Saturday, January 14, 2012

On the proliferation of new Batman 1989

Idly scrolling through the search results for "Batman" on my library's website one day, which links to a consortium of libraries all over the state of Ohio between which books are shared, I found an entry for Batman: Shaman, and ordered it.

"Shaman" was the inaugural arc of Legends of The Dark Knight, the 1989-launched third Batman book that began as a showcase for top-tier creative talents, writing standalone, novel-like story arcs at a time before the trade paperback market had really caught on. It was dedicated to telling stories set in the era of Batman history carved out by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli in their "Year One" arc, when a younger, lonelier Batman was still struggling as a hero, and his victories therefore never seemed quite as inevitable, and his huge supporting cast and rogues gallery hadn't yet emerged, let alone solidified and calcified.

It was written by then Batman group editor Denny O'Neil, and drawn by Ed Hannignan, with John Beatty inking. The striking covers, which I still recall from seeing in comics shops at the time and in house ads, were very simple, and featured George Pratt painting over Hannigan's pencils. They told a story in and of themselves; each of the five covers functioning as a panel in a comic strip of metaphors telling the same story as the interiors, only wordlessly.

I had never read it.

The book that arrived was an old one. The edges of its pages were yellowed, the pages creaked and threatened to crumble when they were turned, and someone had tore pages 19 and 20 out of the first of the five issues that provide the chapters for this graphic novel.

It was published in 1993, which was apparently still early enough that there are two versions of it—one with a DC bullet logo that would have been sold to comics shops, and one, like this one, that was published by Warner Books, and features their logo (I've run across copies of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns collections from Warner Books before, too).

Like a lot of DC's early graphic novels, this one features an introduction, in which the person writing it describes what makes the story within so special, essentially providing an argument for the contents' collection. This was, remember, when everything that comics publishers published in serial, comic book format would then be published in a trade paperback a few months later as a matter of course. So often there was a need to explain why these books were given a spine and sold in book stores, and Batman #433-447 was not.

In this instance, it was Legends of the Dark Knight assistant editor Kevin Dooley who was writing it. I would like to quote the introduction at length, because of how revealing it is about how much comics—Batman comics, DC comics and comics in general—have changed since 1989. And since 1993.

Wrote Dooley:

In a way it's kind of too bad that 1989 had to be the summer that a phenomenon called "Batman" had to hit the silver screen. Lovers of sequential art mush have heaved a collective and woeful sigh that the second wave of Batmania sweeping the country in a quarter of a century had to come once again from a medium other than comics. It is just a little unfair that all the hoopla, fervor and anticipation that so swept the huddled masses was centered around June 23 and not that now-forgotten day in august when Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight hit the stands.


This is not to say that the publicity for said movie didn't help sales of this title at its nativity...the sales of the first issue of Legends went through the roof. It's just that it shouldn't have been another media event that sparked this book being done, especially as fast as it was done, if for no other reason than that this book was that good and the creators involved were nothing short of great.

It takes a bit of reading between the lines here, but beyond the admirable suggestion that, "Gee, wouldn't it be nice if the whole country went bananas for Batman comics the way they did for that TV show and that movie...?", Dooley seems to imply that the idea to put out another, third Batman book by DC was something that came from outside of DC...or at least from very high up within DC, and was something that caught the people making the Batman comics off guard. Later on in the three-page intro, he mentions that they were all waiting to see how Batman did at the box office and how the public was reacting before it was finally decided to do another Batman book and, at that point, lead time was infinitesimal. Once they knew it was going to be a well-received hit, they decided "to jump on the already full bandwagon," as Dooley put it. "Then and only then did somebody say, 'Yes, putting out a new Batman monthly might be a fine idea.' And, as was always true in such cases as this—they wanted it now."

This is the part I found most fascinating:

Remembering DC's old offices at 666 Fifth Avenue, the close-quartered compartments and internal tumult about this project, it's very nearly a modern-day miracle that this puppy came out on time as it did. To let you in on a little of the inside poop, we at the office did wonder why Legends or any new regular Batman title wasn't prepared to ship on that 23rd day of June so touted on billboards and in magazine across America. What were we waiting for? Was there any doubt in anyone's mind that this picture would make box-office history? And even if there was some skittishness, what could be so bad about publishing a third monthly comic about one of DC's best-selling characters? To pie-in-the-sky speculate even further, if Legends had come out on its won without the lines around the block outside of every multiplex behind it, what harm would it have done? Better still, what good would it have done? After all, wasn't this acclaimed as the first "solo" Batman book in 49 years? But Legends was also the first Batman book to be sold exclusively in the ever-increasing number of comic book stores across the country. That in itself meant an almost guaranteed lock on market profitability.
This is a pretty pregnant moment in modern comic book market history, in which forces that would drive so much of the industry in the decades to follow were just emerging. There's the massively successful film tie-in. There's the acknowledgment of the shift from the spinner rack to the comic book store. The next sentences mention the collector's item nature of the covers—the first issue shipped with an extra cover over the Hannigan/Pratt covers, which came in four different colors, which drove some collectors and speculation (See below).And, of course, Dooley was writing this in one of DC's earlier graphic novels, which was published in 1993; Neil Gaiman's Sandman, which launched the same year as Legends was about half over, and the trade paperback market that has so driven comics readership and popularity in the 21st century was just beginning to blossom.

But what really fascinated me about that is the mention of the sheer significance attached to a new Batman comic at the time. Not only had DC not published a companion book to Detective Comics and Batman before then, but there seems to have been reluctance, even resistance to doing so.

Times have certainly changed, and DC wouldn't wait another 49 years before adding more Batman books.

With Legends, they had three books; two set in the modern DCU and chronicling the ongoing adventures of Batman, and a third set in and around "Batman: Year One."

They would only wait four years after Legends to add a fourth Batman solo book, Batman: Shadow of The Bat. That was also set in modern times, and the main thing that seemed to separate it from TEC and Batman was that it would be written by Alan Grant, the long-time Batman writer who seemed to be given the book in order to be able to continue writing Batman while DC found new writers for TEC and Batman. It was published until 2000, the last two years of which it sort of lost its individual identity and simply became another issue of Batman a month, as the books were then engrossed in one of a series of line-wide crossovers.

Batman Chronicles launched in 1995; it was an over-sized quarterly anthology series featuring short stories starring Batman and members of his cast. It lasted until 2001.

In 2000, DC launched Batman: Gotham Knights to replace Shadow of the Bat. That book had a slightly different remit than the other Bat-books in that it was focused somewhat more nebulously on Batman's relationships. It began as a book for writer Devin Grayson, who excelled in the characterization aspects of the Batman stories, and changed hands only twice more—from Grayson to Scott Beatty, and from Beatty to A.J. Lieberman—before its 2006 cancellation (which occurred after Lieberman shifted focus from Batman's allies to his villains, and included a long story starring the new-ish villain created by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee, Hush).

In 2007, DC launched Batman: Confidential as a sort of replacement to Legends, and it likewise featured story arcs by rotating creative teams; these were also divorced from the present DC Universe adventures of Batman, but in a more haphazard way; they weren't set in any particularly well-defined era. Some were set during easily identifiable eras in the past, but some functioned as Elseworlds/"Imaginary Story" types of arcs, so divorced from Batman comics were they. It lasted 54 issues, before being mercy-canceled in 2010.

In 2009, Grant Morrison launched new title Batman and Robin to continue the story he began in Batman. DC obviously didn't cancel Batman though, and when Morrison launched another new title, Batman Inc, to continue his Batman story into in 2011, they didn't cancel the Batman and Robin title created for him either.

And that same year DC launched Batman: The Dark Knight, a book created as a showcase for writer/artist David Finch.

Legends, Shadow of The Bat and Gotham Knights were all canceled at various points, as were Chronicles and Confidential, but DC no longer prunes their forest of Batman titles with much care, if at all.

Come spring, there will be five ongoing, monthly Batman "solo" books all set in the modern DCU—TEC, Batman, Batman and Robin, Batman: The Dark Knight and Batman Inc. And, it's worth noting, in the years since DC was fretting over whether or not to add a third monthly Batman book, the Batman brand was extended into ongoing monthlies for his many allies and enemies, so that the last two decades have seen multiple volumes of ongoing monthly titles like Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman, Batgirl, Azrael and the Birds of Prey. And now there's a Batwoman and Batwing, too. And this is to say nothing of miniseries and one-shots and original graphic novels and comics based on Batman cartoons or video games, these can double or triple the size of the Batman line in any given month.

Looking back from 2010, it's easy to wonder if the folks at the DC Comics of the late '80s were suckers for waiting so long to start rolling out new Batman books, and, if they knew how many Batman books the comics market would eventually support, if they themselves would have considered themselves suckers, and would have started cranking them out at the rate they are now back then. Or is there something to be said for waiting to get something just right before publishing it, even if the waiting takes four years? Or forty?

I don't know, really. I do know the first year of Legends comics, produced when the only other Batman comics were Batman and TEC, consisted of the aforementioned "Shaman," Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson's "Gothic" and the beginning of Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy's "Prey."

The final year of Legends was 2006, produced when there were too many Batman comics for even the most dedicated fan to keep up with, included stories written by Bruce Jones, Justin Gray, screenwriter-turned-comics writer Christos Gage, animation writer-turned-comics writer Adam Beechen and animation writer-turned-comics writer Matt Wayne, with art by Ariel Olivetti, Steve Cummings, Ron Wagner, Phil Winslade and Steve Scott. I can't tell you the names of any of their stories, let alone what they were about.

I didn't read them. Neither did most of you.


Nicholas Ahlhelm said...

In all fairness, up until the Batman film's release in 1989, Batman was still a struggling property in the comics outside of the Frank Miller written tales. From all accounts of the time, Batman sold all right while Tec barely moved. Alan Grant and John Wagner were given Detective at the end of the decade in a last ditch attempt to save DC's flagship book from cancellation.

Aki Alaraatikka said...

These days, there should only be two Batman-books. In my opinion.

Kevin said...

Oh my goodness, I remember picking up a copy of Batman: Confidential, from my local Jewel-Osco (convenience store), when I was in high school I think.

This is a really interesting look back, Caleb. Also, I think comiXology has the first issue of "Shaman" for free, so maybe you can read your missing pages from there =/.

Eyz said...

@Akilles: Exactly! I mean, at the end of the day, we know it's to sell some books, but DC's lineup could do with a bit less Batman titles around. They could still feature him on covers/crossovers/etc., but do they really need as many Bruce Wayne-focused books??

Simon (formerly Johnny Sorrow) said...

That last stretch of LotDK did feature at least one memorable story, "Snow" by JH Williams, fantastically illustrated by the late Seth Fisher.