DC’s ‘Batman: A Celebration Of 75 Years’ Collection Actually Lives Up To Its Title [Review]
As much as I love Batman, and I think the record will show that I love Batman a whole heck of a lot, I haven’t really been looking forward to sitting down and cracking open the new Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years hardcover. Last year’s Superman anniversary hardcover was a disaster of revisionist history, 300 pages that would have you believe that one of the world’s greatest superheroes did nothing for seven and a half decades but cry. With that in mind, I had no idea what DC Comics was going to do with Batman. If you’d asked me to bet on it, I would’ve put good money on a prediction that they’d craft a narrative that acknowledged Batman only as a scowling vigilante, consumed with vengeance and every bit as crazy as the villains he fought.
But it turns out I didn’t have to worry. The Batman hardcover is exactly what it says it is — a celebration of Batman across different eras, with a roster of stories that highlights one of the character’s true strengths: How well he works across different kinds of stories.
Of course, the book’s not exactly perfect, and the biggest flaw is that there are a couple of really noticeable omissions. The first is, of course, that there are no Joker stories included in the book. There’s a simple reason for that, too, which is that there’s a companion hardcover that’s 300 pages of nothing but Joker stories that came out alongside this one. There are a lot of implications about that, especially when you consider that the companion to the Superman hardcover was all about Lois Lane, but the biggest one, of course, is that it’s a good way to get $80 out of a completist instead of just $40.
That said, I actually really like that they split it up like this. There are a lot of great Joker stories out there — though it’s worth noting that the Joker HC skips over my favorite, Gotham Central‘s “Soft Targets” — and putting the best ones into a single hardcover would inevitably come at the expense of something else. Taking the spotlight away from the obvious picks lets them shine it on some lesser-known stories that could really use the exposure.
The second big omission, however, is a little harder to excuse: Out of 23 stories contained within, there’s nothing in here from the team of Bob Haney and Jim Aparo. I’ll admit that this is just as much a matter of personal taste as anything else, but I’d argue that the sheer amount of work they did as a team and how well it defined that particular late ’70s era of Batman as a world-traveling adventure detective is more than worthy of inclusion. Aparo at least makes one appearance — alongside Doug Moench in the climax of 1993’s “Knightfall” storyline” — but Haney’s completely absent. Along the same lines, it would’ve been nice to see a story from Kelly Puckett and Mike Parobeck’s Batman Adventures thrown in, too, since that was unquestionably the best Batman book of the ’90s. Still, even that’s more of “that’s a shame” than something I’m actively cheesed off about. Having too many great creative teams that need the spotlight is a good problem to have.
The problems, however, aren’t just limited to what’s not in the book, either. There’s a few things that did make the cut that are downright infuriating.
Once again, my biggest frustration comes from the same place that it did in the Superman hardcover: Not with the stories themselves but the chapter breaks designed to frame them. Whatever sins the Superman book may have committed are nothing compared to what happens in the introduction to the Golden Age stories, which mentions that along with writer Bill Finger, they were created by “Bob Kane and his assistants — Sheldon Moldoff, Jerry Robinson and George Roussos.” You know, “assistants” is a really strange word for “people who actually did all the work while that rat Bob Kane put his name on it and got rich for doing nothing,” but maybe they clarified in the next paragraph. I don’t know, every time I tried to read it, my eyes hit those words and I woke up three hours later in a puddle of blood.
Incidentally, the introduction to a later chapter includes a line about how the “goofy” Batman ’66 was “erased” from public perception by Tim Burton’s “dark and gritty” Batman ’89. You know, the movie where the Joker and a bunch of henchmen in matching satin jackets dance their way through a museum while playing a Prince song on a boombox? Very dark. So gritty.
Anyway, while we’re on the subject of rage-inducing creative teams, the other thing that’s remarkably out of place is a collaboration between Brad Meltzer (writer of Identity Crisis, the comic that ruined comics) and graphic designer Chip Kidd, that puts Meltzer’s dialogue and captions from the version of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” with Bob Kane’s art for the original story as it appeared in 1939. That’s right, everyone: They have arranged a collaboration between Brad Meltzer and Bob Kane, and that is how they finish the book. There’s an awful lot to hate about that, and it takes up 31 pages of the book.
Really, though, those are the only missteps in the collection. The rest of it is devoted to a pretty great overview of great moments from Batman’s history, and not just the ones that come up all the time. The first half of the book is marked by a series of interesting changes, whether it’s Alfred swapping his original rotund, clean-shaven design for the slim, moustachioed butler that we know today in Don Cameron and Jack Burney’s “Accidentally On Purpose” (1944), the introduction of the “New Look” Batman in John Broome and Carmine Infantino’s “The Mystery of the Menacing Mask” (1964), and the introductions of Poison Ivy and Batgirl, arguably two of the most important new characters of the ’60s. What’s even better, though, is when they shift to stories that aren’t the big changes and first appearances, but are just really great stories.
The first one that shows up is 1954’s “The Jungle Cat-Queen” by Edmond Hamilton and Dick Sprang. It’s one that I’ve never read before, but it’s exactly the kind of story that I picture when I think of the best parts of that era of Batman. It’s a big adventure to an exotic location, a diamond mind that Catwoman is using as a “crime base” to attack airplanes with trained circus animals, full of thrills and escapes and Batman and Robin dressed in Tarzan costumes. It’s fantastic.
There are a ton of other great single-issue stories in here, too: “The Deadshot Ricochet” (1977), Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers‘ tribute to the Golden Age that reintroduced one of the most compelling villains of the modern era, Mike W. Barr and Michael Golden’s “The Player On The Other Side,” (1984), where a kid whose criminal parents were killed by cops on the same day that the Waynes were murdered and grew up to be a pointy-eared super-criminal, and Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett’s “Air Time,” still one of the best single issue Batman stories of the 21st century. And there’s a lot more here to really love, a lot of great takes on one of the best characters in comics — the Kane/Kidd/Meltzer jam session notwithstanding.
The cynic in me wants to think that this is all because Batman does have that darkness at the core of his character, and so DC doesn’t feel the same need to be as ashamed of his history as they do with Superman. They certainly get through the bizarre era of sci-fi and monsters as fast as they can, although the one they choose to represent it, where the Batman of the 30th century shows up and has to keep Vicki Vale from discovering that he’s not Regular Batman, is about as bizarre as they come without getting into straight up Rainbow Monster territory. But at the same time, this book has what the Superman book didn’t: Victories and triumphs that balance out the darker things.
It actually is the Celebration that they say it is on the cover, and it’s well worth picking up.