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Batman as Gumshoe

Once upon a time, superheroes used wits, not warrior ways, to stop crime

By Richard von Busack

THE PATH that led Batman to his current impasse--an impasse now playing at theaters everywhere--began when the Caped Crusader officially became a warrior instead of a detective. The book that started this shift, The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel for mature readers, has been newly reissued in paperback by DC Comics.

The book was a turning point for the Bat, bringing him to the notice of the national media; few could have guessed what a huge franchise business Miller's comic would spur. Miller is perhaps more of a martial-arts movie fan than even Quentin Tarantino. He revitalized Batman through extensive use of the visual language of Asian action cinema, making Batman fast, frightening, violent--and viable.

The success of The Dark Knight Returns ensured the making of a long-discussed Batman movie. Tim Burton's Batman was, of course, a hit in 1989, and then the sequels began, proceeding to that landmark of cinema Batman & Robin, a.k.a. Disco Bat.

The first Batman movie was a fantasy about a rotting inner city left to decay by the power elite. The series is now, thanks to Joel Schumacher's tasteless direction, a celebration of wealth and fashion. There's so much to hate and so little to like, but one of the many annoying things about the film is the way Pat Hingle's Commissioner Gordon orders Batman from fight scene to fight scene, as if the Bat were a lowly patrolman. Our hero doesn't unravel any mysteries; this Batman never has to use his brains at all.


DC Comics online.

Mantle of the Bat online magazine.

Official site of the Batman animated tv series.

The animated Superman series.


THE NEW MOVIE is dreadful, but it's had a positive effect. As part of the anticipated bat furor, Warner Bros. is releasing videocassette episodes of the superior animated Fox Kids TV show The Batman Adventures, a.k.a. The Adventures of Batman and Robin. Ten new episodes of the first-rate show, which was canceled in 1994, are in the works, and a new full-length animated film starring Batman and Mr. Freeze will be released direct to video in the next couple of months. Just as the 1993 animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm overshadowed the 1995 live-action Batman Forever, this upcoming direct-to-video release should also be an improvement on its far more expensive live-action cousin.

The Superman Adventures on the Warner Bros. network is inspired by the same simple, cartoony, loose style of The Adventures of Batman and Robin. DC Comics is supporting both shows with monthly comic books, titled, naturally, The Batman and Robin Adventures and The Superman Adventures.

They possess many of the characteristics of the DC comic books back when I was a meddling kid. Each story takes place between two covers, beginning and ending in one issue. There's a low level of violence, and the oh-so-hip references are kept to a minimum.

The Superman Adventures comic features regular writer Scott McLoud, the author of the guidebook Understanding Comics. McLoud's appealing images from his comic book Zot! are mirrored in the strikingly clean designs he uses here. His work is spartan and meaty at the same time. McLoud's Superman is affable and human.

In The Superman Adventures #10, McLoud brings back the vintage villain the Toyman, who has been bedeviling the populace with diabolical action figures. Superman solves the plot not through twisting arms but by detection--and also by a tip from a smart child. In The Adventures of Batman and Robin, Batgirl defeats the Riddler, also through logic and not through intimidation. (Of course, Batgirl is no one's idea of an intimidating figure.)

These two comics feature heavily franchised characters, but they go against the tide; in 1997, action-comic fans prefer brute force. The other cross-media franchise poised to attack this summer is the comic-book character Spawn, who, like Batman, is appearing in both a live-action movie and a revolting cartoon special on HBO. Spawn is a warrior, not a detective--a zombie murderer from Hell armed with chains. Satan has Spawn's soul and, I think, his personality.

Since Spawn can kill anyone he wants, he is meaner than Batman and Superman, neither of whom would have sat by watching a character burn alive, as Spawn did during one moment on the recent HBO special.

I don't want to be alarmist about Spawn. Whether it's the Bible, the Iliad or Spicy Mortician Comics, children will draw their own conclusions about the violence they take in.

But while I can't predict what a kid would like, it seems to me that The Superman Adventures and The Batman and Robin Adventures are prime material for children. They offer the special pleasures of comic books in their lightness and vividness--in their caricature rather than celebration of violence.

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From the July 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro.

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