present. We might suppose that Team Batman (Kane, Finger et.al.) had Robin and Alfred in mind right from the beginning, but unless we see evidence where they stated this, our thought remains a supposition and not fact.

The Case of the Chemical Syndicate

Okay – let’s explore this ‘lone Batman’ within the Histories. For this, we are going to use ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’. As stated, the first appearance of this tale was also the debut of The Bat-Man in Detective Comics #27, 1939. The story introduces Commissioner Gordon as a friend to the young Bruce Wayne, but The Bat-Man has no allies. In fact, all Bill Finger tells us about him (other than revealing he is Bruce Wayne at the end of the tale) is that he is ‘fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong-doer’. In order to fulfil this heroic intention, The Bat-Man does this:

Dude thrownWhich I think results in the man’s murder[6]:

Look at the man in the yellow suit, lying face-down on the pavement.

Look at the man in the yellow suit, lying face-down on the pavement.

The Bat-Man also does this:

punching stykerWhich results in a death like so:

Hes Falling InAnd all The Bat-Man has to say in conclusion about the preceding event is:

A fitting endingPretty full-on, huh? Imagine reading this issue when it hit the stands in 1939. You might have wondered, ‘What is this guy’s motivation for fighting for righteousness? And why is he so set on apprehending evil-doers into a vat of acid?’ Batman was brand new and the reader got dropped right on top of his murderous action. And remember – he is doing this absolutely on his own. Why?

US readers had to wait six issues to get an answer. Issue #33 of Detective Comics gave us this, the reason why Batman feels compelled to do what he does:[7]

Thomas Wayne DeadAnd so, that most important of Batman’s stories was established – the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne in front of their son, Bruce.

So – how did the Histories work in this case?

  • Batman’s actions on the initial publication of #27 were there to be read, considered and judged only by appearance, and that process was (of course) personal to the individual reading it and the societal norms the individual lived within (History One).
  • The murder of Thomas and Martha had not happened yet (History Two).
  • #33 is published six issues later. The murder of Thomas and Martha had now occurred (History Two).
  • The reader then established a timeline for events – the murder of Thomas and Martha preceded The Case of the Chemical Syndicate (History Three). A narrative history for Batman was established.
  • #27 could now be re-read, reconsidered and re-judged in light of the revelation from #33. And that process was (again) personal to the individual reading it and the societal norms that individual lived within (History One), but crucially that process also drew some of its information from #33 (History Three).

These five bullet points are, to me, the most exciting points I have ever written down. This process – this wonderful, beautiful, crazy thing we take part in every time we sit down and read a comic – is what keeps me researching. We add to history just by virtue of being a fan. That has to be something to celebrate, but also it needs to be understood in order to fully research a cultural history on characters such as Batman.

Fast-forward seventy-five years and DC published another version of The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.[8] In this, Brad Meltzer leaves us in no doubt as to why Batman does what he does. Some highlights include:Cowardly and superstitious ‘I do it because I survived that alley’ and ‘I do it because criminals are cowardly. And superstitious.’ Thus Meltzer gives us all the things we now know about Batman, the things we couldn’t have possibly known the first time he appeared to fight for righteousness. I have to say, I’m glad we have this information. The historian in me writes about #27 and sometimes has to ‘ignore’ #33, but the fan in me (like Meltzer) looks at The Bat-Man of 1939 – determined, deadly, alone – and sees the pain he carries. I don’t agree with his methods but I understand why he does what he does. It is History Three, therefore, that makes a Batfan of me.


[1] TV Tropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Retcon; last retrieved 29th January 2014.

[2] ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’, writer – Bill Finger, artist – Bob Kane, in Detective Comics #27, May 1939, published by DC Comics.

[3] ‘Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang’, writer – Bill Finger, artist – Bob Kane, in Detective Comics #28, June 1939, published by DC Comics.

[4] Historians would say that Batman does not have a ‘history’ because he is not real. He is a literary construct, therefore he has a story, not history.

[5] I didn’t quite mean ‘retrograde’. I meant ‘retroactive’ but it was late at night and I was typing fast!!!

[6] I believe that there is more than one death at the hands of the Bat-Man in his debut. Bat-Man has thrown this guy backwards off a rooftop, and he lies sprawled on the ground below with a policeman in attendance. If he’s not dead, then he must (at the very least) be very unwell.

[7] ‘The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible of Doom’, writer – Gardner Fox, artist – Bob Kane, inks – Bob Kane and Sheldon Moldoff, in Detective Comics #33, November 1939, published by DC Comics.

[8] ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’, writer – Brad Meltzer, artist – Bryan Hitch, colourist – David Baron, letters – Chris Eliopoulos, in Batman Detective Comics #27, March 2014, Published by DC Comics in January 2014.

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2 thoughts on “The Three Histories of Superhero Comic Books

  1. Very interesting! For one of my graduate courses, I am reading a journal article that focuses on a comic book reader to illustrate the “tactics” that participants in such “non-dominant” discourses use to subvert the “strategies” of the “dominant” discourse in society. It draws on the theories of Foucault and De Certeau. I will have to scan it and send it to you.

    • ladybatman

      Please do Bill – that would be marvellous. I hadn’t thought of the Foucault perspective in this, but I can see a tie-in.

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