John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Batman and the Outsiders
Storytelling Engines: Batman and the Outsiders
(or “The Key Word Here Is ‘Batman’”)
Last week, I spent some time talking about the Legion of Super-Heroes, an amazingly successful spin-off from the Superman titles that has lasted for decades in continuous publication. Today, though, I’m going to turn my attention to a somewhat…let’s just say less successful…spin-off, ‘Batman and the Outsiders’. Or, as it’s been known since issue #32, ‘The Outsiders’.
As with many books of the 1980s, ‘Batman and the Outsiders’ started with the fading of the trend of “team-up books”. ‘Marvel Team-Up’ became ‘Web of Spider-Man’, ‘Marvel Two-In-One’ became ‘The Thing’, and ‘The Brave and the Bold’ was canceled to make way for another Batman series. DC, though, decided to retain the “teaming” concept by having Batman quit the Justice League and form a super-team more in line with his own sensibilities.
This is a solid central concept for a book. Over the course of the 70s and 80s, Batman’s character evolved to the point where he seemed out of place with the Justice League, and yet the character has never truly been a “lone wolf”. (Some fans might dispute this, but four Robins, two Batgirls, a Huntress, a Catwoman, an Azrael, an Alfred, a Commissioner Gordon and an Ace the Bat-Hound later, it’s kind of hard to argue against.) Unfortunately, very little thought was given to the team dynamic of a “Batman-esque” super-team. Instead, Black Lightning and Metamorpho were brought in from their own canceled series, and a few new super-heroes (Halo, Katana, and Geo-Force) were created to round out the team. Nothing was particularly wrong with any of these new heroes, but most of them never really seemed like “outsiders” of any sort. Geo-Force and Halo could have just as easily been slotted into the Justice League or the Teen Titans as they were into Batman’s new, “edgier” team concept.
The tone, too, seemed to be more “Justice League” than “Batman.” They stopped super-villains, they fought crime, they did the things that super-teams tend to do. Nothing wrong with that, of course; superheroic action is a pretty popular genre, and Mike Barr was writing some entertaining stories. The storytelling engine of “Batman’s dark team doing things the Justice League can’t or won’t” simply wasn’t there, but it was beginning to evolve into a pretty good super-hero title in its own right. It even developed a spin-off title of its own, ‘The Outsiders’, which told Batman-less tales of the team.
Then Batman left abruptly in issue #32. Presumably, editors worried about “over-exposure” of one of their most popular characters, or complained that Batman didn’t really fit in with the tone that ‘Outsiders’ had developed, but whatever the reasons, Batman decided to abandon the team he’d created and go back to being a solo crime-fighter. The series redubbed itself ‘Adventures of the Outsiders’, limped along for 14 more issues (8 of which were reprints of ‘Outsiders’ stories), and died in May of 1986. Less than two years later, its own spin-off joined it in comic-book limbo.
There have been a few attempts to revive the series since–during the comics boom of the 1990s, the team reunited for a new series, but this one lasted fewer issues than the first ‘Outsiders’ run. In 2003, DC launched a new series with the name, but it was really more of an updating of the Teen Titans than a continuation of the original title, and featured none of the original Outsiders. It managed to last fifty issues, though, before being relaunched…as ‘Batman and the Outsiders’. Once again, Batman has decided to form a super-team to do the things the Justice League can’t or won’t, and has recruited heroes who share his worldview. After several attempts, DC seems to have learned a lesson from the failed relaunches of the series.
And what are those lessons? One, it might be cynical marketing-driven logic to include a “big draw” popular character in a series just for the sake of getting their fans to buy the book, but it’s cynical marketing-driven logic that works. Fans of Batman bought ‘Batman and the Outsiders’ for the guy with the bat-symbol on his chest, and while they might have eventually come to like the other characters as well, thirty-two issues wasn’t enough time for them to bond with the rest of the team. Spin-offs eventually need to stand on their own, but that doesn’t mean you want to kick the crutches out from under them right away. (This may be why television is littered with so many failed spin-offs. The demands of scheduling mean that they can’t have more than the occasional guest appearance from members of their parent series’ cast.)
The other lesson? When you have a central concept for a series that’s a good idea, run with it. A Batman-created team should look different and act different from an assemblage of generic superheroes, it should have a unique style and adventures that can’t happen in any other comic. That never seemed to happen in ‘Batman and the Outsiders’, despite some entertaining stories, and only time will tell if it happens in the new book. If it doesn’t, then everything old will be new again…including cancellation before issue #30.