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Holy idea spamming! Exploring ‘The Batman Chronicles’ to understand comics’ spin-off fever

I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription are spin-offs!

More than forced perspective, suits with an overabundance of pouches, and even zombies, modern comics is obsessed with sequels and spin-offs. It feeds into this whole notion I call idea spamming: if an idea works, why not bleed that sucker dry till there’s nothing remaining save a husk . Now, there’s such titles that excel by expanding a narrative, and just as many overt cash grabs. Yet you can’t deny just how much of the industry is predicated on ringing the most out of beloved characters and franchises.

Perhaps few other heroes are the source of such endless spin-offs as Batman. Over the years, the Dark Knight’s popularity has resulted in (::cracks knuckles::) Batman Family, The Huntress, Anarky, Gotham Central, Gotham City Sirens, Batwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Talon, Grayson, and Gotham Academy, among others. Each title aimed to use Batman as an entry point to explore a rich universe of sidekicks and tertiary characters, all in the pursuit of satiating rabid Bat fans while offering up new beloved protagonists (who, in turn, may elicit more spin-offs and sequels).

Not all of these Bat titles are equal, but most have one thing to offer: insights into our ceaseless need for such idea spamming and how to properly execute the Circle of Endless Storytelling technique. One such title is The Batman Chronicles, which ran for 23 quarterly issues from 1995-2001, and touched on both Batman’s biggest friends and foes. By examining a few issues and stories from TBC, we can get a better understanding of spin-offs and sequels, and see just what it is that makes us gluttons for 42 shades of our fav heroes.

The Right Writer: Issues 1 and 2 feature stories from long-time Batman vets in Alan Grant, Doug Moench, and Chuck Dixon. Grant was a main Bats writer throughout the ’90s, and is responsible for the creation of, among others, Victor Zsasz and Anarky. His work tends toward the more intellectual side, and his creations often involve dense philosophical explorations around Batman’s adventures.

Moench has also done a lot for the Bat line, but he’s focused his efforts on large-scale events. Having masterminded or contributed to Legacy, Knightfall, and Cataclysm, it’s clear Moench likes to A) mess with the Batman in significant ways and B) has experience balancing the Caped Crusader and his slew of supporting characters.

Finally, Dixon is generally a balance of the other two: he’s written big events and is arguably the man responsible for Nightwing’s ’90s coming-of-age. That doesn’t make Dixon anymore suited for these spin-off titles but it does make him perhaps more cognizant of the balancing act required and the value of solid sidekicks.

That said, each writer approaches these characters slightly different, and that makes all the difference. It seems obvious to say each writer has their own relationship with a fictional universe. But how that relationship manifests – the depth or nuance involved in each given portrayal – is worth a sliver of one’s attention. There’s a sense of consistency that happens as writers move from work to work with a single character, and that has ramifications for the stories they tell, the reasons behind those tales, and the value contained within.

The Meat and Potatoes:

Dixon contributed “Midnight Train” and “Goin’ Downtown”. The former follows Jim Gordon, having recently left GCPD, as he teams with the Huntress to fight thugs on train. The latter, meanwhile, is a bit more hokey, with a random citizen in shopping for supplies actually foiling a robbery before the Dynamic Duo.

Grant, meanwhile, uses his two stories, “Anarky: Tomorrow Belongs to Us” and “The Space Between Good and Evil,” to deliver more trademark philosophical exploration. “Space…” is arguably more effective, looking at the lens of morality through an encounter with B-list villain Feedback. “Anarky” is nothing more than an extended diatribe about anarchy and power (as somehow told within the framework of a cheesy ’50s comic).

Moench’s entries, “Death Mask” and “Commissions”, require more thought. The former focuses on the story of a black mask used in a robbery, winding and weaving into a metaphysical exploration of the nature of crime in Gotham. “Commissions,” though is the more balanced of all the tales, exploring the dynamic between Gordon and Batman as told through the rise of Sarah Essen Gordon as temporary commish during Gordon’s mayoral run.

A Matter of Distance: Perhaps the most important element in any good spin-off is the proximity to the main character. Too close of a tale, and it feels like just another Batman story. Too far, though, and there’s none of that magic that trickles down. For the most part, Batman shows up, to some degree, in each of these stories. But how and where and why makes all the difference.

Dixon’s approach is to limit the use of Batman, turning him into a support character or letting only his presence permeate within these stories. “Midnight Train” hides Batman away until the very end, commenting on Huntress’ tactics and providing some insights into his operational approach and how, with these new support heroes, the mission only complicates. But the focus is truly on Gordon, and his value as both a character and Bat ally, which in turn speaks volumes about this idea of vigilantism and the real impact of Batman’s presence in the city.

“Goin’ Downtown” is mostly a joke, but there’s also some of those same threads within. This notion that Batman has an impact on Gotham’s citizens. The fact that Batman is made to be nothing more than a story element flips the script on traditional Batman stories, where everyone else works in service of the Caped Crusader. Making him less of a person and more of a narrative thread is both meta and also a great way to contextualize Batman in new ways. It opens up all sorts of doors for how we perceive this icon.

In a several key ways, Grant’s two stories achieve something similar to Dixon, pushing the character aside to look at other ideas within this greater universe. “Anarky” is a clear cut lesson about pushing the character too far into the background. Anarky the character only works because, to some extent, he’s a great foil for Batman, this anti-authority fiend who spits in the face of the pillars the prop up Batman’s sense of authority. But Batman is just too far removed, and Anarky isn’t enough to support things on his own (which explains why the character’s own series didn’t exactly sell like hot cakes or set the world afire).

Still, “The Space…” works far better. Batman is knocked incapacitated through much of the story, and that instantly swings the spotlight onto Robin. Any time the Boy Wonder leads is a new chance to perpetuate some baseline proximity to Bats. At the same time, Robin saving the day by talking down Feedback shows that there’s more to Robin then some readers assign, breaking fresh ground that lets that character stand on his own while also demonstrating the value and nuance of his partnership with Batman. Proximity is a tricky thing, but Grant shows it’s often based on ideas and values above anything else.

Speaking of ideas, Moench’s stories are equally focused on these intangible elements, but not in a way that feels connected to Batman as to foster greater meaning. “Death Mask,” especially, feels like Batman is more of a stand-in then anything else, and the message could’ve been delivered with any caped goodie and still deliver the same bizarre, slightly preachy message and approach.

“Commissions” suffers from some of the same issues, and the tale feels like an analogy for the need for heroes and civilian counterparts to collaborate rather than the subtle dynamic between Gordon and Bats. By using Essen Gordon instead, struggling with questions about a hero’s role in facilitating the efforts of police and the moral implications, Moench ignores some of the history of Bat-Gord in favor of a deliberate message about the seat of authority. (Plus, there’s some sadly sexist undertones in the way Essen Gordon is brushed aside or made into a prop.) Moench’s contributions are still enjoyable, but there’s no denying that they’re more fast and loose with their Bat proximity, using him as less than even a footnote – a thing to present ideas but without the substance to make proper reference of the character’s history or ideals or M.O.

A Whiff of Bats:  If there’s any sense of commonality among all spin-offs and sequels, it’s trying to provide new insights into characters. By pulling the camera out or moving the stage lights around, it’s easy to uncover other truths, even those uncovered purely by accident or the magic of shimmery new perspective.

There’s something genuinely exciting about Dixon’s use of Batman, the way it demonstrates an essential core of the character: his ability to help perpetuate so many ideas and theories of the world. His mere presence alone, when used as expertly as in “Midnight Train,” show that Bats is the sort of character and set of metaphors and imagery that one can attach a lot of different meanings. He’s the multi-faceted character used to explore everything from the existence of power and authority to criminal justice reform and how emotions are tied to action. (Plus, bats are dope!)

It’s not some new idea that Batman is everything to everyone, but it’s worth noting that it only takes a dash of the World’s Greatest Detective to draw out all these many references. He’s such an integral part of our shared cultural experience that the mere mention of Bats often does the trick. And that’s really important – he’s become a lingua franca, and we can use the character to share insights and truths in new and interesting ways. That should be the aim of these spin-offs, and why they so often lose the plot.

While I don’t feel as strongly about Grant’s work as the other stories, he most certainly raises important points about the important of universe building. It’s one thing to have a really solid hero, but the quality of the supporting cast makes such a huge difference. In the case of “Anarky,” it was clear that a shaky tertiary character can’t support a proper storyline all on its own, while Robin clearly excelled in “The Space…” because of that deep connection to Batman. In this way, we understand the value of building up a strong supporting cast not just to bolster the hero’s efforts, but also to make the universe feel more alive.

To create this space where everyone is intriguing or dynamic enough that stories spin off on their own. That certain tales almost demand to be told, and these constructs can exist because of solid foundation and personal gravity. They’re not just back-up for the big guns, but they’re part of a greater story being told. As such, they deserve to be seen as part of a whole and not just parts to be moved around to tell side stories in the hopes of recreating the main character’s bounty of magic. As a result, that’s why ideals are so important in these stories: it’s these cohesive elements, like morals or motivations, that can make the transfer of protagonistic power all the more successful.

For everything that Batman can stand for in stories, there’s just as much that doesn’t really fit the character. It’s Moench’s two pieces that demonstrate that if you’re using Batman as this kind of device, it has to be about a few specific elements. “Death Mask” shows that Batman could be an obvious symbol for the proliferation of crime or some commentary on personal responsibility in facing the world’s evils. But Batman’s aim seems too niche, and using him in this regard ignores important bits, and paints the hero as little more than a caricature. That lack of connection isn’t just bothersome, but strips away sentiments and an ethos crucial to his effectiveness.

Plus, there’s something about such a metaphorical approach, as with “Death Mask,” that feels far too meta for the character. Which is to say, the best Batman stories strike at the heart of a dark and true reality, and aren’t just cerebral explorations of ethereal concepts. (It’s why Year One trumps Odyssey every time.) Those are only part of the story, and the author’s got to uncover something concrete to really make it worthwhile. “Commissions” strikes at that same heart a little better, but the story still feels out of line with the whole mythos. These characters aren’t just constructs, but after exiting for a few decades, they become a tradition we all have to work within and abide by.

A Sneak Peek: Whereas these stories feature some big-name Bat writers, most of the artists – including Liam Sharp, Dusty Abell, Brian Apthorp, and Stewart Johnson – aren’t as celebrated when it comes to Batman. That said, most of them are still experienced with other Bat titles, and so they have an intimacy with the character that’s essential. That translates to another kind of lingua franca, with the art doing a lot of the heavy lifting in creating and fostering a sense of proximity, familiarity, and overall cohesiveness. The art work in issues 1 and 2 is so deeply and profoundly ’90s – especially Sharp’s efforts on “The Space…” – and that’s both a positive (that era of Batman feels the most like a cartoon on speed) and a negative (so. many. muscle. lines).

But it’s connected in a way through these visual road signs that do wonders in establishing the book’s continuity and place amid so many other Bat titles. A solid visual seems like the easiest way to display messages and characters crucial to maintaining proximity, but it’s also a challenge because the art is so often in service of the storyline and the writer’s goals. But in these two issues, there is a sense that we’re seeing into other corners of the Bat-verse, and there is some value into this exposure if only to help prime the imagination and hold the reader’s hands.

Lightning Round: In conclusion,

  • Proximity matters – or, “More Robin, Less Anarky”.
  • Writers only write what they think is right.
  • You need distance, but don’t wander too far from center.
  • Great art does so much of the driving in Spin-Off Land.
  • Dixon understands Batman the hero, Moench sees Bats as a symbol, and Grant just loves philosophy.
  • The Batman Chronicles was good, but like Pogs, had its day in the sun.

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