Here's something that you already know: Batman: The Animated Series is arguably the single best representation of Batman in the Dark Knight's 75-year history. It boiled down the character to his essentials, creating a beautiful and thrilling version of Batman that was acessible to fans of all ages and still holds up as a high point over twenty years later. Now here's something you might not know: The comic book that was created to go along with the show, The Batman Adventures, was every bit as good as the show.

This week, DC Comics released a collection of the first ten issues by Kelly Puckett, Mike Parobeck, Ty Templeton, Brad Rader, Martin Pasko and Rick Burchett, and that means this is a great time to talk about how that comic is about as close to being perfect as anyone has come, and how it's essential for anyone who wants to read some of the greatest Batman comics ever printed -- including the single best Riddler story ever.

 

 

The '90s were a pretty weird time for Batman. Well, to be fair, they were a pretty weird time for superhero comics in general, but for Batman, it was an especially weird decade. After a boom in popularity sparked by the Tim Burton movie in '89 and continuing critical acclaim for '80s books like Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, DC spent most of the '90s making the Batman comics pretty difficult for new readers to get into. While there were always plenty of one-shot stories, the entire decade was marked by a series of increasingly complex crossovers, from Knightfall to Knightquest to Prodigal and all the way through Contagion, Legacy and Cataclysm to close it all out. When I was a kid, there was nothing I wanted to do more than read comic books about Batman, but I didn't actually get into reading them monthly 'til No Man's Land, and even that was a crossover that lasted for an entire year.

But there was also The Batman Adventures.

I started reading that series with the first issue when I was ten. I loved it, and even after going back as an adult who's read a pretty significant percentage of every other Batman story, that's not just nostalgia talking. They really are that good.

 

 

Even though the series was mostly composed of single-issue stories -- there's one two-parter collected in the paperback, a Scarecrow story by Pasko, Puckett, Rader and Burchett -- but the first three issues form a distinct arc, and it's one of my favorite Batman stories of all time. It starts with the Penguin, who's given a bit of characterization that he never had on the show. I'm not sure whether it was the original intent that they never got around to expanding on -- I don't believe it's mentioned in the original series Bible -- but in their opening issue, Puckett and Templeton put the spotlight onto the idea of the Penguin as a crook with aspirations (or at least delusions) of class, threatening his gang into self-improvement:

 

The Batman Adventures, DC Comics

 

The plot of the opening arc is that there's a mysterious mastermind enticing the villains into a very specific series of crimes. Well, sort of mysterious anyway. His identity is revealed exactly one page after he appears as a shadowy silhouette when one of his henchmen turns on the light:

 

 

I've always loved that gag, and not just because it's the perfect combination of comedy and murder to introduce the Joker. That's a big part of it, though, and it sets the tone for one of Puckett's best recurring gags. All throughout the series, there'll be an offhand reference to some horrible act of violence that happens off-panel, and while it's usually done as a joke -- the Riddler story in issue #10 opens with henchmen cheerfully presenting the Riddler with a suit and talking about how hard they worked to get the blood out -- it gives the world of The Batman Adventures a sense of danger that's hiding just out of sight, right around the corner. There's an air of menace to it that the best Batman stories have to create, and Puckett's scripts do it almost effortlessly.

But it also allows the Joker's presence to be felt even while the spotlight was on the other villains. I mean, really, BTAS may have done a great job with characters like Mr. Freeze and Catwoman, but the Joker was every bit the standout there that he was in the comics. Having him lurk in the background for the first few issues gives the feel of the story building to something, even while Penguin and Catwoman are in the focus. And build to something it does, when the Joker finally takes the center stage in issue #3.

 

 

This is, without question, one of my all-time favorite comics, largely because it was terrifying when I read it back in 1992. It turns out that the Joker's scheme was to get a hold of broadcasting equipment -- something that he does on a pretty regular basis, now that I think of it -- so that he can kidnap Commissioner Gordon and torture him on live television while Gotham City watches, to prove that the law has no real power.

Seriously.

That is the plot of this comic for tiny children. And it's one of the best Joker stories I've ever read.

 

Click for full size

 

Those two pages are as brutal and affecting as any Joker story I've ever read, essentially providing the mission statement that Christopher Nolan would use for The Dark Knight sixteen years later, and it has stuck with me since the moment I read it. That shot of the Joker leering at the camera from behind his hands, composing himself and sweating from the exertion of breaking Commissioner Gordon's arms with a baseball bat on live television? All these years later, that is still the image in my head when I think of the Joker.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. After three nearly flawless opening issues, the book settles into a routine of delivering phenomenally clever stories. There's the two-parter with the Scarecrow where he modifies his fear toxin to take away Gotham City's ability to read, a locked-room murder mystery that finds Bruce Wayne as the only suspect, and a Killer Croc story that features a championship wrestling match that's every bit as good as it sounds, and a love story featuring Clayface.

Along the way, in #7, Mike Parobeck takes over from Ty Templeton as the regular artist, and it can never be overstated how good those two were, especially under Rick Burchett's inks. I don't think they've ever gotten the attention that they deserve, largely because the nature of the book requires them to draw in someone else's style -- namely Bruce Timm, who famously designed the look of DC's animated universe -- but they're amazing in this book, with incredible layouts and a sense of dramatic motion on every page. Parobeck in particular is a favorite of mine, and if he'd lived longer, I have no doubt that he'd be spoken of as one of the best Batman artists of all time. Tragically, he died at age 30, right in the prime of his career, but the work he left behind is still impressive and remains a favorite of comic art aficionados.

The final entry in this collection is Puckett and Parobeck's "The Last Riddler Story," another all-time favorite and a strong contender for the best Riddler story ever. It's a simple premise, that the Riddler, the smartest of Batman's foes, has realized that there's just no beating Batman and decides to retire from crime, only to be convinced by his henchmen to give it one last shot. The trick is that things spiral completely out of hand thanks to the addition of three new criminals, The Perfesser, Mr. Nice and the Mastermind -- based on comic book editors Denny O'Neil, Archie Goodwin and Mike Carlin, respectively -- who are also in the middle of their own crime wave.

 

 

It's a lot to cram into 22 pages, but Puckett and Parobeck pull it off delightfully, in a story that takes a premise like "If the Riddler can't outsmart Batman, he has to quit crime forever" and actually plays it out according to those rules. It's remarkably clever, genuinely compelling, and the three crooks are some of my favorite villains.

All of those stories are collected in the new paperback, and I'm having a hard time thinking of another run of Batman comics that has that many stories in a row that are that good. As much as the animated series has been praised, and justifiably so, over the past 22 years, the comic's been a hidden gem for far too long, and I'm glad to see it back in print, with more collections on the way.