Today’s my birthday, but don’t worry — I’ll try not to be too self-indulgent. Besides, the quirks of the calendar make this the last birthday-themed post for a few years.
Part of me always wanted to be born on October 31. Halloween has huge nerd appeal, of course, but the 31st boasts a number of noteworthy events, including Martin Luther’s 95 theses (1517), Houdini’s death (1926), and the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975). It’s also the birthday of such folks as John Keats (1795), Dan Rather (1931), John Candy (1950), and Peter Jackson (1961).
Instead, I got November 1 … the day after. The setting of Halloween II, if you will.
Now, this is not a bad birthday by any means. It saw the opening of Michelangelo’s painted Sistine Chapel ceiling (1512), the premieres of Othello (1604) and The Tempest (1611), and Seabiscuit’s defeat of War Admiral (1938). However, growing up, the only person who I knew shared my birthday was conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick (1920). Whoopee. Thankfully, today I can claim solidarity with ILM’er Dennis Muren (1946), Lyle Lovett (1957), and the granddaddy of all sportswriters, Grantland Rice (1880).
Likewise, as I get older, I have to keep shifting the superhero characters with whom I can identify. In the ’80s, I was always a little younger than the Teen Titans. A short time later, DC made 25 the official “Year One” age for both the post-Crisis Batman and Superman, so when I got there in 1994, that was in the back of my mind. It’s sobering now to realize that, at 38, I’m older than Spider-Man, older than Johnny Storm. Before too long I’ll be in that grey-templed no-man’s-land between, say, your Christopher Chances and Reed Richardses and your Jay Garricks and Alan Scotts.
It’s a comfort, then, to be able to look across the vibrational divide and see how the “original versions” of particular characters went through the aging process. I’m particularly fascinated by the Golden Age Batman Chronology, which combines comics stories with the Supeman radio-program episodes for a neat real-time look at the Earth-2 Dynamic Duo’s careers. According to that Chronology, Bruce Wayne turned 38 on April 7, 1953. Around two years later, after an encounter with the Scarecrow, he would finally confess his true feelings to Selina Kyle. The two would be married in the summer of 1955, with their daughter Helena being born two years after that. The Earth-2 Batman died in 1979, at age 64.
Of course, those events are all retcons of the 1970s and ’80s. This is made especially clear in the Chronology’s treatment of Robin. We know from “actual” Earth-2 history that Dick Grayson became an attorney. It’s probably safe to presume that he went straight from high school to college and then to law school. We have no reason to think otherwise, especially in light of the need to keep up appearances. If Dick graduated high school in 1946, he’d have finished four years of college in 1950 and graduated from law school in 1953 — maybe a month or so after Bruce’s birthday. However, the Chronology says little about Dick’s education, because the stories themselves are fairly silent. The Chronology doesn’t exactly confirm that Dick remained an apple-cheeked, Sprang-style sidekick well into the 1960s, but it’s hard to escape that implication. (Furthermore, the anti-aging radiation he and other superheroes absorbed in that All-Star Squadron Annual arguably supports such a reading.)
It’s a patch in need of a patch — a retcon fixing a retcon — and it’s probably why readers grit their teeth thinking about DC history. Incorporating into the Earth-2 timeline all the events of the texts means having to rationalize Dick’s studies not just with street-level crimefighting, but also travels through time and space. (It was the ’50s, remember.) Let’s not take the easy way out and say simply that Batman and Robin had some apocryphal adventures during this period, or that they happened on some other Earth. Why go to all the trouble of a chronology if you’re not going to use all the stories you can?
Indeed, I’d love to read a story spanning the late ’40s to late ’50s and chronicling how Batman and Robin went from busting gangsters to fighting aliens, and incidentally helping Superman and Wonder Woman pick up the slack for the departed JSA, all while Dick decides to throw himself into his studies. If I were ever to write fanfic (that I’d want anyone to see, at least), that’d be the one. We know a lot about the split between “our” Bruce and Dick, but it could be just as illustrative to show how the Earth-2 versions stayed together. Yes, John Byrne’s Generations miniseries took a similar approach, but it also had Dick become Batman and was more in line with the “Second Batman and Robin Team” series of imaginary stories. On Earth-2, Dick not only didn’t become Batman, he chose to keep the Robin identity. Clearly this is a significant difference between the “Dicks Of Two Worlds” (go ahead and snicker; I had to say it sometime), but I’m not sure it makes the Earth-2 Dick any less independent than his counterpart.
Honestly, I’m a little surprised something like this hasn’t been attempted yet, Generations and New Frontier notwithstanding. Overlaying comic-book stories with the real world’s calendar is a pretty simple story generator. Among quite a few others, Steve Englehart did it in that JLA issue I mentioned last week; James Robinson did it in Starman; Kurt Busiek did a variation of it in Marvels; and of course it was pretty much the basis for Roy Thomas’ Earth-2 work. It’s another way to merge our grownup expectations with the tropes of adventures that were never meant to be serialized or even remembered for any great length of time. It’s also a test to see how well those stories hold up, and by extension how much effort we should invest in preserving them.
Similarly, comparing birthdays is a way to measure ourselves against our childhood heroes. What happens when we see ourselves aging not just past Robin and Nightwing and Spider-Man, but Batman and Superman too? (Kinda makes you look at that “Superman doesn’t age” chestnut a little differently, eh?) At least I’ll never be older than the Golden Agers, who are still tied to their early-century birthdates — although Jay Garrick apparently turned 38 in 1956, the year made more famous by the debut of his successor.
Yes, the House Un-American Activities Committee had a fair amount to do with it, but by the time he got to be as old as I am now, Jay was retired. I’m not saying there’s a message in that — at least I hope there’s not. More to the point, I hope that the message is, “you’ll have to force me out, too!” Maybe my fascination with the Earth-2 Robin’s middle years is a comparable attempt to see how one can maintain the pastimes of youth while adapting to the requirements of maturity. Isn’t that what we aging superhero fans do?
(By the way, the Earth-2 Robin turned 38 in 1966, which meant that he was a year older than I am now when he showed up in August 1967 in this costume. Talk about wearing your mid-life crisis on your sleeve….)
All things considered, then, the big Three-Eight finds me in a pretty decent spot. I’ve got steady work, a loving family, great friends, and the opportunity to commiserate frequently with you good folks. Not bad, and I’m not done yet.