From Batcave to Ivory Tower

Contrary to what your mother may have told you, you can get a PhD in Batman. Kingston University's Will Brooker tells all about comic book academia.

JEFF RUBIN: I never got a PhD, so I don’t totally understand the process. Along the way, was
there someone you had to go to and say, “Just so you know, I’m going to be writing my thesis on Batman”?

WILL BROOKER: Yeah, there sure is. What happens is you have to find yourself a supervisor who is an expert in the area you want to study. There are quite a lot of checks and balances. My PhD was just as rigorous as someone doing a PhD on something more traditional.

JR: So writing a paper on Batman is just as much work as writing a paper on the Iliad. Why is that? Is it because there’s just so much more Batman? There’s only one volume of the Iliad, but there’s essentially an infinite amount of Batman out there.

WB: The challenge isn’t “Can you read every word that Shakespeare ever wrote?” and it’s the same with Batman. It’s not like a pop quiz where someone’s going to ask you a detail of something that happened in 1943.

JR: So when you say, “I’m writing about Batman,” which Batman are you writing about?

WB: I regard Batman as a concept. He’s like a mosaic. Batman is everything that Batman has ever been. You might not like the ’60s Batman or the 1939 Batman or even the Joel Schumacher Batman, but without that, the character would not be the kind of rich, multifaceted, complex thing that he is. If Batman had carried on the same as he was in 1939, I don’t think he would have continued -he’d be kind of a flat, pulpy, plastic character. To me, Batman is interesting because he’s so many contradictory things -he’s very, very complex.

JR: I get that you don’t have to read the entire printed history of Batman to get all of that, but how much Batman did you read?

WB: I was very lucky, and I don’t think this would happen now, but I went to stay at DC Comics for two weeks in 1998. And they were very, very kind to me. [DC] let me come in their library, and I’d spend all day in their archives, and read things that most mortal men never see. I actually read pretty much every Batman comic book from 1939 to about the ’70s, I think.

JR: What was the library like?

WB: It was just what you dream of, really. It was like the thing at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark where they store all the stuff. It’s not a big hangar. It’s a big library that is just full of genuine, old archived comic books.

JR: You are now advising a thesis about Superman. Why do you study Batman? Why not Superman or Green Lantern?

WB: I’ve got my own sidekicks! I’m supervising a PhD on Superman and another on the concept of the reboot. But Superman is not interesting enough for me.

JR: What makes Batman more interesting than Superman?

WB: Batman is more interesting because he’s not a god, but he walks with gods. Batman is a mortal -a normal guy who’s trained himself up since his parents were killed to the absolute pinnacle of physical strength and agility and intellectual power. So he’s a good model for someone doing a PhD. I think he’s an amazing figure of what humanity can do. Superman is basically the big blue Boy Scout, and he’s been pretty much that since the 1940s. He’s just, to me, pretty bland. He’s too powerful. He’s too good.

JR: Do you still read new Batman comics every week?

WB: Not every week. I pick and choose. There’s so much stuff that comes out- not all of it is to my taste.

JR: Yeah, they publish, like, 18 Batman comic books.

WB: You can’t read them all. I just finished writing a book, and when I was writing, I took it pretty religiously. I’m actually sitting next to the biggest pile of Batman graphic novels. I must have spent like £500 to £1,000 on them [about $750 to $1,500].

JR: I noticed that these aren’t the only academic texts you’ve written about pop culture things.

WB: After all the hassle I got for writing about Batman, I thought I was going to get a bit more respectable. I wrote a book that’s almost the same approach, but it’s about Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. Funnily enough, [that text is] taken more seriously because it’s about Victorian literature. But it’s exactly the same thing. It’s about how the meaning of something changes over time -that’s what I’m interested in. How something adapts and survives and changes but remains relevant to a new generation.

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The article above, written by Jeff Rubin and adapted from The Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show, is reprinted with permission from the September-October 2013 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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