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Dan Slott, Ty Templeton and Rick Burchett’s Run on The Batman Adventures (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

More than two decades after its original broadcast, Batman: The Animated Series remains one of the most insightful and most elegant distillations of the Batman mythos. While the show was on the air, DC published a variety of tie-in comic books featuring a variety of talent. Some of these count among the best Batman stories of the nineties, and it is a shame that DC has not done more work to keep these in print.

Indeed, it is a surprise that DC has never thought to produce a suitably deluxe or high-profile collected edition of the work that Mark Miller did on the tie-in to Superman: The Animated Series. However, it is worth noting that DC did make a nice gesture by offering the first issue of The Batman Adventures as their free comic book day issue in 2003. It is much more appealing free comic book day than a collection of promotions or previews.

Batman. In a nutshell.

Batman. In a nutshell.

The Batman Adventures was a tie-in comic published within the animated continuity while the animated Justice League was still on the air. However, it was written after the end of The New Batman Adventures. As a result, it had a lot more freedom than the comic books that had been published in tandem with the animated series. The Batman Adventures was no longer a supplement to a television show set in Gotham, it was the only continuing glimpse at this version of Gotham.

The Batman Adventures was a wonderful inclusive comic book – it was appropriate for children, it was accessible to people with only a casual familiarity with the world of Batman. In many respects, it was the perfect “free comic book day” comic. A light, fun read with a clever take on Batman and his world. The Batman Adventures is a fantastic little book that ended far too soon – a demonstration that comics don’t need to be “adult” or “mature” in order to be smart or fun.

Deadshot is dead to the world...

Deadshot is dead to the world…

Since the late eighties, comics have been rather uncomfortable with their history as a medium that initially appealed to younger readers. Into the nineties, it seemed that the entire industry was desperate to prove that comics were no longer just for kids. Violence and sex became standard features of comic books, with brutality towards female characters and dismemberment almost becoming grim recurring jokes.

These days, it is quite rare to see a major comic book not marked “teen.” Much like the stigma associated with the “G” rating for feature films (which is considered “essentially death” for a movie at the box office), there is a sense of anxiety around “all-ages” books. It almost seem like The Batman Adventures is handicapped by its “all-ages” rating, just as the comic is put at a disadvantage by existing outside mainstream continuity.

Explosive attraction...

Explosive attraction…

The fixation on “continuity” is an odd quirk of the American comic book market. There’s a prevailing sense that something needs to be “in continuity” in order to be worth while, as if there are differing degrees of “real” to the worlds inhabited by these fictional superheroes. Publicity, advertising and “buzz” will generally coalesce around the big and popular “in continuity” titles – the ones that drive the shared universe forwards. This is a double-edged sword.

It means that fans and companies tend to flock to the more high-profile titles. Batman and Justice League will typically sell very well no matter who is writing them. In contrast, smaller fringe titles tend to lose out. Hugo nominee and Arthur C. Clarke award-winner China Miéville’s work on the wonderful Dial H could not attract enough attention to stay afloat in the “new 52.” Christy Marx’s Amethyst was also cancelled early in its life-cycle.

Ticked off...

Ticked off…

Existing as an all-ages book outside the mainstream continuity, The Batman Adventures was never going to be a high-profile cornerstone of DC’s Batman line, but profile is not an indicator of quality. The creative team working on The Batman Adventures was top-notch. Dan Slott and Ty Templeton would alternate on writing duties – one writing the lead story, the other writing the backup, then swapping. Ty Templeton would rotate on art duty with Rick Burchett on artwork.

Rather than being confined by the demands of keeping in synch with a popular cartoon series, Templeton and Slott are the only ones playing in this animated version of Gotham. Batman Beyond had wound down production in 2001, and Kevin Conroy’s iconic animated Batman was appearing in Bruce Timm’s Justice League, set largely outside of Gotham City. With few characters from Batman: The Animated Series appearing in Justice League, The Batman Adventures could had some fun.

A slippery Eel...

A slippery Eel…

Without having to tie into an on-going Batman cartoon series, Slott and Templeton had the freedom to shake things up a bit. The series begins with a fairly radical shift to the status quo – the Penguin has been elected mayor and has put out a warrant on Batman. From there, Slott and Templeton enjoy a wide-range of freedom with the iconic characters. For example, the duo  have Ra’s Al Ghul crippled and arrested, break up the Harley and Ivy friendship, explain why Ivy suddenly went green, but the Riddler in a coma.

In a way, it feels like Templeton and Slott might be slyly trying to help Batman: The Animated Series to line up with Batman Beyond, providing some of the missing material. The comic book opens with Ra’s Al Ghul instructing his League of Assassins to kill off Batman’s iconic villains. It’s a very clever twist, but it also signifies that thing might be heating it. Even though Ra’s does not succeed in his ambitions, it’s a very clear attempt to break a stalemate – to further his daughter’s relationship with Batman.

Plant life...

Plant life…

Along the way, we also discover that Pamela Isley has retired from criminal activity to live with Alec Holland in Florida. Cleverly explaining her character redesign between Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures, the script explains that the green plant-like Ivy is simply a grown clone. She was Ivy’s “escape plan” to help her get out of Gotham. Her final encounter with Harley ends up breaking their ambiguous relationship, with Harley swearing vengeance against Ivy.

None of these changes are truly irreversible. None of these characters are pushed to a point where something resembling the original status quo would be impossible. The Riddle could come out if his coma. Ra’s could break out of jail and find a Lazarus Pit. This comes with the territory for a tie-in comic – after all, if Harley and Ivy suddenly appeared on a cameo in Justice League, Templeton and Slott would have to explain it somehow.

Talk about a lovers' spat...

Talk about a lovers’ spat…

And yet, despite that, there is a clear sense of progression to this narrative – a clear sense that the Gotham portrayed in The Batman Adventures has moved on quite a bit from the version depicted in The New Batman Adventures. It is more than the addition of new villains, although there are plenty of those. There’s a sense that the characters may have changed slightly, that they are in a transitional phase.

A large part of this is the character of Batman himself. Templeton and Slott craft a fascinating take on the Dark Knight. He is positioned half-way between the patriarch seen on The New Batman Adventures and the bitter brooding loner introduced in Batman Beyond. This is a version of Bruce that has difficulty maintaining long-term relationships, even though he might try – a Bruce who struggles with his own emotional hiccups and insecurities.

A question mark hangs over their relationship...

A question mark hangs over their relationship…

One gets a sense of how Batman might have alienated all his friends by the time of Batman Beyond. This version of the character is emotionally manipulative, arrogant, aggressive and stubborn. The Batman Adventures paints a surprisingly nuanced picture of its protagonist, inviting the readers to form their own judgements about Bruce Wayne’s behaviours and hang-ups. Not every aspect of his character is commendable.

When Oswald Copplepot declares him public enemy number one, he aggressive flouts law and order in Gotham. He installs his own security parametre at Gotham, completely ignoring that he is meddling with a federal facility. He struggles to work within Nightwing’s methods in Bludhaven. He is willing to exploit Harvey Dent’s psychosis for is own ends, wedging the coin “good side up” to assist him during an assault on Arkham. He is ruthlessly pragmatic, and utterly unwilling to listen to anybody else.

Face-two-face...

Face-two-face…

Somewhat ironically, Batman remains stubbornly convinced that people cannot change – refusing to accept that the Riddler could reform or that the Penguin could have won the election legitimately. “He’s not capable of playing by the rules,” Bruce insists, glossing over the fact that he is a wanted criminal who is perfectly willing to fabricate evidence to serve his own ends and who is unwilling to compromise.

One of the more interesting aspects of The Batman Adventures is the way that the run suggests that the Riddler is really the best mirror for Bruce Wayne among his iconic adversaries. The Riddler is a character defined by his inability to fight his compulsions, even when he knows that those compulsions will not have a happy ending. The Batman Adventures sees the Riddler so incredibly lonely that he winds up staging elaborate riddles and pranks just so that he and Batman might spend time together.

Riddle me this...

Riddle me this…

The Riddler’s elaborate pranks become a sort of affectionate courtship. They are very public displays of affection from a man who does not want to end up alone. “I rented the office for twenty grand so we could spend some time together,” he tells the Dark Knight as he cooks up a lobster dinner for them both. In light of Batman Beyond, the scene is incredibly tragic. Batman doesn’t even have the self-awareness to realise that he will end up alone, suggesting the Riddler might finally be a step or two ahead.

The Batman Adventures portrays a very questionable Batman, something two which the narrative repeatedly draws attention. Bruce Wayne is a good guy, but he lacks the self-awareness necessary to make good choices. His confrontation with the Black Mask emphasises this, juxtaposing Bruce’s attitude towards crime in general against his personal feelings of betrayal. “Everyone deserves a second chance,” he tells Lucius Fox, after helping the former staff of an illegal gambling club find employment. However, confronting the woman he loves, he is unable to find any similar forgiveness. “Killers don’t get a second chance.”

That assassin is out of his league...

That assassin is out of his league…

Some of Bruce’s methods are decidedly ambiguous here, as he recruits the Riddler to figure out who rigged the election and why. “Since when do you partner with your enemies?” Nightwing asks. Bruce evades the question, offering a snappy retort, “I have a different style than you, Nightwing.” When he cannot get conclusive proof of the Penguin’s wrongdoing, he fakes it. He stages a “desperate gamble” to call the Penguin out. Even though the Penguin tries to murder him, his methods remain questionable.

Bruce’s personal decisions are prone to seem cold or heartless. He buries mob informant Matches Malone in a grave marked “John Doe” simply so he can continue to use his identity for investigative purposes. “Matches wrote his own ending,” Bruce offers by way of justification. He has difficulty articulating his affection for his partners – he is unable to tell Batgirl that he trusts her or to tell Nightwing that he is proud or to say anything to Talia. Sometimes he conveys it through an awkward gesture, sometimes it is left unsaid.

Something fishy about the mayor...

Something fishy about the mayor…

It’s wonderful portrayal of Batman and the world that he inhabits. Templeton and Slott structure their issues so that there is a main feature and short story. These short stories do a lot to flesh out the world of Gotham – they provide context for the larger stories, and glimpses at little moments that would not necessarily support an entire seventeen-page story. These add a great deal of texture to The Batman Adventures, devoting a few pages to the Riddler’s struggles with his compulsion or the origin of Matches’ moustache.

Templeton and Slott offer a surprisingly affecting look at the world of Batman. There are some genuinely lovely moments that capture the humanity that made Batman: The Animated Series such a success. The entire Catwoman story is heart-warming, particularly the short story that sees Selina Kyle stopping by Wayne Manor for The Wayne Foundation’s New Year’s Ball. It’s a delightful encapsulation of the complex relationship that exists between the Caped Crusader and the feline femme fatale.

He has final met his matches...

He has final met his matches…

Sadly, The Batman Adventures was too good to last. The series was cancelled after seventeen issue, to make room for a comic based on Beware the Batman. It is the same logic that led to the “Bat-embargo”, blocking Bruce Timm from using Batman characters (aside from the Dark Knight himself) towards the end of his Justice League cartoon and into his relaunched Justice League Unlimited.

This approach suggests that animated versions of Batman (and tie-ins to animated versions of Batman) are mutually exclusive. It feels more than a little trite and condescending towards younger viewers, suggesting that they cannot possible handled more than one version of a given character at a time. Children – and television viewers in general – are a lot smarter than most companies give them credit for. Sadly, this doesn’t change the fact that The Batman Adventures wound up after only seventeen issues.

Love fool...

Love fool…

Still, they were seventeen great issues.

5 Responses

  1. With The Batman Adventures set to be reprinted later this year, we may yet get this run in print again soon enough.

  2. I personally don’t see what the big deal with comic book ratings are. I think it should be a given that all ages are going to be reading about these characters, so having a distinction between younger and older demographics seems kind of superfluous. Batman: The Animated Series along with quite a few runs from the 70s/80s didn’t incorporate mature content but at the same time didn’t dum anything down for a younger audience, which I think all superhero storytelling could learn a lesson from.

    • Being honest, I don’t mind the idea of comic books that show violence or horror or swearing or nudity. But I do think that there should be a much better effort made to produce comics that you can share with kids. That’s how the industry is going to survive when we’re all gone, right?

      (And you’re right. BTAS is the perfect example.)

      • I actually am against censorship because the artist can’t have any restrictions on their vision. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had tons of sex and violence, yet handled them the proper way.

      • Yep. But, at the same time, I couldn’t hand either comic to an eight- or nine-year-old niece or nephew wanting to try comic books. (I think twelve is really the ideal age for those, if only because that’s when I read them.) I’m not really advocating for censorship (after all, paper and ink are not highly-restricted resources – you can have both all-ages books and unrestricted books coexisting), but I do think it makes sense for comics to be as accessible as possible. After all, you need to bring in new fans to keep the medium alive.

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