There are few characters from popular culture so iconic that their silhouette can be identified in an instant by readers and moviegoers around the world. Mickey Mouse is one. So is Sherlock Holmes. And then there is Batman, who turns 80 this year and has enjoyed a career that spans comic books gritty and goofy, blockbuster movies, kid-friendly animation and immersive video games.
To mark the occasion, San Rafael-based publisher Insight Editions has published Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight in Comics, Films, and Beyond, a deluxe, 400-page tribute to the Cape Crusader. Its author is the curator of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, Berkeley resident Andrew Farago.
Reached at his office in San Francisco, Farago said he has been telling people that he has spent the last 40 years preparing for this moment.
“I’ve got drawings that I did of Batman back when I was four years old,” said Farago. “I’ve got photographs of me wearing Batman pajamas around the age of three.”
Farago grew up in Wellington, Ohio, a small town near Cleveland. After studying studio art at Colorado College, he found his way to San Francisco, where he started volunteering for the Cartoon Art Museum in the summer of 2000.
Located near the Hyde Pier in San Francisco, the Cartoon Art Museum houses approximately 7,000 original pieces in its permanent collection, including comic strips, graphic novels, underground comics and anime. It attracts more than 30,000 visitors annually.
“They had a Peanuts 50th Anniversary exhibition the first time I visited, and I fell in love with the place,” Farago said. “For about a year, I was volunteering every single weekend. I made a lot of friends and met my wife there.”
Farago was eventually hired as a gallery manager and then promoted after the prior curator moved on. Farago credits his studio art education, his English teacher mom and “practical hands-on experience” he gained in summer construction jobs with his dad in preparing him for the work. “Between that and growing up reading comics and watching cartoons, it’s like I’ve been training for this forever.”
Farago and spouse Shaenon K. Garrity, herself a comics creator and co-author of the Skin Horse daily comic, moved to Berkeley about ten years ago. Their young son Robin attends a Berkeley elementary school.
“We love that we are near BART, near the campus with all the great shops, restaurants and culture there,” Farago said. “We knew that we wanted to start a family together, and we knew Berkeley was just the perfect place for that.”
Robin is a frequent visitor to the Cartoon Art Museum, where his father has curated more than 100 exhibits.
“Being a parent has opened up my understanding of kids, and even more than that, it’s given me a new appreciation for what parents would like to see when they’re visiting a place like the Cartoon Art Museum,” Farago said. “I have worked with educators and co-workers to make sure we offer resources for parents looking for classes for their kids or for interesting places to spend an afternoon with the family.”
Farago often gives visitors a peek into the archives of the museum, and it works to get students excited about cartooning.
“Every semester, I bring my students over for a look at what Andrew has hanging in the museum,” said Mick Gray, an artist who teaches comic book inking in San Francisco. “Andrew always treats us like royalty and brings out ‘special’ art from the vaults and fills us in on the history and background of these gems.”
This kind of devotion to promoting the comics medium has made Farago a hero of sorts to writers and artists across the country.
Farago is “one of the greatest patrons to the art of cartooning,” said Judd Winick, the author of “HiLo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth.” “Not only does he tirelessly promote, laud and inspire cartooning as the curator of the Cartoon Art Museum, but he devotes what would be laughably called his ‘free time’ to honest-to-god accessible and scholarly books on the subject.”
In addition to his full-time position at the museum, Farago has developed a freelance relationship with Insight Editions. He has written reference works for them about Looney Tunes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and animated cartoons from the Eighties.
“It wasn’t something I sought out,” said Farago. “It came to me kind of adjacent to this job, but it’s been a really good fit and a tremendous amount of fun.”
A little over a year ago, editor Chris Prince asked Farago whether he’d be interested in writing the most comprehensive Batman history book ever published.
“Before I could psych myself out of it, I said yes,”
Gradually the immense scope of the project made itself obvious.
“As I started writing it I realized that there’s probably been no character in popular fiction who’s more popular and has appeared in more comics, movies and cartoons than Batman has,” said Farago.
Farago had a lot of ground to cover, from Batman’s hard-boiled origin story to his starring role in a Legos movie. He needed to write about Batman in the 1950s, when four-color silliness was the order of the day; in the 1960s, when he became a camp TV phenomenon; in the 1970s, when the comics began to deal with real-life social issues; in the 1980s, when he became the Dark Knight and dispensed rough justice; in the 1990s, when he was successfully adapted to animation; all the way up to today, when a variety of interpretations are available for loyal readers to enjoy.
Batman: The Definitive History is a gorgeous compendium of Batman lore, full of full-color art, on-set photographs, character sketches, movie-star interviews and much more.
“It’s overstating it to say that book almost killed me,” Farago said. “There were nights I was just so ready to walk away from all of it. Going home from the Cartoon Art Museum and working on a book for another six or seven hours was pretty exhausting for several months. But now that we came through to the other end I’m pretty happy.”
To keep on top of the material, Insight Editions hired Hollywood writer Gina McIntyre to pitch in with their Los Angeles contacts.
“We brought her in to keep the book on schedule and make sure that this was a Batman 80th anniversary celebration, not 81st or 82nd,” said Farago.
While McIntyre facilitated film and television coverage in Los Angeles, Farago stayed in the Bay Area.
“I’m still kicking myself. I almost had the opportunity to visit one or two of the Batmen in person but I couldn’t afford the time away from my computer. Now that the book is done maybe I can go hand-deliver a few copies to certain people.”
Creators he was able to connect with include former Catwoman Julie Newmar, the innovative editor and comics writer Denny O’Neil, and veteran voice-actor Kevin Conroy, often considered the definitive interpreter of Batman.
Farago was able to track down another pop icon, the man who voiced the Joker in the animated series.
“It knocks me out that I got to talk to Mark Hamill about Batman and about comics and just a little bit about Star Wars,” Farago said. “It knocks me out that my book is going to be on Luke Skywalker’s bookshelf.”
The book, which was co-written with Gina McIntyre, also includes a forward by the actor Michael Keaton, who played the caped crusader in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Batman, and the 1992 Batman Returns.
Although his latest project expresses his love for DC Comics, Farago also knows his way around the Marvel Universe. On Tuesday, he will appear in conversation with Danny Fingeroth at Pegasus Books Downtown at 2349 Shattuck Ave. They will discuss Fingeroth’s A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee. (Lee co-created hundreds of Marvel characters, including Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Iron Man.)
At the end of November, Farago will be signing Batman: The Definitive History at the WizardWorld event in Oakland.
With so many from which to pick, Farago seems unwilling to be pinned down as to which Batman is best.
“There are so many great stories across so many media,” he said. “I think 80 years from now, whoever writes the update to this book will still have a lot of great material to choose from.”