The Uniqueness of Serialized Multi-Authored Comic Book Storytelling (And Making Sense of It All)

In late 2017, I was honored by receiving an invitation from Professor Sofi Thanhauser to lecture at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. It is with great pleasure that I now provide a semi-transcript of the lecture to my devoted blog-followers. The lecture, entitled “The Uniqueness of Serialized Multi-Authored Comic Book Storytelling (And Making Sense of It All),” is transcribed—with images—below. Note that the actual lecture went into much more detail and included a Q&A as well. Hopefully, I’ll have an audio podcast coming in the near future!

pratt institute seal brooklyn new york sofi thanhauser collin colsher graphic novels
pratt institute logo brooklyn nyc

all about me collin colsher batman historian

My name is Collin Colsher. I have a graduate degree from NYU, I am a teacher, artist, filmmaker, and comic book historian. I’ve also served on the jury for the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize, which is one of the most prestigious graphic novel awards outside of the industry. (The big industry awards are the Eisners and the Harveys.) The Lynd Ward Prize is an academic award sponsored by the US Library of Congress. Previous honorees have been Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden, Unflattening by Nick Sousanis, This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Fran by Jim Woodring, Building Stories by Chris Ware, and Habbibi by Craig Thompson, just to name a few.

lynd ward prize honorees

While I am a working visual artist and filmmaker, my lecture will be something a bit different than the normal “guest artist lecture.” Rather than sharing my “creative work,” I’m going to talk about a project that I’ve been working on for the past nine years. Professor Thanhauser’s syllabus states that two essential keys to her Pratt Institute Graphic Novel course are “gaining knowledge of the broader tradition of the graphic novel” and “consider[ing] what the graphic novel form is and what it may become.” Hopefully, my lecture will hit upon those things in ways other standard artist or academic lectures might not. I will attempt to tie in this lecture to both Batman comics and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther series.

In this presentation, I’m going to address the broader tradition of the graphic novel and its form in a few ways: First, by talking about my project in relation to the complexity of superhero comic book narratives; second, by addressing the concepts of fictional canon and reboots; and third, by showing some examples of what I’m talking about.

And, through this presentation, we will examine graphic novel storytelling from a new perspective.
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WHAT EXACTLY IS MY PROJECT?

slide show pratt lecture

My project is called The Real Batman Chronology Project—(right now the whole thing is all online, but I’m hoping to have it published into book form). The project is about scholarly analyzing something that, at first glance, might seem unworthy of scholarly analysis: superhero comics—specifically using Batman as a sort of “primary text” or “case study.” Now, whether you are into superheroes or not, there is a lot going on with superhero comics. And the history of graphic novels really starts with superheroes and it starts here in the United States.

scott mccloud

Scott McCloud’s brilliant and timeless Understanding Comics gives one of the most succinct and wonderful histories of comics. It also shows how complex the very act of reading a comic book is. Hopefully, this lecture will connect to McCloud’s work in some ways.

My project essentially tracks the narrative continuity of DC Comics via the lens of Batman, plotting each of his appearances into detailed timelines. Now, you might be thinking, doesn’t one just read the comics in the order they are published? Why does there need to be a project dedicated to that? I’m going to show you why it’s not that simple. Far from it. But first, a little backstory about how this project got started. This all came about when I started a blog that was supposed to be a fun commentary as I attempted to read through all Batman comics chronologically starting from 1939. Of course, once you attempt this, you find there are a lot of interesting things going on—and then you are in a black hole you never intended to be in. As I was reading, I started to realize that getting the complete story wasn’t as simple as reading everything in published order. I also quickly realized that, beyond the overall complexity of how we read sequential art (in the Scott McCloud sense of reading sequential art), there is a narrative complexity in the very nature of superhero comics.

And this extra narrative complexity consists primarily of four key things.

ONE: Superhero comics exist as vast collections of interconnected serialized fiction that span decades.

TWO: They are authored by hundreds of different people—including writers, pencilers, colorists, inkers, letterers, editors, publishers, and more.

Beyond the large number of people involved creatively (and because of the large number of people involved creatively), we get number THREE: much of the superhero genre is open to reader interpretation—and authorial interpretation of previous authorship.

FOUR: Every Wednesday, dozens of titles come out continuing the story from the previous week’s batch of titles. And all of these titles–week to week, month to month, and so on—tell an ongoing über-story in which the events and characters of said titles all exist in the same shared world, directly influencing each other. (To show how many ongoing titles are released, ballpark numbers: Dark Horse, IDW, Image, and BOOM Studios each put out around 10 comics a week, Marvel and DC put out double that—about 20 comics every week, and there were upwards of 30 indie books that come out via the awful Diamond Distribution monopoly into mainstream comic shops as well. The Diamond monopoly and soul-sucking corporate nature of these comics are a worthwhile discussion too, but one for another time!) If we look solely at DC for the purposes of this conversation, we are talking about literally hundreds of creators working together to build a “shared universe”—essentially a single unified story.

batman montage issues covers

How can all these titles (and creators) possibly exist and function cohesively? How can there be a coherent story, both visually and narratively? The comics combine to form a puzzle and it’s how the pieces fit together that really interests me. This is what the Real Batman Chronology Project is all about at its core.

But why Batman? Why is he so important? He’s quite popular, in case you didn’t know—he shows up in almost every DC title at some point or another. Batman is the primary lens through which DC Comics has been able to tell a consistent narrative for the past 75 years-plus. Therefore, sticking with Batman appearances for this project allows for the easiest opportunity to determine passage of time, character age, where events occur, where things need to be rearranged, how things come together, or how things fail to come together for the entire DC Universe. Of course, a ton of variables have to be considered and the process gets complicated. I’m sort of a masochist for continuing my project with such diligence! But I do so because, in looking deeper at serialized comics (and in looking at the four keys I just mentioned), one finds certain refreshing truths.

First, continuity equals congruity (meaning that, contrary to what a lot of folks think, continuity isn’t supposed to over-complicate or make texts feel exclusive—it actually helps us understand narrative more easily); second, serialized multi-authored narrative worlds utilize truly unique forms of storytelling; and, third, a cohesive superhero universe is the result of a collaborative interpretive process undertaken by both creators and readers alike. In order to prove these theses, my foundational focus has always revolved heavily around respect for the concept of fictional canon and knowledge of DC’s line-wide reboots.
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canon cannon canon

FICTIONAL CANON

When we think of the word “canon” we often think of the classic definition: A body of historical works in music/visual art/film/literature considered to be masterpieces worthy of study. The problem with this form of canon lies in the question: “Who determines what is considered worthy?” Typically, canons have been determined solely by a White male majority of scholars and critics. Only in more recent years has the canon begrudgingly begun to accept other works of non-White/non-colonial/non-male authorship i.e. what we could call diverse works. But, ANYWAY, we aren’t here to talk about that, we are here to talk about fictional canon.

what counts fictional canon?

or this? canon

Fictional canon exists in serialized media and refers to any source material that is in-continuity as opposed to what is out-of-continuity, or, in other words, what officially “counts” toward story/character development versus what does “not count.” At first glance, every superhero story seemingly falls either into the category of canon OR non-canon. HOWEVER, that is a gross oversimplification. The authors and owners of said conceptual material usually determine what is canon, but most canons exist only because they have been accepted as “official” by a fan base. Since the entire concept of canon is rooted in fandom and fan interaction with the stories, ultimately there’s no way of determining what is officially canon or non-canon. Canon is also often said to be the opposite of fan-fiction, but again this is an oversimplification for the very same reason. Ironically, both are rooted in fandom. Therefore, canons are all malleable constructs that can never be 100% finite.

That being said, my project monitors canon. And I just told you that there IS NO OFFICIAL CANON! This may seem like a complete invalidation of my project, but this contradiction is actually the very reason I do what I do!

To me, the most interesting thing about canon is that it always gets defined as this very scientifically precise concept, something chained to authorship, ownership, and continuity. But because of the nature of superhero comics, so much of what goes into making sense of multiple overlapping stories by multiple creators is done solely in the mind of the reader. So, canon, usually defined so rigidly, really isn’t a rigid concept at all! Therefore, in serialized fictional media, I’ve come to personally define canon as: The collaborative perceptive processing of an ongoing work by both authors and readers, through which the story MAKES THE MOST NARRATIVE SENSE. You’ll see what I mean as we continue.

Now, before moving forward, a quick interlude about where the very idea of fictional canon comes from. The term canon derives from the authentication of religious scripture. Ancient texts like The Bible, Gospels, The Talmud, Sūtras, and The Daozang have multiple volumes or interpretations created by multiple authors in a similar way that most fairy tales, folklores, folk tales, and mythologies do. (Whether or not most religious institutions will admit to that is another thing altogether.) All of these sacred stories, from the Old Testament to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, deal with the conundrum of legitimizing a single official narrative while having varied accounts or versions, either because of multiple authorship or a lengthy oral tradition. The idea of modern fictional canon, however, didn’t come about until the 20th century.

sherlock holmes

The concept was invented by Ronald Knox in 1911 in reference to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. There were a ton of Sherlock knock-offs, so Knox used canon to deem which books fit into the official Holmes-verse and which were mere imitations. (Sherlock Holmes is actually a complicated example to talk about in regard to canon since the character is now in the public domain and has been re-created in various media formats and even since been included into the same world as Batman and Superman. Public domain is another great topic of discussion. Warner Bros and Disney are great at lobbying Congress and putting out material simply to extend copyright—the very reason 75-year-old characters like Batman and Superman haven’t gone into public domain even though they should have by now.)

seinfeld slide

But putting public domain aside, here lies the big mega-difference between Sherlock Holmes, written by one author with one source of narrative, versus superhero comics, written by a ton of authors and spreading throughout multiple sources of narrative. Once you begin to add more streams of information, continuity-building begins to get more difficult. The chance of contradiction, confusion, or error arises—either by the writer themselves or in how the reader interprets the work. After all, each creator (and reader) brings something different to the table and has their own perspective. As the old saying goes, “Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth”—or even more applicable, “A camel is a racehorse designed by committee.” Superhero comics are a monster-camel with a billion humps.

Superhero comics get even wilder in regard to multiple sources of narrative information when we think of the synergistic trans-media experience that permeates most storytelling today. It’s not just different narratives from comic books. What about board games, toys, TV shows, video games, phone apps, novelizations, etc…? Where, when, and how do they fit in?

These days, more so than ever, you don’t just sign onto one single narrative stream of media. To get the full picture, you have to commit to the entire “shared universe.” We see this with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, and more. And with comics, it’s become hard to just read one title here or one title there. You really are forced to read “the DC Universe” or “The Marvel Universe” if you want that coherent narrative.

tiny titans continuity joke

Superhero comics are further uniquely complicated because, as i’ve already mentioned, each superhero company places their titles within the spectrum of a shared world—or universe, multiverse, etc… While all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures occur on a singular timeline in which he, Watson, and Moriarty all existed, the same can be said of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Captain America, who all exist in the Marvel Universe. Or the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or Luke, Leia, and Han Solo in the Star Wars Universe. Likewise, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman all exist in the DC Universe. There is so much going on and so much room for contradiction when working within the confines of a cluttered fictional world, especially one in which there are hundreds of toys in the sandbox, so to speak. Therein lies another part of the problem. To put it bluntly, there are a lot of characters to keep tabs on!
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REBOOTS

reboots reboots reboots

snyder reboots

DC’s major reboots are incredibly important to understand continuity. Reboots influence reader experience and the actions of authors, in relation to canon, more than anything else. (Reboots are when the company decides to scrap everything and start over from scratch. Except they never really start over from scratch. Tons of old story gets folded into the “new continuity” and this happens in very interesting ways, which we’ll soon address.) A QUICK HISTORY LESSON: Superman debuted in 1938 and Batman in 1939, essentially starting DC Comics’ shared narrative universe—and the Golden Age of comics. About twenty-five years later, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, DC wanted a fresh start with a new type of modern hero. Thus, the Silver Age was born. Almost as if on cue, roughly twenty-five years later, in 1986, the seminal Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover was published, which collapsed the existing multiverse and rebooted it all into one new unified Earth where all characters had a new shared history. This was the dawn of the Modern Age of superhero comics. Twenty-five years later, 2011’s Flashpoint rebooted DC yet again, and a mere six years after that (earlier this year in 2017), they rebooted again!

Now, what I just gave you was definitely THE MOST BRIEF history of DC Comics that one could possibly have given. By catering to this complex history it might seem as though DC is acting exclusionary and doing itself a disservice by making things so convoluted and sprawling. While knowledge of this history is essential if you want to track canon or continuity, it doesn’t need to be understood or even known to simply enjoy the comics. They stand on their own—you can pick up a collected trade paperback and read a totally inclusive story that begins, has rising action, a climax, and denouement. But the beauty, especially for me, is that if you already like comics, then knowing about this history will only serve to augment your enjoyment.
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THE PROCESS—INTERPRETIVE READER-RESPONSE COMBINED WITH “GAMES” AUTHORS PLAY

Because the “superhero story” generally exists in the form of serialized multiple-authored sequential art, we see types of storytelling in superhero comics that are unique only to superhero comics. Thus, there are a lot of tricks or “funny games” that creators play to tell superhero stories (or play while telling them). This specific kind of trick-storytelling exists in the winks, nods, references, Easter Eggs, retcons, flashbacks, call-backs, time-sliding, canon-immigration, grandfathering-in, back-engineering, and re-imagining of hundreds of creators telling the über tale. This next part of my lecture is all about these funny games—the games that creators play and which fans (myself included) interpret. The collaborative perception of both authors and readers is what makes superhero comics superhero comics. It is through this exchange that a superhero universe gains cohesion and coherence.

Let’s now look at few examples to show how this works (for both author and reader). Be very aware that, with most examples that show my personal interpretive process as a reader, there can often be various alternate interpretations to open-texted material. Again, this is the idea that fandom dictates canon. Remember: There is no one true correct answer. The goal here is to decipher a story that makes the most sense narratively and chronologically.

The Crew Black Panther

REFERENCES (and also FLASHBACKS) FROM ONE ERA TO A PREVIOUS ERA—when an author canonizes narrative from a prior continuity or prior narrative. Above we have Coates’ Black Panther #6 (2016) referencing The Crew (2003). Writers often also make reference to their peers’ story arcs (for better or worse). A random example of this would be, say, if Alfred hurts his arm and is in a cast, maybe another writer will show Alfred in the cast. Alfred could also simultaneously appear in a third title without the cast. You can see how the chance for contradiction exponentially rises.

references to original material bob kane

REFERENCES TO ORIGINAL MATERIAL consist of 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 back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Batman #69, as our random sample, refers to an event—Batman joining the volunteer fire squad—that never happened in any prior comic. It must be inserted into history at a point that makes sense.

black panther coates flashbacks #1

FLASHBACKS. The very first page of Coates’ Black Panther series (in Black Panther Vol. 6 #1) contains three flashbacks to old stories. On the left is a flashback reference to Black Panther’s father from Marvel Two-in-One (1970s). The middle contains a flashback reference to Namor destroying Wakanda from X-Men vs Avengers (2012). And the right shows a flashback reference to the Dora Milaje from Christopher Priest’s Black Panther Vol. 3 (1998). For many, Coates Black Panther was their first foray into reading superhero comics. Yet, right from the get-go, Coates is, in a sense, demanding some knowledge of deep continuity cuts from his readership.

retcons retcons

RETCONS (Retroactive Continuity alterations). These include CHARACTER CHANGES and AGE CHANGES. Sometimes personalities, races, or ages change depending on author (purposefully, or by mistake). Ages are stretched-out, like Robin being in high school for way longer than he should have been. Examples in context: 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!

sliding time

SLIDING-TIME. This occurs in both DC and Marvel Comics, but it is a super-duper Marvel thing! Sliding-Time is the fundamental basis for all of Marvel’s continuity. Black Panther debuted in 1966. Everything that has happened to him since 1966 (ever since FF #52) is a part of his narrative. But thanks to Sliding-Time, a mere twelve to seventeen years have passed—depending on which site you source. (Douglas Wolk said, in 2017 lectures, that the Marvel timeline was around fourteen years long, whereas Christos Tsirbas put it at twelve years long before a Sliding-Time update in 2018 that seemingly stretched it to seventeen years long.) This keeps things constantly contemporary no matter how much time passes! In direct relationship to Sliding-Time, COMPRESSION and SHORTENING OF TIMELINES occurs as well. Time-sliding, for instance, causes massive compression. Say a story arc occurs over a specific nearly yearlong IN-STORY period. When things are made more contemporary, large chunks of story time cannot accommodate the shorter updated timeline. Thus, we have to imagine a condensed history. Of course, this all means that specific topical and seasonal references get ignored.

easter egg hunt

EASTER EGGS are a fun type of writer’s trick. 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 lighthouse in there (as pictured above)—this means that Batman went on some unspecified mission and netted a lighthouse as a prize. This becomes a part of his history that we can only imagine in our own minds! Coates’ Black Panther is chock-full of Easter Eggs, so much so he did annotations in a Vulture article. Coates: “Kimoyo is something that my predecessor, [past Black Panther writer] Christopher Priest, came up with. He had a Kimoyo Card, which is almost like this smartphone-in-a-card that Black Panther used. We changed it a little bit and turned it into a band that all Wakandans have.” Coates: “Niganda is a country that neighbors Wakanda, and they have not been as fortunate in history as Wakanda has. [Black Panther nemesis] Killmonger [in a recent story] tried to organize the Nigandans to basically overthrow T’Challa and take over Wakanda. It’s a poorer country.” It feels like many comics today have become vessels for Easter Egg hunting, which can be very cool—unless Easter Egging takes the place of actual storytelling, which happens more often than I’d care to see.

lego BATMAN!

Everything is canon on some timeline. Everything has a place. If it doesn’t fit, then it fits somewhere else.

Thanks!

About Collin Colsher

Collin Colsher, the creator of The Real Batman Chronology Project and disCONTINUITY, is a writer, filmmaker, teacher, and comic book historian that currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has lectured at various universities, libraries, and book fairs. Collin has also served on the jury for the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize, which is sponsored by the US Library of Congress.
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