To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.
I know that movies traditionally have a minimal impact on comic book sales, but to celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I thought I’d make a list of accessible jumping-on points for fans of Batman in mass media. There are several wonderful things about Batman. There are two especially relevant to this article. First, Batman is an infinitely adaptable character. He can literally be anything to anybody. It is entirely possible for somebody to love one interpretation of Batman while loathing others. So I’ll be breaking down my recommendations by source, so you can look at your favourite interpretation of Batman and find the most thematically and tonally relevant jumping-on points:
- Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy
- Batman: The Animated Series
- Tim Burton’s Batman Films
- Adam West’s Batman
The second factor is that Batman is one of the few characters blessed with a back catalogue of accessible runs and stories, so there’s quite a few recommendations for each. It’s as simple as finding one that works for you.
Finally, we’re going to take a bit of a leap backwards and dig into one of the first truly iconic representations of Batman outside of comics. No, I’m not talking about the film serial. I’m talking about the camp-tastic Adam West Batman! television show.
The campy classic Batman! television show has had a bit of a rough time in popular consciousness over the past number of years. With Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy proving that you could take the material and make it substantial and weighty, a lot of fans have dismissed the goofy and illogical fun of the classic Adam West era. I can understand why. It isn’t anywhere near my favourite interpretation of the character, but I still think it has enough energy, wit and fun to be worthy of attention and discussion.
Appropriately enough, these are the more “far out” recommendations. I’d be hard-pressed to restrict the recommendations to merely comics reflecting the camp of the television show, so instead I’m assuming that fans who appreciate the Adam West interpretation are more “open-minded” when it comes to Batman, more tolerant of high concepts, and more willing to accept that Caped Crusader can be many things to many different people, often at the same time.
Anyway, without further ado, rounding out the week, here’s the list of recommendations:
To be honest, if you love the look and feel of the television show, the Silver Age comics on which they are based is probably the place to start. DC have been collecting these classics in “Archive” editions, although they are so expensive it might be worth waiting for cheaper copies to come along. However, if you can find them cheap, or in another format, these adventures capture the feel of the show perfectly. A lot of fans will try to argue that the comics at the time weren’t nearly as camp as the show, but these comics feature Batman taking on super-intelligent gorillas, super-powered cavemen and mind-controlled elephants. “Goofy” doesn’t begin to cover it. While some of the knowing wit from the television show is missing, it’s still pretty close to the feeling of the series. The second volume even features the adventure which inspired the first episode.
What you need to know: Nothing, but the Silver Age prose can be quite tough to get through. Unless you read it in the voice of narrator “Desmond Doomsday.”
Batman/Planetary: Night on Earth
You should read Warren Ellis’ Planetary. It’s an ode to pulpy entertainment in all its forms, from kung-fu ghost stories to Japanese monster myths to superhero comics. Batman got his own special chapter, in which the eponymous pop culture archaeologists visit Gotham City. Multiple Gotham Cities. There’s Adam West’s Batman, Frank Miller’s Batman and everything in-between. It’s a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be Batman, and it’s an exceptional meditation on how one character can be everything to everybody at the same time.
What you need to know: A passing familiarity with Ellis’ Planetary might come in handy, but they’re also just great comics. Also the knowledge that many different creators, writers and artists each have different irreconcilable versions of Batman.
Okay, this is easily the least accessible of any of the recommendations that I’ve made all week. However, the fact that I’m recommending it at all, despite that, should give you an idea of how much I love this run. Following the “death” of Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson assumes the cowl and becomes Batman. He recruits Bruce’s son, Damian Wayne, as Robin. Together, they fight crime which may be related to Bruce’s disappearance. It actually starts out pretty accessible, and doesn’t a decent enough job of explaining itself as it goes along. However, the book’s aesthetic is perhaps the most faithful attempt to reconcile the bright and cheerful sixties television show with a darker Batman tone. The artists, a selection of DC’s finest artistic talent, give the book a neon cartoon-y feel, and it’s a delightfully off-centre Batman tale. It’s definitely a “try before you buy” and possibly an “acquired taste”, but if you’re looking for a high-energy high-concept take on Batman, Batman & Robin is the way to go.
What you need to know: Bruce had a son with Talia Al Ghul, the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul. He never knew of Damian’s existence until recently, and the boy was trained to be a master assassin from a young age. Thomas Hurt, a man claiming to be Thomas Wayne showed up in Gotham and tried to destroy Batman. While he didn’t succeed, Batman disappeared shortly afterwards during one of DC’s gigantic crossovers. Seemingly vapourised by the “New God” Darkseid, Bruce vanished. Meanwhile, Dick Grayson took over his mentor’s cowl, and trained Damian as Robin.
Very much in the style of the above, but with less neon and no continuity, Bob Haney is one of my favourite Batman authors, if only because he was one of the very few writers who never seemed to pigeon-hole Batman. Haney’s Batman was very much a part of Gotham’s infrastructure, an officially deputised law man, but he was also a man of science, an archaeologist, a tough street vigilante and a superhero. There were no limitations on the stories that Haney would tell. Batman would accidentally sell his soul to Hitler, or fight another hero to death because the Joker threatened to shoot a puppy, or get sent forward in time to a future not unlike Planet of the Apes. It was wild, inconsistent, erratic and brilliant. It won’t be for those who like their Batman grounded (or even consistent), but it’s a fun adventure for those with an open mind.
What you need to know: The old-fashioned seventies writing (and Haney’s repeated use of the phrase “bat-hombre”) might grate a bit and take some getting used to, but there is no continuity lock the reader out. Literally. There’s not even that much continuity between Haney’s own stories, let alone stories other writers were telling. And I think it’s a lot more energetic because of that.
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