Batgirl #3: The DC Universe

Issue #3 of Batgirl didn’t enchant me as much as #2 did, I won’t lie, but it’s giving me the perfect chance to write about one of my favorite subjects. I firmly believe that one of the richest aspects of mainstream comics is the incredibly strange construction that is the DC Universe.* We’ve talked about reboots and retconning before, but the universe is really the concept that forces writers to resort to these strategems. At its simplest, the DC Universe where all the stories from DC comics happen. Unpacked a little, it means that everything in all the DC stories is happening concurrently in the same world. This has created an incredibly complicated, but incredibly rich mythology that, I think, creates many more opportunities than it does restrictions.

In Batgirl, this makes it necessary for Gail Simone to define this new Barbara Gordon’s relationships with her world and the rest of the Bat-family. Though there seems to be no sign of Barbara’s past as an information professional, Simone carefully lets us know what her new relationship with this universe is through flashbacks and new character interactions.

And you don’t just get this richness though the intense interactions that characters with long history like Batgirl and Nightwing have. In the previous issue, she crashes into a cab and the driver yells at her to go to Metropolis (where Superman lives and works) and fight “Larry Luthor” (assumedly Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis.) Sure, it’s geeky, but I chuckled.

So much of any medium consists of artists inventing things by themselves, in a vacuum. If they do get the chance to build off of preexisting work, they’re usually stuck in the narrow confines of a franchise, and not much can be done. Mainstream comics constantly mines its own past and present to create these little crossovers that go a long way to creating a round, full-feeling world.

I nearly always love suggesting The Sandman as an introductory comic, not just because it’s good and accessible, or even because it was the comic that started me on my love of comics, but because I think it’s a great introduction to the concept of the DC Universe and the fantastically layered stories it makes possible. Even though it’s generally held up as one of the great early non-superhero comics, in Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion, Neil Gaiman identifies the constraints of that superhero universe as one of the prime generative aspects:

A major defining factor was my wanting him to be part of the DC Universe. Because if someone as powerful as the Sandman was running all the dreams in the world, a natural question would be “Why haven’t we heard about him by now?”

The answer I came up with was “He’s been locked away.” …And so on; each plot point just seemed to naturally lead to the next one. p.235

In a very real way, the superhero story in this issue of Batgirl is happening in the same world where The Sandman took place. As a matter of fact, Batman hilariously shows up in one of the last issues of The Sandman, along with Clark Kent and the Martian Manhunter:

Having a continuous universe, as odd as it may be, makes it possible for a writer like Neil Gaiman to have a crack at Clark Kent, if just for a minute. It also creates a continuous chain of references that a reader can follow, all the way from the quiet, literary Sandman to the fast-paced adventure of Batgirl — that’s exactly what I did.

 

*The Marvel Universe is no less cool, and most of the same arguments apply to it. If you’d like to learn more about its history and mythology, I suggest Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels.

Batgirl #2: Retconning

“Retcon” is a portmanteau of the words “Retroactive continuity,” and if we’re going to be honest, one of the most important concepts in superhero comics. The basic idea is that you can rewrite the past in order to make the story you want to tell possible.

This idea matters a lot more in serial fiction than it does in stand-alone works. Neil Gaiman has a great line in The Sandman Companion to the effect of “In a novel, if you get to the end and realize you need a gun in the desk drawer, you can go back and put one in. In comics, you have to put a lot of guns in a lot of drawers to make sure you can finish a story.” No matter how many trap doors a writer puts into a series, though, when things need to be massively changed, they take to retconning. All it usually takes, as in Batgirl, is a concise retelling, generally through a flashback, of the new history, and then that’s the new truth.

Any superhero’s history is rife with retconning and reboots, which tend to make them insanely and hilariously complicated. (For a great take on this, check out Comics, Everybody! a web-comic series that condenses decades of retconning into one hilarious strip at Comics Alliance.) Retconning is one of the things –along with improbable cleavage and silly powers– that can give superhero stories a bad name. It’s hard to argue with this kind of storytelling device, though, when you consider that many of these stories have been running continuously for forty-plus years; if writers didn’t have these trapdoors, the stories simply couldn’t continue, and nothing new could ever happen.

Reading Batgirl #2 and getting a better look at Mirror, the current villain, is fascinating while thinking about the idea of timelines in comics and the principle of retconning. Mirror, it is revealed, was the sole survivor of a horrific car accident that killed his entire family. Guilt- and grief-stricken, he’s become a religious zealot and is killing people in Gotham who made narrow escapes or “should” have died previously.

On its surface, as several reviewers complained after the first issue, it’s kind of a bizarre and opaque motivation for a villain. Right after this reboot and retcon, though, I think it’s an extremely piquant way to get at the importance of a changeable past and improbable odds in this genre. A force for probability and logical consequence is one of the most deadly things possible to a superhero; their entire premise depends on odds being thwarted and downright miraculous events being commonplace. A character that normalizes history wouldn’t just threaten Barbara Gordon, this Batgirl in this series, it’s a threat to the entire suspension of disbelief that lets comics as a whole work.

Gail Simone has gotten some criticism for this reboot so far, but the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with the depth of her work. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

 

 

The League meets MLLL readers

You might have noticed all the fuss about snow up here in Seattle last week. And while conditions were slightly exaggerated, league librarians, Ryer, Sarah, and Megan braved day three -slushmageddon, to make our way down on our first official visit to The MLLL, the student run comic book library at Reed College.

Jan. 29, 2012

Our mission: hang out with some comic fans and talk to them about how they find good new stories to read and what we can do to make that easier at the MLLL.

And what success!  We got to hang out with current signator Emlyn Thompson, an alumnus who had the position in the 80’s and some wonderful MLLL readers who helped give us some insight into the MLLL as an institution and what kind of system would help them find what they need without requiring too much upkeep. Besides requesting reading suggestions, these Reedies stressed a desire to build a community of reading and peer recommendation to go along with our tool.

A three hour brainstorming car drive later, we librarians are back in the Emerald city, rejuvenated and refocused on our task by the insights enthusiasm of our new friends down at Reed.

So what is next for this dynamic trio?  Research and refinement in three parts:

1. Identify the technology.  We are currently investigating Drupal, a content management system to host our taxonomy. Now that we have a clearer picture of what the back end of our site will need to do, to achieve what the MLLL requires we can investigate modules in Drupal and other systems to discover what is possible and make a final decision about what system to use.

2.  What to catalog?   Librarians have very strict (and currently very arcane) rules about how to represent a book in an online catalog.  These rules do not work well for comic books which have all kinds of special issues that are important to the reader, but get lost when you try to force the information to fit into the mold we created for text-only books.  We face the task of deciding what we should describe about the comics at Reed when we put a record for them online so we can apply our terms.

Another related consideration is the level of detail or refinement at which we will both index and catalog. The scope of our project will not allow us to catalog every single issue contained in Reed’s library.  We will need to decide if we want to describe a comic at the title level (All Spider-man comics) the series level (Amazing Spider-man), the story arc (“Kraven’s Last Hunt”), or the issue (#293).  Different comics may be cataloged and indexed at varying levels, but we need to define what information is important and constant within each level of detail.

3. Get the language just right! Finally, we will be breaking out ye olde Comics Thesaurus, blowing off the dust of a quarter or two and taking a fresh look at our terms, their scope notes, the structure of our indexing language and fill in any insurmountable gaps.

In other words, we’ve got work to do, but a whole lot of excitement about the direction and possibilities of our project.

-Megan W.

Project Progress: Things are getting real

We just couldn’t walk away from all the great stuff we developed in our creation, The Comics Thesaurus.  No.  We had to go and turn this into a full-blown final project for our school.  This is bound to be a great joy and a great challenge.  So, what is it that we are going to focus on during the next round?

We are going to put The Comics Thesaurus to the test and create online records for real items.  We will be working with an awesome comic library at Reed College.  This collection started outta some dude’s dorm room in the sixties – so you know its gonna be a killer stash.  Things got more official as the years went on and now its a full-on student organization with its own location.  Our group member Sarah worked there for years, so she has great insider knowledge about the collection and its history.

We will be creating an online tool to search and browse this collection.  Harnessing the power of the thesaurus to illuminate novel connections between diverse corners of the collection.  Great, great… but what does that really mean?  Well, this means that people will be able to use this tool to find new comics that they are really going to love.  Lots of companies on the web are making recommendations based on things such as purchasing habits and ratings, but we believe that these systems miss something crucial – – taste.  We all have it, and its constantly evolving, and your friends and expert fans who know you and your taste, they get it. These folks can make truly solid recommendations, but these big companies try to make taste this mechanical, quantifiable thing, when it just isn’t.  Through using the concepts laid out in The Comics Thesaurus we hope to draw out some of the aspects that make certain comics appealing to your taste and show you others that share similar qualities.  We hope that we can lead you to comics in unexplored corners of the comic universe.