Sunday, December 01, 2013

Review: Batman Beyond: 10,000 Clowns

Or, "Norm Breyfogle hasn't gotten any less good at drawing awesome Batman comics in the last 20 years or so."

As I recall, the 1999-2001 Batman Beyond cartoon show came about because Warner Bros executive types told the guys who were making the Batman: The Animated series that they wanted to follow it up with a cartoon featuring a new, teenage Batman in the future, and the animators universally hated the idea—but decided to do the show anyway, for fear of someone else doing it and turning it into something as bad as they feared.

And as I've probably prefaced everything I write about one of the spin-off comics with, it wasn't really my thing. I wasn't watching TV during those years, and, when I eventually saw some episodes on Cartoon Network a few years later, I wasn't terribly impressed, although the main character design was a nice, radical departure, and it was admirable how far the producers went in trying to not simply future-ize everything about Batman (Like, he didn't have a robot butler named Alfred 3000, or patrol Gotham Galaxy in the Bat-ship or whatever).

Basically set one generation in the future, during a time in which Bruce Wayne, who seems to be in his 70s or 80s instead of in his 20s or 30s, is so old and injured he's been forced to retire from crime-fighting. Barbara Gordon, a gray-haired old lady, succeeded her father as Commissioner Gordon, but other than that, few of the old Gotham cast seems to be around (Dick Grayson and Tim Drake both appear in this particular story, though).
The new Batman is Terry McGinnis, a teenager who loses his father in a violent crime, and Old Man Wayne gives him a fancy new flying Batman suit and coaches him in the fine art of being Batman.

That's all well and good, I guess. The thing that left me cold about the series was its extremely generic vision of the future, which is, here, a very near future, and yet is at once one that is radically unlikely to transpire in so short a period of time and the very same vision of the future that we've seen in pop culture since, I don't know, the 1940s, maybe...?

Gotham is now Neo-Gotham, a city of huge skyscrapers and various "levels" stacked atop one another. There are flying cars, the fashion is built around goofy neck-lines, the lenses of eyeglasses no longer have frames (apparently, surgery and contact lenses didn't replace eyeglasses), computers project floating holographic monitors, slang is dumb and while our hero doesn't have a jet-pack, per se, he does have jet-boots, which is close enough for horseshoes.

It's all a little...Jetsons, really.

Now, if you've already read Batman Beyond: 10,000 Clowns, or any of DC's more recent Batman Beyond comics, which they published first digitally, then as comic book-comics and then as trade paperbacks, you probably already know all this and are wondering why I'm wasting your time with this tiresome Batman Beyond 101 nonsense.

The answer is that I'm not really writing this post for you; I'm writing it for anyone who doesn't really know or care anything at all about Batman Beyond, but might want to check this one out because either A) Its drawn by Norm Breyfogle, an incredible artist whose 1987-1993 run on various Batman comics cemented his reputation as one of the Dark Knight's definitive delineators (His artwork was my gateway into Batman comics and, through them, superhero comics in general, and he remains my personal favorite Batman artist of all time...edging out even the great Kelley Jones, whose Batman run was phenomenal and still makes me freak out a little whenever I reread any of it, or see his more recent Batman work), or B) It is a pretty awesome superhero comic with great art.

The stories collected in this trade are pulled from 13 issues of Batman Beyond Unlimited, and they're all written by Adam Beechen and drawn by Breyfogle, the artist here making his long-awaited return to the character after the 2011 flirtation of DC Retroactive: Batman—The '90s #1, his art here colored by Andrew Elder. DC, being DC, naturally doesn't put the interior artist's work on the cover; that's a piece by Dustin Nguyen, the cover artist for this volume of Batman Beyond.

They all hold together remarkably well, and read as a single narrative meant to be read as one, big, epic story, although there are a few mini-arcs within the story of "10,000 Clowns," and at least one sub-plot that is introduced in these pages without being resolved before the end of the book (Terry's friend gets recruited into an underground group of computer hackers, which she hopes to infiltrate for the Batmen).

In this near-future, the (presumably late) Joker has become a sort of inspirational, counter-culture hero to young criminals, something akin to a killer clown version of Che Guevara. Every city apparently has its own chapter of a Jokers, and Breyfogle and Beechen give each of these chapters their own distinct, evil clown look (one gang look like a cross between circus strongmen and clowns, another are dapper British dandy clowns, another are done up like punk rock clowns, etc).
They are all gradually convening in Gotham City, and Batman finds himself dealing with them at various crime scenes, but the full extent of the plan doesn't become clear until about half-way through the book, at which point the gangs organize into a sort of Joker super-army, under the leadership of a new character calling himself King Joker who, through mind-control chemicals, has turned the Jokers into an army of terrorists suicide bombing Neo-Gotham. In an unlikely comic book coincidence, this King Joker happens to be the long-lost, black sheep-of-the-family older brother of Terry's estranged ex-girlfriend, Dana.

As the threat mounts, Bruce Wayne is taken out of the game by a failing liver, and he finds himself stuck on his deathbed in the hospital (although he does manage to kick a little ass even there).
And the current Batman finds himself with a bunch of allies, some of whom are rather reluctant to be his allies. These include the new Catwoman (Or do I have to call her "Catwoman Beyond"...?), who can apparently split into nine different bodies simultaneously; Grayson, who in the future will look like Marvel's Nick Fury (with a great butt); Tim Drake, a paunchy, married man who for some reason unknown to me wants nothing to do with Batman anymore (According to the Internet, I think I have to watch Batman Beyond: The Return of The Joker for answers); and, finally, a new version of Vigilante, this one having a secret identity—given as the surprise ending of a solo story interlude—that connects him to both Wayne and McGinnis in ways neither would likely appreciate.
Things end happily...ish. Sure, hundreds die all over the city, but no on with a name, and all the main characters make it out relatively unscathed (Bruce Wayne's health is still up in the air at the point the book ends, but I have a feeling he'll pull through okay, as he was in the first issue of the re-launched version of this book).

Still, there's quite a bit of drama in the final battle between Batman and his allies and King Joker, in large part because this Batman is, rocket boots or no, still a less-skilled teenager compared to the invincible super-Bat of the regular Batman comics and, in larger part, because this is an out-of-continuity, possible future, alternate Batman story, so if, say, Dick Grayson were to fall in battle, well, it would be a surprise, but it's not like this Grayson's carrying a monthly book like the "real" Dick Grayson in the DCU/New 52 line is, you know?

As for Breyfogle's artwork, I was thrilled to see that my appreciation for it wasn't simply colored by nostalgia for the time in which I was reading those first Batman comics I read. He remains really great. He's killer when it comes to action scenes, whether something relatively simple as drawing (almost) the same panel twice with a variation to show how fast an action occurred, or how it occurred mechanically...
...or the thin, angular, all-muscle figure of the cape-less Batman in action, sometimes flying, leaping or jumping heroically about, and sometimes being flung around by his opponents.
It was interesting to see Breyfogle drawing a Batman that wasn't his Batman, as there are quite a few scenes where McGinnis makes faces like those of the old Batman that Breyfogle used to draw (generally when his face is in shadow, and all you see are white eyes and white teeth emoting), or when his legs fade into action lines, as when he's kicking or jumping, but there are also quite a few scenes where McGinnis makes faces Breyfogle's Batman never did: Smirking, smiling, laughing, joking.

That's one pleasure to this Batman, I suppose. While he gets dark and vengeful, his attitude is more akin to that of Nightwing or Robin or even Spider-Man. He's young, he has a sense of humor, and sometimes fighting crime seems like something he enjoys doing. It can be unusual to see a Batman quipping, hectoring his opponents—I think maybe Bob Haney wrote the last Batman I read who actually, actively ribbed his foes while beating them up—but that's a key to making successful corporate superhero comics, giving readers the same thing, but different, which is a lot harder than it sounds and, often, looks.

Another interesting thing about having a guy who used to draw Batman for a really long time return to drawing Batman? Breyfogle already had his Bruce Wayne down, so his variation on the character rings truer. That is, he's better able to draw an old man Bruce Wayne because he had so long ago mastered young man Bruce Wayne, so it was neat seeing how he aged the character with weight and wrinkles, and yet managed to keep his expressions the same.

Finally, I think Breyfogle's time drawing the teenagers of Riverdale for Archie Comics these past few years informed this work rather positively. While his teenage characters never quite look like the Bruce Timm-style designs from the cartoon this series is named after, they do look younger, more teenage, more cartoony—slightly smoother, slightly bigger eyes, a greater range of emotional expressions than I recall from Breyfogle's early '90s Batman work (where Tim Drake and Lonnie Manchin were like the only two teenagers). Max, Dana and the two Dee Dees look a bit like Dan DeCarlo girls filtered through Breyfogle's art, aimed in the direction of Timm designs.

If you've been reading EDILW for very long, then you know how hard I am to please. But this? This pleased me quite a bit.


Robert Jazo said...

If you do end up watching 'Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker', I would recommend the uncut version. Because the movie was released shortly after Columbine, WB got a bit nervous and re-edited several key scenes. I feel the changes weakened the story a bit, and it is not like the original was half as violent as modern DC comics.

Robert Jazo said...

Incidentally, 'Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker' contains a flashback story in the classic Batman Animated style that features Bruce, Tim Drake, Batgirl, Joker, and Harley Quinn. It was funny how instantly nostalgic I got when that flashback started.

garik16 said...

You're right by the way....As Chris Sims has pointed out before, Batman Beyond was really just a fusion of Batman and Spider-Man.

Which actually works really well (see Return of the Joker). I wish the comic wasn't a dead end - it was a fun universe and an original character, something DC (and Marvel) generally cares little for.