Thursday, November 6, 2008

All Things Batman

This week we thought we’d take a look at the Dark Knight, the Gotham Guardian, the Caped Crusader… the Batman!

To begin…

Batman before or after Frank Miller got ‘hold of him?

Doug: I guess I have mixed emotions about what Frank Miller did to not only Batman, but ultimately to the comic industry as a whole. Prior to Miller’s “darkening” of the Batman mythos, the best run of stories was the O’Neil/Adams collaboration in the early 1970’s. Those stories had taken Batman back to his roots, and created a moody, dangerous Gotham . But it was a Gotham still within the bounds of a conventional DC Universe. Frank Miller broke many rules of the industry, adding elements of coarse language, prostitution, and death. I really feel that what befell Robin II (Jason Todd) was directly tied to the “prophecy” in the pages of The Dark Knight Returns. But, I fully enjoyed The Dark Knight; it was the first book that I could recall at the time when I could hardly stand the wait until the next issue. And maybe it’s because it was groundbreaking stuff, that was more or less continued in Miller’s follow-up effort, Batman: Year One. So, outside of the aforementioned O’Neil/Adams books, I guess I’d say Frank Miller changed Batman for the better. It’s not his fault that he also ushered in the age of the mini-series, with endless gimmick stories that could formerly have been told in the continuity of the regular titles. Along with the mini-series also came the upscale-format books.

Karen: Like most people my age, my first exposure to Batman was through the Adam West TV series. After that, it was the Batman cartoons Filmation put out in the 70s. I really didn’t read Batman in comics much (other than his appearances in Justice League of America) until Frank Miller showed up and smacked everyone in the head with Dark Knight. At the time, it was revolutionary, but I now feel like it has unfortunately led to the concept of Batman being one step from insanity, which I think is a gross mischaracterization. (The Killing Joke didn’t help, either.) Because of this idea, he became an almost unlikeable character in the comics in the early years of this decade. I think there’s been an effort to make him less of a bastard since the publication of Identity Crisis, but I’m not sure how successful that’s been.

My favorite incarnation of Batman is actually the cartoon version, from Batman: the Animated Series and Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. The writers of those shows seemed to “get” Batman: smart, cool, always prepared for any situation. I really like stories that highlight Batman’s intelligence and grit over his physical abilities. And of course, Kevin Conroy has a fantastic voice as Batman!

Sharon: The Batman of the 1960s. Not necessarily the sunny, camp version on TV a la Adam West, but more like the Batman during the time of Adams, Aparo, and Rogers...a decidely less neurotic, disturbed character than the Miller and subsequent versions. My Batman is a relatively healthy, "normal" person, not as a psychologically scarred avenger. 

Who ya got? Joker, Penguin, Riddler, or Catwoman?

Doug: Of the four choices, I prefer the Joker or Catwoman. The Penguin doesn’t do much for me – never has. I know they tried to re-energize him about a decade ago, almost turning him into a Kingpin-like character. Bleh… The Riddler can be fun; one thing I always appreciate about Riddler stories is the time it must take the creators to think up the riddles that are set up to stump Batman yet help him solve the crime.

The Joker these days has to be taken seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be a large body count, or really graphically-violent writing. A writer who can inject the psychological thrill of the chase, or the dichotomy of the Batman/Joker personality conflict tends to be the most successful storyteller. Any writer who can put on the printed page what Heath Ledger brought to the silver screen is on the right path…

Catwoman works best for me when she is a thief, wanting to reform but not quite able to be good. This, coupled with the sexual tension between she and Batman, makes for a good read.

Karen: To be honest, I’ve never really been that interested in any of his villains. I always thought the Penguin and Riddler were fairly lame. While the Joker makes a great nemesis for Batman, my lifelong phobia of clowns makes it difficult for me to enjoy stories featuring him! I do like the aspect of Catwoman being a love interest/rehabilitation project for Batman. I really wish that DC had not wiped away the multiple earths years ago, because I like the idea of Bruce and Selina eventually marrying, and having Helena. Although who knows, this may all be coming back soon!

Sharon: Riddle me this: who's lithe and green and covered with question marks? That's right, Frank Gorshin. I was in lust with him before I knew what lust was. So he is my sentimental favorite for Batman villain.

But I realize that the Riddler was a very minor Batman villain until the TV show; and so, my crush notwithstanding, I'd have to give Catwoman the high marks here as an enduring foe and an indelible part of the Batman saga. The Joker has morphed inot something not quite human.

Who’s your favorite Joker? 

Doug: Of all the incarnations of the Joker (speaking of film), my favorite is Mark Hamill’s version on Batman: The Animated Series. I thought Paul Dini and others did a great job on characterization, the voice acting was top-notch, and the stories were interesting. Carrying over to the comics, the one-shot Mad Love by Dini and Bruce Timm was a great, edgy book.

Karen: Again, my clown phobia sort of hinders me here. Last year I read the Steve Englehart/ Marshall Rogers Batman stories, some of which featured the Joker, and I thought their Joker had the right balance of nonsensical behavior coupled with menace. I never cared for Jack Nicholson’s Joker; I could never see the character, only the actor. On the other hand, I thought Heath Ledger gave a very convincing, and disturbing, performance in The Dark Knight.

Sharon: Cesar Romero- -no surprise, right? Even if he refused to shave his mustache (they painted the Joker's white make-up right over it). I never liked Nicholson's Joker either.

Of the many looks for Catwoman, which is your favorite?

Doug: My favorite look for Selina is the long purple dress, trimmed in green. I especially liked the way Alan Davis drew her in the pages of Detective Comics, right before the Batman: Year Two arc (circa 1989).

Karen: As a child of the late 60s/70s, my most primal impression of Catwoman comes almost entirely from Julie Newmar’s portrayal on the Batman TV show. So I guess I vote for the skintight, sexy black suit.

Sharon: I loved the green, sequinned catsuit she wore in Batman #197, when she fought Batgirl (largely because she thought Babs was romantically interested in Batman). That green costume was a departure from her usual dark purple long-skirted costumes. I thought it was very flattering, much better than the usual purple--I really liked the contrast of the green with Selina's black hair. The sleek catsuit was most likely inspired by Newmar's costume on TV.

Batman 197-Catwoman Batgirl

With or without Robin?

Doug: I guess without – unless it’s a young and inexperienced Robin. That adds tension to the story and increases the psychological push/pull on Batman’s insecurity as to whether or not he should have a partner.

Karen: Intellectually, I would have to go with the “no Robin” option. It makes no sense for Batman to be putting some kid in harm’s way. And yet…I have a very sentimental spot in my heart for Robin. Besides the sheer goofiness of the pairing, having Robin around also helps to humanize Batman. And on top it all, I like the development and growth of the relationship between Bruce and Dick (more on that below).

Sharon: The pairing really makes no sense when you think about it- -why would Bruce want to jeopardize a youngster's life? Why would Batman even need a partner?- -but I agree with Karen, such a partnership does serve to humanize Batman.

Which Robin??

Doug: Dick Grayson. No doubt. I never liked Jason Todd (not that I agree with his fate back in the late ‘80’s), and find Carrie Kelly of the Elseworlds Dark Knight tales to be just an odd situation. Tim Drake is perhaps the most well-developed character of the entire lot, and has now worn the mantle about half as long as Grayson did. But my childhood memories are of Dick Grayson, and even today I still see Nightwing as Robin.

Karen: I am also a Dick Grayson fan. I think the growth of the relationship between Bruce and Dick has been very interesting. It is not a nice, neat, clean relationship. They have issues. Dick was deeply hurt when Bruce selected Azrael instead of himself to fill in as Batman. But Dick has gone off and become his own man. They have very different personalities and strengths. I would say that Dick has become a very good leader, something I don’t think Bruce ever really has been.
As for the other Robins, I never warmed up to Jason Todd. I do like Tim Drake – of all the Robins, he seems closest to Bruce in personality. I think he’s done well as Robin.

Sharon: Dick Grayson by a mile. As Karen said, unlike Batman he was a born leader, something that evident as far back as the 1960s Teen Titans. I could never quite believe the confident, smart as a whip, take charge guy in TT was the same silly, sometimes obtuse kid appearing in Batman and Detective. 

And to me, Nightwing will always be Superman flanked of course by Jimmy Olsen as Flamebird. Well, I don't blame Dick for borrowing the name--I always thought Nightwing and Flamebird were much cooler names than Batman and Robin!

In the Justice League or the Outsiders, or solo?

Doug: I really prefer Batman solo. However, if he’s in a team book, he needs to be written correctly. The Paul Dini/Alex Ross JLA collaboration in the oversized series of a few years ago featured a Batman in the shadows, mistrustful of his teammates, and going off on his own to solve the problem at hand. That is how I would see him. The mentor role that he filled in Batman and the Outsiders – that’s just not how it is for me. He’s just not a group kind of guy. However, I would say that I did really enjoy the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League series of the post-Crisis era. But, that was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, so it worked.

Karen: Again, this is another area where, intellectually, it seems wrong for this quintessential loner to be on a team. And yet, as a fan of teams, I like seeing how he interacts with others. Going back to the Justice League cartoon, I think they did a great job showing how Batman still had to operate on his own terms while a member of a team. I loved the episode where the rest of the League has decided to turn themselves in to the government to quell fears. When they contact Batman and tell him, he says something along the lines of, “That’s the stupidest plan I’ve ever heard.” He decides to work on the problem on his own. After he hangs up, Wonder Woman says, “That went better than expected.”

Sharon: I just cannot get used to this anti-social, arrogant, above it all Batman (though I guess it's his been accepted portrayal for years now). I mean, this was a guy who--in his Batman guise--was hitting on Black Canary in the late 60s. Who palled around with Supes in World's Finest and a variety of other heros in The Brave and the Bold. Okay, I'm talking about the Stone Age--er, the Silver Age, and I know it's been decades since he was Mr. Nice Guy, but in my mind eye's, he's no recluse or snob. I don't see him as someone who goes off on his own to solve crimes or is aloof, as in Identity Crisis. 
What’s your opinion on Batman’s extended family – Batgirl (Barbara Gordon), Bat-Mite, Batwoman, Batgirl (original), and/or Ace the Bat-hound?

Doug: Leave it. If I had to keep one, it would be Barbara Gordon. I also recall the first Batgirl being in the Teen Titans West for a very short time – not long enough to catch on.

Karen: I don’t have a lot of knowledge or interest in those characters except for the original Batgirl, Barbara Gordon. I’ve always liked her, and I absolutely hated what happened to her in The Killing Joke. But I like the fact that she is a detective, and continues to use her brainpower to help Batman and others.

Sharon: Schwartz's Batgirl (Babs) is the only one of lasting value; a really interesting character for the 1960s, never a damsel in distress or someone's girlfriend, her chief strength was her intelligence--and it continues to be, as Oracle.

The others mentioned--Batwoman, Bat-Mite, et al.--were an attempt to copy the successful Superman supporting cast formula (Robert Kanigher also followed suit and installed a similar sort of cast for Wonder Woman). When Julius Schwartz took over as Batman's editor, he summarily dismissed Batwoman, Bat-Girl (note the use of the hyphen; why not "Batgirl", to be consistent with Batwoman and Batman?), Ace and Bat-Mite (who was Bats' answer to Mr. Mxyptlk). Despite his "banishment", Bat-Mite made an appearance (along with Mxyptlk) in World's Finest #169, the debut of the Supergirl-Batgirl team.

How important is Alfred?

Doug: Alfred is, in my opinion, more important to Batman than any other character in the supporting cast. And particularly as he’s been portrayed recently – as caregiver, medic, partner in crime-fighting. 

Karen: Alfred feels like an essential part of the Batman mythos to me. Although largely devoid of a life of his own, he serves as a good sounding board and aide to Batman. I also like seeing a more capable Alfred, not just an upper crust butler but someone with a bit of an edge to him. I like how Michael Caine played him in the latest movies – you know this guy has some depth to him.

Sharon: Loved Alan Napier. Did you know he was 6'6"? He added just the right gravitas to the character. In the comics Alfred was killed off in the 1960s but DC had to revive him because he was in the TV show.

Gadgets/technology, or just hard-boiled detective?

Doug: While some of the gadgets are cool, I prefer Batman as the Dark Knight Detective – using his wits and skills to solve crimes and mete out justice.

Karen: I admire Batman’s keen intelligence and perception – he’s always two steps ahead of everyone else in the room. If you looked at the Justice League as greek heroes, Batman would definitely be the Odysseus of the group – the man with the plan. He’s the one guy you can’t stop – you can use kryptonite on Superman, or take away Green Lantern’s ring; but Batman’s power is his mind and unstoppable will. You can’t take that away unless you kill the man.

Sharon: Well, that explains the casting of Clooney (Batman and Robin) as a latter-day Odysseus in O, Brother, Where Art Thou?

Anyway...intelligence and deduction over gadgets any day. As mentioned, "smarts" were really Batgirl's stock in trade in the 60s, she relied on her wits (and a photographic memory) to deal with criminals, while Batman still had his handy-dandy utility belt and the perfect weapon for every occasion. Slowly but surely, Schwartz phased out the reliance upon the gadgets.

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