Review: The Batman Adventures Vol. 2 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.]

Even though the first trade collection of The Batman Adventures was nominally tied to the television show, you could hand it to the uninitiated as a sort of primer on Batman, Gotham, and the rogues gallery. With The Batman Adventures Vol. 2, we start to get a little more into the canon of the show, at times riffing on famous episodes while occasionally stepping on the toes of continuity. Sure, the first trade featured a single-faced Harvey Dent, but this volume seems to revel in the fact that everyone was watching Batman: The Animated Series.

This volume is also the first trade - and the only one - exclusively written by Kelley Puckett and penciled by Mike Parobeck, with inks by Rick Burchett. This trio (with colorist Rick Taylor, whose shadowplay is indispensable here) made an art form out of what could have just been a pale imitation of the iconic animated series. Indeed, one could imagine a world where these comics were just adaptations of famous episodes, or animated and sanitized versions of earlier storylines from the comics. But Puckett and Parobeck and company seem to have been in competition only with themselves, simply trying to top the preceding issue of their run.

In fact, nowhere is that more evident than in Volume 2’s collection of The Batman Adventures #12, an issue entitled “Batgirl: Day One.” The Grand Comics Database puts this issue’s shelf date at August 5, 1993, a scant month before BTAS would introduce Batgirl in the two-parter “Shadow of the Bat.” I’m sure that the spidey-sense of every key comics collector is tingling, because #12 is the first printed appearance of Harley Quinn, a full six years before she would see print in the DCU proper. Whether the creators were aware of the import of Harley’s appearance here seems immaterial; in a riff on Batgirl’s classic origin, subbing Killer Moth for just about every female villain on the show, we find Barbara Gordon in her Halloween costume, thwarting an all-girls heist. (For better or for worse, BTAS and the DCAU at large often kept the ladies fighting amongst themselves; see also, and especially, “Girl’s Night Out” on The New Batman Adventures.)

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We might try to reconcile “Batgirl: Day One” with “Shadow of the Bat,” or we might chalk it up to mixed continuity, but the real fun of the story is just to enjoy it, to linger over the way the plot unfolds - but also to spend some time with Parobeck’s art in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate as a child. For example, there’s no way six-year-old Zach would have recognized Maggie and Hopey from Love and Rockets among the party guests, nor would I have noticed that the janitor looks suspiciously like Archie Goodwin. I also wouldn’t have caught the significance of, in a later issue, a marquee boasting that a certain K. Conroy is starring in a production of Hamlet. These careful background details - or even the book’s jailbreak finale from Mastermind, the Perfesser, and Mr. Nice - prove how much this book was a labor of love, preaching the Gospel of the Bat to the cognoscenti among us.

Volume 2 isn’t all subtextual in-jokes, because in issue #16 the subtext becomes metatext when the Joker kidnaps the illustrator of Batman: Gotham Adventures and forces him to draw Joker’s crimes directly into a comic book. There’s so much to unpack just in that concept alone - evidently, just like the Fantastic Four, Batman is the star of his own in-universe comic book, which chronicles and adapts his “real-world” adventures. Meanwhile, Joker has found a way to break the fourth wall from behind the fourth wall, speaking directly to Batman through the pages of Gotham Adventures (which had, if the cameos on p. 5 are to be believed, been written by Kelley Puckett, drawn by Mike Parobeck, etc.). The book never verges too metafictional, though Batman gets the last laugh when he arranges for comic book subscriptions to be doled out at Arkham Asylum. (As for the fact that Gotham Adventures would eventually become the title of the comic book we’re reading? Even Grant Morrison might be baffled by art imitating life in this instance!)

As before, there’s no central plot running through Volume 2, but there are callbacks aplenty. There’s the aforementioned trio of Batman editors caricatured as rogues, while Man-Bat’s feature recalls the bait-and-switch of the episode “Terror in the Sky.” Meanwhile, the origin of Batgirl is swiftly followed by what’s presented as her first team-up with Robin (and we’ll see more from these two in subsequent volumes), and two separate issues poke at the precarious triangulation between Batman, Ra’s al Ghul, and his daughter Talia, torn between the two men in her life. In the first of these, we get a surprisingly wistful pairing with Batman and Talia that seems to anticipate what Jeph Loeb did for Batman and Catwoman in Batman: Hush; later in the book, though, comes a fairly standard Ra’s al Ghul tale, asking whether Batman is merely stopping Ra’s from saving the world.

What holds the book together is, as ever, Parobeck’s magisterial artwork. With the stroke of his pencil, Parobeck had an uncanny ability to suggest a whole range of motion. Whether it’s Man-Bat swooping through the sky or just a Caped Crusader’s fist barreling toward a glass jaw, Parobeck’s visual sense transcended any mere impression he was doing of Bruce Timm’s style. In fact, Parobeck’s art is so good that it elevates some of the less flashy stories. I genuinely thrilled to see another Rupert Thorne issue, because the banal villainy of Gotham’s mob clears the way for Parobeck to do his thing; put another way, there’s a tendency for Batman comics to get overwhelmed by his villains, so when the baddie is just a man in a smoking jacket, Parobeck has no competition in the flashiness department. 

Among its many bright moments, Volume 2 also boasts a favorite issue of Parobeck himself. It’s #14, a Robin story in which the Boy Wonder flies solo against Scarface and the Ventriloquist. We get a dazzling two pages where Robin punches his way to Scarface, but the story also gives some strong characterization to our stalwart sidekick, who begins the story ready to give up his civilian life in order to inherit the mantle of the Bat one day. By the final page, however, Robin has seen firsthand what happens to a guy like the Ventriloquist, who is entirely unable to separate himself from his costumed alter ego. It’s smart and concise storytelling, and part of the magic trick is being able to flip back 20 pages to see how swiftly the wheel turned.

Throughout The Batman Adventures Vol. 2, there is an abundant sense of joy, even when the stories are dark and heavy. On one page, we have a flashback to the night the Waynes were murdered, while the rest of that story posits a world in which Scarecrow might finally have triumphed in spreading his fear toxin through subliminal electrical signals. It can be somber, but it can equally be jubilant, the combination that kept us coming back to the television set every weekday afternoon. And in the next volume, we’ll see that we weren’t alone in our adoration; a veritable who’s-who of comics creators drop by for some guest work, as does the mother of all guest stars in what might very well be my favorite single issue of all time.


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