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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Batman

by  in Comic News Comment
John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Batman

Here’s a missing Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Batman

(or “The Inside Story Of The Outsider!”)

I’m sure this is going to disappoint a lot of people, but this column isn’t going to be a complete analysis of Batman’s storytelling engine; for one thing, a long-running character like Batman doesn’t have just one status quo, he’s got dozens. The Bob Kane era of ‘Batman’ is so radically different from the Bat-books of the late 1990s that they have to be considered separately from each other even though they’re the same series. So, in keeping with my promise from the first column to look at these characters through the prism of the Essentials and Showcase series, let’s look at a singular storytelling engine of Batman, a short-lived one that is perfectly captured in the two current volumes of ‘Showcase Presents: Batman’. Let’s look at the cautionary tale of…the Outsider.

Although he probably didn’t term it as such, Julius Schwartz’s job as the new ‘Batman’ editor was to revamp the storytelling engine of Batman. The series had become steeped in science-fiction, with aliens, time travel, and additional Bat-helpers galore, and had fundamentally become too far removed from its roots to remain workable. Schwartz had a number of ideas to change the tone of the series, removing Batwoman, Batgirl, Bat-mite, Ace the Bat-Hound, ditching the aliens, and reducing the science-fiction elements down to a “James Bond” level. (In other words, they had gadgets from about five years in the future, not fifty.) He also decided to make one change that was destined to be even more controversial, a change that shocked fans everywhere…

He put a little yellow oval around the Bat-Symbol.

Nah, nah, I’m kidding. He killed Alfred the butler.

Of course, casual Batman fans everywhere have just raised an eyebrow in confusion. “Gee,” they say, “he looked to be in pretty good shape last I saw.” And therein lies the point. Schwartz killed Alfred because he was sick of the ‘boy’s club’ atmosphere of the Batcave, worried about complaints that Batman promoted a deviant lifestyle, and because he didn’t think it mattered too much; Alfred was really such a minor part of the Batman mythos that replacing him with a snoopy Aunt Harriet would be an interesting shake-up, and nobody would care too much. So Alfred met his end pushing his boss out of the way of falling boulders, was crushed to a pulp on-panel, and the matter was settled.

Except that as it turns out, storytelling engines are powerful things. Sometimes–heck, often–they are more powerful than the people who write them or the people who edit them. Making a change to a storytelling engine is easy, but making it stick is hard. In this case, the Batman TV series loomed on the horizon, and William Dozier, its producer, was not a regular ‘Batman’ reader. He was familiar with the “classic” Bat-family, including Alfred, and he insisted that the comic match his TV series rather than the other way around. So, despite planning to add in snoopy Aunt Harriet, the storytelling engine of ‘Batman with Alfred’ proved to have durability with casual fans, and had to be reinstated.

Which left the comics with a small problem, to wit: Alfred had been crushed to a pulp by falling boulders, on-panel, less than a year previous. This left Schwartz in a bit of a conundrum, which was solved by claiming that Alfred was only “mostly dead”, and that his body was recovered by a mad scientist who re-animated him as the super-villain, “The Outsider”. Naturally, Batman restored the Outsider to normal, Alfred resumed his duties, and no more was ever said about the incident.

So the story of the Outsider highlights a number of interesting elements from a storytelling perspective. It tells us that writers and editors are subject to outside forces that can force them to retract a decision no matter how permanent it seems. It tells us that Batman’s storytelling engine is an enduring one–even tiny elements, like Alfred the butler, have staying power and importance to the general public. And it also tells us that shock deaths and contrived resurrections aren’t a creation of the 1990s. Before there was Parallax, there was the Outsider.

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