How Lee & Kirby's "Fantastic Four" Birthed the Marvel Universe, Part 1
This week sees the print debut of Legends of the Dark Knight, the ongoing print version of DC’s digital-first Batman anthology. By design it’s not part of the regular Batman line, and therefore not counted as one of the New 52. However, it gives me an excuse to ask how many Bat-books DC Comics really needs.
Now, I don’t mean that to be as dismissive as it sounds. The current Batman line is built on years, if not decades, of steady readership and fan attachments, and you don’t just wave that away. Nevertheless, if there are only 52 slots in the main superhero line, must the Batman Family claim a quarter of them? The relaunch has made pruning these titles both easier and harder, and today I want to look at the opportunities it presents.
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For most of his first few decades, Batman’s adventures appeared largely in three titles, Detective Comics, Batman and World’s Finest Comics (first with solo adventures, then teamed regularly with Superman). Robin also had a short-lived feature in Star-Spangled Comics. Naturally, at first the “Batman Family” included only Batman, Robin and Alfred (who also had the occasional solo story); but with the growth of the Superman line in the 1950s, the Bat-books followed suit. Before long, there was Batwoman (Kathy Kane), Bat-Girl (Betty Kane), Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat-Hound, none of whom appeared apart from Batman or Robin. 1964’s “New Look” makeover purged them all, but a few years later Detective Comics introduced the hyphen-less Batgirl (Barbara Gordon). She eventually graduated to an occasional solo backup feature, as did Robin after he left for college.
Meanwhile, the Batman line itself was expanding. In 1966 The Brave and the Bold became a Batman team-up book, and in 1975 the new Batman Family featured team-ups between Robin and Batgirl, along with various other short features. BatFam was folded into Detective in 1978, B&B was canceled in 1984, and World’s Finest ended in 1985. B&B was replaced on the schedule by Batman and the Outsiders, which ran until 1987 in various forms, both with and without Batman.
Of course, until the events of BATO #1, Batman had been appearing regularly in Justice League of America, and Robin had likewise been a constant presence in the Teen Titans books. The early ‘80s also saw the start of closely connected storytelling in Batman and Detective, where the same writer (first Gerry Conway, then Doug Moench) wrote both books as if they were a single biweekly title. Therefore, well into the 1980s, the Batman line consisted of the two main titles, plus various team-up permutations.
The original Legends of the Dark Knight came along in late 1989, capitalizing on the success of Tim Burton’s Batman and billed as the first ongoing solo Batman book since 1940. However, it was dedicated to out-of-continuity arcs, clearly separated from Batman and Detective. Not so with the next ongoing solo Batman title, 1992’s Batman: Shadow of the Bat, which featured the popular creative team of writer Alan Grant — who wrote all 83 issues! — and penciler Norm Breyfogle. In 1993, the line expanded further with Robin and Catwoman, and they were followed by Azrael, the fifth-week-only Batman Chronicles, Nightwing and Birds of Prey.
In 2000, as part of the post-“No Man’s Land” reorganization, the Devin Grayson-written Batman: Gotham Knights replaced Shadow of the Bat. Because all the major Bat-players each had a solo title, Grayson wrote Gotham Knights as a sort of Bat-family-only team-up book, like it was a big deal for Batman, Robin, Nightwing and/or Batgirl to be seen together. Not surprisingly, also spinning out of “NML” were Batgirl (Cassandra Cain version) and Harley Quinn.
When Gotham Central and Superman/Batman came along in 2003, the extended Bat-line consisted of 12 titles: Batman and Detective, plus Gotham Knights, Batgirl, LOTDK, Birds of Prey, Catwoman, Gotham Central, Harley Quinn, Nightwing, Robin and Superman/Batman. (Batman, Robin and Nightwing also appeared regularly in JLA, Teen Titans and Outsiders.)
However, in 2006 the Bat-line was cut back pretty severely. LOTDK gave way to Batman
Chronicles Confidential, but Batgirl, Gotham Knights, Gotham Central and Harley Quinn were canceled. A new Batman and the Outsiders started in 2007, but it didn’t have time to gain much traction before “Batman R.I.P.” gave the line yet another makeover.
Once all the dust from 2009’s “Battle for the Cowl” had settled, the Batman line shifted into a post-Bruce Wayne lineup of nine titles. The main Bat-books were now Batman and Batman and Robin, with Batwoman featured in Detective. Stephanie Brown starred in Batgirl and Tim Drake in Red Robin. There was a new Azrael, Gotham City Sirens teamed up Catwoman, Harley and Poison Ivy, and Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen continued threads from their Detective run in Batman: Streets of Gotham. In 2010, Brightest Day facilitated Birds of Prey’s relaunch, and Batman Confidential hung around into 2011. Once Bruce Wayne returned, the line added two creator-driven titles, Batman Incorporated (written by Grant Morrison) and Batman: The Dark Knight (featuring the work of David Finch).
The New 52 has 14 titles with significant Bat-connections: Batgirl, Batman , Batman and Robin, Batman Inc., Batman: TDK, Batwing, Batwoman, Birds of Prey (now featuring Poison Ivy and pre-relaunch Outsider Katana), Catwoman, Detective, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Teen Titans and the new Talon.
Note, however, that while Red Hood and Teen Titans are nominally team books (with the former being a sort of successor to Outsiders), in the New 52 they can tie pretty easily into Bat-events through Jason Todd and Tim Drake. Indeed, apparently Jason and Tim don’t interact (and haven’t interacted?) as regularly with their Bat-family as much as they did in the pre-relaunch days. In other words, readers of Tim’s old solo titles are pretty much left with Titans for their monthly fix.
This sort of disconnect isn’t limited to Jason and Tim, although it’s been surprising to see how the New-52 connections have manifested themselves. Batman was fairly prominent in the first several issues of both Catwoman and Batwing, Nightwing showed up in Batman, Batgirl and Batwing, Batgirl appeared in Nightwing and Birds of Prey and Batman Incorporated is designed to let everyone participate. Batman himself now has five ongoing series (the two stalwarts plus TDK, B&R and Inc.), with Robin appearing regularly in B&R and Inc.
Accordingly, it may not be entirely fair to lump all these titles together as Bat-books. Batwoman, BOP and Catwoman aren’t that connected to the main Bat-line. Same goes, to a slightly lesser extent, for Red Hood and Teen Titans. In fact, arguably those books are about as connected to the main Bat-books as New Teen Titans was during its first few years, when Dick was making the transition to Nightwing. Part of the New-52 relaunch seems to have been more concrete separations from Batman for Red Hood and Red Robin, even as Nightwing has gotten back closer to Gotham.
However, part of the problem with Nightwing in the pre-relaunch days was this issue of distance. As a practical matter, the idea of “Nightwing” gave NTT gurus Marv Wolfman and George Pérez more control over Dick’s development, while letting Batman have a “Robin” who was closer in age and station to what readers might expect. Jason and Tim each filled that role fairly well, Jason’s eventual departure notwithstanding. Still, Dick spent the first twelve years of his Nightwing career affiliated with the Titans, which made it harder (but not impossible) to establish his independence once he returned to the Bat-office and got his own title. Ironically, thanks to his connections with Batman, the Titans and even the Justice League (as a “last resort” reserve member), Nightwing knew just about everyone in the superhero community. From what I have seen of the New 52 Nightwing (which, admittedly, doesn’t include reading his own title), he’s splitting time pretty reasonably between Bat-family duties and a solo career.
Dick Grayson was the first superhero sidekick to graduate to his own identity — as opposed to Wally West, who had the advantage of being the third Flash — and he remains a good yardstick by which to measure the independent viability of other ex-supporting characters. Of the nine books in the extended Bat-family which don’t feature Batman, six are solo titles, and three of those (Batgirl, Catwoman and Nightwing) star characters who graduated from supporting roles. Of course, Nightwing doesn’t need to prove his solo worth, and neither does Catwoman (although it would be nice to see an old-fashioned Catwoman-versus-Batman crossover caper). Similarly, the New 52 Batgirl finds Babs in the unique circumstance of starting over with an active superhero career. I’m still not clear on whether she was ever Oracle, but I’d argue that her years in that role separated her sufficiently from Batman in many readers’ minds.
As for Batwing, Batwoman and Talon, each was created specifically to be separate from Batman. Batwing patrols Africa, Batwoman was merely inspired by Batman, and Talon comes from an entirely different background. Those circumstances justify their existences enough for me. Likewise, the three team books are independent enough by now (even Red Hood, piggybacking on Outsiders’ history), let alone being the exclusive homes of Jason and Tim.
This is something of a paradox for the New 52, because the more it separates the Bat-clan, the more it risks alienating those fans who supported the previous Robin, Nightwing and Batgirl titles. It has the opposite effect on me, because I always liked a big supporting cast in the main Bat-books, and the proliferation of solo titles worked against that. If it were up to me, Batman and Robin would be the stars of Batman and Detective, which would be the only main Bat-titles. Again, though, at this late date it’s hard to deny solo books to Catwoman, Nightwing, Batwoman and Batgirl; and it’s even hard to argue that maybe Batwing could share space in an oversized Batman, Incorporated.
As mentioned above, the New 52 has made armchair publishing both easier and harder. In the abstract, restarting the superhero line could have freed DC to roll back any number of developments, perhaps including Dick’s graduation. Giving Jason and Tim their own teams to lead has helped justify their existences (along with their books), but I suspect the New 52 would have gotten along fine without Red Hood.
In the end, that crowding-out aspect bothers me most about the big Bat-footprint. I’d be perfectly happy getting rid of Batman and Robin and Batman: The Dark Knight, because I see nothing in their respective foundations which couldn’t be handled in Batman or Detective. You might say that B&R is reserved for the Dynamic Duo, but in that case, why do we need three books for solo-Batman adventures? That leaves Batman, ’Tec and Inc., and I’m guessing the latter will end once Grant Morrison is done with it. Especially in the 52-book lineup, any superfluous Bat-title is simply taking up space which could be used more creatively.
Ah, but a Batman book is as close as DC has to a sure thing. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, that was true for Superman, who had two main titles plus ancillary stories in World’s Finest, Adventure Comics, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. In the Roaring ‘90s, both Green Lantern and the Justice League had three ongoings and a quarterly, and Supes had four ongoings plus Superboy, Supergirl and Steel. The Bat-books are market-tested, so why shouldn’t they dominate DC’s roster?
For one thing, there is a difference between satisfying the market and flooding it, and DC risks the latter the more it bets on the Bat. I’ll give you Catwoman, Batwoman, Nightwing and Batgirl — although I could see giving the last two their own features in an oversized Detective Comics — plus Birds of Prey and Teen Titans. I’ll even set aside one of the main Bat-books for Bruce on his own.
However, the Bat-line is in danger of overextending itself. It may be good for DC’s bottom line, but it’s bad for the character. I realize you don’t have to read every Bat-title (and I don’t), but I can’t imagine trying to make sense of the non-crossover goings-on in Batman, Detective, B&R, TDK and Inc. I don’t want to argue in principle against multiple takes on Batman, but right now we have five (Snyder/Capullo, Layman/Fabok, Tomasi/Gleason, Hurwitz/Finch, Morrison/Burnham), plus the new LOTDK. The Dick Grayson Batman had three, the ‘90s Batman had three plus the original LOTDK, and the biweekly ‘80s Batman had one writer and a couple of artists. I mean, I like most of what I read, and I hate to put anyone out of work, but after a while it starts to feel a bit much.
Of course, there’s little chance that DC will change anything about the larger Bat-line. It’s almost pure speculation that Batman: The Dark Knight (for example) is sucking resources away from the Next Big Thing. Still, if DC insists on giving over one-quarter of its 52-title superhero line to Batman and affiliates, it’s denying those resources to somebody who might draw in new readers who might buy more than just Batman.
There are too many “mights” in that sentence, but I don’t know how to say it any better. If all you print is Batman, all your customers will read will be Batman, and if they get tired of Batman, you’re in trouble. The New 52 has done a decent job at least giving lip service to a diverse (albeit still superhero-based) lineup, but it hasn’t exhausted all the possibilities. It could have an Astro City-style “street-level” book, an Adam Strange-esque sci-fi title, a time-travel series, or even a superhero sitcom. Wouldn’t it be better to explore all the options before falling back on Batman?