Today, DC Comics allowed the New York Post to break some surprise news: as of this fall there will be two Batmans. If you can call it a surprise, since the covers of DC’s November comics were released about two weeks ago and feature two different Batman costumes. Fan speculation was already off and speculating that this would mean that instead of Dick Grayson giving up the cowl when Bruce Wayne gets back, there might be some sort of timeshare agreement.
So. Keeping up with Batman continuity is the reason I started buying monthly comics, and now it looks like it’s going to be the reason I severely cut back on my monthly comics. I’m going to elaborate below, and I’m going to try to keep it down to a conversational level of nerdrage. I’m also going to try to keep from getting really depressed.
So. Lets talk about continuity.
(Yes, the plural of Batman is Batmans. Because it is a name. If you knew a family whose last name was Wolf you wouldn’t call them the Wolves, would you?)
(No, you would call them the Wolfs.)
Continuity (See, This Part of the Article is Continuous With The Last Part!)
Continuity is simultaneously the best and the worst thing about mainstream American comics. Companies like DC and Marvel like keeping their characters in a shared universe where events from one comic can spill over into another because it allows them to hide important events away in other comics that their readers might not otherwise buy. They like readers to feel like they have to buy multiple books, even back issues, in order to figure out what the hell is going on in the Continuity. It is in their financial interest to make this as tricky as possible.
But continuity (leeetle c!), from the standpoint of good writing and good stories, is actually the exact opposite of big event series that promise that they will change everything forever. Little c continuity is things staying the same.
How Do Comics Deal With This?
One way that comics have continuity in their Continuity is through character. Specifically, character consistency. The readers can recognize that character’s actions as being characteristic. As being in character.
This is not to say that characters can’t change. But they have to change in a way that makes sense to the reader. They have to change because of events, not for Events. This is antithetical to the idea of making money with your continuity, as mentioned above. It’s annoying to remember that Batman has an oath against killing and an oath against using guns when you really, really need someone to shoot Darkseid for your big Event book to work. So you make excuses for it, and allow plot to take precedence over character.
Yes, this paragraph is just a big old pretentious way of saying “But Batman would NEVAR DO THAT.” /inhaler /push glasses up nose
If you are going to leave setting and plot consistency behind, consistent characterization is the only thing you have left for readers to latch on to.
(This is all aside from the fact that a coherent plot, consistent characterization, and a well knit setting are all things that one should hope to have in one’s work of narrative fiction, none of them taking precedence over the other. But I’m saving up my Grant Morrison bile for October.)
(OH SNAP YO.)
How Does This Pertain To There Being Two Batmans?
Aside from the fact that it’s a simple excuse to put out more Batman titles that people will have to buy in order to completely grasp what’s going on?
Because Dick Grayson is currently the most inconsistent character in Batman continuity. (Hey! Here comes the nerdrage!)
See, back in the early nineties, Bruce let Dick be Batman for a while, because Grayson was getting all whiny about how Wayne didn’t pick him as a replacement the last time he needed somebody to cover his ass. And during that period that Dick was Batman, he realized that he didn’t actually want to be Batman for the rest of his life. The whole reason that he quit being Robin was because he wanted get out from under the considerable shadow of his adoptive father. Filling in as Batman was something that he would do, and that he could do, but it wasn’t something he would ever enjoy, and he wouldn’t be able to make a life of it.
Upon telling Bruce about this, the older man’s reaction was essentially: “Yes. I figured that out years ago. That is why I didn’t ask you to be Batman that one time.”
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a good character beat. It is constructed lovingly out of everyday, relate-able, human emotion, mostly about fathers, sons, and growing up; as a counterpoint to the ridiculously non-everyday setting and plot. It performs the ultimate purpose of art: to make the viewer feel something.
Admittedly, I like to say all of that because this kind of character stuff is what I read superhero comics for. It’s what I’d like to write superhero comics for. But this is not everybody’s favorite thing, and who am I to tell them how to like comics?
As we have already established, if you’re going to have a crazy big event plot; if you’re going to promise that nothing will be the same and actually deliver; you have to keep consistent characters. You have to keep something for the reader who invested themselves, with money, and with their own interest, in what came before.
So, in a nutshell, although there has been a more general lack of consistent characterization in the Batman comics of the past two years, the standout example is Dick Grayson eagerly, purposefully, and confidently accepting a role as Batman. For the foreseeable future.
For the Forseeable Future?
Right. There’s one more thing to say here, and it also has to do with continuity. It’s a special kind of thing that you get when you agree to have one character’s story told over and over again by many different people. We used to call it oral tradition, and its little brother tears it up big-time on the internet, but it has also been the way that American superhero stories have been told for seventy years.
It means that writers don’t have to completely obey continuity. They can pick and choose which aspects of a character to keep and discard, and this means that concepts like Batman, Superman, The X-Men and others have been stripped down, built up and stripped down again until the concept of them, not necessarily the stories they are in, but the concept of them has become a lean, mean, narrative machine. In exactly the same manner as Odysseus, Jack (you know, Jack), and Paul Bunyan.
As much as I love the fact that my superheroes are created using this method, because it puts them on a level with some of the great stories of all time, it is a double edged sword. (It’s also worth mentioning that this method meant that many of the creators of these characters never saw what we would call full compensation for their success.)
Writers can pick bad things to keep with the characters. They can make wrong choices. And at that point, all you can really do is stop reading until it gets better.
Because It Will Get Better
The consolation here, for better or for worse, is that in a few years, no one will remember that any of this happened. Just like no one remembers that Dick Grayson is his own man, or that Bruce was once framed for murder, or that, you know, Cassandra Cain exists. Just to name three of my most memorable plot elements of mainstream Batman continuity.
But I’ve learned my lesson. I probably would have learned earlier, if I’d started buying monthlies before I was sixteen, but I’ve only got eight years of continuity watching experience. After sitting through more than two years of Batman: R.I.P. (in which Batman doesn’t die), the “death” of Batman (which did not occur in a Batman comic), which was later revealed to be Batman getting lost in time, I don’t really feel the need to keep up on continuity any more. If the answer to “what happened” is always something that makes no sense, why should I spend my cash finding out?
Thanks, DC. You’ve finally convinced me to be a responsible consumer.
Stinger, From The New York Post, Emphasis Ours
To avoid confusion between the two Batmen, Grayson’s costume features just the black bat logo, whereas Wayne’s will include the black bat over a yellow moon.
(image via David Willis.)
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