Holy unnecessary alliteration, Batman!
The author is dead. So why am I talking about “canon,” which is eternally tangled up with the notion of authorship? Because in some media, it can still be a useful way of organizing how we think about the text(s). Put simply, “canon” is those works which a) originate with the creator of a given fiction, and/or b) are considered “official” by a fiction’s fan base. For example, Twilight is a part of Stephanie Meyer’s canon, while Twilight fan fiction is not. Revenge of the Sith is, sadly, official Star Wars canon, while anything that contradicts it is not. Such distinctions are relatively simple when the fiction has only one author from whom all the creative vision of the imagined universe stems.
But what about comics? Between Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939 and the current Bat-family of monthly magazines, literally hundreds of authors and illustrators have contributed to the Bat-mythology – nevermind the films, TV shows, novels, and newspaper strips external to DC’s ongoing continuity. Even the notion of a “creator” is meaningless; Bob Kane was only directly involved in DC’s monthly publications for roughly the first twenty of Batman’s 73 years thus far, and may or may not have actually done the creating anyway. And even after all that, DC has rewritten its own continuity several times, just to simplify (read: complicate) the internal chronology of their characters.
In comic books, then, it seems the only semi-solid conception we have of “canon” is that stamp of publisher’s approval, the indication of copyright: DC. Canon is as much proprietary as it is visionary. DC is owner, operator, and author all in one.
But wait! The author is dead! As dead as, say, Jason Todd on the wrong end of a crowbar!
Aha! So does that mean I don’t think the author is dead? Perhaps the author has ascended to superhero status; perhaps he is become the Ghostwriter, aka the Worldly Word-Slinger, eternally reanimated by clamoring fanboys and falling comic book sales, whose only weakness is the inability to permanently kill anybody, ever, no matter how completely, totally done in they might at first appear!
Fuck that shit. In my Gotham City, Jason Todd still lies stone dead of Joker-inflicted crowbar whacks, despite trade paperbacks, despite animated movies starring Neil Patrick Harris, despite his ever-increasing prominence in DC’s current publications. Why? Because Jason Todd’s death added a new layer of meaning to Bruce Wayne’s nightly crusade, a new wound reopened by every mention of Jason’s name, every glance at Jason’s Robin uniform enshrined in the Batcave, every single subsequent encounter with the Joker. I am the master of my comic book collection, and I say BATMAN #635-641 and #645-650 never happened.
DC’s decisions begin and end with their bottom line. No surprise there – it’s why they killed Jason Todd, aka Robin II, in the first place. He had become unpopular with readers, and DC’s editors felt it was time for him to shuffle off his (im)mortal comic book coil. Further, DC even let the readers decide via 1-900 number whether A Death in the Family would really end in Jason’s death. Comic book fans rarely have such direct influence on the course of their favorite characters’ storylines, but this underscores a truth about popular media: the relationship between consumers, writers, and copyright holders occurs in a triangular rather than top-down fashion.
But why not ignore the authorial stamp of approval altogether? In a story printed in BATMAN #250 in 1973 (adapted twice into animated form, in The New Batman Adventures in 1998 and again in Gotham Knight in 2008), a trio of boys narrate to each other their impressions of the Batman, all of which differ so wildly that they are mutually exclusive. In the original 1973 story, the youngsters are supervised on a weekend retreat by none other than Bruce Wayne, who is understandably shocked by their wildly inaccurate claims (one wonders at his indignation here, given that he generally cultivates this sort of mysterious aura). According to Will Brooker in his book Batman Unmasked, “Bruce Wayne, of course, is in a position of authority here… because of his ‘authorship’ of the Batman – and is therefore viewed within this story as a ‘dominant’ source of official meaning” (18). But the kids don’t care; even when Bruce dons the real Bat-costume and jumps out of the darkness as the real Batman, “the authorial meaning is derided, mocked, exposed as just another ‘reading’ and a pretty feeble one at that” (Brooker 21). Brooker’s point is clear: in this story, Bruce is a stand-in for DC Comics, the owner/operator/author, and their interpretation of the Batman is just that – an interpretation, no more valued by readers than they value their own readings of the character.
So in that spirit, I’ll merrily dance on the grave of Jason Todd as I present to you the vital chapters in my own “reading,” my own “canon” of the Batman, including what I find meaningful within each story and how I think it fits into a larger arc, the overall Legend of the Dark Knight.