Fictional Canon

…continued from Batman and the Art of Continuity Maintenance


Frank Kermode's Continuities Book Cover

Continuities by Frank Kermode (1968)

For those unfamiliar with superhero comics, the incipit might probably still feel pretty vague and overwhelming. Beyond looking at just the way comics are published, a didactic examination of FICTIONAL CANON—the main factor that drives the necessity of the Batman Chronology Project—should prove useful. A better grasp of this concept can help elucidate the validity of this website. When we think of the word “canon”—outside of a religious context—we often think of the classic definition in the vein of scholar Frank Kermode: 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 a question: “Who determines what is deemed worthy?” Typically capitalist enterprises aimed solely at the commodification of art, canons have been determined 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 But in any case, the very idea of this type of canon is outdated and old-fashioned, even in most legit circles of academia. But I digress. Understanding the more modern and interesting iteration of canon—fictional canon—will help us understand the whys, whats, and hows of the Batman Chronology project.

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 into the category of either 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 underlying philosophy 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 canon is an irresolvable dilemma! 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 interwoven stories by multiple creators is done solely in the mind of the reader. So, canon, usually defined so rigidly, really isn’t a doctrinaire 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.

text + reader = meaning

Reader Response Criticism

The collaborative nature of perceptive processing in superhero comic books is also linked to reader-response criticism where “interpretive communities” of fans determine “true narrative.” In this sense, reader-response criticism can be loosely defined as fan engagement with the subject material. Superhero texts control a reader’s response(s) while simultaneously containing “gaps” that a reader creatively fills. (Check out the critical theory of Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, and Louise Rosenblatt for more information vis-à-vis these complex ideas about reader-response criticism. There’s definitely the Derridean il n’y a pas de hors-texte philosophy in play here as well.) A great quote from the delightful TV Tropes website that might make it clearer how canon is determined by reader-response criticism/good ol’ fandom: “Canons for completed works with a single author or finite group of authors are descriptive, whereas fans’ attempts to define canon for ongoing works are prescriptive. If a fact is ‘canon,’ you are ‘not allowed’ to contradict it.” So, basically the word descriptive refers to rules predicated upon information given by the author(s). Conversely, the word prescriptive refers to rules that reflect reader value judgments/opinions. (This is obviously a rigid definition, but it helps us comprehend the relationship between canon and fandom.)

Columnist Travis Hedge Coke adds to the discussion of who has the right to superintend canon, saying, “There is no canon. [Readers and fans] can, and have, ordered certain comics into several different, sometimes overlapping canons. Further, belonging to a canon does not ensure that works are aligned by a shared chronology or continuity. Canons are personally established, or they are established for business reasons, for marketing purposes, and that’s about it. It’s not a magic thing, it only means, at essence, ‘these works count towards…’ whatever you want them to count towards. Canon is not a judgment of total value or relevance to all things. And canons are rarely permanent, both the personal and the business sorts.”

Different Sherlock Holmses

Sherlock Holmeses

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 Tanakh, The Midrash, The Talmud, Sūtras, Pitakas, The Daozang, and The Tantras 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 all together.) 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. 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. WarnerMedia/Warner Bros and Disney are great at lobbying Congress and putting out material simply to extend copyright—the very reason 80-year-old characters like Batman and Superman haven’t gone into public domain even though they should have by now.) 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 (as we’ll see below). The idea of fictional canon was further defined and explored (in painstaking academic fashion) in Mark Gruenwald and Dean Mullaney’s Omniverse (1977-1979), a groundbreaking two-issue journal/fanzine wherein which comic book cenacles waxed philosophic about world-building and the “physics” of fictional reality. In fact, it was the late great Gruenwald, a longtime Marvel editor, who first coined the term “omniverse” in the mid 1970s.

Omniverse #1

Omniverse #1 by Mark Gruenwald & Dean Mullaney (1977)

Now that we know what fictional canon is and how it works, let’s dig deeper, shall we? Let’s take what we’ve learned and apply it directly to superhero comics. You’ll soon see exactly why a timeline-construction website such as this is needed (and why it is such a difficult endeavor). Unlike classics like Sherlock Holmes or old pulp stories like Tarzan or Doc Savage, which were primarily penned by single authors, contemporary superhero comics are written by a ton of authors and are spread throughout multiple sources of narrative. Tracking a single source’s continuity is much easier than tracking something that has multiple streams. Also, the chance of continuity error (plot hole, narrative contradiction, etc…) increases as you add more streams of information. Take something that has a TON of material—say, TV shows like King of the Hill, Law & Order, Seinfeld, or Full House. Each of these shows has a lot of episodes to sit through to complete the whole picture, but each contains only one SINGLE PRIMARY source of information. It may take a while, but the episodes are in order and all you have to do is watch them to get the chronological tale in full. Superhero comic universes, on the other hand, have multiple sources of narrative information to sort through.

Multiple Sources of Information

Complexity increases with each additional source of narrative information.

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? This is not only a subject of much debate, but a subject that further complicates matters as well.

Superhero comics are also uniquely complicated because each superhero company places their titles within the spectrum of a shared world—a universe or multiverse. 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! There are also a lot of creators to keep tabs on, too! After all, each creator brings something different to the table. 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. We’ve already mentioned that the concept of fictional canon derives from religious scripture-building, so it should come as no surprise that these monster-camel cooks sometimes utilize master narrative-thread guides, commonly known in the biz as “story bibles,” when trying to keep their messy multi-faceted fictive worlds straight.

To reiterate the idea of canon being malleable, there’s another great quote from TV Tropes that I’d like to share. “Writers can tweak continuity quite a lot without actually breaking it by using [various methods]. In fan communities ‘canon’ can sometimes boil down to ‘the bits we like.’ Fans will attempt to find any excuse to ‘de-canonize’ facts that they personally find inconvenient.” Basically, while complete works with one author have a less debatable canon, they still don’t have 100% concrete canon. To sum up, the percentage of certainty decreases when you add authors, time, sheer weight of published material, complexity of shared worlds, characters, information sources, and the hot-blooded opinions of fanboys/fangirls. Not only that, but writers and editors act similarly, breaking their own “rules” with ad hoc retcons—RETtroactive CONtinuity changes that specifically contradict prior established narrative history. As critic Mark Mitchell says, “Usually retcons happen with shifts in creative teams, character relaunches, or when reaching back deep into a line’s history to incorporate some historical element that doesn’t quite fit in the modern landscape.” There are often many retcons in superhero comics, making it hard to arrive at firm conclusions. In fact, it is because of this revisionism that many canonical Batman stories become essentially interchangeable on a timeline.

Batman Files Manning

The Batman Files by Matthew Manning (2011)

In 2011, just as DC was rebooting its line yet again, they joined forces with Lionheart Books to publish author Matthew Manning’s grand opus, a tribute to the detailed history of Modern Age Batman, entitled The Batman Files. In this tome, Manning includes a postscript that is so refreshingly germane to the modus operandi of the Batman Chronology Project, I felt compelled to quote from it here. Manning says, “Every story counts. It’s a pretty simple philosophy, but in [regard to codifying a Batman timeline], there have been so many stories, so many interpretations, most people find it necessary to ignore particular tales. After all, if a story doesn’t match up to your tastes or views, then it’s that much easier to act like it never happened. But the catch is, it did… If you’re new to the Batman mythos, I encourage you to seek out the original [comics]. While you are sure to find contradictions and elements that refuse to work in tandem with one another, you’ll also be in for some of the most entertaining hours of your life, brought to you by some of the most creative and talented storytellers of any medium… [If you don’t like a certain Batman timeline], feel free to ignore it in favor of your own particular brand of continuity. But it still counts just the same.”

Despite the irreducible complexity and messiness of serialized superhero comic narrative, once you understand how canon works, you can figure out canon. My business is wading through and analyzing all the above information to create the best possible canon. And that’s all I can hope to do since there can never be one true perfect answer. A marvelous Frances Yates quote about arcane historical study applies directly to the perfectibility of canon-building: “[A chronology of a fictional narrative world] will not be a perfect structure. It will be a temporary, even a makeshift, edifice, which later architects will no doubt revise and alter. Nevertheless, even a temporary structure is better than no structure at all.”

For a summary of the previous exordium and explanation of fictional canon, check out The Uniqueness of Serialized Multi-Authored Comic Book Storytelling and Making Sense of It All. In order to move forward and engage in the practice of conjuring up the best possibility, one must first have a comprehension of one final complexity: DC’s reboots.

Please click on the following link to continue reading the next part: Relaunched, Rebooted, and Bewildered

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