Ask Chris #286: Beyond the DC Animated Universe
A: Now this is a tough one. For a lot of readers --- including me, a kid who already liked Batman a heck of a lot but was completely unprepared to have his mind blown when Batman: The Animated Series hit the airwaves in 1992 --- DC's animated projects have been the gateway to the comics. But there's a pretty big problem with that, too: the comics that form the "proper" DC Universe of the comics don't just have a different tone, they're built with a completely different structure that puts the focus on two completely different aspects of sequential storytelling
I mean, BTAS succeeded in a lot of different ways --- top notch voice acting, the beautiful art-deco aesthetic, those unbelievably gorgeous title cards --- but the one thing that defined the DCAU more than anything else was the stripped-down, back-to-basics approach that made the shows accessible to everyone. Which, of course, is the exact thing that the comics have struggled with recreating for decades.
See, the big idea of the DC Universe is that it's, you know, a universe. It's a setting, and because it has to be shared among an entire roster of characters, it ends up inevitably being built around that one thing that everyone always points to as the big obstacle: Continuity. And as much as there's a big segment of readers (and creators) who are very leery of that word and all that comes with it, that's not a bad thing. If a universe is going to be shared, and if that shared nature is going to be part of the appeal, then actions have to have consequences, characters meet each other and form relationships that can evolve or change over time based on past events.
That's all continuity is, and by the time it was over, the DC Animated Universe had plenty of it. The second Superman meets Batman, you're dealing with continuity --- heck, BTAS even has a little bit of it itself, long before it becomes the cornerstone of a good 15 years of television. It comes in small doses, but it's there, like the way that they introduce Harvey Dent as a character well before he becomes Two-Face, and how there's a callback to his relationship with Poison Ivy in the classic "Almost Got 'Im." The entire reason JLU is so exciting --- aside from just being generally really good --- is that you're getting to see this entire expanded roster of characters interacting and building towards something big.
That said, it's certainly not the emphasis the way it is in comics, where storytelling tends to be driven by the promises of things that reference, update, and directly affect that eternally mutable status quo. And really, that's not a bad thing. I love that stuff. My favorite comics, whether they're Jack Staff or the '90s Flash run from Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo (the book that turned me from someone who really liked Batman into someone that was obsessed with the DC Universe as a whole), or even those Transformers comics that I fell in love with last year, tend to be the ones that are focused on the idea of existing within a universe that goes beyond what you see on the page.
And there's a good reason for that. Readers like to be rewarded for paying attention, and they like knowing things about what they're reading. They like consequences, because consequences make a story, whether it's in a serialized monthly comic, a whole bunch of movies that exist in a shared cinematic universe, or even a novel series.
That's actually one of the reasons that I sometimes balk at the idea of "continuity free" stories that only serve as a highlight reel for the bookstore shelf, which seemed like they were going to become the dominant trend a couple of years ago. I mean, honestly, can you imagine a world where that was applied to another medium, where there were a dozen writers working on new Harry Potter books, but they only wanted to do Goblet of Fire over and over? By about the fifth time you'd seen Cedric Diggory bite the dust, you'd probably be over it.
What I'm trying to get at here is that there's a very delicate balance that the animated shows managed to hit better than almost anything else out there. They're episodic, but rewarding. You can watch from "On Leather Wings" all the way up to "Destroyer" and see a throughline that exists in the long-term, without ever losing what makes each individual episode work. When you try to apply that same long-term view to the comics, though, it's harder to see --- partly because there are a lot more moving parts to contend with, but also because episodic storytelling fell out of favor for so long.
But --- and now I'm finally getting back to the original question --- there are a few comics that I think can help bridge that gap.
First up, the obvious: The Batman Adventures and Superman Adventures. Admittedly, they are not DC Universe titles so it's a bit of a cheat, but if you like the animated universe and haven't read the tie-in comics that came out to support them, you are missing out on what are unquestionably the best Batman and Superman stories of the decade.
Kelley Puckett and Mike Parobeck's first three issues of Batman Adventures hit that perfect sweet spot of episodic and continuity, a three-issue arc involving the Joker convincing Penguin and Catwoman to commit specific crimes that culminate in the third issue's kidnapping of Jim Gordon and the takeover of a television studio for one of the best Joker stories of all time. After that, though, it's one amazing single issue story after another. If you're looking to hit the highlights, I'd suggest "The Last Riddler Story" in #10 --- my pick for the best Riddler story of all time --- and "Super Friends" in #25, which features a strange, pre-Superman: The Animated Series take on the man of steel, complete with superman's long hair and an animated-style Lex Luthor II, complete with his flowing, lionesque mane of red hair.
There's also --- no joke --- the one where Batman fights an army of Napoleonic war re-enactors by basically riding a horse at them super hard, and it's pretty great.
Much like its animated counterpart, Superman Adventures never quite got the press that Batman did, but it was consistently amazing for its entire duration. And believe it or not, a lot of that can be laid at the feet of Mark Millar, who wrote what is arguably the best Superman run of the past thirty years.
His work on the title alongside an art team that included Mike Manley and Aluir Amancio, among others, did exactly what the animated series did, synthesizing a modern take on the best of the Silver Age's episodic storytelling, and the results were incredible. "How Much Can One Man Hate" is my pick for one of the best Lex Luthor stories ever, and #41 --- the famous "22 Stories In A Single Bound" --- features a complete story on every page. It's clever, underrated, and sadly uncollected, but now that DC's gotten all of Batman Adventures volume 1 into paperback, maybe they'll get to this one, too.
But like I said, those aren't really tied into the larger universe. For that, though, we can actually stick with Millar. If you want to see episodic stories that also work within a larger context, but don't require a whole lot of prior knowledge, you could do a whole lot worse than to pick up the recent collection of Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Paul Ryan and John Nyberg's year-long stint on Flash.
I mentioned above that Flash was the book that made me a fan of the larger DC Universe, and while that can mostly be attributed to the Waid/Wieringo run, there's an underrated and often overlooked island in there where Morrison and Millar took over as writers for four three-issue stories before handing the title back to Waid, and having just re-read it a couple of days ago, it holds up amazingly well.
Like All Star Superman, these stories function as something of a tribute to the Silver Age, but in a way that doesn't feel like a throwback. Instead, all of those grandiose ideas from ages past are treated as being part of the fabric of the universe, whether it's in the form of the Flash legacy being handed down from Jay Garrick to Wally West and (eventually) to Impulse, or something as seemingly hokey as a time traveling arch-criminal who uses his powers to send fashion designs six months into the past so that his clients can get a jump on the competition.
If you're curious about checking it out and, for some reason, you'd rather dive through dollar boxes than get the new collection, Flash #13-132, "Emergency Stop," should give you everything you need to see. Plus, if you're coming at it from Justice League Unlimited, you'll be glad to know that this is Wally West, the same Flash who once swapped bodies with Lex Luthor on the show and then didn't wash his hands in the bathroom because he thought that would make him seem more eeeeeevil.
Of course, all of these titles share the same problem, in that none of them were published in this century. But there are a handful of more recent titles, too. There are standard answers like Gotham Academy and the Burnside era of Batgirl, and those are definitely recommendations I can wholehearetdly co-sign. But there are a couple beyond those that are worth your time to check out, starting with what Jeff Parker and Travel Foreman did on Justice League United:
If you're coming to it as a fan of what the TV show did with Justice League Unlimited, when it opened up the roster to every hero in the DC Universe and gave us actual episodes of television that were about the Question, or Booster Gold, or the Seven Soldiers of Victory, then you'll probably appreciate the premise here, too. The basic idea is that there are holes in reality, and in order to patch them up, Stargirl is heading up a team that recruits its rotating roster from the entire DCU --- heroes, villains, and other.
Sadly, the new direction for the series was short-lived --- it seems to have been destined from the start to be one of those buried treasures that you'll get really excited about when you find the last issue you need at a con in a couple years --- but the story that ran in #13-15, where Paul Pelletier joined Parker to send a group of heroes to a time-tossed town in France where every war in history was happening all at once? That story is amazing. It's got Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, the Creature Commandos, Enemy Ace, Vandal Savage, GI Robot and OMAC, and that's not even getting to the good guys.
As for something that's still a going concern, I can highly recommend DC Bombshells, too.
Again, it's not in the DCU proper, but honestly, if your definition of the DCU is informed most prominently by the animated shows, then I'm guessing that "adherence to core continuity" isn't exactly the most important factor for you.
Like the cartoons, Bombshells by Marguerite Bennett, Marguerite Sauvage, et al, is a compelling alternate take that cuts to the essence of its characters, recasting some of them with different origins and putting them into their own universe, and it does it with an incredible visual style, and an overarching plot that unites what otherwise function as disparate, episodic narratives about its versions of its featured characters.
There are others out there, too, and while the animated series have often been cited as the platonic ideal of DC Comics, the good news is that we're at the point now where the creators coming up are the ones who have had their views of the universe shaped by those exact stories.
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