Saturday, September 03, 2011

I only talk about continuity because I care: Who came first, Robin or The Scarecrow?

The recurring Batman villain The Scarecrow, AKA evil psychologist Jonathan Crane, first appeared in a 13-page story entitled “Riddle of the Human Scarecrow” in 1941’s World’s Finest Comics #3.

As you can see from the wholesomely fun cover, Robin was already hanging out with Batman at this point in the Caped Crusasder’s crime-crushing career. The Dynamic Duo next fought Scarecrow in 1943’s Detective Comics #73 (pictured above).

After DC’s 1985-1986 Crisis On Infinite Earths shake-up, in which they gradually relaunched many of their books and overwrote many of their characters’ previous histories, partially or in whole (and, um, for the first time), Batman was given a new, updated origin story in the 1987 Batman story arc “Batman: Year One,” which established Batman as a lonely vigilante having at least a whole year of Robin-less adventures (1989 arc “Batman: Year Three” would establish that as the year that Batman finally took a partner).

In this new continuity, The Scarecrow’s first post-reboot appearance was in 1987’s Detective Comics #571 by Mike Barr, Alan Davis and Paul Neary, but a story specifically devoted to telling his origin wouldn’t come until 1993’s Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special #1 Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale.

Like all of the Legends of the The Dark Knight stories, that one was set during Batman’s first, Robin-less career, so now, apparently, The Scarecrow began his career in crime a few years before Robin began his career in crime-fighting.

Other “Year One” era Scarecrow stories included Loeb and Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween (a year-long story which included two Halloweens) and Batman: Dark Victory (another year-long story that included two more; along with Loeb and Sale’s two other Halloween specials, Batman’s first year or two of crime-fighting included seven Halloweens, but let’s not dwell on that, or we’ll go mad), plus a 2001 Legends of the Dark Knight story arc entitled “Terror” (By Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy and Jimmy Palmiotti)

And then in 1995, DC published “Year One”-branded annuals for all of their titles, featuring the origins of each of their headlining characters. Because Batman already had a “Year One” story, however (he had the original one, the one that brought the phrase into DC’s lexicon), the annuals devoted to the various Batman books each featured the origin of a different villain. Batman Annual # was devoted to re-retelling the origin of The Scarecrow and, once again, it was set during Batman’s first year, before he had taken Robin on as a partner.

Which, finally, brings me to the subject of this post—Awkwardly titled 2005 miniseries Year One: Batman Scarecrow which re-re-retells The Scarecrow’s origin story.Oddly, this was published a year before DC again rebooted certain aspects of its history (at the conclusion of Infinite Crisis, which again lead to some changes in the continuity of certain characters), so there was no real impetus to update fans or readers on The Scarecrow’s origins; if the 1993 and 1995 origin stories were being over-written by this one, it was simply because it was a newer one (The most likely impetus for the two-issue miniseries, however was the fact that 2005 was the year Batman Begins, which featured the film debut of The Scarecrow, was released, and so it seemed like a good time to publish a comic book with the words “Batman” and “Scarecrow” in the title).

As someone who read the previous Scarecrow origin stories, what struck me was that this one was that it opens with Batman and his first Robin trying to chase down The Scarecrow, who escapes them, and, a scene or two later, it becomes evident that this is there first encounter with the character.

So now rather than appearing during Batman’s first year, or at some point before Robin, The Scarecrow is now first appearing sometime after Batman’s third year, or at some point after Robin.

Is that a big deal?

Well not really, I suppose, but now that we’re in a golden age of reprints, it seems like a publisher with DC’s size library would take extra care to keep as much of their continuity/history as straight and consistent as possible, to keep evergreen collections like the Loeb/Sale Long Halloween, Dark Victory and even Haunted Knight (which collects their first three Halloween specials) as relevant as possible. From the publisher’s perspective, you don’t want to have people choosing between buying a collection of Long Halloween and Year One: Batman Scarecrow instead of buying them both, right?

The new-er Year One story by writer Bruce Jones and artist Sean Murphy, is a pretty good one. I enjoyed it a heck of a lot and, despite my affection for those earlier Scarecrow origin stories (particularly on the visual side of them), I have to confess this is an all-around superior comic book story.

And it’s easy to see why Jones opted to move Scarecrow’s debut back along Batman’s loose timeline to a point sometime after Robin’s debut—Robin gives Batman someone to talk to throughout the story (roles filled by Alfred and James Gordon in the other, earlier origin stories), and is a more lighthearted character who can crack jokes and define Batman’s mood or state of mind by simple comparison.

Plus, if communicating to the reader that Batman seems to be blaming himself for something by having Robin say, “Hey, don’t blame yourself, Batman,” seems a little inelegant and obvious a writing technique, it’s still more subtle than Batman thought-clouding “I blame myself,” you know?

Batman and Robin’s relationship and banter was easily the best part of the story, and it would have been a much, much weaker one if Robin were removed simply to keep the story more consistent with a couple of other Scarecrow origin stories from the previous decade.

Personally, it didn’t really bug me that much, perhaps because it turned out to be a great comic, and if a comic is great, it’s easy to forgive little things—it’s when a comic is terrible that the little problems seem magnified, as its lack of quality calls it’s very existence to question. For example, if this Scarecrow origin story was awful, then it wouldn’t even have the excuse of being a good comic to explain why DC bothered publishing a third, contradictory version of a story they’ve already told and re-told, you know?

What is exceptionally strange about this story, however, is the way in which it was collected, and it was a collected version of it borrowed form a library that I read a few weeks ago.The 2009 trade Batman: Two-Face and Scarecrow Year One collects both the Scarecrow story and the 2008 two-issue miniseries Two-Face: Year One by Mark Sable, Jesus Saiz and Jimmy Palmiotti.

I didn’t much care for this one at all, in addition to it being extremely redundant (If Loeb and Sale devoted a single one-shot special to telling the Scarecrow’s origin, they spent over a year and 13-issues telling Two-Face’s in Long Halloween; additionally, Two-Face has probably the most often told and re-told origin of any of Batman’s rogues gallery), it’s simply not very good, the story being mostly mediocre and the art extremely pedestrian for a villain-focused Batman story (Saiz is a decent story-teller, but he lacks the expressionistic style to really sell either Batman or his colorful foes).

What’s most strange about the pairing of the two stories, however, is that while Jones and Murphy’s is completely unconcerned with past Batman stories, over-writing—or at least ignoring so as to exist completely apart from—some of the most widely-read and critically acclaimed Batman comics of the past few decades, Sable and Saiz’s story is set within some of those exact same stories.

Like a weird Russian doll of a story, Two-Face: Year One takes place during Long Halloween, which told the story of how Harvey Dent went from being a crusading district attorney and ally of Batman and Jim Gordon to being an insane serial killer and one of his former friends’ worst enemies (as well of telling the story of how Gotham City crime transitioned from standard mob-run organized crime into a colorful underworld of freaks and out-sized “performing” criminals). And Long Halloween was itself set during “Batman: Year One.”

The first half of this collection ignores Batman continuity, then, the second half exists as an exercise in trying to fill any available space left in Batman continuity with more continuity.

And, as if to drive home the point that these two stories don’t compliment one another at all, the second one is, as I said, set during Batman’s first year and long before he’s working with Robin. However, The Scarecrow appears repeatedly in a minor role in it. He’s part of Two-Face’s gang, as he was in Dark Victory, and is here shown phone-banking for Two-Face’s campaign for district attorney and, later, serving on a jury Two-Face assembles to prosecute an enemy. If someone were to pick up this book, looking to learn the origin of the character Scarecrow, as a book entitled Batman: Two-Face and Scarecrow Year One seems to promise, they would find an engaging, well-drawn origin of the Scarecrow, followed by a story followed immediately by a story that contradicts at least one major element of it, whether Scarecrow was around before or after Robin was around.

I think that's kind of weird.

5 comments:

Nick McNerderson said...

DC is in desperate need of a content editor, which is every geeks dream job. The latest reboot reeks of incompetence in the area of continuity, but apparently this is not new.

The Lassiter said...

I am tired of the too frequent reboots. The reboots are squeezing out original ideas and stories. It just has a lazy feel to it.

When I was a kid in the 70s I read the big black & white reprint books. They covered the stories from late 1930s on up. I wasn't confused by Superman in 1938. I had enough information for my 10 years old brain to get it. And that was without an internet crutch.
Nobody needed to explain why Batman wasn't an old man in the mid 1970s. Charlie Brown didn't age, so why would Batman?
No need for reboots or explanations Just keep moving forward, we get it. The same thing for precrisis parallel worlds. We weren't confused.
Just tell the damn stories and stop fiddling with things.

Oops, there goes my frustration level. Must stop now.

Thanks for a great Blog, Im a regular visitor.

jheaton said...

Hoo boy, I couldn't disagree more with Nick. Continuity is fun, and important within the context of a single story or series of stories, but in a shared universe created over a long period of time by multiple creator working to different ends, I think it becomes more trouble than it's worth.

A continuity editor would be important if DC's overriding concern was the creation of a universe in which their stories can take place, such as in the Degrassi franchise. In a situation like that, the setting is the most important thing; new characters are brought in and old ones written out regularly. But of course that's not what DC wants to do; their main concern is the perpetuation of the characters. That necessitates a certain elasticity with regard to setting. They have room to make certain changes at the margins, but the core has to exist in a sort of stasis, and periodically you just have to start over.

And honestly, as far as a mass audience is concerned, that's just fine. The Adventures of Superman and Superman: The Movie and Superman: The Animated Series and Lois & Clark and Smallville are all independent of one another, and their lack of interconnection hasn't kept any of them from becoming quite successful. See also the two very different versions of Sherlock Holmes that are currently in production.

Akilles said...

Argh!!!!!! Too much continuity! My only weakness!

Caleb said...

A continuity editor would be important if DC's overriding concern was the creation of a universe in which their stories can take place, such as in the Degrassi franchise. In a situation like that, the setting is the most important thing; new characters are brought in and old ones written out regularly. But of course that's not what DC wants to do; their main concern is the perpetuation of the characters.

I don't know. I think, to a certain extent, DC is intent on creating and maintaining a shared universe/setting, which is why they maintain the DCU at all (and spend so much time---way TOO much time, really) fiddling with continuity and labeling things "Elseworlds" or "Imaginary Stories" and so on.

But they're ALSO trying to keep the characters in that universe more or less perpetually.

So what they need to do is create a very, very flexible universe, one that is consistent in terms of what happens when in relation to other events, but not set in time (Like, Harvey Dent became Two-Face after Batman was around but before Robin was, instead of Harvey Dent became Two-Face in 1945 or whatever).

The sliding timeline approach seems to work okay to me, and if every 15 years of real world time adds a year or two to DC time, that's fine. I can live with Batman being 41 instead of 28.

DC has, of late, developed a real problem in which they seem to want to base a lot of their storytelling choices on very deep, very specific continuity, but they also go ahead and get a whole bunch of stuff wrong, giving the world a worst of both situation--continuity references to alienate those not steeped in it, and continuity errors to alienate those who are.

One good thing about the reboot, I guess, is it should take them a few years before they start making continuity errors again (The main weird thing now is what they decided to keep and what they decided to ditch; it seems a total clean slate would be easier on everyone, creator and reader alike, but they're trying to thread a needle with the reboot, I suppose).