Tracing the Bat: Bob Greenberger and the Essential Batman Encyclopedia

A comics interview article by: Jim Beard
It’s been 32 years since anyone’s attempted to follow up Michael Fleisher’s ambitious attempt to quantify the Caped Crusader with his Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes, Volume 1. If anyone is qualified to tackle such a grandiose project as filing entries for every character, craft, gadget, and major storyline for such a prolific super hero such as The Batman – it’s probably Bob Greenberger.

Hot on the heels of the recent release of The Essential Batman Encyclopedia from Ballantine Books/Del Rey, its author, well-known writer and editor Bob Greenberger, took the time to answer a few questions about his encyclopedic knowledge of the Dark Knight Detective and this exhaustive new book.

Jim Beard: This is a hefty tome at almost 400 pages and hundreds of entries; beginning to end, how long did it take you to write the book- including research?

Bob Greenberger: Considering a lot of the research is in my head, you could say I've been working this project since 1964. A lot was reinforced during my time writing and editing for the various Who's Whos in the 1980s and 1990s and again when I contributed to the DC Comics Encyclopedia a few years back. Then there were all the Batman stories I reread during my tenure at DC's Collected Editions department.

When I received the assignment in Fall 2006, I began in earnest and from there, I researched and wrote taking a full year, finishing in August 2007.

JB: What was your research method like, as far as finding the titles, reading, note-taking, etc.? I mean, I think I’m jealous about that aspect alone!

BG: It all started with Michael Fleisher's amazing work from the 1970s. From there, I datamined the internet for characters - heroes, villains, civilians, locales, etc. I crafted a master list that was revised as more comics were being published.

From there, I read stories to refresh myself on situations then worked from my notes, my old Who's Who entries, and received tremendous research help from the underrated John Wells. He extended himself, offering me his extensive character database which allowed me to make certain I didn't miss a key appearance. Heck, do you remember Jason Bard appearing in Firebrand?

JB: Not personally, no, but I know the amazing John Wells and I’m not a bit surprised he remembers. So, even with all the entries there had to be something in the Bat Universe you had to omit – and I imagine probably hurt a bit to do so?

BG: Ideally, everyone who was named and had a speaking part in a Batman story would have been included but given time and space considerations that wasn't possible.

There were no entries, really, that hurt to omit. The ones I deleted, including some from the Fleisher edition were the one time thugs or civilians who appeared in one story and were gone.

JB: That makes sense. There were a lot of characters in the Encyclopedia I was glad to see made the cut, like the blind guy who used to run the Bat-Signal. What were some of your favorite entries? What about any entries you wish could be better?

BG: I think I could have done the Joker better and perhaps Poison Ivy. Favorites? Hmm, perhaps Barbara Gordon was one I was pleased with. I saved Batman himself for the end and am generally happy with that. The same with the Wayne Family which is rather extensive given 70 years of publishing.

JB: Credit to you for sorting that all out. What about the book’s graphics, which were culled from several decades of the published adventures. Would you have liked to have seen new art commissioned for the book?

BG: It's not something I seriously thought about. After all, encyclopedias don't necessarily commission new photography of birds or geological artifacts. About the only things that might have benefitted from new art would be original and current maps of Gotham and maybe a fresh look at what Batman currently carries in his utility belt (that diagram from Batman #203 must be one of the most reprinted single pages from history).

JB: Too true! Now, please talk about how you see the presence of Fleisher's original work in relation to The Essential Batman Encyclopedia.

BG: Michael's book was predicated on the belief that every Batman story from 1939 through 1970 or so occurred to one Batman, on one Earth. Its exhaustive detail listed every single story, significant or not and included snatches of dialogue and caption narrative that we didn't have time for.

Where Michael had breadth, it was also limited to Batman, Detective and World's Finest. It also came out in 1973 or so and the research largely stopped in 1965-1968. The chief difference is that I went wider, including his appearances throughout the DC line given his massive influence. I also put the appearances into context so the parallel worlds and imaginary stories were covered for readers who didn't grow up with this stuff.

Both are valid approaches to an encyclopedia so there should be room on the bookshelf for both.

JB: Was there ever any thought to going with a different tone with the entries, as far as either drier or perhaps more "fun"? How was the book’s final tone determined?

BG: My editor, Chris Cerasi, pretty much left the tone up to me. I tend to be a casual writer, perhaps more conversational and straight-forward than some would have liked. I'm not an educational writer as one might expect for an encyclopedia. It never occurred to me for something lighter since most of the characters and stories don't lend themselves to that tone.

JB: I guess I was thinking along the line of acting like it was all “real” or some such. Can you weigh Batman's adversaries against his supporting cast of associates, friends, and the like - which group in your opinion is more diverse, more developed?

BG: Clearly, the villains have been the best in all of comics. I just did some writing about them for another as-yet-unnamed project and realized that it wasn't until the 1980s before writers gave them much thought beyond surface characteristics. Once they dug deep, they mined some amazing dramatic territory.

His supporting cast has been enriched through the years but again, it hasn't been until the last 20 years or so that they all gained the depth they deserved. Also, his supporting cast, with just two exceptions, tends to be Caucasian. (The exceptions being Lucius Fox and Cassandra Cain) His villains are more varied for richer characterization and motivation.

JB: The Encyclopedia also delves into things like the Batcave and Batman’s equipment. Did you enjoy writing the tech/vehicles entries as much as the characters'?

BG: Tech is dry but necessary and there's a lot less to say about them. Once you describe the Batplane's engines, it's hard to get colorful or descriptive about them. They were nice in terms of variety but also a struggle when I got to the Batcopter and Batcycle. I have newfound respect for Eliot Brown and his work on the various Marvel Encyclopedias.

JB: Bob, now that’s its all said and done, you've seen the big bat-picture. Here, with the book published and on the shelves, what do you come away with in terms of the character of Batman? Any new insights into his creation, or his development?

BG: Most of the time, he's portrayed as the ultimate loner, the orphan raging against the injustice done to him and parents. Yet, he has surrounded himself with a surrogate family: Alfred, Gordon, Dick, Tim, Barbara and so on. He's also proven to be a terrific team player, the master strategist in team-ups or teams.

He's also remarkably versatile based on the storytelling needs of each generation. He was a dark and brooding figure during the Depression and a bright colorful champion of justice during World War II and again in the pop art 1960s. As America turned darker and more cynical in the 1970s, Batman found his roots and built from there.

I'm also reminded of how influential the 88-pages comprising Batman Year One have been for over 20 years now. They have informed every comic book that has been published since in addition to having a major impact on his big screen interpretation. All that, in turn, gave us the superlative Animated Series in 1992, which rewrote the rules of how to produce animation for television.

JB: Batman’s one heckuva extensive fictional creation, that’s for sure. So, where are you at with more DC encyclopedias?

BG: Eagerly awaiting a chance to read Marty Pasko's Essential Superman and Phil Jimenez's Essential Wonder Woman. In other words, I'm not currently contracted to write for any other related projects. I am, though, happily working away on other projects which we can chat about in the future.

JB: Ah, my bad! My wishful thinking led me to believe we’d see your name on future installments! Those are great names on the other volumes, though.

Thanks, Bob, for answering these questions and much good fortune to you with The Essential Batman Encyclopedia.

And that’s all for now, Bat-Fans! My full review of the book will be posted here at Comics Bulletin soon – keep an eye out for it, eh?

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