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Watching as Batman takes wing

The Batman Chronicles Volume One Batman created by Bob Kane DC Comics: 190 pp., $14.99 paper Batman Year One, Deluxe Edition Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli with Richmond Lewis DC Comics: 144 pp., $19.99

June 12, 2005|Max Allan Collins | Max Allan Collins is a filmmaker and author of the award-winning Nathan Heller series of novels. His many credits include the graphic novel "Road to Perdition," "Dick Tracy," "Ms. Tree," "Batman" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

The gothic mood is heightened by more detailed inking, and stories are at times supernatural -- Batman kills a vampire with a silver bullet (not a wooden stake), while a monster climbs the Empire State Building, doing a King Kong impression. Wisecracks during fight scenes have now joined the Bat-format -- "Let's pretend I'm the ball and you're the bowling pins!" -- with the fights themselves better staged, panels expanding to accommodate the action.

The Chester Gould influence remains strong, with a character modeled on the faceless "Tracy" villain, the Blank, in Detective Comics No. 34. A far more important "Tracy" influence is the introduction of Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin the Boy-Wonder. If Batman is Dick Tracy in costumed-hero drag, then Robin is Tracy's adopted son, Junior, similarly attired. Much has been written about the introduction of Robin lowering the strip from its "serious" beginnings, but anyone reading the early stories knows that the audience being sought was a juvenile one, and a kid sidekick was a smart, commercial addition.

By the time spinoff comic book Batman No. 1 rolls around, Kane -- with help from assistants Sheldon Moldoff and Jerry Robinson (a teenager) -- has blossomed into an eccentric success. Key villain the Joker appears in two stories, and Catwoman makes her first appearance too. The post-Robin Batman remains tough, killing a bad guy with a machine gun: "Much as I hate to take a human life, I'm afraid this time it's necessary!"

"The Batman Chronicles" is wall-to-wall Bob Kane, but the young cartoonist would do increasingly little on his bylined feature, leaving the work to assistants and ghosts, preferring to draw a syndicated-strip version. Siegel and Shuster did the same, jumping ship for the respectable world of comic strips.

Comic books began as a second-class pop-culture citizen, and to this day retain a certain stigma. The notion that comics are juvenile allowed crackpot psychiatrists and McCarthyite censors to water down the entire comics medium in the early '50s, the industry adopting its own restrictive code. "Superman" and "Batman" endured through those years, having generated enough spinoffs to retain a pop-cultural foothold. When in the early '60s Marvel reinvented the juvenile superhero form for adolescent readers, DC also flourished, having already floated revamped versions of its '40s costumed heroes.

But it's unlikely that "Batman Begins" and the rest of the movie franchise would have had a chance without the "Batman" TV show. Reviled by most comic-book fans, the mid-'60s "Batman" series played off the Andy Warhol-driven Pop Art phenomenon in all its colorful POW! ZAP! glory, a live-action comic book that could be enjoyed straight by children, while teenagers and adults laughed at the campiness of Batman brought to long-john-wearing life. Yet the "Batman" TV series was faithful to its source, adapting stories from the comic book and using the major villains. Adam West played Batman in a deadpan manner -- only the context went for laughs.

Still, anyone who reads comic books doesn't need to be further made fun of, and the show itself seemed an insult to fans. So the "Batman" comic books that followed the TV series aimed at removing the camp as writer Denny O'Neil and illustrator Neal Adams depicted a frightening gothic Gotham City and a driven hero. But it was Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" in 1987 that created the modern, determinedly serious version that fueled Tim Burton's "Batman" in 1989 and the movies that followed.

Which brings us to "Batman: Year One." This reprint of four issues from 1987 will please many readers, and rightly so. The artwork by Mazzucchelli -- from the Milton Caniff school by way of Alex Toth ("Zorro") and Doug Wildey ("Jonny Quest") -- may be the best "Batman" has ever had. As for Miller, his characterization of Batman-Bruce Wayne is intelligent and convincing, and his ability to mount an action scene is second to none.

My problems with this latter-day Batman, specifically -- and the latter-day Batman character in general -- is a basic wrongheadedness in approach. Batman was created by kids for kids, a juvenile fantasy embraced by adolescents of all ages. Making a realistic, "adult" version is fundamentally foolish, even silly: Catwoman is a prostitute; Commissioner Gordon cheats on his pregnant wife. Miller's Gotham City is as angst-driven and unpleasant as his own Sin City. Further, his Mickey Spillane-influenced purple prose steps on his artist, intruding with overwrought introspection.

None of this prevents "Batman: Year One" from being an interesting, entertaining update, particularly if read quickly -- and not taken as seriously as Miller seems to. As for "The Batman Chronicles," I can only hope that new readers will see the childish, formative art and clumsy stories as a work in progress, and that they'll look forward to future volumes of "Chronicles," which will reprint the work of the best of Kane's ghosts, Dick Sprang, whose clean, glossy artwork of the 1950s brought the class of a syndicated strip to the bastard Bat-child. *

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