The Comic Book Adaptation of Batman ’89 Is As Gorgeous As It Is Flawed [Review]
I love movies. I love comic books. I wrote about comic book adaptations of movies for this site a while back, but the Batman '89 adaptation is worth looking at on its own, especially on its 25th anniversary. It's an odd creature, to be sure — one of the very first adaptations of a movie based on a comic as far as I can recall with only Howard The Duck coming to mind as a predecessor. (Yes, that was terrible, just like its source, but it had Kyle Baker art, which makes everything a bit easier to take.)
As part of the marketing blitz for the movie, the comic version of Batman naturally sold batloads [Editor's note: we apologize for nothing] and is a fixture of many a 30-something's comics collection. In an effort to extort as much as they could from the fanbase, DC Comics made the book available in two formats: a newsstand-friendly comic that set readers back a mere $2.50 and a prestige format version) with a painted cover and spine) that retailed for $4.95. Personally, the cheaper version’s cover has always appealed to me more, but I’ll admit that Batman kicking a clown has a visceral appeal to me than Batman standing on a gargoyle, even if it's nicely rendered. No matter what version you bought though, the interiors were the same, and they were among the best drawings of Jerry Ordway's already distinguished career.
Unfortunately, even with scripter Denny O'Neil's bonafides as one of the people behind the 1980s version of the caped crusader that inspired the film and Ordway's extraordinary ability to render likenesses, the comic is inert and suffers from a complete inability to be compelling on its own. That's something that can't be said about Burton's movie, as scattershot and disorderly as the final product is. Even if you're not a fan of the movie (and I'm not), if it's on a screen, you're going to watch its weirdness unfold — you can't say that about the comic version, no matter how pretty it is.
There were problems from the very beginning, of course. When O’Neil and Ordway began working on their Batman adaptation, screenwriter Sam Hamm had been barred from rewrites because of the Writer’s Guild Strike of the time. The comics creators were working from an earlier draft than what was being shot, while Jonathan Gems, Warren Skaaren and Charles McKeown were actively rewriting the script as filming was occurring. Similarly, producer Jon Peters was in the process of reworking the ending without telling Burton, and on top of everything else, 20 minutes of finalized footage had been stolen. Burton has described the Batman experience as the worst in his life (although apparently not bad enough to refuse the bucket of cash they gave him for Batman Returns) and it's a bit of a miracle that it happened at all, really.
Given the chaotic condition of the story's development, it's no surprise that the comic adaptation falters because it's too determined to be faithful to that source material, presenting a series of scenes that fail to cohere in any real way. Certainly some of the blame can be placed with the difficulties described by Jerry Ordway in his interview with Patrick Reed, but even with Ordway's moody art and clear storytelling, O'Neil's inability to transfer Burton's voice to the page hurts it greatly. The Batman '89 comic feels like what it is: comic book creators making a thing from another thing without working to make it their own thing.
Let’s begin at the beginning, in which our hero is introduced in a sequence that does its level best to eliminate two decades of “Biff Pow Bam” jokes.
And here is the version as it appears on the comics page:
That's pretty decent, if not exceptional, right? That “ratbreath” line (which reads like it came from a Bob Haney comic) and Batman’s subsequent delivery of his mission statement is from the fifth draft (October, 1988) while the filmed version is actually a bit closer to Hamm’s first draft. The iconic “I’m Batman” line is nowhere to be seen, but that’s not surprising. Burton and co. were filming inserts and editing scenes for months after primary filming ended. Not a bad start at all thanks to Ordway's art and Steve Oliff's colors, but it doesn’t take very long for the problems to start showing up.
Here’s one of the best sequences in the film, in which the Joker is revealed in all his glory for the first time.
This sequence has a lot of what makes big chunks of Batman work for me: a flair for the theatrical, some really nice camera choices and smart editing that makes the running time fly by. Burton and his team knew exactly how to frame the shots, how to use noir techniques to their advantage, and how to get the most out of Jack Palance's penchant for ham. It's bloody, funny and unforgettable.
In the comic, though, the scene is a perfunctory one-page reveal that lacks in mood or tension; it’s just time for Jack to kill his old boss, and that’s what he’s going to do. It's a sequence that could have been expanded with some editing and reshuffling of scenes — was there really a need to show Jack getting his bandages removed in the comic? — and it would have worked much better with room for the beats to land properly.
As pointed out by writer Glen Weldon (whose Batman-oriented follow-up to Superman: The Unauthorized Biography comes out next year), my absolute favorite moment in the movie is largely the result of improvisation on the part of Keaton and the writers on the set. Bruce is about to tell Vicki everything when the Joker swings by to have a chat. here we are, picking up the scene halfway through:
The dialogue is largely there, but man, the comics version just can’t compare, can it? Keaton’s wonderful comic timing, Nicholson’s scenery-chewing (which is what you want when you pay Nicholson $6 million and royalties to wear clown makeup and prosthetics for a few months' work) and the collision of the insane world of Batman with Vicki Vale’s ordinary life just doesn’t work nearly as well when it’s drawn, even if it’s drawn very well.
The entire book is a lot like these three scenes — frustratingly close to what’s on screen while at the same time failing to use its native medium well, especially when dialogue and drama are involved. Presenting scenes by rote instead of finding new ways to give the audience the same story hobbles the work greatly. With more time and generous page count, it’s tempting to say that the creators could have done something worthwhile, or at least artistically interesting. When those creators are Jerry Ordway and Dennos O'Neil, it seems extremely likely. But what their Batman '89 comic book adaptation demonstrates is that the best comics adaptations of movies are those that embrace their medium wholeheartedly while repurposing elements of the source material.
Kind of like the best comic book movies.