This is the second time this week that the Literature Devil‘s “Morning Nonsense” podcast had inspired an article. If there were archives I’d link Tuesday’s to you, specifically one particular discussion that came up between co-hosts for the day Shiney FX and someone whose name I didn’t catch. I’ll be referring to him as “Other Guy” until someone corrects me. I tried asking LD on Twitter but he didn’t respond by post time.
The paraphrased question we’re working from is “why does Star Trek have a definitive version but not Batman?”, the two examples that came up in conversation. I’m going to expand the discussion by adding two other series into this discussion, Transformers and Masters Of The Universe. Star Trek and Masters Of The Universe both have a definitive version, a sort of core to the multiversal solar system that all other continuities are informed by. Batman and Transformers both lack this but there is still a core to the characters, the iconography and personas that creates a multiversal continuity–the parts that show you these are “those characters” without being told because those traits are universal to each version. Multiversal continuity and multiversal cores are not the same thing and sometimes the core continuity isn’t even the source material. Let’s discuss.
Let’s look at Star Trek. (Note that lack of italics refers to the franchise while italicized points to the original show itself.) One of the questions that came up in the discussion between Shiney and Other Guy is the idea that how the source material was produced. In the case of Star Trek there is the one source that formed the core of the Star Trek multiverse, namely Star Trek. Until J.J. Abrams formed what’s called the “Kelvin Timeline” due to rights issues and suspected desires to get a piece of the “20% different” merchandise, there was only the one universe. (Not counting the Mirror Universe, wise guy!) Now we have three official continuities, the Classic Timeline, the Kelvin Timeline, and the Prime Timeline that most of the shows come from today. And yet the Classic Timeline, especially the original series remains the core of the Star Trek Multiverse.
Star Trek in both live-action and animated series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager as well as the theatrical movies form the Classic Timeline. From what I can tell certain events in this timeline still happen in the Prime Timeline, explaining Lower Decks and Picard heavily referencing them but styled more like Discovery and Strange New Worlds. (I’m not sure about Prodigy.) And yet because some of those events happen it means the Prime Timeline is still being influenced by the Classic Timeline. Even the Kelvin Timeline, despite changes like how Kirk became captain of the Enterprise, Sulu being gay, or the romance between Spock and Uhura, are still influenced by the timeline, as noted by how poorly the first movie put the crew in their iconic positions despite how they got there not really making sense. And of course you can’t be 20% different if you don’t have something to be different from. Novels, comics, and video games are not canon, though Voyager could seriously use Ensign Munroe.
Batman on the other hand comes from the comics. Comics are the source material and so every adaptation and licensed tale should come from them. And yet there is no core to the Batman multiverse. For one thing Gotham City doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s part of a wider DC Multiverse…but then so is Star Trek. Fan series, including some I’ve featured in Saturday Night Showcase, as well as comics and novels have created other ships and crew in the wider Starfleet, set stories in the Mirror Universe, and still take place in the Classic Timeline apart from the ships and stations we follow on TV and movies. Star Trek Online is based on this very fact. So being part of a multiverse isn’t the answer. Batman does have a multiversal continuity, certain aspects that define who Batman, Bruce Wayne, and his friends, enemies, and allies need to follow to be those characters in a proper adaptation. Zack Snyder couldn’t care less what that is, Todd Philips and Matt Reeves seem to outright ignore it (Philips being especially hostile to it, while Snyder and Reeves are just letting personal biases take over), but it exists. What doesn’t exist is a definitive version.
The theory posted in the podcast was that it was because Batman has had numerous writers, but that theory doesn’t work either. Star Trek had numerous writers and directors from one episode to the next and I don’t know how much collaboration was done between them in the “writer’s room” at the time. Initially Batman just had Bob Kane and Bill Finger telling his story, with enough time to make the Detective Comics stories and later Batman’s solo comic forming the definitive Batman. This did not happen. I can’t speak at this time to Batman’s appearances in Superman’s audio drama, or this supposed Batman radio show I’ve heard about but not seen evidence of, but primarily Batman’s first appearance out of comics was in the original Batman serial. Due to concerns of having vigilante heroes in a production meant for or at least to include kids during World War II by parents, Bruce and Dick were re-written to be government agents dealing with foreign spies and criminals who took advantage of so many men drafted into the war. This would also be the introduction of Alfred’s redesign to how we know him today and the Batcave (or “Bat’s Cave”), both of which became part of Batman’s multiversal continuity ever since.
Despite influencing Batman lore however, this is not a definitive version. The sequel, Batman & Robin, puts them back into the role of secret vigilantes. They fight another typical mad scientist of the time (frankly Daka was just another mad scientist wrapped in war propaganda but otherwise he’s not that different from The Wizard) with no ties to the government. The actors and costumes change between serials. Things are borrowed from the comics but both serials acted independently and just used iconography from the comics while at the same time would influence the comics, something that would happen again with the DCAU with Mr. Freeze’s origin and the addition of Harley Quinn, the same way Jimmy Olsen first appeared in Superman’s radio show and Superman first started flying in the Fleischer theatrical animated shorts. Rightfully the comics, as source material, should be the definitive Batman, and yet the comics were more inspired by media that came later. Look how many artists try to make Superman look like Christopher Reeves.
As far as those writers who came later, they also had to deal with the Comics Code, the various changes of the Silver and Bronze Age, the 1966 series, the Fox Kids show, and every version that came before and after. The comics didn’t even try to form a strong continuity until the Bronze Age so nobody ever expected it to have a strong core, just various aspects that bled into other adaptations. Because there wasn’t a strong core to the comics we got the aforementioned bleed-ins from other media. Compare it to something like The Savage Dragon. When Erik Larsen created that series a stronger continuity was constructed. When the cartoon came out it already had a stronger base to start from rather than just a cast and costume design. Sure, by then Dragon wasn’t a police officer so the show focused on the earlier issues, but the only reason anyone has Jim Cummings in their head as Dragon is because there are no other voices and Cummings is just that damn good. There have been so many voices as Batman, and so many unique continuities that you basically pick your favorite actor or voice actor as the Batman in your head, unless you’re like me and can give comics Batman your own “mental” voice.
For another example, look at Transformers. You’d think the toy is the source material but there hasn’t been a single unified voice for the “Generation One” years. The comics started using the toy design but by issue #4 was using the cartoon’s character models, which only vaguely resembled the toys at times, which has always been a complaint with me and Floro Dery’s designs. In a sense this both helped the toys engineering wise as they try to pull off what the cartoon does as best they can and hurt them because there are a group of fans who blame the source material for not resembling the tie-in media. Beast Machines really took a pounding for that reason…among others but that’s another discussion.
And there was NEVER a definitive version of the franchise, it was a multiverse from almost day one. The cartoons and comics contradicted each other and sometimes both ignored the “tech spec” bios on the toy packages in favor of what the writers wanted to do. The comics stayed closer for a long time only because Bob Budiansky was writing both the main comic and the bios at the time. Even then there were guest writers and a different writer doing the GI Joe crossover where the only thing that had any impact in the main comic was Bumblebee being turned into Goldbug. Ever since future media have only borrowed concepts from the original show or comic. Even Beast Wars and Beast Machines, while allegedly set in the Sunbow cartoon continuity, borrowed elements from the comics, and not from Budiansky but Simon Furman, who didn’t flesh out the Transformers world in toy form. Unicron’s origins and the very concept of Primus were from the comics, while the showrunners of Beast Wars have stated that at least one of them wanted the Vok to be some offshoot of the Swarm from the Transformers: Generation Two comic. Later incarnations have borrowed from both cartoon and comic but only when it comes to names for various objects in the same way the toys reused names. (“Prowl” is basically the “Bob” of Cybertron.) That’s ignoring all the licensed media that was canon to neither the toys, comics, or cartoon and depending on the publisher would choose one or a combination to form it’s own continuity. There was never a core Transformers continuity and no definitive version. Even the “Aligned Continuity” was more about forming a definite multiversal continuity than a definite core continuity between media.
Masters Of The Universe however does have a definitive continuity, a core reality that future media doesn’t just borrow from but is heavily influenced by…it’s just not the toys that is technically the source material, nor is it the minicomics that were packed in to form the world of Eternia in kids’ minds. The original illustrated booklets of series one and the minicomics of series two creates a world where magic and science are practically the same thing, where the hero is a Conan-style barbarian, and where two halves of the Power Sword creates the key to enter the mysterious Castle Grayskull, a prize Skeletor wants. DC Comics’ miniseries for some odd reason added He-Man and Battlecat’s secret identities of Prince Adam and Cringer, though in those stories they transform by walking into a magic cave and I can only guess how they stay transformed when they leave. In that cave is the Goddess, the precursor to the Sorceress, who came from the minicomics and served as one of He-Man’s allies. Here she just mentors the young hero from within the cave.
Filmation would borrow those elements as well as the idea that Adam’s mother, Queen Marlena, was an Earth astronaut who ended up crashing on Eternia, meaning the story takes place somewhere in Earth’s future. However, they did change the connection to the Power Sword and how Adam transformed. In a previous series, Blackstar, astronaut John Blackstar also ends up going through a portal into another universe, and ends up fighting the evil ruler for among other things control of the Powerstar, a weapon that gets split into the Star Sword, wielded by Blackstar, and the Power Sword, controlled by the evil Overlord. The two halves together would also unlock a great power, but from the Powerstar itself. Apparently Filmation decided to cherry-pick which shared elements they kept.
Sure enough, Filmation’s He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, despite also borrowing from previous versions, managed to become the definitive Masters Of The Universe, even creating a spinoff with Princess Of Power and the subsequent cartoon She-Ra: Princess Of Power. Despite Mattel trying to ditch Prince Adam in the He-Man line, a line that gets treated as some outlier media and line as the toys went all-in on science-fiction (magic being represented by He-Man and Skeletor though in the cartoon magical elements did exist on new planet Primus) nobody really wanted to do that. The show didn’t, the newspaper strips didn’t, and all future incarnations continued what Filmation had formed, even if they acted against it like the Netflix shows. Even in alternate continuities so many elements of what Filmation did are part of it that I believe it is the core reality the multiverse orbits, the definitive He-Man and She-Ra.
Sidebar: There does seem to be a pushback against definitive continuities right now as writers want to tell their own story and use these famous names for marketing rather actually caring about the source material, or some silly idea like DC’s “Omniverse”. They’ve kind of corrupted what a multiverse should be, not just a series of what ifs or an updated take but a full re-imagining, a property in name only. That’s why I bring up Battlestar Galactica a lot, because the problem isn’t limited to political ideology. Batman also suffered from being seen as “too goofy” when it comes to the 1960s show despite being a parody that managed to fit in with the Silver Age by accident. It wouldn’t be until the Bronze Age that Batman would become more serious like the Golden Age, which by the way is before Frank Miller and Tim Burton so stop giving them the credit!
Okay, so the definitive version may not necessarily be the source material. So then…how does it form? Having a core keeps a property from being diluted, allowing for a definitive version to form, which is how Star Trek and Masters Of The Universe pulled it off. There was one version that managed to attract fans and the creators were smart enough to build on it. In the end maybe its the fans who decide what a definitive version is, but there has to be some attempt to create one. Filmation and Roddenberry both had a plan to create a strong continuity, whether tight or lose, rather than a series of stories with the same characters. Fans reacted to that and declared this THE continuity, and tie-in media either changed or moved to reflect that. Les Mooves decided to dilute Star Trek as a middle finger to Shari Redstone when she tried to reform CBS and Paramount under the Viacom umbrella because he hated both of them and to hell with the fans. Netflix hired people that committed similar actions with He-Man and She-Ra. In both cases, while finding a audience among the “everything for meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” crowd who screams “it wasn’t made for you” when they take over something that wasn’t made for them, they managed to alienate the longtime fans who made those properties successful enough to have a definitive version. I don’t think it’s the creators who make the definitive version. Look up how different M*A*S*H* is from the novels sometime, and the books are the source material. The show built off of the movie, which took its share of liberties, especially when it comes to Hawkeye. And yet the show is the definitive take on those characters.
How do you make the definitive version? Win enough fans over to your interpretation that anything coming after has to follow suit to be a proper adaptation I guess. Is there a formula to pulling that off? I’m not sure, but I have my preferences as I’m usually pro-source material. However, when it shows up, be prepared to do a proper take on it instead of be antagonistic to it whatever your reasoning is. Otherwise just make your own property and make that the definitive version of your work. It’s probably a lot easier and might win you more fans than “haters”.