Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

23 October 2009

The Essential Batman Encyclopedia

Collects: Original content

Released: June 2008 (Del Rey)

Format: 400 pages / 32 pages of color plates / $29.95 / ISBN: 9780345501066

What is this?: A thorough reference book detailing 70 years of Batman comics

The culprit: Writer Robert Greenberger

When the Random House blog Suvudu launched last August, they had a Batman trivia contest; the prize was The Essential Batman Encyclopedia by Robert Greenberger, a former editor at DC. I was fortunate enough to win a prize, although it took about half a year to get the book (I have no idea why, but I suspect some sort of personnel shuffling). Still, I was impressed with the book.

One word of warning, though: Do not read this book all the way through at once. Since this is a set of alphabetical entries on just about everybody Batman has come across, approach the Essential Batman Encyclopedia the same way you would Wikipedia: look up something, see an interesting cross reference, and then start wandering. Reading straight through, as I did … well, it takes a while, because it’s hard to read more than six or eight pages at one gulp (basic dictionary / Bible rules), no matter how interesting the subject matter. And after a while, it all begins to blend together, and your brain feels ready for a long stretch in Arkham.

Essential Batman Encyclopedia coverThere are, in essence, three or four types of entries, all of them footnoted to help place them chronologically. There are the gangster entries, which stretch from the beginning of Batman’s career to the end of the Silver Age. If they’re goofy gangsters — the ones with stupid gimmicks or the ones who take advantage of Batman being intangible or having a broken arm or being a purple giant — they’re from the ‘50s and ’60s. If not, they’re from the ‘40s, and the stories sound surprisingly sane and interesting. If they mention real crime — you know, with ethnic groups, so we can blame our troubles on foreigners and minorities — then the character’s from the ‘90s or later. The second kind of entry covers the long careers of Batman’s costumed villains; these aren’t as fully footnoted as I might have hoped, but they are pretty complete entries. Then there are entries that tie in to all the crossovers and plot devices Batman’s gone through since Knightfall.

It gets a little repetitive. That’s not Greenberger’s fault, and he tries to throw in cutesy nicknames like “Bird of Banditry” (Penguin) to add a little variety to the entries. (They don’t help.) And it definitely doesn’t help when he has to deal with Earth-1 and Earth-2 versions of characters, then any revisions to the Earth-1 character that were caused by Crisis on Infinite Earths or Zero Hour or Infinite Crisis.

But Greenberger makes things as simple as they’re likely to be. He is to be praised for not stinting on those entries focusing on Batman’s early career, even if I didn’t care about Ferris Hedrant or “Fingers” Nolan (his name is the most interesting thing about him). On the other hand, The Essential Batman Encyclopedia also doesn’t linger on those early “glory” days, giving readers plenty of info on Gotham’s current happenings. I felt there might have been fewer entries on the ‘70s than other decades, but maybe nothing other than Ra’s Al Ghul’s plots happened back then.

The illustrations do help; they are sprinkled throughout, and rarely do two pages go by without some sort of illustration. Those in the text are black and white, taken from all points of Batman’s publication history; there are also 32 pages of color plates from many different artists, although they shade toward the last 20 years. Some of the black-and-white pictures aren’t captioned, and although most are easy to place with an entry, some are difficult.

For those of you who wondered exactly what orifice Grant Morrison was pulling his ideas out of during his Batman run, here’s where you can find out. If you read through this book, you find that almost every odd plot point, every weird name came from some Silver Age story you haven’t read. (And judging from the descriptions, you don’t want to.) Zuhr-En-Arr, Thomas Wayne in a Batsuit, the Batmen of All Nations (or Club of Heroes, if you prefer) … They’re all here. Unfortunately, the book was published before the end of Morrison’s run, but it does include a portion of those stories as well.

Greenberger’s done an excellent job with the The Essential Batman Encyclopedia. It is reasonably priced, and it’s very detailed. (I wish he would have used a more conventional style for his references — put the period after the reference, man! — but that’s a minor, if enduring, criticism.) Despite all the boring stuff that’s happened to Batman (any character who’s been around for 70 years is going to have a lot of boring stories in his books), The Essential Batman Encyclopedia is extremely interesting.This is really an outstanding work for all Bat-fans.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (4.5 of 5)

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