So I’m reading all over the internet, including here, how generally pleased everyone is with the new, one-year-later issue of Detective, and how it represents a nice reboot/kickstart/clean slate for Batman, what a fine jumping-on point it is, and so on and so on. I hasten to add, I thought all those things too, it really was a breath of fresh air as far as I was concerned.
But here’s my problem. DC has toyed with me this way before. I thought it would be an interesting perspective to look at all the OTHER times I remember the Bat books getting exactly this kind of kick start. We’ll start with the earliest and work our way forward, looking at what was done, what worked, what didn’t, what stuck, and so on.
This is the first time I’ve ever really sat down and done this kind of a list. The conventional wisdom is that there are five different ‘eras’ for Batman — the pulp-gothic early issues, the swashbuckling daytime Batman and Robin of the 40’s, the aliens-and-weirdness Batman of the 50’s and early 60’s, the mod swinging Adam West period, and the Dark Knight that started with O’Neil and Adams in the 70’s. But when I sat down and thought it through, there have been quite a few more than that. The shelf life of a comics ‘era’ is really only about three to seven years, for a long-running title. Then there is some kind of a shakeup, a change to the status quo, a minor Crisis or Zero-Hour type of reboot. Batman is a great illustration of this.
Let’s walk through it, starting with New Look Batman.
Started In: Detective #327
What Changed: No more aliens. The focus was on street-level crime and detective work. Villains had a gimmick and the stories were mostly about how to out-think the gimmick. Alfred was killed. Aunt Harriet was introduced, as was Barbara Gordon, who became the new Batgirl. The Bat-equipment was generally updated and streamlined.
What Worked: Losing the aliens and returning Batman to protecting the streets of Gotham was a good first step. Barbara Gordon was a good character idea, though she didn’t come into her own for a couple more decades. And of course Batman would be all about the science and forensics, it was nice to see more of this.
What Didn’t Work: Killing Alfred was a huge, huge mistake. And to editor Julius Schwartz’s credit, this was quickly undone. Likewise Aunt Harriet worked a lot better on TV than she did in the comics. In the comic it looked a lot more like a half-assed answer to Dr. Wertham’s accusations of Bat-homoeroticism and it probably was. The stories were still too cheerful and daytime. And of course no one ever thinks of this period in the Bat books without referencing the Adam West TV show, including me, to be honest. But there were still a lot of good stories here. And hell, I really liked the first season of the TV show.
What Stuck From This Era To The Present: Bat-science and Barbara Gordon. And Commissioner Gordon kept the weight off.
Next up: Early 1970’s streamlined Batman.
Started In: Batman #217
What Changed: Oh, man, lots of stuff. The biggest changes were sending Robin off to college and having Bruce and Alfred move out of the manor back into downtown Gotham. But really it was the tone that changed; daytime became night, the Bat-costume got scary, and Batman himself got a lot meaner. Previously, Batman had been Officer Friendly — now he was Dirty Harry. Plus he seemed to be a lot more hip, he used more slang and knew more about rock music than he ever used to.
What Worked: The darker tone suited the character a lot better. Telling artists to use the Adams model gave us a lot better art, overall, than using the Infantino model did. Escalating the violence stakes — suddenly the Joker was a murderous psycho! Whoa! — worked well too, it upped the emotion and suspense a lot where previously there really hadn’t been any. And it felt, at the time, like DC itself was saying a big screw-you to all the people that were making fun of us for reading Batman books, we were still getting over the whole Adam West thing. It was ridiculously validating.
What Didn’t Work: Moving Batman into the city was a great idea — moving Bruce Wayne there, not so much. I just can’t see Bruce living in a bachelor apartment, even a penthouse one. That’s a Daredevil riff; for Batman, you need Wayne Manor and the cave beneath.
What Stuck From This Era To The Present: To this day Batman is known to be dark, scary, and contemptuous of crime and criminals. He still beats information out of lowlife thugs and crooks are terrified of him. The violence has continued to escalate and Batman continues to be a grim loner. And the origin story is still endlessly referenced… these days everybody knows exactly why Batman does what he does. People forget that this went largely unmentioned in the books till this particular version.
Now, here is where I started to make my own arbitrary divisions. Your mileage may vary — these aren’t full-on reboots, but there are enough basic changes in premise that you can safely say it’s a ‘new era’ or a New Look or whatever you want to call it.
We’ll start with what I think of as ‘faux-Marvel-era’ Batman.
Started In: This can be argued. But I’m going to say it started with Batman #330 or so. At any rate it’s when Paul Levitz was editing the book.
What Changed: Robin was back, and he was pissed off. So was everyone else. This was when DC looked at the Marvel books and decided that what was selling was serialized continuity about heroes that made mistakes and didn’t get along. So suddenly the entire DCU got a bad case of PMS and Batman and his supporting cast were among the hardest hit — probably because Batman always looked cranky anyway. Stories suddenly continued from issue to issue, there were subplots that stretched on for months, etc., etc. It was the Marvel model for how to do funnybooks. Except it was Batman.
What Worked: There were several things that worked well here. Not many, but some. There were a few good stories: Marv Wolfman did an interesting arc with Ra’s Al Ghul, in particular. It was nice to see Dick Grayson again and this actually became the jumping-off point for him to huff off in a huff and form the new Teen Titans, which as it turned out was a good career move for him.
What Didn’t Work: There was a LOT. Most of all, the fact that Bruce couldn’t seem to get along with ANYBODY, even Dick or Alfred, was more depressing than deep. Yes, fine, actions should have consequences and ramifications, but, jeez, Robin, could you have done better? No? Then quitcher whining. And Batman himself came off as kind of a creep. This was the start of the “Bat-jerk” characterization that gets complaints to this day. Additionally, the palpitating romance subplots with Selina Kyle and Talia were more annoying than anything. Nobody reads Batman for romance.
What Stuck From This Era To The Present: This is where we met Lucius Fox for the first time. And the Bat-books, along with the rest of the DCU, have continued to follow the Marvel model for serializing stories and subplots. This was when done-in-one, formerly almost a DC guarantee, was really over.
This was followed by the Pre-Crisis Jason Todd version, or maybe call it AUTHENTIC Marvel-era Batman.
Started In: Again, I’m just being arbitrary, but I’m going to say it started in Batman #340 when we suddenly saw Marvel mainstays like Roy Thomas and Gene Colan on the books.
What Changed: The biggest change? Two words: new Robin. But really it was the influx of Marvel exiles like Gene Colan and Gerry Conway and Doug Moench, whose sense of joy at actually getting to work on Batman’s adventures was palpable. The books had an energy that hadn’t been there in quite a while and art-wise it was the best Batman had looked in a decade. The late Don Newton, particularly, did an exquisite version. The stories were very much back-to-basics, but with the benefit of hindsight. Writers Conway and Moench were very careful to replace the good stuff that had been previously thrown overboard — suddenly we had classic villains, Wayne Manor and the Batcave back, and soon after, we had a new Robin.
What Worked: Almost everything. Gerry Conway’s and Doug Moench’s writing was fun and clever and yet had tension and excitement. The books soon fell into a nice rhythm of a main story starting in Batman and concluding in Detective, with over-arcing subplots mostly revolving around young Jason Todd being assimilated into the Bat-family. Moench cleverly reintroduced a lot of old characters and made them fresh simply by showing them to us through Jason’s eyes. It was good stuff — fan enthusiasm coupled with the journeyman craft everyone had learned at Marvel in the 70’s. This is a criminally overlooked part of Batman’s history, probably because it all got wiped out in the Crisis. Damn OCD continuity nerds ruined it for everybody.
What Didn’t Work: Again, the romance subplots. We didn’t need to see Vicki Vale ever again, and we REALLY didn’t need to know about Alfred and Mademoiselle Marie getting their groove on back in WW2. I never could figure out what Bruce saw in either Vicki or Julia Pennyworth. Sometimes stories dragged on too long — the shorter two-parters were what worked best, and the books took a real hit when Don Newton passed away.
What Stuck From This Era To The Present: Not much, sadly. But this was the era that brought back Harvey Bullock from a two-page cameo in Detective #441 and made him a permanent cast member, and it was where Barbara Gordon learned, once and for all, no fooling, that Bruce Wayne really is Batman and was accepted as part of the team.
Which brings us to the post-Crisis, Dark Knight years.
Started In: I’m going to say Batman #408, pictured above. You kind of have to treat the Frank Miller Year One stuff in #404-407 as its own separate thing. And #401-403 were filler.
What Changed: Dark Knight and Frank Miller, baby. You want a bad-assed Batman, giggling psychos, obsessed vigilantes, crunching bone? We got it all right here. This was one of the darkest runs of the Bat books ever. Grim. Gritty. Bloody. Jason Todd was revamped into a petty criminal, a young hothead rescued from a life on the streets. No more sense of wonder and awe from this kid. He was tough as nails and mean as a snake… until the Joker beat him to death with a tire iron. Barbara Gordon got crippled for life. And Batman himself was beaten, bloodied, broken, brainwashed, and slapped around every which way.
What Worked: Basically, when Frank Miller did grim-n-gritty Batman he could pull it off. And Max Collins had a brief but cool run on Batman, batting cleanup afterwards. The regular books were in a malaise, but the guest-written stuff largely worked, particularly Sam Hamm’s “Blind Justice” and John Byrne’s “Many Deaths of the Batman.”
What Didn’t Work: Two words for you here — Jim and Starlin. His run is without question the worst Batman ever. (Yes, I loathe it even more than the usual 50’s weird-gimmick-and-alien Bat stuff commonly named as “worst ever.”) He was the one that gave us “Death in the Family” and “The Cult,” two stories that took an almost sadistic glee in taking DC icons and doing horrible things to them, and this climaxed with easily the most tasteless stunt ever done in comics, the 1-800-kill-Robin promotion where fans could call in and vote on whether or not Jason Todd actually got to live through the beating the Joker gave him. Starlin had stacked the deck against the kid by making him thoroughly unlikable, not just a petty crook but a vengeful psycho, so it was pretty much a done deal that fans would vote no. I really enjoyed the Moench/Newton/Colan Jason, but that Robin was long gone.
What Stuck From This Era To The Present: Barbara’s still in the wheelchair. Jason Todd is still creepy. And Year One continues to be the template for the current Batman.
Which brings us to the introduction of Tim Drake, and other necessary repair/reboot work. Truthfully, this is the period that gave me the idea for the column this week in the first place.
Started In: Marv Wolfman kicked it off with “Batman: Year Three,” starting in Batman #436. It took another two years, almost, to get the kid into the Robin suit, in Batman #457.
What Changed: This was when it became clear that “Robin” was a franchise deal. This was the era that re-introduced Sarah Essen and made her officially Mrs. James Gordon, when we first met the mute Batcave-dwelling mechanic Harold the hunchback, and also when — very weirdly to fans of my generation — when Robin, somehow, became cool.
What Worked: Tim Drake as Robin was a very good idea, and executed well. Third time’s the charm. (Although a lot of what made Tim work, the seeing-Batman’s-world-through-fresh-eyes, also was what made Jason work the FIRST time.) Putting Robin in a new, much cooler costume was a great help. This was very much a rebuilding kind of period, back-to-basics, let’s-tell-good-stories, that kind of thing. And largely it succeeded. There were some great new villains introduced, notably the Ventriloquist. There were stunts but they were good ones: bringing in guys like Peter Milligan to do an arc every so often, the Robin series of miniseries, persuading Dick Sprang out of retirement to do some covers, that kind of thing. This is also when Chuck Dixon and Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle started with the Batbooks, and they were great.
What Didn’t Work: With the addition of a new Robin, along with Harold, Anarky, Sarah Essen, the Huntress, and the regular gang, it felt like Batman was getting crowded out of his own books sometimes. And not every new villain was a great idea (“Crash and Burn”) but at least it felt like the Bat-office was trying harder.
What Stuck From This Era To The Present: Tim Drake and the Robin franchise concept. And the Huntress is still hanging around the fringes of the Bat world.
And now we have arrived at what I would call the stunt-driven, Artificial Event era.
Started In: Sword of Azrael #1 was the opening salvo in what seemed like about five years’ worth of Knightfalls, Contagions, Cataclysms, Aftershocks, and so on.
What Changed: Remember when the Batman books started trying to be like Marvel with the bickering and the angst? Well, now it’s the 90’s, and the Bat books are trying to be the X-men, with oodles of crossovers, specials, mini-series, and Events. It almost doesn’t matter who’s doing which title because the books are all being done on a chart now. A story lasts six months to two years, and crosses over, through, in and out of Batman, Detective, Azrael, Robin, Catwoman and maybe a tie-in special here or there. It gets so out of control that Denny O’Neil has to mandate a no-crossover rule for a year, in 1996, but it doesn’t last — by ’97 we are right back into it with the months-long “Cataclysm,” which leads to “Aftershock,” which ends up with a year of “No Man’s Land.”
What Worked: When the new books weren’t mired down in this or that crossover madness, they did some really good stories. It was nice to see Robin getting his own book at last, along with Nightwing. Even Azrael’s book had some cool stuff in it, though he had one of the worst costumes in comics, and as a character, he was not great.
What Didn’t Work: As I’ve said in other columns, you can layer so many things on top of a premise that you lose the original premise. By this time Batman had essentially become a team book, with Robin, Nightwing, Oracle, Azrael, Catwoman, and occasionally Spoiler and Huntress, in addition to Batman himself. This doesn’t actually make a lot of sense for a guy that is portrayed as a grim loner.
What Stuck From This Era To The Present: Robin, Nightwing and Catwoman still have their own books. And I’m afraid “Murderer/Fugitive” and “War Games” showed that the Bat books are still hooked on the Event Crossover.
And finally we have the modern era. The reboot/jump-start that lasted from the end of “No Man’s Land” until now, “One Year Later.” I’m not going to itemize that one because, quite honestly, it’s taken almost two days just to get THIS written and I’m exhausted. Anyway by now, if you’ve made it this far, you get the idea and it seems silly to do a historical recap of something that is less than five years old. There were some good things in there, especially in the beginning (the beginning of each one of these ‘eras’ is where the energy and the good stuff often lies) like the Cassandra Cain Batgirl, the Turning Points miniseries, stuff like that; but also some really egregious mistakes — most notably the death of Ra’s Al Ghul and the corruption of Dr. Leslie Thompkins. I’ll be interested to see how this new take plays out over the coming months, hoping that it’s good, and, more important, hoping that the good stuff will stick.
See you next week.
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