Harlan Ellison gets his kicks on Batman ’66

I sometimes feel rather ambivalent about the Batman television series that ran from 1966 to 1968.  Along with the Super Friends cartoons, when I was a kid it provided my first exposure to many of the characters in the DC Comics universe.  I enjoyed watching reruns of the show when I was growing up in the early 1980s.

A decade later, when I was a teenager, I had a rather different view of show.  By that time, I was reading the actual Batman comic books, along with many other titles.  And it drove me nuts that people would often assume that I was immature for reading comics, that they were nothing but silly, campy stories meant for kids… i.e. exactly like the old TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Along with many other comic book readers, I would protest that comic books could be serious and adult.  I’d wave around my copies of Batman: Year One and Watchmen to demonstrate that comics were intelligent and deep, not at all like that old TV show.  This persisted for years.

And then one day I looked around and realized that everything had turned 180 degrees on me: comic books were too damn serious!  Everyone was trying to mimic Frank Miller and Alan Moore, churning out grim & gritty nonsense, reiterating for the zillionth time the now utterly trite question “What if super-heroes existed in the real world?”  At that point I threw up my hands in frustration and actually started asking “Why can’t comic books be fun again?!?”

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 8

It seems that I’m not the only one to have realized that the pendulum had swung much too far in the opposite direction, taking us from campy to clinically depressing.  I think this is a significant factor in explaining the huge success of the Batman ’66 comic book.  Written by Jeff Parker, with interiors by a number of artists and covers by Mike Allred, Batman ’66 is set in the television series continuity.  This brings us to Batman ’66: The Lost Episode, plotted by Harlan Ellison, scripted by Len Wein, penciled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and inked by Joe Prado, with a cover by Alex Ross.

Back in the mid-1960s when the first season of the Batman television show was in pre-production, prolific science fiction author Harlan Ellison was invited to write an episode.  He submitted a synopsis entitled “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face,” which would have brought the duality-obsessed Harvey Dent into the TV show.  For one reason or another, the episode was never made.  The synopsis then spent the next several decades in Ellison’s files.  Finally Ellison dug it out, dusted it off, and included it in Brain Movies: The Original Teleplays of Harlan Ellison Volume 5, published in 2013.  Then, as recounted by Len Wein, Ellison got in touch with DC Comics to suggest the use of his synopsis for the Batman ’66 book.  That got the ball rolling, eventually leading to The Lost Episode special.

Len Wein is probably best known for co-creating Wolverine and Swamp Thing, but he has many credits to his name, including a number of Batman stories that were published in the 1970s and 80s.  He’s also a longtime friend of Ellison, which made him the ideal choice to adapt the synopsis into a full-length comic book script.

It is interesting to compare Wein’s script to the original treatment by Ellison, which is included in The Lost Episode.  Ellison obviously conceived the major points of the plot, which Wein fleshed out.  Wein also added certain details.  Ellison’s synopsis has Two-Face working alone.  In keeping with the character’s double motif, Wein gave Two-Face a pair of henchmen named Deuce and Twain.  Not only does it suit the character, but it also fits with the TV series.  As I recall, every single bad guy on the show had at least a few henchmen on hand to do the heavy lifting and run interference when Batman and Robin inevitably crashed their criminal capers.

I do think there was at least one point that worked better in Ellison’s original outline.  But on the whole Wein does a very good job translating Ellison’s synopsis into a 30 page comic book script.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 15

Wein did a superb job of capturing the tone of the television show’s scripts.  Reading “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face,” I really could “hear” in my head Adam West and Burt Ward speaking Batman and Robin’s dialogue.  Wein also utilized television producer William Dozier’s omniscient voiceover narration, including the obligatory mention of “stately Wayne Manor.”  And there was a healthy heaping of animated alliteration from our compelling cast of characters.

The only thing that was missing was the cliffhanger!  As I was reading, I kept expecting that any minute Two-Face and his goons would gain the upper hand on the Dynamic Duo, and that the next instant Batman and Robin would then find themselves about to meet a gristly end in the jaws of some overly-complicated deathtrap.  That was always how the first episode ended!  I’m guessing that Ellison must have composed his story synopsis before the two-episode structure with its requisite cliffhanger was established.

Penciling “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face” is the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  Now this was when my interest in this project was really piqued.  As I’ve written before, I am a huge fan of Garcia-Lopez.  He is an absolutely amazing artist.  Regrettably it has been quite some time since he has worked on any significant projects for DC, focusing instead on licensing art and style guides.  Most of the published work he’s done recently has been variant covers, and those editions were inevitably rare & expensive.  I recently found out he contributed on a couple of issues of All-Star Western which flew under my radar, so I have to search them out.  So the promise of a brand-new, full-length story penciled by Garcia-Lopez was definitely enticing.

I am not especially familiar with Joe Prado, although I know he’s done quite a bit of work for DC over the last several years.  He has a very modern, slick inking style.  Prado utilizes quite a bit of hatching in his embellishment.  This makes for a distinctive collaboration with Garcia-Lopez, whose style is definitely more traditional.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 37

Perhaps it was done to pad out the size of the book, but The Lost Episode also contains all 30 pages of Garcia-Lopez’s uninked pencils.  While perhaps not an essential element, I certainly regard this as a unique opportunity.  In my blog post Thinking About Inking: The Role of Comic Book Inkers, one of my major points was that it is often difficult for the casual reader to look at a published comic book and discern what the work of the penciler is and what that of the inker is.  The Lost Episode provides us with the chance to view the pencils side-by-side with the inked artwork, enabling us to understand what Garcia-Lopez and Prado each contributed.  It also allows us to see how much of a role the excellent coloring by Alex Sinclair played in establishing the tone and atmosphere of the story.

Garcia-Lopez did illustrate a variant cover for The Lost Episode, although that edition was, inevitably, rarer and more expensive.  At least his uninked pencils for that alternate cover are published inside.

The standard cover is painted by Alex Ross.  I’ve observed in the past that, while Ross is an amazing artist, when it comes to rendering costumed characters sometimes his paintings are a bit too realistic.  If the Batman television series demonstrated one thing, it is that in real life people can end up looking rather preposterous when dressed up in spandex outfits (the exception, of course, being Julie Newmar, who always looked purrfect as Catwoman).  There are times when Ross has created paintings of superheroes that are so photorealistic that it just takes me out of my suspension of disbelief because I feel like I am looking at an actual person wearing a silly costume.  I guess this relates to the whole idea of how a lot of the elements that look fantastic on the pages of comic books end up appearing silly when translated too literally into three-dimensional reality.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode cover

Having said all that, Ross is the ideal artist to be creating covers for Batman ’66.  In this case, since this is a comic book based on a television series (which, yes, in turn was based on a comic book) photorealism is the name of the game.  He definitely captures the likenesses and body language of Adam West and Burt Ward, something he has also done successfully on his recent covers for the Batman ’66 Meets the Green Hornet miniseries.  Ross’ conception of Two-Face is both horrific and tragic, a portrait of brooding, melancholy madness that is obsessively fixated on the duality in life.  He even frames the composition in an off-kilter angle, evoking the tilted “Dutch angle” camera shots the television show utilized for scenes set in the villains’ lairs.  All told, his cover is extremely striking and dramatic.

I do think the ten dollar cover price for Batman ’66: The Lost Episode was a little too high.  Still, all in all, it was a very good book and I am glad I purchased it.

In hindsight, yeah, the Batman television series was pretty cool.  I’m glad that all of the rights issues were finally worked out, enabling it to at last be released on DVD.  And I’m also happy that we have the Batman ’66 comic book series.  It definitely makes for a nice change of pace from the oppressively grim pall of the New 52 Bat-books.

Now if only DC Comics would give Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez an ongoing book to illustrate.  How about a miniseries at the very least?  Come on, DC, just think about it!

Comic book reviews: Sensation Comics #1

The past week was insane.  I’ve been dealing with personal stuff and not getting enough sleep.  So naturally enough I didn’t have a chance to blog about various items that I wanted to.  Well, here’s a three day weekend, so let’s see what I get around to covering.  First up is Sensation Comics #1, featuring Wonder Woman.

While I would not say that I am a huge fan of Wonder Woman, she is a character who I like, and whose monthly title I have followed on and off throughout the years.  That and I have all three DVD box sets of the television show starring Lynda Carter (I eventually got Michele incredibly annoyed at having to listen to that opening theme song over and over again).  When it was announced that DC Comics would be publishing a Wonder Woman anthology series with work by a number talented creators I was naturally intrigued.

A bit of reference: after making her debut in All Star Comics #8, cover-dated December 1941, Wonder Woman received an ongoing starring role in Sensation Comics #1, which came out the very next month.  Wonder Woman was featured in Sensation Comics for nearly its entire run.  Her final appearance was in issue #106, dated Nov-Dec 1951, with the series ending three issues later (credit goes to the Grand Comics Database for that info).  Wonder Woman also received her own solo series in mid-1942, which meant that for nearly a decade the character had two regular titles.

I could be wrong (and if I am then I am certain someone will let me know) but I believe that with this new Sensation Comics book it is the first time since 1951 that Wonder Woman will be starring in two ongoing titles.  That is pretty darn cool!

Sensation Comics 1 cover

Sensation Comics is one of DC’s “digital first” books, which means that the material is offered for sale online before it appears in print.  I guess I’m a bit of a Luddite since I prefer having a comic book in hand, rather than reading it from a computer screen, so I’ve decided to wait for the material to hit the comic shops.  But that’s just me, and Tim Hanley, author of the excellent Wonder Woman blog Straightened Circumstances, is going the online route.

This first print issue of Sensation Comics was pretty good.  The main story is “Gothamazon,” penned by former Wonder Woman writer Gail Simone and illustrated by the talented Ethan Van Sciver, with Marcelo Di Chiara pitching in to help out on a page.

After the various costumed criminals of Gotham City team up and ambush Batman, temporarily putting him out of action.  Barbara Gordon aka Oracle calls Wonder Woman in to pinch hit as Gotham’s protector to restore peace & order.

It was nice to have Simone back writing Wonder Woman, as well as Oracle, the latter of whom she always did a superb job scripting in Birds of Prey.  By thrusting Wonder Woman into the urban warfare of Gotham, the writer examines the various, sometimes conflicting, aspects of Princess Diana.  On the one hand, she is a warrior, a soldier who has fought on myriad battlefields, who will countenance tactics and solutions that other crime-fighters such as Batman would never approve.  On the other, Diana is also a force for love and peace, who hopes to find the best in all individuals.  Simone demonstrates that while such qualities may appear contradictory, in fact they complement one another.  Faced with the absolute ruthless insanity of such adversaries as the Joker and Two-Face, she comes to realize that facing them head on would require fighting them with their own methods, the utilization of lethal force.  But because of her nature, Diana is able to perceive an alternate path.  She recognizes that when brute strength fails, understanding and compassion may succeed.

Simone’s story highlights how Wonder Woman and Batman are such different individuals.  The Dark Knight’s rigid methodology of fighting fear with fear may work in the short term, but Diana, who is more interested in finding permanent, constructive solutions, perceives that openness towards alternative approaches can be more helpful in enacting lasting changes.  We even have Diana recruiting Catwoman and Harley Quinn as honorary Amazons to assist her in this mission.  It was fun to see the three of them side by side.

That said, sometimes punching the bad guy in the face does work wonders.  As Simone writes, “the closed fist has its charms, as well.”

Van Sciver’s art was quite good.  It was definitely stronger on the first several pages of “Gothamazon.”  In the middle of the story it did get somewhat looser and sketchier, losing some of the artist’s trademark hyper-detail.  Perhaps there were some deadline problems?  Still, putting that aside, on the whole Van Sciver does solid work, rendering some really dynamic layouts.  His characters are very expressive, both in their facial features and body language.

Sensation Comics 1 pg 14

I was not nearly as impressed with the back-up tale, “Defender of Truth,” written by Amanda Deibert, with artwork by Cat Staggs.  At ten pages, this one seemed too rushed.  Diana has a fight with Circe, who is doing something in Washington DC.  It is never explained what the mythical sorceress is up to, just that for some reason or another she’s animating statues at the National Cathedral and turning men into animals.

The strongest part of the story was its final two pages, where Diana shows up to tell a group of young boys that there is nothing wrong with liking “girl stuff.”  As she explains, “Being true to yourself is never wrong.”  One of the character’s central themes has always been empowerment, be it female empowerment, individual empowerment, or any other struggle to break free of marginalization by the greater part of society.

Cat Staggs is an artist I know from her cover artwork, as well as from Comic Art Fans where a variety of beautiful commissions and convention sketches that she’s created have been posted.  This must be the first time I’ve seen any interior art done by her.  Her work on “Defender of Truth” is pretty good, but I do think that her storytelling might need some improvement.  And some of her figures appear too photo-referenced.

Staggs’ best work was, interestingly enough, on those final two pages.  You can really tell that an artist is good at sequential illustration when they are able to make a “talking heads” scene, with characters conversing, compelling and dramatic.

I was also wondering why her rendition of Circe looked nothing like the character has in the past.  The sorceress has typically been depicted as having purple hair and wearing green outfits, at least ever since Perez revamped her post-Crisis.  Here, however, Circe is a blonde clad in a lavender costume.  That might be down to the colorist rather than Staggs, though.  And I don’t recall the character previously using a magic wand.

Sensation Comics 1 pg 30

While I would certainly not consider it an unqualified success, I still enjoyed Sensation Comics #1.  I definitely like the idea of a Wonder Woman anthology series with a laissez faire approach to continuity.  There is a lot of potential to the character of Princess Diana.  She is a great character with a rich history, and she lends herself to different interpretations & incarnations.  Among the creators who will be working on upcoming issues are Chris Sprouse, Gilbert Hernandez, and Dean Haspiel.  It sounds like there’s plenty to look forward to.

Comic book reviews: The Judas Coin, by Walter Simonson

The new graphic novel The Judas Coin, written & drawn by Walter Simonson, published by DC Comics, is a collection of six interconnected short stories.  The linking thread is a cursed Roman coin, one of the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid to betray Jesus.  Over a two thousand year period, this silver coin traverses the globe, bringing with it murder, treachery, and general ill-fortune to anyone unlucky enough to come into its possession.

Simonson selects an interesting assortment of characters to feature in his stories, many of them rather obscure: The Golden Gladiator (73 AD), The Viking Prince (1000 AD), Captain Fear (1720 AD), Bat Lash (1881 AD), Two-Face & Batman (The Present), and Manhunter 2070 (2087 AD).  I had at least a passing knowledge of most of these.  After all, everyone knows Batman and Two-Face!  I knew of The Viking Prince and Bat Lash as having been illustrated in the past by Joe Kubert and Nick Cardy, respectively.  Captain Fear, coincidentally, is a character I came across a few months ago when buying back issues of The Unknown Soldier, a couple of which featured the swashbuckling pirate as the back-up feature drawn by a young Walter Simonson himself.  The only two I was totally in the dark about were the Golden Gladiator and the future Manhunter.  But Simonson does a good job making each story in The Judas Coin accessible, providing enough information that one could be completely unfamiliar with all of these individuals and still enjoy the book.

The Judas Coin, by Walter Simonson
The Judas Coin, by Walter Simonson

With each segment, Simonson chose to experiment with his art style & storytelling.  For example, on the Golden Gladiator tale, he was influenced greatly by both Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster and the Dell Comics adaptation of the film Helen of Troy drawn by John Buscema.  The Two-Face & Batman tale is done in a newspaper comic strip style, black & white, with the page layout turned vertically.  Here, Simonson drew inspiration from the work of Yaroslav Horak, the artist who drew the James Bond newspaper strip in the late 1960s and 70s.  I actually knew of Horak’s work beforehand, as Titan Books collected the entire run of the strip in a series of trade paperbacks several years ago, and I own one of those.  On the Manhunter story, we see Simonson attempting to do a Manga-esque version of his work.  It is a bizarre jumble of styles, I have to say, and I would not want to see him draw like that all the time, but it makes for an interesting experiment.

The stories range from the whimsical to the truly dark.  One quality of Simonson’s writing I have always appreciated is that he can tell very serious stories yet successfully imbue them with a sense of humor.  That’s certainly true of The Judas Coin.  I was especially struck by the tone of the Manhunter 2070 segment, which begins as a rather wacky space opera, full of rocket ships, sexy girls and space pirates, but gradually veers into darker territory, ending on a very somber, introspective note.  It is an effectively moody conclusion for a blood-soaked odyssey spanning two millennia.

I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time now.  Simonson was a guest at the Hawthorne NJ Comic Con in May of last year, and he brought along with him a portfolio containing photocopies of some of the pages from The Judas Coin.  The artwork, which was from the Viking Prince segment, looked absolutely amazing.  Apparently Simonson has been working on The Judas Coin for several years now.  The effort certainly shows in his work on this book, which contains some of the best work of his career.  There is some magnificent storytelling on display in Simonson’s artwork, and the varying of styles allows him to utilize a number of different techniques, demonstrating his versatility.

The Judas Coin, page 24, featuring The Viking Prince
The Judas Coin, page 24, featuring The Viking Prince

The lettering by John Workman is very well done.  I believe Workman is Simonson’s letterer of choice, and they have worked together on a number of projects throughout the years.  He utilizes a series of effective, dramatic fonts.

Additionally, there is some wonderful coloring on The Judas Coin by Lovern Kindzierski.  I remember his work very well from the 1990s.  I am not an expert on coloring, but he does a superb job at varying the palette and tones of his work to suit the atmosphere and style of each segment.

So how good was The Judas Coin?  Well, I read the whole thing in one sitting.  Okay, halfway through, I did take a break to have lunch because I was hungry, but then I picked the book right up.  And then right when I got to the Manhunter chapter, my girlfriend asked me to go down the street and get her an iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts, so I had to put the book down a second time.  Sorry, Mr. Simonson, but in a toss-up between my girlfriend and comic books, I try to pick the former. It’s usually safer that way!  But other than lunch and iced coffee, yep, I read it straight through.

Seriously, though, The Judas Coin a good read with superb artwork, and I highly recommend it.