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One For The Ages:
Barbara Gordon and the (Il)Logic of Comic Book Age-Dating

A. David Lewis, whom we profiled a few weeks ago, has been lecturing and writing on comic book scholarship for quite some time. As a result of our doing a story on him, he offered this piece to Once Upon A Dime.com. I'm publishing the introduction here, so as to whet your appetite for the complete thing on Donald Swan's website.

When undertaking the question of the comic book Ages, one could look no further than a character from that selfsame medium, Barbara Gordon, as a guide. Best known as DC Comics' Batgirl, Barbara Gordon provides a useful entry point into the discussion of comic book classification and dating nomenclature. The heroine long ago hung up her chiropteran tights out of necessity: a gunshot would to the spine left the librarian-by-day/vigilante-by-night permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Moving from the physical to the cerebral, the paraplegic turned handicap into opportunity and reinvented herself as Oracle, remote "freelance information broker who specializes in metahuman activities" and "the JLA's secret member" (Morrison, 1998: 1, 75).

In this role, she essentially acts as one of the superteam's most "analytical thinkers" and information sources (Morrison, 1998: 123). Credited as being "a genius-level intellect with a near-eidetic memory and a master in her field" (Howze, 2003) as well as Wizard magazine's Greatest Super-Heroine of All Time, Barbara is, to one way of thinking, both the superhero most emblematic of and the icon most flattering to the comic book scholar.

With Barbara in mind as a muse, start with a crucial scene from her history, that of her crippling in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke. She is at home with her father, Gotham City's Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, as he clips the latest Joker article for his scrapbook. This scene follows pages in which Batman occupies his lair, studying the little concrete information he himself has on the Joker. In both the case of the scrapbook and the Batcave database, classic, Golden Age images of both Batman and the Joker appear, though the savvy reader knows that these versions have been overwritten by subsequent decades of creative teams and retroactive continuity (retcon). With his sloppy pasteboard system, the Commissioner is unbothered by this, mainly because he doesn't focus highly on precise dating: "Look at this one. First time they met. Now when was that?" (Moore, 1988: 12). Barbara, on the other hand, has an altogether different approach: "Some day you ought to let me work out a proper filing system, like we used at the library" (Moore, 1988: 12).

In his book How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Geoff Klock notes this moment, saying:

Such a system [as suggested by Barbara], however, would be impossible when a contemporaneous article was authored by another character practically written out of continuity, Vicky Vale. History flows through the whole of The Killing Joke, but particularly in this scene of Gordon's book keeping. Most revealingly we are given a moment that reflects on the pastiche quality of Bolland's art […] Barbara remarks, "Urrgh. Look, you used too much paste! It's all squidging under the edges of the clipping," exposing the artifice of the pastiche and emphasizing the difficulty of making the pieces fit together nicely. And Gordon literally tries to fit Batman's history into a whole (2002: 59-60).

Klock further argues, though, that a character's reaction to this discombobulated history is what helps to define them. "Batman's response is to organize the chaos, the Joker's to embrace it, but Commissioner Gordon simply cannot remember" (2002: 60). Barbara, similar to her mentor Batman, wants to remember and wants to organize Bolland's pastiche. Most of all, though, she simply wants to have a logic to the system by which history is dated. And, in that general manner, one should follow Barbara Gordon.

Some, though, would argue against wrangling with the Gordian (or Gordanic) knot of chronological comic book classifications - The Ages. Some, akin to the Commissioner, would rather not be bothered with scrutinizing where one age or stage of the genre ended and the next one began.

In his 1997 article for Comic Book Marketplace, Lou Mougin highlights the arbitrariness of such labels. First, "it can be argued that all these 'Ages' apply to superhero comics only" (1997: 71). But, instead of being begrudging about this limitation, it is more useful to whole-heartedly embrace it; it is an acceptable, even welcomed, limitation to this corpus, giving it a manageable shape.

Still, there is the subjectivity of determining what is and is not a 'superhero comic'; there is also the imposed back-dating of the Ages with which to contend. "You can really only identify the Ages that are clearly over," says writer Kurt Busiek (Lewis, 2002). "So, the one you're in at the moment is always called 'The Modern Age' until you give it an actual name - because then you've put a headstone one it and you're on to the next one" (Lewis, 2002).

So, not only is the content of an Age determined by outside forces, but also its span. This constructedness leaves Mougin to ask, "Were there really Platinum, Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Whatever Ages?" (Mougin, 1997: 71). In the end, he is basically resigned to the frustrating group consensus that "now we have four 'metal' Ages (Iron/Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze)…and it's only a matter of time, an age, really, before somebody gives us another age" (Mougin, 1997: 71), even if there is no mass agreement to those headers and no driving rationale behind their creation. This sort of haphazard, slipshod arrangement barely qualifies as organization - continuing Klock's Batman analogy, Mougin sees the Ages as more Joker-esque, operating in a world either without logic or with a twisted one, than like the Commissioner or Barbara or even the Dark Knight himself.

All this subjectivity doesn't invalidate the Age-dating system; quite the contrary, it invites any number of outside interpreters to make sense of its content. And plenty have. So, before adding this article to their ranks, it seems advisable to sketch out both parameters of the discussion, a sampling of the various theories that have been set forth, and then propose a new, potential classifications.

Therefore, this dialogue will start at a point with the most logic, agreement, and tradition: The Golden Age. Some sources, including The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, consider there to be a Platinum Age, which predates the Golden Age. However, few if any, superhero titles populate this era; in fact none of Overstreet's "Top 10 Platinum Books" resemble anything that would be considered from the superhero genre (1999: 70).

For the full article, follow this link!

A. David Lewis

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