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Bob Haney & Neal Adams on The Brave & The Bold – Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

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.

In his introduction to this volume, Adams suggests that Bob Haney is one of the most “overlooked” writers in comic book history. “Though they have not gotten the recognition they deserve,” Adams argues, “Bob Haney’s stories are classics of good old comic-book drama, and dense in plot, incident, and twists.” I actually really agree with that summary of Haney’s work, and I think it’s a shame that he’s not included among Denny O’Neil and Steve Englehart as one of the writers who shaped Batman as comics entered the Bronze Age. His stories were ridiculous, but they had a sense of pulpy energy and dynamism to them. Idle folly like reason and logic are subdued to rapid-fire high-concepts, a no-nonsense Batman and a sense that literally anything could happen.

So this collaboration should be epic. Bob Haney is – to me, at least – a definitive Batman writer; Neal Adams is – widely accepted, I hope – as a (if not the) definitive Batman artist. However, combining the two doesn’t work quite as fluidly as one might hope. The stories here are solid, highly entertaining and beautifully rendered, but they’re nowhere near as effective as either creator would be working with a later collaborator. Still, even if not quite at the peak of their powers, Haney and Adams make for a powerful creative team, and there’s a lot to enjoy on their collaboration on The Brave and the Bold.

Wall-to-wall excitement…

I think the core of the problem is a clash of styles. Haney writes these wonderful stories where he swings for the fences, and there are literally no limitations on the world that Batman occupies. The character can sell his soul to Hitler accidentally, or he can travel through time to the distant future, or he can go on tour of the country with the Constitution of the United States. It’s not the most grounded portrayal of the character, but it’s delivered in such a wonderful manner that it’s hard not to go along with it. Haney is very firmly a writer of fantastical Batman stories.

In contrast, Neal Adams doesn’t really illustrate fantastical Batman stories. Don’t get me wrong, he can draw fantastical concepts. During his work with O’Neil, for example, he gets to draws ghosts and decaying bodies. He would create Man-Bat, one of Batman’s most fantastical foes. However, his work is described by Denny O’Neil, in the introduction of the third volume, as “magical realism” – in short, Neal Adams draws these fantastical images in a very grounded setting. His Batman looks like an Olympic-level athlete, for example. He does great work with shadow and darkness.

An ocean of trouble…

In fact, Adams was making an active attempt to bring more shade to the world of the Caped Crusader even within the relatively light and fluffy pages of The Brave and the Bold, a team-up book that paired Batman up with any number of iconic heroes. Adams had been appealing to editor Julius Schwartz for a chance to take Batman back to his darker roots, and The Brave and the Bold turned out to be the perfect place to do it:

The artist’s goal to return the franchise to its darker roots almost didn’t happen. Adams said that every time he asked editor Julius Schwartz for a chance to do a Batman story, Schwartz told him to “Get the hell out of my office!” Undeterred, Adams eventually found a way into the character’s adventures through editor Murray Boltinoff’s “Brave & the Bold” series. Given the chance, Adams started making small changes – setting the stories at night, having Batman enter rooms through windows, adding more shadows, etc. Letters to the editor suggested fans loved it. This led to a confrontation between Schwartz and Adams, in which the editor demanded to know why the artist believed he knew Batman better than DC did. Adams responded: “It’s not me, Julie. It’s every kid in America.”

I think it’s fair to say that Adams won that argument. In Mark Waid’s introduction to The Dynamic Duo Archives, Vol. 1, collecting the earliest of Schwartz’s “new look” Batman stories, the editor even concedes that it was a mistake to set so many of them during the day. It feels like a vindication of Adams’ approach to the character.

The problem, of course, is that Bob Haney’s Batman doesn’t really play to that aspect of the character. Adams is very much about adding shading and sophistication to the Caped Crusader, adding a sense of darkness and ambiguity. In contrast, Haney’s portrayal of Batman feels like a part of the establishment. He might as well be a police officer who wears a bat costume, rather than a dark vigilante out for justice.

They’re not making it Easy (Company) for him…

When he encounters the Creeper, Bruce seems confused by the idea that a hero could operate at odds with the law. “You’re… the Creeper… wanted by the law!” he declares. At another point, the sinister Kaine vows “to rid our city of corruption, crime and incompetents like Commissioner Gordon and Batman!” Notice that Kaine has no problem with a man dressing up as a giant bat and usurping the police’s role in Gotham. The problem is that Batman isn’t doing it well.

Haney’s Batman seems to hold pretty major authority in Gotham City. When he shows up at a hospital with a bunch of cocoons, he seems to have the whole place at his disposal. One doctor asks the man in the cowl, “You… you want me to irradiate these… things, Batman?” When Batman confirms that this is indeed what he wants, the technician doesn’t hesitate. “Very well, but only because you say so!” I doubt that any civil servant could have got it done so quick. In But Bork Can Hurt You, Batman seems to be in a position where the city council can exile him from Gotham. (The idea of Batman being “fired” by the city recurs in Haney’s work.)

An excellent run…

Don’t get me wrong. I think both approaches to the character can work, and do work quite well. I just don’t think they gel as fluidly – the writing seems to be going one direction and the art another. Neal Adams would find the perfect writer in Denny O’Neil, who clearly shared his darker image of the Caped Crusader. Bob Haney would be paired with a wonderful artist in Jim Aparo, who could offer a more cartoonish (yet still elegant) art style for Haney’s deliciously no-holds-barred scripts.

That’s not to say these stories are bad. They are definitely zany, but the collection includes enough of the equivalent World’s Finest comics (collections of Neal Adams’ covers and an issue he illustrated) to demonstrate that there is a very wrong way to execute this sort of high-concept madness. It’s just not quite as good as either creator would be while paired with a different collaborator. That said, it’s still fun. You can see Adams refining his look for Batman, while Haney is honing his own craft.

Just a few teen-ie problems…

I do find it interesting how their shared interests come together quite well in an early story featuring Neal Adams’ Deadman. Deadman was murdered by a man with one arm, while Haney has a tendency to include sinister one-armed characters in his stories. (I think it was a loving tribute to The Fugitive.) So the crossover actually kinda makes a weird bit of sense for both characters and creators. In a meta-fictional sense, of course Deadman would gravitate towards Haney’s The Brave & the Bold, because it features an abundance of one-armed bandits.

I love Haney’s Batman. He’s not all smiles and sunshine, but he’s not necessarily dark either. He’s sorta like an hard-ass street cop in a silly costume. When Deadman won’t stop hassling him about his unsolved murder, Bruce responds, “All right, all right, you crazy ghost! Get off my back!” Bonus points to Haney for crafting dialogue it’s impossible not to read in an Edward G. Robinson voice. Similarly, Haney gives us Batman as a detective, but it’s only slightly more logical than the bat-deduction we saw in Batman! or Batman Forever:

Written on that scrap… ‘Sacred River Account’… It’s a clue! In Coleridge’s poem, ‘Kubla Khan’… there’s a place, Xanadu, where ‘Alf, the sacred river, ran…’ Well, Carleton calls his place Xanadu… and this stream could be his ‘sacred river’… My hunch is that the account name is code!

It’s not completely illogical, but it’s nowhere quite near the fair-play mysteries that O’Neil and Adams would later concoct.

A straight arrow…

Batman definitely lacks the slightly harder edge that O’Neil and Adams would give him. Not only does he seem to fully operate inside the system, he actually seems pretty cool and relaxed about it. When Orm gets away, Bruce doesn’t seem too bothered about it. “Relax!” he instructs the police. “I agreed not to harm Ocean Master! Aquaman is still honouring the bond between him and his evil brother… so must we! There’s a different ‘law’ for them…” I think this is one of the few times I’ve seen Batman embrace moral relativism.

At another point, he seems fairly laissez faire about confessing his identity to a relative stranger. “As a psychiatrist, you’ll never reveal my secret, so it’s safe with you.” Given how many of Batman’s foes are doctors, that might not have been the most prudent move. (Although the guy uses post-hypnotic suggestion to forget it at the end of the story.) This version of the character, however, does give us wonderful moments like Batman and Gordon watching telly together, seeming like genuine “chums.”

A Knight on the town…

We get the traditional outlandish Haney plot devices. At one point, Bruce adopts another son, the child of “Prof. Bruner, my father’s closest friend!” Who, conveniently, was never mentioned before. Later, Bruce is appointed a Senator, creating a deadly conflict of interest when Bruce must choose between voting on a vital piece of legislation, or hunting down some bad-ass crooks. It is all silly, and gloriously silly at that, but Haney generally tells the story well enough to keep us interested. (Although, I don’t think anything here rivals the energy he demonstrated when paired with Aparo.)

You can see Haney using many of the plot devices he’d deploy with relish later on, consciously playing up Batman as a very pulpy hero capable of being inserted into just about any situation. We discover, for example, that both Bruce and Batman spent the Second World War “working for Uncle Sam tracking down war saboteurs” in England, although Bruce was deployed for D-Day. (This is an especially interesting take, because the original Batman and Detective Comics stories actually mostly avoided the conflict.) It’s not the most rational character beat, but it works. Plus, you know, seeing Bob Haney and Neal Adams team Bruce up with Churchill is all kinds of awesome. I would buy a The Brave & The Bold comic that teamed up Winston Churchill and Batman.

Take a bow…

There are also hints of social relevance and pop culture consciousness creeping in. I think Haney was at his best when channelling the zeitgeist, with stories about ancient astronauts and astral projection, tapping into seventies popular imagination. There are hints of that here, as Bruce confronts corrupt big business and investigates hidden Nazi gold. In fact, one former Nazi even plans to escape to South America, tapping into the fixation with former Nazis who had escaped to places like Argentina after the war. “He will let me live like a king in South America!” Von Stauffen boasts.

Again, I don’t think Haney had quite hit his stride yet, although there’s still a lot more fun, interest and excitement here than in most similar comics – World’s Finest being the most obvious example. This sort of throw-everything-at-the-wall approach to storytelling is far tougher than Haney makes it seem. While his work here isn’t as transcendental as his later stories would bet, there’s still a genuine sense of craft to how he constructs these gleefully silly and ridiculous adventures.

He Creeps me out…

Adams is, as ever, fantastic. Although, as I argued above, I don’t think it’s a perfect fit. Haney’s writing doesn’t necessarily complement Adams’ “magic realism”, and vice versa. While both elements are, independently, very impressive, they don’t gel as well as they should – so the result isn’t as brilliant as it should be.

Still, there’s a lot to like here, and you can get a sense of how both creators had their own distinctive version of Batman. I just think it took another collaborator to truly bring it out. For Haney it was Aparo. For Adams, it was O’Neil.

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