Review: The Batman Adventures Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)


[A series on Batman: The Animated Series comics collections by guest reviewer Zach King. Zach writes about movies at The Cinema King and about comics on Instagram at Dr. King’s Comics.]

Preface: I’m writing these reviews in December 2022. One month ago, we learned that Kevin Conroy had passed away on November 10, 2022 — just under three years after I met him at the Minneapolis GalaxyCon. He was supremely generous with his fans, indulging one with a few bars of “Am I Blue?” I thanked him for being the voice of my childhood, and we talked about how he played Batman like Hamlet. The night the news broke, I queued up “Perchance to Dream” (Kevin’s favorite episode) and dug into The Batman Adventures. These reviews are dedicated to the memory of Kevin Conroy, who was and always will be vengeance and the night … and Batman.

Before I was in kindergarten, I understood the concept of “must see TV.” Fox Kids had trained me to rush to the television set at 3:30 p.m. every day for a new installment of Batman: The Animated Series. I am sure I don’t need to preach much to this choir, but BTAS was definitive. I was too young for the Tim Burton movies, and the Adam West show wasn’t in wide syndication on any of the channels we had at home. But I still had Batman, and what a Batman he was: powerful but not omnipotent, grim but not dour, inhabiting a Gotham City that was somehow both deep noir and intensely vibrant, populated with some of the best iterations of Batman’s supporting cast and rogues gallery.

It was my gateway drug into the world of superhero fandom, but it was also the entry point for my life as a comic book collector. My first comic book was a copy of The Batman Adventures #2 (co-starring Catwoman), followed swiftly by the third issue, whose cover was adorned with the captivating image of the Joker, who had managed to imprison Batman in a death trap that would make Harry Houdini break a sweat. Before I knew that one could subscribe to comics, I would scour the racks at grocery stores and Walmart. (Specialty stores? What were those?)

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Here we are, nearly thirty years later, and we’re still talking about The Batman Adventures. Perhaps it’s no surprise - BTAS ended up inaugurating the DC Animated Universe, which would include more cartoons, tie-in comics, animated movies, and video games. And for a title that was only designed to be a miniseries, The Batman Adventures has enjoyed surprising longevity; it ran, in one form or another, for more than 150 issues until 2004, and in 2020 it was revived as The Adventures Continue, which is still being published.

The Batman Adventures, Volume 1 is a compelling answer to the question of why this incarnation of Batman persists to this day. Even divorced from the magical voice of Kevin Conroy (though I defy you not to hear him in your head as you read), this Batman is a definitive interpretation of what I’ll go ahead and say is the greatest and most versatile fictional character in history. (Superman may be more important, but that’s an argument for another time.) Volume 1 collects the first ten issues of The Batman Adventures, with most issues written by Kelley Puckett and illustrated by Mike Parobeck and Rick Burchett, and nearly all the Arkham regulars are here right from the start.

Volume 1 starts off with a bang, a three-parter that finds the Penguin, Catwoman, and the Joker in a sleight-of-hand conspiracy to distract Batman from Joker’s real endgame. Puckett’s story wastes no time on introductions or origin stories; this is a Gotham already in progress, allowing the plot to bounce these fully-formed characters off of each other. Immediately, Puckett demonstrates a knack for what makes these characters tick; there’s a fun gag where Penguin encourages his henchmen to better themselves by learning new words, but we learn also that Penguin is only pretending to know the meaning of words like “arteriosclerosis.” Meanwhile, Catwoman steals the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London, while the Joker begins abducting Gotham’s most prominent so that he can beat the tar out of them on a hijacked television signal.

Yes, in a page that seems halfway between The Killing Joke and A Death in the Family (while simultaneously anticipating Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight), the Joker takes a baseball bat to Commissioner Gordon on live television, to make the point that “There is no law and order in Gotham City. Only chaos. Random … destructive … chaos!” It’s a moment of shocking violence, all the more disturbing because of what’s not seen, but it’s one of the best Joker moments no one remembers. While this particular issue was drawn by Ty Templeton, much of the book is fleshed out by the pencils of the late, great Mike Parobeck. Indeed, fluidity is one of Parobeck’s greatest skills on display in this volume; between the choreography of limbs and the swirling gossamer of Batman’s cape, Parobeck has an eye for dynamic action that positively glides across the page. He’s an able mimic of the square-jawed aesthetic from the television series, but his greatest gift is the uncanny ability to imbue static images with the illusion of motion.

Nowhere is Parobeck on better display than in issue #9 — “The Little Red Book” — a largely silent issue that finds Batman chasing down evidence that may put Rupert Thorne away for good. In a book that also includes stories about Killer Croc and Clayface, it’s easy to assume that a smaller-scale mob story might fail to dazzle, but Puckett gives Parobeck the room to dazzle us with page after page of Batman vaulting across panels, clobbering goons, and skulking across perimeters to get his man. It’s a testament to Batman’s relentless pursuit of justice, even for as mundane a foe as Thorne, and it’s this kind of sweeping artwork that confirms we lost Parobeck far too young.

In addition to the Croc and Clayface tales, there’s a Scarecrow two-parter by Martin Pasko and Brad Rader, as well as a murder mystery where Bruce Wayne is the prime suspect (shades of Bruce Wayne: Murderer, anyone?). These are fine stories enough, but the book closes on a high note with its tenth issue, “The Last Riddler Story.” Why this story hasn’t been reprinted in every “Best of Riddler” collection, I’ll never know; here, a dejected Riddler is released from Arkham, cajoled back into one last caper by his goons, who are drawn to look like Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp of the Three Stooges. But the doppelgangers don’t stop there, because this issue also introduces the villainous trio of Mastermind, Mister Nice, and the Perfesser — dead ringers for editors Mike Carlin, Archie Goodwin, and Dennis O’Neil. These villains would recur throughout the animated tie-ins, and it’s a fun in-joke that runs in tandem with Batman’s attempt to solve the Riddler’s ultimate puzzle. As a Riddler story, Puckett asks why a man as smart as the Riddler continues to face an unbeatable foe like Batman, and the solution to Riddler’s defeated attitude is one for the ages.

I had wondered how I might review these trades, given the anthology nature of the title; each issue or two is its own self-contained story, with minimal connections between each other or to the animated series. But what emerges, at least from these first ten issues, is a picture of Batman at the height of his powers, with his enemies at the peak of their villainy. Like BTAS itself, The Batman Adventures, Volume 1 dives right into the action, pairing economical storytelling with graceful fluid illustration. These stories are, I feel, underrated in the DCAU fandom, at times remembered only for their value in the speculative market. But that’s a point for Volume 2, which features the first comic book appearance of a certain Harley Quinn.

Comments ( 2 )

  1. I really want to get my hands on the TAS comics.

    1. At the risk of spoiling a point I'll make later in the review series, I think this run is perfect for a compendium-style collection, which seems to be all the rage at DC these days. These are evergreen classic stories, and the DCAU never goes out of fashion!


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