Ecce libri cum pictoris: Batman ’66 #1 and Deadpool #13
Batman ’66 and Deadpool are fascinating comics. In a corporate mainstream superhero world where one big event has started off with Superman seemingly killing another hero and another big event is simply the second of THREE (or is it four?) big events this year (because if one big event is great, THREE is THREE TIMES AS GOOD!!!!), there’s not a ton of room for comics like these. Yet Marvel and DC still manage to fit them, which is nice. Marvel seems to be a bit more accommodating for stuff like Deadpool in their universe, but it’s still not the overwhelming paradigm of their line. Meanwhile, after a little over a week as a digital comic, Batman ’66 gets a print version. The very idea of these comics tacks against the company lines of both corporations, so it’s a bit bewildering and brilliant that we get them in the same week.
Deadpool has been kicking butt since the relaunch, as Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan have been doing excellent work making it actually funny as well as wise-cracking. Whenever I read a Deadpool comic in the past, even the celebrated Joe Kelly run, it seemed like Wade was snarky but the rest of the book fell a bit short. In this series, however, not only is Deadpool hilarious, but the plots are ridiculous and funny, too, so it feels like Wade fits in a bit more. Obviously, some Deadpool comics have been funny, but maybe Duggan and Posehn are just funnier than the other writers. Whatever the reason, this run of Deadpool has a je ne sais quoi that separates it, for me, from the rest of his books.
After each arc so far, Posehn and Duggan have “gone back in time” to a period before Deadpool actually existed, first to the 1980s (in issue #7) and now to the 1970s – 1977, specifically. These are billed as “inventory issues” that the Marvel editors keep finding in drawers, but Duggan and Posehn do some interesting things with both of them – as in issue #7, things that happen in this issue tie in directly to the “main” story in the “present,” so while people might be tempted to treat these as inventory issues and thus skippable, they’re really not. They’re also not skippable because they’re excellent, but for the people out there who only care about issues that “count,” these are deceptive, because they certainly do count. In this issue, for instance, Deadpool decides to take a job with Luke Cage and Danny Rand, because he reads in the newspaper that they’re “Heroes for Hire” and he thinks that they’re hiring heroes. He makes a poor impression on them when he bursts in on their office, but he tags along with them on a case about a gang shaking down local businesses for protection money. He’s wildly inept, but eventually, he and the Heroes for Hire manage to defeat “the White Man” – the leader of the gang – and everyone goes home happy. However, the White Man wants his revenge in the present, which leads into the next story arc of the book.
The plot is fine, but it’s not really the point. The point is, of course, that the creative team is aping the comics and style of the 1970s, and they do it very well, especially because of the clichéd-yet-still-humorous trope of making ironic statements about characters whose fates we already know. So while Captain Stacy really oughtn’t be around in this issue, Posehn and Duggan make a joke about his death, and Aunt May has a cameo. We also get a homage to the Steranko Nick Fury-and-Countessa sex scene that’s far more overt even than that scene was. There are plenty of other sex jokes, as usual with Deadpool, including an obvious one about Danny Rand that I hope has been made before, because if not, then many other writers have dropped the ball. The fact that the gang leader is called the White Man and actually looks like porcelain allows the writers to make some “don’t be racist!” jokes. Posehn and Duggan even make the caption boxes fun, as the caption box is sentient and it knows everything about Marvel history, so its commentary is quite funny.
As funny as the story is, the art team of Scott Koblish (who pencils and inks this), Val Staples (who colors this), and Joe Sabino (who letters this) is nonpareil on this issue, and they take the funny script of Posehn and Duggan and turn it into genius. Koblish is brilliant at both the action in the book, which is choreographed quite well, and the amazing details that make this look like it’s taking place in the 1970s. Obviously, Koblish piles on the 1970s clichés, but because of the impressive detail to each panel, it still feels “realistic,” at least in the context of Deadpool’s ridiculous corner of the Marvel Universe. The splash page sets the tone perfectly. Wade has a nice ‘fro, a big Deadpool medallion, flared pants, and stylin’ boots. On the wall is the iconic Farrah Fawcett poster alongside a poster for Equus, which is one of the more 1970s things around (I haven’t seen the movie, but the play screams Seventies). Below Farrah is an ABBA poster (because ABBA RULES!!!!), and on his bed, Deadpool has a pillow with a Navajo-esque case, something else that screams 1970s. Next to his bed is a milk carton holding records, and I’m sure we should recognize the album with the dude on it holding his shirt open, but I don’t know what it is and neither did my wife, who’s far cooler than I am and whose parents in the 1970s were far cooler than mine. Koblish also inks the page well – the black spotting on the bricks of the apartment’s wall give it a solid, “3-D” effect, making them look more like actual bricks. Staples, meanwhile, deliberately sets the color overlays the slightest bit off, so that at the top of the panel we get a thin red line bleeding outside the margins. He also uses Benday dots liberally throughout the book, including on this page, and Benday dots, as we all know, are awesome.
As I mentioned, the details are tremendous. This feels like it takes place in a sleazy 1970s city, as New York once was, and Koblish gives us a wonderful menagerie of humanity, from the dudes wearing wide ties to the softball team who is going to a Kiss concert (I have a feeling those dudes are important, but I don’t know if it’s because we’re supposed to know them from Marvel history or because they’ll show up in this book in the “present”). The fashions, which is where people trying to recreate a time period often go crazy, aren’t too obnoxious – Luke and Danny’s secretary, for instance, is wearing flared jeans and a free-flowing belt, but it’s not too ostentatious. Mrs. Camacho, the Heroes’ client, dresses like a elderly woman in any time period, and while the White Man’s thugs have some odd accoutrements, they’re not overly crazy. Deadpool’s and the White Man’s pimp clothing is deliberately ridiculous and Carmelita is supposed to look like a sexpot, so we can forgive Koblish for going a bit overboard with that. The book feels like it should, with the 1970s being just a part of the look of the book and not the overwhelming factor in it. Koblish has a lot of nice touches in the book – the wallpaper in the room where Deadpool and Carmelita are held prisoner, the ridiculous sex metaphors on the Steranko homage page, the fact that Luke and Danny go undercover by wearing aprons over their regular superhero costumes, some nice Kirby Krackle, the sheer amount of graffiti – and Staples continues to do wonderful work with the coloring. Sabino’s computerized fonts are unfortunate, because the lettering is the only part of the book that looks “modern,” but he does contribute some nice sound effects when the action begins. That part, at least, looks very 1970s.
Another thing one notices about the book is the amount of content. This book is packed with panels, and Posehn, Duggan, and Koblish make sure it flows nicely even though it’s packed. I don’t want to get into the rant about “old comics were awesome because more stuff happened!!!” debate, because both old comics and new comics have their plusses and minuses, but it’s such an awareness shift when you read a lot of modern comics (especially ones from the Big Two) and realize how quickly you can read the words (and I do appreciate that a lot of writers today do trust their artists a lot, so they don’t need so many words) and then you pick up something like this comic, and it takes a while to get through it. Posehn and Duggan make every word count, so unlike an old Claremont book where you could skip the paragraphs recapping everyone’s powers, you really do want to see what the caption box reads, because it’s probably funny. Koblish and Staples, too, make every panel count – when Deadpool steps into the street and we get a panel stretching across the entire page, it’s fun to sit and take in every single character and every single word on the movie marquees. Trying to read all the grafitti is fun, too. Trying to decipher what posters are on the wall in the room where Deadpool and Carmelita are being held captive is fun, too (that has to be Bruce Lee, I guess, and what looks like a psychedelic tiger, and is that Valkyrie holding a whip?). All of this makes the comic a joy to read, but it’s also a joy to read slowly. And, as Posehn and Duggan point out, in today’s Marvel Universe, this story actually happened – Luke Cage is dreaming about it at the very end, so from now on, Deadpool met (and annoyed) the Heroes for Hire in 1977. That’s one of the wonders of the Marvel Universe.
Over at the Senior Circuit (I think we can consider DC the “National League” of the Big Two, right?), Jeff Parker, Jonathan Case, and Wes Abbott bring us Batman ’66 #1, “The Riddler’s Ruse,” which has been available digitally for over a week and now gets a fancy published version. Batman ’66 has been wildly anticipated since it was announced, and I suppose it’s lucky for Parker and Case that it’s as good as advertised, or there’d be a gang of angry hipsters descending on Periscope Studios in downtown Portland to drag them away and, I don’t know, make them grow mustaches and eat bacon or something. I don’t know what hipsters do, man!
Parker, of course, is writing this comic as if it’s an episode of the Batman television show, which means that there’s Chief O’Hara and Aunt Harriet and bad puns and “old chum” and “Holy tightrope!” and some dude sticking his head out of the window when Batman and Robin are climbing a building (he later shows up at Catwoman’s club). Batman is out in the daytime and he makes jokes and there’s a complicated robbery scheme and no one gets hurt. The fact that the Riddler is the main villain makes me think that Parker recently re-read Neil Gaiman’s “secret origin” of Edward Nigma and thought he should revive that Riddler, but maybe it’s just because he wanted Case to draw Frank Gorshin. Parker is a good writer, so while the comic is campy, it’s never mocking – it’s a fine line, but Parker manages it. He lays out some clues, Batman and Robin solve them, there are some pitfalls along the way, they join up as reluctant allies with Catwoman, and they trick the Riddler in the end. It’s a perfectly entertaining story.
As fun as Parker’s story is, Case’s art steals the show. Case hasn’t done a ton in comics, so he might not be familiar to people who buy mostly superhero comics, and I hope this raises his profile, because the art is superb. He doesn’t completely mimic the actors’ faces, but his renderings are close enough that when the Riddler makes a face on Page 2, it’s reminiscent of Gorshin without being a photo reference. The way he draws Batman, Robin, and Catwoman is close enough that we can “hear” Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar without hearing their voices. Case’s pencils are loose and funky, and it’s impressive how well he does action while also making sure the characters’ body language speaks volumes. The streak of cruelty in Catwoman’s face, while subtle, makes her relationship with Batman far creepier than in the television show. Case’s coloring, of course, is part of the fun. He too goes “off-register” deliberately to make the comic look more like a relic from the 1960s, when the printing processes weren’t as sophisticated. The book is supposed to look like a “Pop-Art” comic, and the off-set blue lines in the comic evoke that. He also uses Benday dots quite nicely, and in general, the coloring is bright and even somewhat lurid, giving us a vague sense of the psychedelia of the 1960s. Abbott, I assume, is responsible for the television show-style sound effects, but the “Foom!”s and “KaBoom!”s – complete with circles within the “o”s – isn’t too obtrusive. You notice them, but they don’t interrupt the action like they did on the show. There’s also the fact that Case doesn’t have a budget, so nothing looks cheesy – he can have Batman climb up a rope to the Riddler’s airplane, fight him on said airplane, bail out when the plane catches on fire, and then give us a wonderful “comics” page of the plane crashing with smaller panels of the crime-fighting onlookers watching, all without worrying about a lack of money or switching out stunt people. That’s why comics are awesome!
While the quality of these books is high, what makes them both so interesting is that, tonally, they’re very different from most of what the Big Two are publishing. They’re also fascinating because of the format in which we get them. Marvel has not had too much luck with “alternate” universes, with the notable exception of the Ultimate Universe, so they usually just try to fit everything into a grand narrative stretching back to Marvel Comics #1 in 1939. So Deadpool #13 is part of that history, even though it’s silly. In recent years, Marvel seems to be much more accepting of comics that don’t fit with an overall tone of their line – while most of the Marvel Universe is caught up in a grand time travel/space opera/end of the world/what the fuck? scenario, they have some books that contain far more sex jokes than you’d ever expect from a mainstream superhero comic, a comic where the main bad guys wear track suits and say “bro” a lot, and a comic where Jason Aaron is doing whatever the fuck he’s doing over in Wolverine and the X-Men. Marvel embraces this wackiness and makes it all part of their grand tapestry.
Meanwhile, it’s been a long, LONG time since any DC superhero book in the “regular” DCU could be considered “joyful” or “exuberant.” Dial H is somewhat weird, but it’s not really all that exuberant, is it? DC continues to publish some really “fun” comics, but usually they shove them off to digital and then print them later, and they “don’t count.” DC has always had more success with “alternate” universes than Marvel has, so maybe this isn’t as much of a stigma as it is only slightly farther downtown, but it still seems that fans of superhero comics want books that “count,” and I wonder if this works against stuff like Batman ’66. I certainly hope not, because it’s a wonderful comic, but I do wonder. The funniest thing about Batman ’66 is that there’s absolutely nothing that couldn’t be tweaked just a bit so it could work as a “regular” Batman comic. Yes, I know that Parker wants to evoke the television show, but he doesn’t necessarily have to. DC publishes six (6!) comics in which Batman is the star or half of a starring duo (I think I’m counting right – Batman, Detective, Batman: The Dark Knight, Batman Incorporated, Batman and Robin, and Batman/Superman), yet they’re all fairly the same in tone, and there’s no room for a lighter-hearted take on the Caped Crusader. If Parker tweaked this just a bit to take out Aunt Harriet, Chief O’Hara, and just a tiny bit of the corniness – again, I get why it’s there, but there’s really not an egregious amount of it – this book is a perfectly serviceable “normal” Batman adventure. If Case ditched the drawn-in eyebrows on Batman’s costume and synced up the Riddler’s and Catwoman’s costume with what they look like right now (let’s hope with a fully-zipped up Selina), the art would serve perfectly well, too. It seems that DC just can’t stand the idea that somewhere, someone might have fun reading their mainstream comics, so this well-done and gorgeous Batman story has to have a gimmick and has to be set in an “alternate” universe. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I do hope the book sells very well, because it’s excellent, but I fear that its status might limit its appeal, which is absurd.
Both of these comics are single-issue stories (although, as I noted, the villain in Deadpool will show up again, but if you haven’t been reading the book, you don’t need to in order to enjoy this issue), and they’re well worth your time. Deadpool is $2.99 for 20 pages (plus a fun recap page) that feels like 25 or 30, while Batman ’66 is $3.99 for 30 pages of pure comics awesome. They’re both contenders for best issues of the year, and you really should drop some coin on them if you want to get away from the sight of one of the Seven Deadly Sins eating corpses for a while. That does get tedious!