[ETA: now with scans!]
There was a time when Raoul Duke loved — in every disturbing sense of the word — the trade magazine The Police Chief. In the June 1970 issue of Scanlan’s Monthly, Duke offered a painful, scathing critique* of what the magazine had become.
Among other things, Duke didn’t like the editors’ refusal to hawk such products as the “Nutcracker Flail” (which did exactly what its name suggests), and “The Growler,”
a mobile sound unit that emits such unholy shrieks and roars that every human being within a radius of ten city blocks is paralyzed with unbearable pain: they collapse in their tracks and curl up like worms, losing all control of their bowels and bleeding from the ears.
Every PD in the country should have a Growler, but the PC won’t advertise it because they’re afraid of hurting their image. They want to be LOVED. In this critical hour we don’t need love, we need WEAPONS — the newest and best and most efficient weapons we can get our hands on.
Accordingly, Duke pointed fans of the old Police Chief to more hard-line publications like the Shooting Times or Guns & Ammo. He also made special note of a book called How To Defend Yourself, Your Family, And Your Home:**
Now here is a book with real class! [...] No detail has been spared: dogs, alarm wiring, screens, bars, poisons, knives, guns … ah yes, this is a wonderful book [...]. No professional would attempt to deal lightly with this book. It is a rare combination of sociology and stone craziness, laced with weapons technology on a level that is rarely encountered.
You will want this book. But I want you to know it first.
* * *
Before DC’s Who’s Who and Marvel’s OHOTMU and especially before the Internet, an encyclopedia writer named Michael Fleisher (not particularly a comics fan) took it upon himself to catalog the adventures of familiar comic-book characters. Through Fleisher’s 1976 Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes, Volume 1: Batman, I learned about the character’s development from a rough vigilante into a genial father-figure, and ultimately back into a sleek, modern version of his original shadowy persona.
Now Bob Greenberger (himself the editor of Who’s Who and a writer for the 2004 DC Comics Encyclopedia) has updated Fleisher’s work with The Essential Batman Encyclopedia. Ever since the project was announced, I have been waiting patiently to see whether the new book measures up.
Hazy memories of Duke’s tirade kept coming back to me, though, the more I thought about this update. I don’t have anywhere near the relationship with Fleisher’s book that Duke did with The Police Chief (thank goodness). Still, Duke was clearly an enthusiast — a bloodthirsty, amoral, cryptofascist caricature; but an enthusiast nevertheless — and I suspect we superhero fans are similarly wary of being let down.
Fortunately, that’s not the case here. I feel confident in saying that you will want the new Batman Encyclopedia … but I want you to know it first.
* * *
The Fleisher book was intended as the first of an eight-volume series. Fleisher eventually published two more, “Volume 2″ for Wonder Woman and The Great Superman Book (originally slated for Vol. 6). *** In his introductions to each published volume, Fleisher relates how he conceived the Encyclopedia Of Comic Book Heroes while working at the Encyclopaedia Britannica itself. He saw it both as a way to treat superhero comics “seriously,” and as an escape from his “deadly dull job at the Britannica.” Today, the Fleisher books strike me as exactly the kind of thing a comics blogger would write — assuming, of course, that said blogger wanted to work in print.
Thirty-odd years ago, though, the Fleisher books were a revelation. Each went into excruciating detail about its chosen subjects, cataloging such things as nicknames (“The texts contain more than twenty alternate names for Batman, including the Ace of Detectives, the Black Knight, the Caped Champion…”), quotes and plot summaries, and pages of story thumbnails (“In October 1940 Robin dreams that he and Batman have somehow entered the fourth dimension, a bizarre world inhabited by giants and midgets (Det No. 44: “The Land Beyond The Light!”)). All of it was backed up with citations, each in the same title/issue/story title format.
Where possible, Fleisher tried to harmonize or rationalize away inconsistencies; and he identified the texts’ major themes. As a kid I skipped his more involved attempts at psychoanalysis, which now seem rather quaint. Of course the writers, artists, and editors who worked on these stories were barely mentioned, but those credits would be beside the point. (The Greenberger volume does include a page of artist credits.)
Fleisher’s book tops out at 387 pages’ worth of data, from “Abdullah” (leader of the Forty Thieves) to, yes, “Zur-En-Arrh” (a/k/a Planet X, where Batman naturally has a counterpart). The “Batman” entry spans the better part of 103 pages, or about 27 percent of the book. By comparison, Greenberger’s book contains 383 pages’ worth of articles and artwork, from “Abbatoir” (a villain from the AzBats issues) to “Zur-En-Arrh.” Its “Batman” entry is considerably shorter, even taking organizational differences into account.
Those numbers should give you an idea of each book’s goals. Greenberger covers considerably more material in about the same space (using bigger pictures and smaller print), and his approach is more conversational and far less academic. (Bigger versions appear on my own blog.) Although Fleisher was indirectly mocking the dry Britannica style, he didn’t get much farther from it. However, the charm of Fleisher’s book lies in its efforts to be comprehensive. All those details, and each quoted passage from the texts, seem cumulatively to be attempts to evoke the spirit of each individual story.
In a way this was understandable, because Fleisher would have had a few different audiences in the mid-1970s. Adam West would still have been fresh in some readers’ minds, as would the kid-friendly Dynamic Duo from “Super Friends.” To those folks, the picture of a gun-wielding Batman (from Detective Comics #35, January 1940), or the account of a badly-beaten Robin (from Batman #5, Spring 1941), might have been a bit jarring. Other readers (like yours truly) who read the then-current comics, and knew that the Fleisher book was already several years out of date, probably appreciated the book for its historical value. Whether by coincidence or design, DC was revisiting some retired elements (Batwoman, the Outsider, Deadshot, etc.) around the same time.
(Indeed, the Greenberger book explicitly connects those older and not-so-older stories, sometimes in surprising ways. A Martian lawman named Roh Kar is also mentioned in the “Martian Manhunter” entry; and Alan Scott’s membership in the Gotham City “Analysts Club” is linked to the Mystery Analysts of Gotham City.)
Fleisher could only do so much, though. His coverage stopped (for the most part) at the end of 1969, with Bruce and Alfred’s departure from Wayne Manor offering just a taste of the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams “Darknight Detective” revival. Fleisher also omitted the Batman appearances in such books as The Brave and the Bold and Justice League of America. Greenberger doesn’t quite cover everything, but he does give a good sense of Batman’s role in the larger DC superhero line. For example, where Fleisher’s “Elongated Man” article described each Batman team-up, Greenberger simply acknowledges that he did team up with Batman, and offers a more general biography. Greenberger also makes a concerted effort to distinguish between Earth-2, Earth-1, and post-Crisis accounts. Still, the Essential Batman Encyclopedia doesn’t use Batman’s connections to function as a de facto DC Encyclopedia.
At times Greenberger’s choices can be a little frustrating. Greenberger seems to have included quite a few “imaginary stories” and Elseworlds, while omitting “real” team-ups across time and space with, say, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Kamandi, Adam Strange, and the Blackhawks. Entries on “Queen Bee” and “Blackhand” describe only the obscure Batman characters, not the more familiar villains with similar names. (By the way, Batman fought “Doctor Doom” in April 1950.) I was also surprised that prominent Bat-connected characters such as Kyle Rayner, Guy Gardner, and Hawkman didn’t rate their own entries. (Neither the Shadow nor Sherlock Holmes do, but I can understand those.)
The book is not without its technical flaws, either. For example, the “Holly Robinson” entry observes that “[i]n a reality prior to the Crisis On Infinite Earths, Holly actually cleaned herself up and married a man, moving to New Jersey. Upon hearing of this, Catwoman visited the Garden State and avenged her friend.” I also noticed a citation to the wrong New Teen Titans series and a reference to Nightwing’s car as the “Redbird.”
These are truly minor quibbles, though. Greenberger’s book is impressive both in its scope and in its fidelity to its predecessor. In terms of presentation, it is definitely an improvement, and not just for the two 16-page color sections. It does show a wider variety of artistic styles, although it’s pretty heavy on the Jim Lee. Greenberger has managed to stay remarkably current, stopping “officially” with comics dated September 2007, but incorporating some 2008 stories as well.
A brief aside: between these tomes and the Trinity annotations, I’m starting to feel like an encyclopedia writer myself. “What about art, Tom? Art!” pleads the little voice in the back of my head. Well, sure; I appreciate the qualitative aspects of comics, and I hope to talk more about them. Still, there’s no denying the appeal of a good nerd book. Ultimately, it’s a confirmation that there’s someone else out there who shares your passion, and who wants to help you enjoy it that much more. The Internet is a powerful tool, but print is more personal.
Anyway (at the risk of being too prosaic), if Fleisher was writing a treatise, Greenberger has presented a tapestry. Each are valuable in their own ways, and each complements the other.
You will want the Greenberger book; and you may well want both.
* ["Duke's" article has been reprinted in the Hunter Thompson anthology The Great Shark Hunt: Gonzo Papers Volume 1. The Police Chief is still being published.]
** [Out of print, apparently, but not unavailable.]
*** [Phil Jiminez is updating the Wonder Woman book and Martin Pasko is handling the Superman one.]