Monday, September 1, 2008

From Abattoir to Zur-En-Arhh...

Any book calling itself The Essential Batman Encyclopedia sets a large task in those two "E" words. Saying it's "essential" means that the Caped Crusader cannot truly be understood without it, and calling itself an "encyclopedia" means it should contain all the known information about its chosen subject.

In this case, that subject is Batman of the comics, from his debut in 1939 up through 2007. You find no mention of the Adam West TV show, the Burton or Nolan movies (or the godawful proof-that-Satan-walks-the-earth Schumacher ones). But you do find detailed entries for Granda the Mystic, Mennekin and Merko (the Great)[sic], not to mention eight paragraphs on Bat-Mite.

Here are some of the more interesting bits of trivia (for fun, imagine these recited by Randy and Jason Sklar of ESPNClassic's Cheap Seats:

Did you know there were sixteen supervillains whose name begins with "Doctor"? (pp. 113-117)

Did you know that the first criminal arrested by Batman was named Kyle (no relation to the later Selena "Catwoman" Kyle, apparently)? (p. 222)

Did you know that Robin the Boy Wonder was once exposed to radiation that transformed him into an adult, who became the superhero Owlman? (p. 285)

Did you know that in 1951 you could go by the name "Mister Velvet" and still be considered a supervillain? (p. 262)

Did you know that the supervillain Killer Moth, first seen in 1951, has just [as of January 2008] returned to Gotham City? Must be all those porch lights...(p. 214)

So is this "essential?" If you're a Bat-fan of the comics, I'd say yes. And it's definitely an encyclopedic collection that, within its own parameters as stated in the preface, certainly seems comprehensive.

But how interesting is it? Abso-bat-lutely engrossing. Compiler/author Robert Greenberger dissects all the different DC realities (Earth-2, post-Crisis, etc.) without foolishly trying to reconcile them. The volume is lavishly illustrated in black-and-white, with two color insert sections (including my favorite image of the Joker, from The Killing Joke, on page 12 of the second color section). My one complaint is that the book is physically so heavy and dense that the paperback binding seems doomed to failure, with pages cracking loose if it's used too heavily.

In the preface, Greenberger quotes Don Thompson's observation that "the Golden Age of Comics is twelve," because that's when our loyalties and interests are most intense. Given the staggering success of the latest Batman film, I'm not sure that's true. What I can say is that if you like Batman, even casually, you'll find The Essential Batman Encyclopedia a treasure trove of things I guarantee you didn't know before.

For insight into Greenberger's process in creating the book, see this interview at Comics Reporter.

And (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT) you can read my essay "To the Batpole! Alfred Explains the Facts of Life" in Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City. (I'm just sayin'...)

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