Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-Ups volume 1

For a special Christmas post I have decided to take a look at things over at the Distinguished Competition.

DC was initially sceptical about the Essential format but eventually in 2005 they decided to launch their own series of black & white sequential reprints on cheap paper under the title "Showcase Presents", recalling one of their classic series. The volumes are much the same as the Essentials albeit with a different cover design which seems to have influenced Marvel for its third cover format. Also Showcase Presents volumes have page numbers. But most significantly they're willing to jump about a bit more and collect material related to characters in a way few Essentials do (Essential Punisher volume 1 is a rare Marvel exception). DC have rapidly produced a very diverse set of volumes covering material from the Silver Age to the Modern Age.

Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-Ups volume 1 pretty much does what it says on the tin. The Brave and the Bold had been first an anthology series and then a try-out book, which launched many characters and series including the Suicide Squad, the Justice League of America, the Silver Age Hawkman, the Teen Titans and Metamorpho. From issue #50 it became a team-up book, and then Batman gradually dominated until he was a permanent fixture from issue #74 onwards. This volume contains the Batman team-ups from issues #59, #64, #67-71 & #74-87. Everything is credited as written by Bob Haney apart from #87 by Mike Sekowsky. The art is by a mixture of Sekowsky, Neal Adams, Ross Andru, Win Mortimer and single issues by Ramona Fradon, Carmine Infantino, Johnny Craig, George Papp and Bob Brown. At least that's what the contents page says - this was an era when DC did not routinely credit its creators and so for many issues the credits have had to be constructed from incomplete records and guesswork.

The book was bimonthly and this volume covers the years from 1965 through to 1970, matching the rise and fall of Batmania thanks to the Batman TV series. In turn the three Showcase Presents volumes of the series so far saw print in the two years leading up to the launch of the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold which drew its concept from here.

Who are the actual guest stars? Here's the list. Where relevant the characters are the Silver Age/Earth 1 versions (ignoring continuity issues that I'll discuss later).

59. Green Lantern
64. Eclipso
67. Flash
68. Metamorpho
69. Green Lantern
70. Hawkman
71. Green Arrow
74. Metal Men
75. Spectre
76. Plastic Man
77. Atom
78. Wonder Woman plus Batgirl
79. Deadman
80. Creeper
81. Flash
82. Aquaman
83. Teen Titans (consisting of Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl and Speedy)
84. Sgt. Rock
85. Green Arrow
86. Deadman
87. Wonder Woman

We have a broadly equal mix between the big name heroes of the day and the less well known. The biggest name missing is Superman, but that's because he and Batman had their own ongoing "buddy book" World's Finest. Otherwise amongst the Justice League's biggest names the only obvious absentee is the Martian Manhunter.

Note that although the concept of multiple Earths with different heroes of different origins had been established by this time, none of the stories invokes it. Consequently the Spectre and Plastic Man seen here must be either the best known versions from other Earths visiting Earth 1 without mentioning it or else they're little-known Earth 1 identical counterparts of those versions. (Or there's a more convoluted explanation to be found in later issues and/or guides.) The limited attention to continuity is on display in almost the first panel when Bruce Wayne thinks about how he's alone because Dick is on a school trip (later on there's regular reference to his being off with the Teen Titans as a way to keep him out of the stories) and Alfred is on vacation. Except that this issue came out at a time when Alfred had been seemingly killed off (he was subsequently revived, thanks to his inclusion in the television series) and also now living in the mansion was Dick's Aunt Harriet (who is quite famous from the television series but her somewhat different comic incarnation is one of the most forgotten of all Batman supporting characters). In itself this is a tiny thing but it shows a lax approach to continuity that would deliver some otherwise difficult to realise tales, but which would also cause no end of headscratching amongst fans. (On some other features it could be worse - the inclusion of Wonder Girl in the Teen Titans resulted in multiple retcons that tried to tidy up the problems this caused.) It's harder to spot continuity errors amongst the guest heroes, though the Metal Men's appearance in issue #74 has the oddity that Bob Haney's script only namechecks the traditional six members, and even gives that number in on panel, yet Ross Andru draws seven, including the little remembered "Nameless". Issue #84 makes perhaps the biggest assault on continuity through flashbacks to Bruce Wayne's work during the Second World War, showing him using the Batman identity twenty-five years earlier. Even in 1969 this made Batman much older than he is normally portrayed as (and I'm hard pressed to think of any actor who's played Batman in at least his mid forties bar Adam West returning to the role many years later in Legends of the Superheroes) and it I believe it had already been established he began his career much later, and it proves unnecessary as Sgt. Rock is shown alive and well in the present day, still serving in the US army, so there was no real need for a flashback to a wartime team-up. Especially as Rock and his Easy Company are rather incidental to the plot.

Covering a period of five years the series shows Batman in a period when he went from the height of the Campy Crusader of the mid-1960s to the re-emergence of the more serious Dark Knight at the end of the decade, though overall there's less variation in the character than one might expect. He may be the solid, serious know-it-all hero who can explain even the most obscure of information (such as what a hellgrammite is) similar to Adam West's portrayal but he doesn't veer off into self-parody or excessive silliness, with the exception of issue #68 when he's temporarily mutated into the "Bat-Hulk". Later on there are hints of the return towards the Dark Knight portrayal but the steps aren't too great. The arrival of Neal Adams on issue #79 sees the look of the series take a decisively darker edgier turn. By this point the Batman television series had been cancelled and Batman was now up for redefinition, though his main changes for the 1970s wouldn't come until Adams joined Denny O'Neil on the main series. In addition this volume also shows snapshots of other heroes going through major changes in this period. The first team-up with Deadman comes as the ghost hunts for his killer; the second comes after his killer has been found and killed and now the ghost continues his existence without clear purpose. Wonder Woman's first appearance is with her traditional appearance, powers and role, but the second is from the "New Wonder Woman" era when she had become a non-powered trouser-suited martial artist adventurer. Meanwhile Green Arrow's second appearance brings with it a revised look, toughened up for the hard edge adventures he would go on to have with Green Lantern.

Throughout these issues it's surprising just how often Batman's secret identity (and sometimes the guest hero's as well) is discovered, and the steps taken to undo this. In the very first adventure the Time Commander uses his powers to discover it and subsequently tells Green Lantern, but the latter then uses his ring to purge the information from both their minds, referencing an agreement amongst the Justice League. However later on Batman and Hawkman are completely familiar with each other's identities, and work together to fool the Collector, millionaire Balthazar T. Balthazar, who has used a computer to discover Batman is Bruce Wayne and reinforced the evidence with x-rays. But in the process of disabusing him of the notion, the Collector stumbles across Hawkman's own identity as Carter Hall. After double layers of confusion the Collector is left believing Hawkman is in fact an alien called Krog from the planet Mynos, whilst Batman is an ex-criminal who changed his name. Although not explicitly covered here, it would seem that at some stage the Justice League have agreed to share their identities since midway through the volume it becomes standard for Batman and his co-star to know who each other is. However this doesn't apply with some of the more detached characters such as the Creeper or for that matter Wonder Woman in her depowered days. In general Batman is already familiar with most of the characters he encounters, bar the really hard to interact with such as Deadman. An orphan boy living at stately Wayne Manor stumbles across the Batcave and immediately deduces its meaning. Orm the Ocean Master appears to know it when he sees Bruce Wayne apparently die and is subsequently surprised to see Batman is still alive. Later both Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen calmly tell mutual friend Edmond Cathcart their identities, rationalising that as a psychiatrist his professional oath will keep their secrets safe, and not anticipating the prospect that he might get captured, which he soon is. Fortunately they rescue him and the end of the issue sees him embark upon self-hypnosis to wipe the knowledge from his mind. I've no idea how reliable that is or just what the contemporary ethical opinion was.

The Justice League connection is the most common link that brings the guest stars into the story. Most adventures start off in Gotham City and on several occasions Batman calls in one of his fellow team members to provide specialised help. In general these are partnerships of equals with perhaps a little extra weight given to Batman as he's on his home turf, but there's no elevation of him to superstar status amongst the superhero community or grand clashes of egos. Rather the adventures take place on a more reasonable level.

The bulk of the foes seen in these adventures are unfamiliar to me. Most have been specifically created for these tales, and only a few would go on to appear elsewhere, though there are a handful who are drawn from the heroes' adventures. New foes include the likes of the Time Commander, Cosmo, the Queen Bee, the criminal organisation Cyclops, the Speed Boys, Balthazar T. Balthazar aka the Collector, ruthless businessman Tom Tallwolf, Dr. Daedalus, Shahn-Zi, the Molder and his Plastoids, the Cannoneer, Copperhead, the crimelord known as the King, the Hellgrammite, Carl Bork, oil thief Grantland Stark, Nazi war criminal Colonel Von Stauffen, businessman and crimelord  Miklos Minotaur and ruthless racing driver Willi Van Dort. There's also Lance Bruner, an orphan who Bruce Wayne's father agreed would be taken in at the manor in such circumstances but who turns out to have a criminal past. However when he sees Robin risk his life to save Batman, Lance has a change of heart and sacrifices his life to do the same. We're not shown how Bruce Wayne explained all this to the social worker. We get a few pre-existing foes such as Aquaman's enemy and brother, the Ocean Master, or Deadman's foes the Society of Assassins including their leader "Sensei". And we get a team of three of the best known of Batman's foes, the Riddler, the Penguin and the Joker.

In some places these tales do show their age. Issue #64 has an incredibly dated moment when Batman rescues a playgirl from risking her life needlessly and gives her a spanking for her actions. Despite this they become a brief item - yet another sign of a fast and loose approach to continuity, though this depiction of Batman is a far cry from the grim loner. Later on issue #78 sees Wonder Woman and Batgirl competing for Batman's affections and although it's only a ruse at first, the fact that such a contest could fool others says a lot about the way even two of DC's premiere female heroes are presented. And this only gets confirmed later in the story when they each briefly fall for Batman for real. However the portrayal of Native Americans in issue #71 is surprisingly more sophisticated than the norm, with little of the traditional broken English and a focus on a contest for the leadership of the tribe between two claimants who have both let the reservation and gone into white collar work. Elsewhere there are little nods to DC's main rivals - "Here's one I did before anybody, including a certain web-spinning Peter-come-lately!" declares Batman in issue #74 as he swings around a flagpole to hurl himself forward, taking a swipe at his rival in the process. It's a nice little aside that keeps the rivalry between companies playful.

Despite the apparent age of some of these stories, even more so than many contemporary Marvels, this is a petty good volume. Team-up titles are rarely the place to look for extensive character development but they offer a good chance to see two heroes working together on fairly equal terms and give an extensive tour of the many heroes of the DC universe. Batman may be reasonably restrained but he's nowhere near the grim brooding loner of later years and so it feels perfectly natural for him to be working with so many other heroes. This is the earliest team-up series featuring one regular character and a rotating second that I'm aware of, so here is the beginning of the path later followed by the likes of Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-in-One and DC Comics Presents, let alone the fun animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

As for the Showcase Presents series in general, it's good to see the DC adopted the format and have run with it. Since Marvel began the Essentials nine years earlier it's unsurprising that by the time DC came along the basics had already been thrashed out such as using covers from the original comics, getting all the material in order, including annuals, and using a stirdy paper stock. The main areas where I think DC have done things sooner or better than Marvel is in using a cover design that leaves more space for the original artwork (although the yellow flash "Over 500 pages of comics" is annoying; fortunately that was later dropped) and in having individual page numbers which makes it easier to find a particular story; this is especially helpful when a volume is focused more on a character than on presenting a single series in sequential order. The Essentials have since adopted a similar cover design that shows more of the original artwork but not yet page numbers. We can only hope they one day do that as well.

2 comments:

  1. Hope you had a very Merry Christmas and that you have a super 2014.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really pleased that you decided to "do"a SHOWCASE. I was going to suggest them when you'd nearly finished the Essentials. Thanks for reading my thoughts!

    ReplyDelete

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