The Joker of Batman fame stands between Charles Coletta, left, and Matthew Donahue, both lecturers in popular culture at Bowling Green State University. They organized a recent academic conference focused on Batman. The character first appeared in comics in 1939. (Photo by Sara Arthurs)

By SARA ARTHURS

Staff Writer

BOWLING GREEN — Batman may be an octogenarian, but he is still saving the day — and he remains as relevant as ever.

So relevant that people traveled from as far away as India for a conference in his honor at Bowling Green State University.

Charles Coletta and Matthew Donahue, both lecturers in popular culture studies at BGSU, organized the conference. Coletta said it was to commemorate Batman’s 80th anniversary. The character first appeared in comics in spring 1939.

The conference was also promoting the Browne Popular Culture Library, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. The library at BGSU has “one of the largest comic book collections in academia,” Coletta said.

Coletta is teaching a course on superheroes and comics at the moment. His students are reading graphic novels including Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman stories. They range from serious comic fans to those who have never read one in their life.

These are “not just disposable entertainment,” Coletta said. “They’re a literature in their own right” and worth studying. “And these characters mean something to people.”

Donahue, who teaches courses related to music including pop music in film and the history of rock and roll, said the department of popular culture is one of the things BGSU is particularly known for. The study of pop culture was “frowned upon” in the 1970s, “seen as not being academic and not worthy of study” but that has changed over the years. Today, almost every university has at least one course related to something involving pop culture, like the history of film or of television, he said.

Coletta’s background is in English, and he said these courses are studying another form of literature, rather than, say, Shakespeare — who was the pop culture of his time.

And, he said, asking someone when they first remember hearing about Batman is like asking when they first remember going to McDonald’s. Batman has simply always been a part of our lives.

“Your grandmother knows who Batman is,” he said.

Donahue said the 80th anniversary seemed the perfect time for a Batman conference. He previously co-organized a conference on heavy metal in popular culture, and romance novels was the topic of another conference.

The character is “really enduring” and “what really kind of makes him special” is that he’s like any person — he doesn’t have special powers.

Maybe, Donahue said, “that gives inspiration to folks” who think “I could be Batman.”

“There’s something in this character that people respond to,” Coletta said.

Coletta said they didn’t know how much interest there would be in the conference. The response was “overwhelming.”

Presenters came from all over the country and as far away as India, who flew to northwest Ohio to discuss Batman.

Coletta said some of those who registered came from academia, while some were just fans. There was even a man who owns a business making real-life Batmobiles. And some who work in the comics industry — among them a couple of BGSU alums — were also there.

Rob Myers, of Mount Blanchard, hosts the podcast “Robin: Everyone Loves the Drake.” He spoke on a panel, noting that there have been multiple Robins, and he focuses on Tim Drake.

Robin is the “physical embodiment of why he is trying to do this,” he said, adding later “Batman needs a Robin.”

Myers said Batman is seen as the “lone Dark Knight” but in fact has a big family including Batgirl, Batwoman and multiple Robins.

“The thing that he lost is the thing that he ended up replicating, over and over and over,” he said.

Why are we still talking about Batman 80 years later?

“It resonates… It gives a sense of hope and wonder,” Myers said.

Batman deals with overcoming loss, he said. And there’s a sense that you could become anything — you may not have been born on Krypton, and can’t fly, but anyone could be Batman.

Ryan Hoss, of Raleigh, North Carolina, hosts the “Batman on Film” podcast. He and Myers had collaborated on their podcasts, but had never met face to face until they both came to the conference in Bowling Green.

Hoss said the conference was allowing him to see many different perspectives. Batman, Hoss said, is one of the most malleable characters, and shows up in multiple media.

“There is a Batman for everybody,” he said.

Coletta said Batman exists in several media, and the stories range from some that are “very dark and serious” to others like the Lego Batman movie for young children.

“There is some Batman for whatever age group you’re in” from “the dark and gritty Batman,” to more comedic.

Jenny Swartz-Levine, dean of the college of arts, humanities and social sciences at Lake Erie College, gave a keynote address titled “Holy Bat Heartbreak: The Long Dark Knight of the Soul.”

She focused on Bruce Wayne’s complicated relationships with women, his “bad romantic luck.”

“The wealthiest man in Gotham is the loneliest,” she said.

He keeps finding love, only to be betrayed by it, and the only successful relationships he has are non-romantic relationships, such as with Robin, or Alfred as his father figure, she said.

Swartz-Levine looked at whether Bruce’s bad luck in love affected his ability to, as Batman, protect Gotham.

“Can Batman be Batman if he’s happy?” she asked.

She quoted comics editor Denny O’Neil, who said that among the ground rules for the series was: “Batman does not have a love life. Poor bastard.”

And, Swartz-Levine said, “the woman who is perfect for Bruce” is not necessarily the woman who is perfect for Batman.

His true love, she said, is the city he protects. Or as another scholar said, “Bruce’s orientation is Gotham.”

The Batman in Popular Culture Conference was presented by BGSU University Libraries and the BGSU School of Cultural and Critical Studies. Co-sponsors were the Department of Popular Culture, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Wood County District Public Library, the Browne Popular Culture Library and the Stoddard and O’Neill Fund.

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