Monday, August 26, 2013

1-2-3-4-Beat on the Bat: Favorite Bat Comics Pt1

Coming Soon to a Theater in 2015! Minus the Damon!

Take a chill pill and remember the casting of Michael Keaton for Batman, Heath Ledger as the Joker, Ann Hathaway as Catwoman, and Daniel Craig for James "Blonde". The fan reaction was just a tad ridiculous in hindsight, right? I'll admit Ben wouldn't have been my first choice for an older Batman (Karl Urban), and if WB wanted a Batman who could do a Boston accent flawlessly I'm insulted I wasn't considered despite being too young, but I'll wait and see before assuming Affleck will tank the film. Most of the hate is probably due to wanting to make yourself hate the most popular dude in school. I recently watched The Town I was more than impressed with his directing and acting, which is a feat in and of itself, especially when directing an action film. So don't despair. BATMAN AND ROBIN WILL NEVER DIE! Which is what I plan to prove after the Batsui Bop.

  1. Detective Comics #38 “Robin the Boy Wonder”

Around the time before Batman and Robin was released in 1997, Toy R Us had some free promotional reprints of classic Batman comics for tie in purchases of the movie’s action figures. Let it not be said that Joel Schumacher’s last Bat flick didn’t produce anything of value, since I lucked out with getting “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl”, “The Ice Crimes of Mr. Zero”, and the origin of Dick Grayson.

Before getting the original debut of the 70 year plus character, I’d already heard or seen his secret origin recounted in caption boxes, flashbacks, cartoons, a VHS documentary called Batmania (I wish I still had it), and in film. Like Bart Simpson getting his hands on the first issue of Radioactive Man or Indiana Jones, I had the Holy Grail. Besides being the first issue with Robin, this is the moment when Batman is truly born.

Several teen and adult fans scoff or write off the idea of Robin in Batman’s dark, brooding world. Batman as a loner, in a one man war on crime is very a appealing take on the character, but even when considering the greatest Batman stories across media (Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight, The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Year One) there’s a big contradiction that gets ignored by a lot of people, which Grant Morrison beautifully exposed in The Return of Bruce Wayne, “The first truth of Batman… It had to be one I don’t like to admit… The saving grace. I was never alone. I had help” The orphan Bruce Wayne surrounded himself with a family and supporting cast of Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Barbara Gordon, Terry McGuiness, Nightwing, Ace the Bat Hound, Bat Cow, but Robin was the first. He’s the little brother he never had, and the “saving grace” of Bruce being able to recapture the childhood he lost after his parents died. It was after Robin came into the picture that over time we got the Batmobile, Alfred, the Bat Signal, and the ultimate kids’ clubhouse, the Batcave. 

There’s nothing sexually creepy when you look at the relationship if you at least have a spark of humanity. Bruce sees Dick as a fearless working class kid who is a laughing daredevil when gangsters point irons at him. Dick is the kid Bruce wish he could have been when Joe Chill came out of the shadows. And all Dick can do is look up to the coolest big brother a kid could have, knowing that if Bruce could survive the loss of family, then the Boy Wonder can as well. Batman and Robin save each.

One of biggest images that comes to mind when thinking about this issue is the panel of Batman and Dick raising their right hands and saying their solemn oath to fight against crime with a candle burning in the background. The light shines this angelic halo between these “lost boys” which can elevate them into modern patron saints of Zorro and Robin Hood.

  1. Batman #156 “Robin Dies at Dawn”

Besides the reprints stated above the comics of my childhood were all from the 80s or 90s. Towards the end of elementary school the comic shops in my town had disappeared and supermarkets and mall bookstores had long since stopped carrying them so I could only contend myself with what became dozens of well read, dog-eared books. It wasn’t until Batman Begins hit him in high school that I ventured back into comics. I’d noticed “graphic novel” sections appearing in bookstores in a couple years prior, but I wasn’t brave enough to linger around for fear of being labeled a geek. A few months after seeing the film twice in theaters, and after making sure the coast was clear I picked out Year One from the shelf and hurried off to the cash register. I went back in a couple of days for The Dark Knight Returns. Maybe a week later, I got Hush, Dark Victory, Arkham Asylum, or The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It doesn’t matter because I ended up getting them all. I went back in like a fish to water, but I kept it very secret. It was like I was buying drugs and then spending a lot more time in my room reading and rereading up until midnight, but I had a part time job so I didn’t have any guilt that goes along with asking for money. The time came when I had to have the harder stuff so I opened the phone book for comic shops.

Dated 1988, I plucked a bag and boarded The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told from a long box. I had no idea what I would be getting from a collection spanning about 50 years, but being a cheapskate I figured $7 for 343 pages was a killer bargain. Milestones galore! The first appearance of the Batarang and Batgyro, Batman revealing his identity to the man who murdered his parents, the Dynamic Duo in Tarzan gear pitted against Catwoman and her jungle cats, falling in love at first sight with 70s Neal Adams’ images of the perfect Batman; a shadow in the night with an athletically realistic proportioned body able to out kung fu Bruce Lee were just some of the artistic, and the tragic romance with Silver St. Cloud recognizing her love, Bruce Wayne, is dressed up as a bat and fighting the assassin Deadshot on a giant typewriter were just some of the wonderful stories I got to experience for the first time.

As you can imagine, pulling a favorite from that group isn’t easy, but the 1963 classic pushes so many of the right Bat buttons. First off, that has to be one of the best covers in comics’ history! With the red sun rising in the background and the tears coming down his face, this is not the start of a good day for Batman. “He sacrificed himself for me on this alien world!” Either this is Batman in space (big groan from fanboys) or Batman’s on another acid trip courtesy of some supervillain.

During the late 50s and early 60s Batman had plenty of sci-fi adventures, and when you read the first few pages you’re led into thinking this will be just another silly space romp, with no grim gritty action of Batman brooding over his inner pain. Well stick around until page 6 to see a falling boulder >choke< crush Robin to death!

After providing his fallen comrade with a stone mound tomb with a little more dignity than James T. Kirk got in Star Trek: Generations, Batman wanders the alien wasteland. Probably many hours later, since the caption emphasizes “Much Later”, a thirsty and guilt ridden Batman meets a native animal that looks like a cross between a rhino and alligator. “I don’t want to live! It’s my fault Robin died!” Then in the next panel you see Batman with a two day beard in an isolation chamber on his back and strapped to some monitoring gear. Robin, a doctor, and military officer rush in, but Batman isn’t Dorothy Gale. The military guy explains, “by volunteering for this test, you’ve made a great contribution to Space Medicine!” Holy Hallucinations! The doctor states, “One of man’s most primitive fears is loneliness!” Batman should be able to understand this more than most people since his WHOLE PURPOSE for being comes from being left behind after his parents got shot.

That night on patrol Batman is playing helicopter parent to Robin and still hallucinating seeing giant alien idols chucking boulders at his buddy so the gang in gorilla suits evades capture. This is Batman as the post traumatic soldier dealing with coming home from the horror of war, predating so many superhero comics from the 2000s.

Having nightmares of his experience in the chamber, Bruce wakes up everyone in the manor. PTSD is a little too heavy for Dick to deal with, but he earnestly offers to let Ace the Bat Hound sleep in Bruce’s room so he won’t feel so alone. Grayson is all heart. 

Don't escape! Embrace your past, Bruce!

After further hallucinations the following night, Bruce is forced to hang up the cowl and retire… up until Robin gets kidnapped by the gorilla gang and plan to kill him at dawn! “Batman is like a fury as he crashes underworld haunts!” Shades of Dirty Harry. In a great noir panel a self doubting Batman is on a rooftop, with most of his form in shadow. Recalling the gang’s getaway car hit a barrel of camphor flakes it is Ace the Bat-Hound to the rescue.

Arriving at the hideout Batman gets the drop on one of the goons and disguises himself in the gorilla suit to get near the deathtrap for Robin. Together with Ace, Batman is able to KO the gang and save the Boy Wonder while getting over the horrific side effects of Space Medicine. As he explains, “The reality of the situation was so terrible, it shocked me right back to normal!” or what passes for normal for Bruce. In victory the duo marches out into the day with their best canine pal with the sun rising behind them. The good guys won in this strange sci-fi urban western.

Nothing is irrelevant! Love that Bat Mite!
 After half a year buying trade paperbacks I made the leap to single issue comics. I had only eyes for Bat titles like All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, Detective Comics, and Batman. I had become an addict, but this snowbird flew on whatever I could consume. Baffled, confused, yet amused by All Star, I was less impressed with the then current return of Jason Todd, and the following One Year Later aftermath of Infinite Crisis. It wasn't until late in the summer of 2006 when the Scottish guy who wrote the terrifying Arkham Asylum began his seven and a half year run on the character, that I experienced Bat ecstasy. It took Grant Morrison for me to see how serious it was that Batman would volunteer to be in an isolation chamber, or that Bat Mite and the rest of the goofy elements of the 50s were to Bruce Wayne's life.

Join next time for Part 2's 3 and 4 from the 1990s.

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