Geek Goes Mainstream: Academics Share New Discoveries at 'BATMAN Conference'

Batman
Credit: José Luis García-López/Admira Wijaya (DC)
Credit: DC Comics

For Batman fans, the academic papers being presented this weekend at Bowling Green State University read like a dream come true.

“The Fusion of Comic Book Motifs & Romance Novel Tropes in the Evolving Relationship of Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson,” says one presentation’s title.

“The Appropriation of Judgment: Batman as Replacement for Divine Justice,” reads another.

Academic minds from around the world are gathered at BGSU in Ohio for the “Batman in Popular Culture Conference,” a two-day event timed to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Batman.

Charles Coletta, a lecturer in the Department of Popular Culture at BGSU, said the conference began as a traditional call for academic papers.

“We weren’t sure what we were going to get or who was going to respond, but the response has been overwhelming, and it’s been quite a variety, as you can see in the program,” he said. “We’ve got everything from Batman and religion to Batman and transgender issues, and papers about Catwoman and Robin and technology — I mean, it’s all over the map.”

The conference also includes appearances by a few “non”-academics, including comic book creators Mike W. Barr and Dan Mishkin, as well as various podcasters who focus on Batman.

The Batman Conference also led one of its presenters to a potentially historic discovery about the history of the Batman character.

Credit: Thrilling Publications

Vasilis K. Pozios, a forensic psychiatrist whose presentation on Batman’s villains takes place on Saturday, said he’d already been considering a Batman-themed academic paper when he saw information on the Batman Conference last year. It prompted Pozios to start researching influences on Batman, including pulp magazines.

His research led him to The Phantom Detective from January 1937, which he now believes inspired the cover of Batman’s debut issue, Detective Comics #27.

“[The cover] seemed eerily familiar to me — the rooftop motif, the flailing gangster, even the color scheme,” Pozios said. “But the Phantom cover still didn't quite match Detective Comics #27, at least not until I reversed the image, which then revealed compositional similarities.”

Pozios said his research confirmed that Batman co-creator Bill Finger was an avid reader of pulps, especially The Shadow and The Phantom Detective, which Finger named as an inspiration for Batman's creation. 

“This, in the context of the totality of similarities shared between the covers, gives me confidence that, more likely than not, the January 1937 issue of The Phantom Detective served as the direct inspiration for the cover of Detective Comics #27,” Pozios said.

Coletta is expecting many other revelations at the Batman Conference, which he believes is one-of-a-kind because of its focus on one, single fictional character.

“There are lots of academic papers and academic presentations on comics and graphic novels, in movies and on television and in print, so this is not totally unusual, but I can’t think of any conferences that have been just focused on one fictional character,” Coletta said. “I can’t say there’s never been one before, but this is certainly unique in my experience.”

Credit: Vasilis K. Pozios

Coletta and his colleague Matthew Donahue organized the conference at BGSU because it’s one of few universities in the country where students can get a degree in popular culture studies through the university’s Department of Popular Culture. (In fact, Coletta says the department and its library were started by Ray Browne, the father of the academic study of popular culture.)

Pozios said he’s thrilled that academics from various fields are finding new ways to study Batman. “Batman, and superheroes in general, are a microcosm of popular culture,” Pozios said. “Batman's wide and enduring popularity means the character has made a significant and lasting impression on our society. But Batman's relationship with popular culture is a two-way street: it's fascinating to explore how Batman has both influenced and been influenced by wider cultural beliefs, customs, and practices.”

Of course, Pozios added, not all of the papers and presentations at The Batman Conference are kind to Batman.

“Just because you love something doesn't mean you can't — or shouldn't — be critical of it,” he said. “That's the beauty of a multi-disciplinary conference like this. We gather because of our shared love of the character, and we in turn share knowledge from our respective intersections, helping us better understand Batman's cultural significance.”

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