batman

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Batman: The Animated Series

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

One of the perennial Batman questions is, “Who played him best?” Do you like Adam West’s camp and goofiness? Maybe Michael Keaton’s slightly nerdy turn did it for you. Perhaps, for some reason, you liked George Clooney and his suit nipples. A lot of people prefer Christian Bale’s elegant Wayne and imposing Batman, but no one has done it better than Kevin Conroy. Pretty much any time you’ve seen a Batman cartoon, Conroy’s been the one doing Bruce Wayne. His stellar voice acting is one of the reasons that Batman: The Animated Series is the best screen interpretation of the Bat. It is an amazing show: beautiful, well-acted, philosophically deep, and highly artistic.

The list of things TAS has done for Batman is long, but foremost among them is steer the public consciousness of Batman away from Adam West’s sunny, hippy, bat-tastic version into the grim persona most are familiar with today. Frank Miller returned grim to the Caped Crusader, but TAS cemented it. Mostly through its action, we went from the hokey, paunchy sixties Batman to the Bale batman who tortures people to get answers and deals with major antagonists by leaving them to die. He didn’t kill people and he didn’t curse (kids show), but he did deal with identity crises, betrayal, and loss, and the art and direction of the show has almost every frame oppressively shadowy.

This is the best intro of all time. It also gives you an idea of the show’s aesthetics.

The art direction of this show is one of the main draws. A lot of cartoons are unimaginative, and the art is just something to throw on the screen to support the sound. Each frame of TAS is original, distinctive, and iconic. Imposing buildings stretch into skylines splashed in ocher and black, the lines are angular and threatening, art deco caught in a Lovecraftian nightmare. The voice acting is another impressive bit of this show. One of the main criticisms of Christian Bale’s interpretation is that his actual Batman voice sounds like a mix between an old bear caught in a trap and the raptor cry from Jurassic Park. It is over the top and ridiculous. Conroy’s Batman voice is deep and threatening, but still within the realm of what humans should sound like. His Bruce Wayne voice is noticeably higher and more friendly. The beautiful thing about Conroy’s Dark Knight is that the Batman voice is the one he uses all the time, with all those close to him, mask on or off. The Wayne voice only comes out if he has to talk to shareholders or reporters, which underlines one of the main keys to Batman’s identity: Bruce Wayne is the mask.

Bruce Wayne’s voice. Chummy and nonthreatening.

Batman’s voice. Small, subtle shift that makes it about 10 times more menacing. Also, as a sidenote for the this-show-is-super-deep-for-kids argument, Batman is dosed with fear toxin, and his biggest phobia is not spiders or heights, but his dead father’s disapproval.

What Faulkner said of whiskey applies to this show. There’s no such thing as a bad episode of Batman: The Animated Series, some episodes just happen to be better than others. There are three key episodes you should watch. “Almost Got ‘Im,” in which many of Batman’s adversaries sit around playing cards and talking about how close they came to finally beating the Caped Crusader. The structure allows for a handful of Batman-kicking-ass vignettes, and the poker game narrative itself is a vital part of the episode. This is a masterful use of frame narrative. You know what else uses frame narrative? The Odyssey, Heart of Darkness, and The Canterbury Tales. I wasn’t kidding around when I called it artistic: it shares some techniques with a Greek epic and a foundational text of English literature. Another good one is “I Am the Night,” which starts with a grimmer-than-usual Batman reading an article about yet another criminal’s release from jail. It sends him on a spiral of self-pity and self-doubt, and the focus of the episode is the Bat regaining his confidence and his sense of purpose. This is surprisingly heavy stuff for a children’s cartoon. In this episode, he quotes Santayana, for chrissakes. The last one that I’m listing here, just because it really stuck with me from the time I watched it when I was 12, is “His Silicon Soul.” An impostor Batman is found running around on the rooftops, and of course, an angered Batman explores. The answer to the mystery involves AI, 1950s robotics, and a wonderfully pulpy, flashy plot.

I rewatch these all the time, and they never get old. Watching these is not just about Batman’s gruffness and karate taking you through a rollicking good time. It certainly has that, but it is also visually stimulating and filled with philosophical dissections of who Batman is and what the point of his mission is. The art direction, acting, and intellectual content is much more highbrow than a lot of what is on offer to adults today. It is, always and forever, one of the best things ever to be on television, and now the whole thing is free to stream if you have an Amazon Prime account. Worst case scenario, you will enjoy your nostalgic interaction with a classic 90s afternoon cartoon, but it’s very likely you will be blown away by just how sophisticated it is.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

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Comic Review: Rising Stars

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Brent Hopkins

The 24-issue Rising Stars is an interesting tale of a group of children that attain superpowers via an intense flash of light from a comet. These children were all yet to be born and therefore only 113 of them receive this “gift.” They grow up with their powers and become known as the “Specials.”

Story

The story behind Rising Stars is definitely where the main interest lies. There has always been human interest figuring out how life would be if people had abilities that made them a cut above a normal human. This is regularly touched on in X-Men’s Sentinel saga, also with Lex Luthor’s general hatred of Superman being a living god. Rising Stars turns this on its head in a very satisfying way by limiting the powers that are given out to a set group of people and having them deal with being the extreme minority on the planet, yet wielding all of the power.

As can be expected, the Specials have their own personalities and hopes and dreams, as normal people do. They also are not all made equally. There are some individuals who are the Superman archetype and others that fall more into the hyper-intelligent brand of superhero. This disparity in skills causes schisms among the Specials themselves since some individuals feel they are of a superior nature to others.

The main plot gets rolling when a few Specials are murdered and it is obvious that one of their own is committing the crimes. This is all narrated by the last living Special, John Simon (aka Poet). John narrates the discovery that, with the murders the energy from the dead Specials is transferred to the remaining ones (Think Jet Li’s great film The One).

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Like this, but Jet Li has the skill set of a Super Saiyan.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and the reader gets to go on a special journey in the lives of superheroes, which is watching their full lives begin and end. Specials have all the power in the world, yet they have the same limitation normal humans do: time. Another underlying tale unfolds as well, which is how humanity would try to deal with suddenly falling from the apex predator perch.

Art

The art here isn’t really impressive. It isn’t bad, by any means, but the coloring and artwork definitely feel like a typical comic book. I would say if you were playing a game of charades and had to draw comic characters, Rising Stars would be the perfect point of reference. Held up next to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or East of West it fails to have that same visual impact.

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Cap’n Muurrca

Characters and Writing

Considering there are a mere 24-issues and three mini-series to get acquainted with the Specials there is a lot of ground covered. 113 is an impossible amount of characters to introduce and give personality to and intelligently author J. Michael Straczynski doesn’t attempt to. Each of the Specials mentioned in-depth in the comics are all interesting and either have powers you need to actually see to understand or have personalities so strong that you want to know what makes them tick. The inclusion of archetypical superheroes is also done intelligently. How would a real Batman act? You get to see it here. What would someone with multiple-personality disorder do with the ability to control other? Also in here. I found myself loving and hating characters and then merely understanding them by the end of the series and I loved it.

Worth the read and time to complete?

My God, yes. This feels like a brilliant deconstruction of the fantasy of superhero living a la Watchmen (not saying it is as good or anything). There are 24 issues and it really makes you think about what life would be like if you did have amazing abilities but knew you’d die at 70. My only complaint is that it does end very neatly, but I would prefer that over feeling unfulfilled at the end.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Images: Header image from here, other images here and here

When Superman Was a Communist: A Review of Superman: Red Son (2003)

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Brent Hopkins

Everyone needs a Comrade sometimes.

This comic comes from the Elseworlds series of comics from DC wherein slight changes in how the superheroes personalities and actions affect the world they live in. This particular story follows typical Superman over three issues. He has the power, speed, and boring invincibility he always has. If this was another tale of Superman insta-winning his conflicts through sheer unkillability it wouldn’t be worth writing about. However, there is much meat in this short arc.

The Story

The storyline divergence comes from Superman not landing in the United States, but instead landing in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. As you can tell from the image, he goes hardcore communist and that changes the personality of Superman completely. Throughout the normal DC universe, Superman has always intervened in humanity’s affairs but tends to believe that humans deserve to have their own free will to make decisions. Red Son Superman eschews that silly freedom thing completely and takes over the communist regime using superpowers to convert nation after nation to communism. When you have a live-in god to protect you and all of your people from disasters it is amazing how good any flavor of government can be — and Superman is big brother. Eventually, the only country resisting communism is the United States, run by Lex Luthor.

The main conflicts in the series come from Lex Luthor trying to bring down Superman with all of the economic backing of a democratic America he has managed to keep from complete ruin without the constant intervention of Superman. This goes against the entire notion that Superman’s method is the only method of salvation in the world.

There are also internal conflicts within the Soviet Union, with a few usurpers to Superman’s throne (child Stalin for one). Batman and Wonder Woman both make appearances, though Batman is also a member of the Soviet Union this time around and Wonder Woman is the only person who can relate to being the nigh-unkillable leader of a nation with Superman.

Art

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The art in this is fantastic. It really makes you feel like Superman isn’t residing in America, which is critical to the premise. I actually felt like Superman looked and came off better as a Soviet monolith than he does as Captain “Almostmerica” because there is no question of why he doesn’t just conquer the world. Russia remains the same throughout with the artists making the technological advances feel as if they were made more by Russian minds than a more Western-influenced superpower.

Writing

The writing for Red Son focuses a lot less on the action of Superman, since he is seen as a god on Earth. That being said, there is a lot more focus on the questions most people have asked about what Superman is like when he isn’t tethered by the complete morality expected of the American Man of Steel. You never quite want Superman to win and his means of keeping dissent under control is more akin to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — forced brainwashing for those that rock the boat — than anything sane. This just leads to someone with ultimate power and more or less omniscient capabilities slowly feeding into their own quest to save humanity from themselves. This is portrayed amazingly well and still manages to include enough familiar faces to make sure the series doesn’t feel like it’s taking place on an entirely different world.

Worth the read and time to complete?

I was able to read all three issues of this in one sitting. Comics are naturally pretty quick reads no matter how long they are but I found the plot development in this to be almost perfect. Considering how little time the author and artists have to explain an entire world, a reader with a little background knowledge of Superman in general will feel like they are picking up right where another issue has finished. This is definitely worth the read and I would honestly like to see this as a Superman movie because it is captivating and everyone likes a nice “what if” story.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Image: Comic Vine