Friday, November 18, 2011

A semi-teary farewell to "Batman: Brave and the Bold"

So this post is going to be kind of weird.

And probably pretty whiny.

Batman: Brave and the Bold only aired for a handful of seasons, and I'd argue that the first season was spent largely trying to find the right footing and tone.  Scripts were still coming in that first year that seemed a bit like team-up episodes written for Batman: The Animated Series, and one episode (I believe a Christmas episode) featured the death of the Waynes as a flashbacky plotpoint.

It just felt... weird juxtaposed against robot Santas and other DC Comics madcap shenanigans.  But the second season it seemed like we'd come over the top of the hill, and the show did nothing but pick up speed and do loop-de-loops right up until the wacky end.  The basic gist of the show was a riff on the Bronze Age-era of Brave and the Bold comics, a DC team-up book mostly featuring Batman and another figure from the DCU (Superman did the same in DC Comics Presents).  The creative team found the right balance of hilarious OUTRAGEOUSness for the adults and mixed it up with gleeful mayhem and action, and managed to introduce an astounding amount of the DCU to an unsuspecting audience.

It featured episodes done entirely as a musical (with a singing Black Canary), sit-com episodes, winking-4th-wall-breaking episodes with Batmite, brought Silver Age Superman in all his glory to TV (really for the first time), featured a Justice League v. Legion of Doom baseball game, and mined every corner of the DCU, right up to a Creature Commandos adventure this season.

Mostly, for the past two years, its really been my favorite show on TV.

I know its a kids' show.  But I also have a hard time finding people who understand and know their DC who don't absolutely love the cartoon.

Yes, it was miles away from the take that led to a  $1 billion gross for The Dark Knight, but the strength of Batman and core of DC's U has  always been strong enough to take whatever versions that were presented for the right audience.

I may love The Dark Knight for everything it achieved in bringing Gotham at its grittiest and most tangible to the big screen (and giving me the one cinematic experience I've ever described as "harrowing"), but that wasn't the Batman that was the one who had me wearing a cape at age 2 and meant one of my first words was (and this is true) "Batman".

You will not have seen this final episode, but its a strange farewell.  The little show that could goes down swinging, right to the last frame.

Firstly, the team-up is with Ambush Bug.

Yes, Ambush Bug.

Who so wants to save the universe that Batmite has decided should be eliminated to make way for a new, darker, grittier version of Batman.  Something, by the way, Cartoon Network is doing, and which is why we're clearing this show out of the way.

He sets about using his 5th Dimensional powers to force the show to jump the shark by adding a cute kid with a catch phrase, nods to the dumber moves done by the toy companies and in order to appease the toy companies, and... replaces the voice of Aquaman by John DiMaggio with that of TV harbinger of doom, Ted McGinley.  Truly, no stop is left unpulled.

As much as I want to appreciate all of the versions of DC's cast of characters, for a long, long time, everyone involved has forgotten who these characters were intended for when they first appeared.  These books were not intended for continuity obsessed 20 or 40-somethings to build websites and complain when Black Manta acts out of character or seems to develop amnesia about some story from Adventure Comics published before the writer was ever born.

They were escapist adventure fantasies to give brightly colored friends to kids, friends whose adventures were the sorts of exploits that hinged on the ideas of truth, justice and the American Way that we believed were true before the world got hold of us.  And some of us might even hold onto as we puzzle over why we choose to make things so complicated.

And, really...  while I'm enjoying parts of the New 52, you can't help but know that Flashpoint was the very end of the last of the DCU that I knew, that this latest iteration is intentionally distancing itself even further from even the possibility that DC can ever acknowledge its history as purveyor of children's entertainment for the first 50 years of its existence.  And that, along with the red shorts on Superman and the blue cowl and shorts on Batman...  short of a massive change in leadership, DC comics will dwindle ever further from the stories and characters that sparked my imagination.  Batman: Brave and the Bold was the last place within the sprawling organization of Time Warner that seemed to understand what had been great about that era, and why it could be mined endlessly.

Certainly nowhere at the current offices of DC Comics want to do much but strip the history for parts they barely seem to understand.

I think Neil Gaiman tried to put a bow on it with Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, trying to give Batman a happy ending, even in rebirth, even when we know the birth of Bruce Wayne is the beginning of the end for Thomas and Martha Wayne.  Instead, the good folks at Batman: Brave and the Bold actually let us see the wrap party, with all the characters we'd ever want to see again standing around having punch and cake, Ambush Bug in his Hawaiian shirt.

Agreeing with Ambush Bug that he had a great run, Batman turns to the camera and says:
And until we meet again, boys and girls, know that wherever evil lurks, in all its myriad forms, I'll be there with the hammers of justice to fight for decency and defend the innocent.  Good night.
That's just...  that tells you where the heart of the show always lived.  Boys and girls.  No matter how old you are.

So, yeah, I got maybe a little misty.  Because, man, deep down inside I'm still the same guy who put on a cape as a kid with a Batman iron-on on the back.  And like everyone else, I don't like saying good-bye.

I like to think there's always going to be room for that kind of Batman in comics, on TV or somewhere.  That we won't get cheap excuses from both DC execs and shrugging fanboys pointing us to back issues that once sold in the hundreds of thousands (and for which we pay too much for now).  I want for there to be a Batman (and Superman, and Wonder Woman and Robin and Green Lantern and...) for the kids I see in the masks and capes on Halloween, and one that somebody at DC will believe in and support and not just see as some comic they do on the cheap for kids, or some show they never really seemed to believe in.

What better thought for kids, to know where Batman stands, and the promise he'll make to them, even if the people who seem to control his fate all too often don't seem to understand the promise of always being there for boys and girls?  Ready to lay down the hammer of justice.

Especially when he teams up with Aquaman.


J.S. said...

Nice post! I know at least one guy at the courthouse whose kid has had an introduction to superheroes through that show, and I'm sure he's not alone.

horus kemwer said...

An impassioned and interesting post.

Of course, the reason DC is targeting an older crowd is largely just that those are the people actually reading comics. It's a rare sight for me to see an actual boy or girl in the comics store - usually, I'm at mean age-wise, and I'm in my 30s!

Often, when I do see someone under 15 in the store, it's because their parents are trying a new backhanded strategy to get them to read more, not because they're an actual fan of the medium.

On the other hand, TV is a medium which the youth of today consume in enormous quantities—why not appeal to your audience there? Why feel constrained to continuity with a different medium targeted at a different (though, as you yourself demonstrate, not entirely disjoint) audience?

Of course, those of us with our thinking caps on already recognized the pointlessness of universe wide continuity even within a single medium a long time ago. Why can't a fun goofy Batman and a dark and serious Batman coexist in different publications?

At least it warms my heart to hear Ambush Bug made it to the little screen . . .

Dug said...

I obviously need to finish watching this show; I've seen very little of it considering how much fun it was. (Sad Aquaman is sad.)

The League said...

@horus - I agree that we don't see kids in comic shops but... you don't really see kids anywhere parents don't already want or need to be.

TV was just as much a medium when we were kids (as were video games, and I had a computer by 1st or 2nd grade. Viva the Vic20 from Commodore!). So while I agree that kids have options/ distractions/ etc... what really changed was that comics disappeared from the places kids wound up. Drug stores. Grocery stores. The book store spinner rack at B. Dalton. 7-11.

My understanding is that the public story is that comics publishers basically got tired of having a model they liked through the Direct Market - basically comic shops don't get to return books if they don't sell - but newstands could return unsold comics and make money back. And the rack space was getting harder to bargain for by the early 90's.

SO they pulled out.

I'm also fairly convinced that the publishers weren't dumb, and they wanted to start selling more stuff not aimed at kids, and by retreating to comic shops, they had less to worry about as kids weren't going in comic shops back then, either.

At some point, removing Batman from that young audience is only going to work for so long. If Batman is only aimed at adults, the kids who grew up without Batman until they were 13 or so aren't going to ever think of the property as something that CAN be kid friendly.

To me, that's preposterous. I wouldn't necessarily give a young kids a current Batman comic, and I'm not sure what you CAN give a kid that isn't going to smell of the sort of condescension about "kid stuff" that I think a lot of kids don't like. Example: I have no idea how Marvel ever sold any of their Star line of comics back in the day. I never knew anybody who bought one that wasn't Peter Porker.

I dunno. I might be wrong about all this. But it just seems crazy to me how badly DC handles themselves when it comes to kids, when they were so good at it up through the 1980's.

I do believe it HAS to cause problems for them when moms go out and buy adult-oriented Batman items by accident for their kids. And I don't know exactly how to solve the problem. But hoping parents who aren't comics readers themselves will go to the comic store?

I literally cannot imagine a worse business plan.

Simon MacDonald said...

So sad that Batman Brave & the Bold is ending. For some strange reason the entire latest season hasn't shown at all in Canada. I'm looking forward to finally seeing these great episodes that I've heard so much about.

Anonymous said...

Batman Brave & the Bold was just gigantic amounts of awesome and meta-HI-lariousness. I was worried that after the end of JLU that it would stink it up like that really bad version of young Batman that was going on for awhile. It was so mediocre that I've expunged it from my mind. Especially went it came after the greatness that was Batman Beyond and Batman The Animated Series.

One thing we have to remember is that ALL kids cartoon shows are not for the kids or for the stories. Cartoons are marketing campaigns to make parents buy oodles and oodles of toys and accessories. Once a cartoon has "enough" episodes decided by a TV exec, they will milk the franchise and replay reruns to death until they feel the kids have moved on to the next big thing, whether it be mutated radioactive turtles or sci-fi ninjas in rainbow colored spacesuits. I remember watching my Dungeons and Dragons cartoon DVD collection and shocked that there was a whole season worth of episodes that NEVER aired where I live. I don't know how but for some reason as a kid my local TV station only aired the first 2 seasons. Man was I shocked.

Batman Beyond was created to push toys. JEM, Voltron, He-Man, Thundercats all were made to push toys. DC and Cartoon Network doesn't care about us or the kids. Just our money if we have kids.


Simon MacDonald said...

@NTT sadly you could not be more right about why cartoons are made. A relative of mine is producing the Scaredy Squirrel cartoon and he's hoping they can get to 3 seasons which is the magical cut off point for most cartoons. As you said once you get enough episodes for syndication the companies in charge don't see any reason to produce more episodes as they can still pimp the toys without needing new content.

The League said...

It is true that 3 years is a lifetime for a kid. And, yeah, we've most definitely seen the effect of cartoons-is-toy-ads change that started in the 80's when we were coming up.

I'd guess the toys for this series have never been particularly successful, either.

But watch that final episode. Its the single most meta thing I may have ever seen on TV. Especially when they bring up the toy manufacturers.

horus kemwer said...

Hmmm, good points. For me growing up, though, the TV comic exposure was the old school Adam West Batman, and that sure as hell wasn't in continuity with whatever was going on in DC comics at the time.

I agree with everything you say about business model. In my view, though, this is all symptomatic of a broader cultural attitude toward comics: they're not viewed as an art medium at the same level as others (film, books, even TV). I think the attitude that comics are somehow different or inferior contributes to the perception that they need to be restricted to certain formats or business models—and this hurts comic lovers at both ends of the spectrum, the childish and the adult.

The League said...

well, the last 15 years has been a very different time for comics, but publishers big and small have somewhat failed to capitalize on the changes.

This is the same era when I've been able to go see a filmic adaptation of Persepolis, Watchmen made the list for one of the best BOOKS (not comics books) of the 20th Century from no less than Time. Walking Dead is a huge TV hit and people take The Dark Knight totally seriously.

But the COMICS side of that equation isn't happening because COMICS are hiding in low-rent strip malls, and the shopkeeps are all too interested in Magic the Gathering cards and not interested enough in the art form. Which is why I thank my lucky stars each Wednesday I live somewhere near Austin Books, I might add.

But, yeah, I don't think retreating to comic shops has helped, and where comics have wound up at book retailers... its not a section of the bookstore people will drift into anymore than I drift into self-help or personal finance.

But we're also seeing high school and college classes where comics are the focus. Its a different era, and I'm hopeful. But retreating to comic stores as a medium can reinforce an insular and self-protecting stance.

Which is why I am so impressed with ABC's outreach efforts, from parties to events and signings, to film screenings... they're doing way more than the publishers themselves ever seem to do.