Review: The Batman Adventures Vol. 4 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.]

Don’t be too alarmed that The Batman Adventures Vol. 4 is the last; while The Batman Adventures published its final issue in October 1995, the very next month saw the first issue of The Batman & Robin Adventures, which was ultimately reprinted in three trade paperback collections. Given the gleam of a new first issue just on the horizon, there’s no indication that this trade is wrapping anything up, but there is a continuing sense from the last volume that the creators are spreading their wings for bigger kinds of stories.

In this book alone, we have two oversized issues (at 54 and 44 pages, respectively), plus a three-part story, three celebrations of Christmas, the animated debut of a certain Gotham vigilante, and the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a lot to tackle in one book - let alone one review - but this series continues with grace, clarity, and a purity of storytelling that seems to have faded from fashion. When was the last time you read a single issue that was a one-and-done exercise, a story you could hand to any first-timer without needing to footnote or cross-reference? That was always the greatest strength of The Batman Adventures, and it’s still the case, if you can find any copies that haven’t already been scooped up.

Chances are, though, you’re already very familiar with the first few stories collected in Volume 4. The Batman Adventures Holiday Special, as you may know, was famously and brilliantly adapted into the episode “Holiday Knights” for The New Batman Adventures. Written by Paul Dini with art by Bruce Timm, Glen Murakami, and Ronnie Del Carmen, these stories originally appeared in a slightly different order than in the cartoon episode, but I defy you not to hear those DCAU voices in your head as Batgirl fights Clayface, as Harley and Ivy go on a shopping spree with Bruce Wayne’s credit cards, and as Joker makes his New Year’s resolution not to kill anyone — starting next year, that is. As an added bonus, Dini pens an unadapted story about Mr. Freeze creating a snowfall in Gotham to commemorate his wedding anniversary. It’s been a tradition in my home for years now to watch “Holiday Knights” every New Year’s Eve, and the touching finale - in which Batman and Commissioner Gordon share a cup of coffee - banishes all dry eyes from the house. The printed version, I’m happy to report, has much the same effect.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

By contrast, Volume 4’s final story is Annual #2, a bombastic love letter to Jack Kirby, again by Dini, Murakami, and Timm. What starts as a Ra’s al Ghul tale brings in Jason Blood, Etrigan the Demon, and a forgotten Kirby creation, the Witch Queen of Ancient Sumeria. It’s a real celebration of the Kirby spirit, with Murakami and Timm staging oversized silent panels and creating their own '50s Kirby-style monster, Haahk. The story really puts the “terrorist” back in “ecoterrorist” as Ra’s al Ghul bombs Gotham to find a sacred tablet that will allow him to summon the fearsome Haahk. In the last volume, we saw The Batman Adventures beat the cartoon to the punch by introducing Superman, and here we get an animated Etrigan years before “The Demon Within.”

The big introductions keep coming in Volume 4, with an issue featuring Anarky and penned by none other than Anarky’s co-creator Alan Grant. Including Anarky was de rigueur for a certain period of time in Gotham, though his editorial fortunes fell from favor as the '90s wore on. One could argue that DC has never fully found a way to restore this teenaged vigilante to his place of prominence in Gotham, though his multimedia appearances (in particular, Arkham Origins and Beware the Batman) have treated him better. Here, Anarky is undoubtedly sanitized, more prankster than true anarchist, and what might be a simple continuity error ends up suggesting there’s more to this story. (Robin calls Anarky by his real name without ever learning it, implying either that Robin did some solid off-panel detective work or that he’s met Lonnie Machin before.)

Throughout Volume 4 we’re treated to increasingly bigger stories, such that the first standard issue almost seems quaint in its scope. We begin with a Christmas tale in which a disguised Harley Quinn bamboozles her way back into Arkham as Joker’s shrink, posing as Dr. Heinrik Heimlich. It’s just in time for Christmas, and “Dr. Heimlich” has developed a style of therapy that allows Joker to stage his own Christmas pageant. As a demi-sequel to “Christmas with the Joker,” we get a classic “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” but we also get a Joker-fied “Twelve Days of Christmas” in all its violent glory, reminding us that it’s not all saving the world; sometimes stopping an Arkham breakout is enough.

Another Ra’s al Ghul story is more fizzle than bang, never quite saying anything new about the characters but following up, at least, on an earlier issue’s Hush-like dynamic between Batman and Talia. In the returning camp, though, the most welcome stars are the trinity of Bat-rogues created to homage famous Bat-editors: Mastermind (Mike Carlin), Mister Nice (Archie Goodwin), and the Perfesser (Dennis O’Neil). This issue, #30, is probably my favorite featuring these three, because we get their secret origins — each more implausible than the last — with a final panel that puts a perfect shaggy-dog button on the whole story. The fact that it is the only panel in which Batman appears is a special kind of tribute to these characters and to the perfect alchemy between writer Kelley Puckett and artist Mike Parobeck.

In fact, sadly, it’s the last solo contribution from the two. Guest artist Dev Madan appears throughout the trade, acquitting himself well enough, and the final story is an immense three-parter co-written by Ty Templeton. Templeton was certainly no stranger to The Batman Adventures, having illustrated the first three issues, and his co-writing presence on the final three feels like a passing of the torch. In this titanic tale, Hugo Strange zaps Batman with an amnesia ray, accidentally storing his memories in a diamond that Catwoman just happens to have stolen. On the face of it, it’s a bonkers premise, but it’s sold by the sincerity of the storytelling and the surprising pathos wrung from Hugo Strange, an underutilized adversary in the DCAU. There’s a nod of sorts to the Englehart/Rogers run, especially in the dynamic between Strange and Rupert Thorne, and the Bat/Cat dynamic is better here than it was in most episodes of The Animated Series.

The torch goes to Ty Templeton in the next set of reviews, but if this volume is any indication, we’ll be in very good hands. Templeton turns in a well-crafted solo script for #33, “Just Another Night,” with art by Parobeck. In this story, we meet Bruce Wayne, his latest girlfriend, and her son on a Gray Ghost movie night. When history begins to repeat itself with a mugging in the alley outside the theater, Templeton takes the occasion to give us a rousing Batman action sequence that tells us so painfully much about Bruce Wayne in the process. Templeton ultimately concludes that there is an irreconcilable tether between Batman’s heroism and Bruce Wayne’s grief. Your heart breaks to think of the psychological portrait Templeton paints - aided by Parobeck’s achingly human pencils. “Everything went wrong?” Bruce asks his trusty manservant in the story’s final moments. “No, I don’t see it that way, Alfred. After all, everybody got their belongings back … the bad guy went to jail … and nobody got hurt.” That the sorrow bleeds through the ink is a testament to how potent and poetic The Batman Adventures could be at its peak.

I started these reviews with a tribute to Kevin Conroy, and I’d like to close here by talking a little more about my conversation with him back in November 2019. After we talked about how and why he played Batman like Hamlet, I asked him point blank, “Do you think Batman can ever be happy?” (This was, after all, not long after that question became the flashpoint of Tom King’s Batman run and the infamous wedding that never was.) Kevin got a faraway look in his eyes, turned back to me, and said with such profound sadness in his voice, “No. I don’t think he can be happy and still be Batman. Because he takes his pain and he makes something good out of it. I don’t know what happens if he loses that pain, if he allows himself to let go of it.” I almost cried when he said it; I almost cried typing it. And I could not read #33 - or indeed any of these adventures - without hearing that impossibly strong voice in my head.

Up next, The Batman & Robin Adventures.

Comments ( 4 )

  1. Great review. Reading what Kevin said about Batman almost brought me to tears
    I can't wait to read your reviews of Batman and Robin adventures

    1. I was so blessed to meet Kevin at what must have been one of his last con appearances - just before the pandemic shut the world down. He was an amazing figure, larger than life in so many ways.

      He opened his panel with "I am vengeance..." etc. He must have delivered that line millions of times in his life, but that day in November was like the first time he said it. He had no sense of lethargy or reluctance - he gave it his all, because he loved the character just as much as we do.

      The woman in line ahead of me asked him to give her a few bars of "Am I Blue" - and I'm sure he'd been asked a thousand times before, but he made her feel special and belted it out like it was the first time.

  2. Keep the reviews coming. These were great Batman stories regardless of which continuity or art style. There is an omnibus of this series coming out this year. I've got all the tpbs but the early ones have a shabby printing so I might get the omnibus which is 'bound' (haha) to have bright paper and bold colors not to mention oversized art.

    Many generations will forever remember Kevin Conroy as the man who really did bring Bruce Wayne and Batman to life. Bless him wherever he is.

    1. “Maximilien,” the count said, “the friends whom we have lost do not rest in the earth, they are buried in our hearts, and that is how God wanted it, so that we should always be in their company.”

      I think of that line from Count of Monte Cristo every time I lose someone I love (which is, sadly, more frequent these days). And I put Kevin Conroy in that camp. We all loved him. He lives on in our ears and in our hearts, the once and future Batman, someone who understood the character maybe better than any writer or artist. For my money, he's on the Mount Rushmore of Batman creators.

      Looking forward to the BTAS omnibus, too! (DC's recent collection snafus notwithstanding) Not sure I want glossy paper and bright colors, though... I'm keen on the newsprint-style omnibus format, akin to those old Kirby Fourth World HCs or even the thicker Joker Bronze Age. All told, though, I'm happy for whatever format gets these fantastic books in front of new readers; they were my gateway into comics, so I know they'll work on others.

      Thanks for the kind words! I'm here as long as CE wants me.


To post a comment, you may need to temporarily allow "cross-site tracking" in your browser of choice.

Newer Post Home Older Post