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Monday, October 28, 2019 

Tony Isabella feels Batman ruined the DCU

Black Lightning creator Isabella recently posted a brief statement on his Facebook account telling why he's turned off by the Masked Manhunter as a creation today:
Here's a tip. Don't ask me to join groups or visit pages that have "Batman" in their titles. He was once my favorite comics hero. Now I consider him one of the most toxic and the ruination of DC Comics. DC hurts their other characters by making Batman the center of their universe.
If I agree with anything here, it's that Batman has got to be one of the most overexposed, overused superheroes in any shared universe, with Wolverine having come a close second in the MCU in past years. But I would like to argue one thing, in case there's any confusion: it's not Batman in and of himself as a creation who's the problem, but rather, all the countless editors, publishers and writers who spared no expense and went whole universes out of their way to put top heavy emphasis on Bruce Wayne's alter ego, far more than on any other superhero, including - but not limited to - Superman. And all because of a colossal, unhealthy obsession with darkness that's consumed too much of the entertainment world, comics in particular, just like all the idiotic social justice tactics. In hindsight, it does seem like there's been far more live action movies based on Batman than on Superman, even as they decidedly don't age well. If more emphasis had been put on Superman and other such heroes whose worlds could be brighter and more optimistic (and maybe even more filled with sci-fi and fantasy elements), Batman wouldn't be seen as such a troubling influence on today's approach to entertainment.

But that's unfortunately what became of DC ever since Frank Miller's 1986 GN, the Dark Knight Returns, which, at least a few people interacting in the resulting conversational thread on Isabella's page have noted, is what the editors took as their mandate for years to come. I don't know if you could say it began all at once, but by the turn of the century, what began as Miller's take on the Masked Manhunter was suddenly becoming the norm with how to characterize Batman - as a control freak with almost no sense of humor, if at all, who rarely smiled. By contrast, look at how Spider-Man - at least in years where Marvel had better editors and writers - was handled: his origin may be built on tragedy resulting from negligence of duty, but long term, it never came as a dictation of his whole life and the stories going forward, and there were plenty of bright and optimistic moments, including a sense of humor, with the wisecracks during battles but one of the most notable examples. On which note, that's something I like about the era when David Michelinie was one of the writers: he injected a sense of humor into his writings whenever possible, and it worked pretty well. Yet Spidey, not unlike Superman, wound up becoming second to books like X-Men in terms of emphasis, and come to think of it, if the Clone Saga is any demonstration, that's when things began to self-destruct for Marvel's web-slinger, and the editors' increasing negativity towards Mary Jane Watson made it worse.

Anyway, regarding Batman, for me, as someone who was alienated from the Big Two since 2005, the point of departure from the 2 flagship series would have to be the time when writers like Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench did the same at the turn of the century. I'd rather not support the work of pretentious scribes like Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, who took over in the early 2000s, and whose inter-franchise crossover, Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive, was galling and superfluous in retrospect. So it's not like I've supported Batbooks for years now anyway. I read some of the Robin series Dixon began in 1993 for a little longer, but the finishing point would have to be prior to Bill Willingham's hated run, and let's not forget he was one of the architects of the War Games crossover, which saw Dixon's own creation, Stephanie Brown/Spoiler, set up as the scapegoat, tortured with a drill by Black Mask, leading to her death, the later reversal notwithstanding, and a year later, Willingham added insult to injury by "revealing" that Leslie Thompkins had let Stephanie perish to teach Batman a "lesson". So the Bat-franchise was already subject to ruination well before the debate on overexposure came about.

Now, let's take a look at some of the other comments from the same thread began by Isabella, which includes veteran writer/editor Jo Duffy. For example:
I haven't fully enjoyed Batman since Frank got his hands on the character and DC decided that THAT'S how he should be portrayed going forward. I yearn for the days of Wein, Englehart, and Conway. (Though I did like the Starlin run--hey, put those tomatoes down!)
Well let's not forget Denny O'Neil's famous run; he was the one who restored the dark vision more successfully from an artistic viewpoint in 1969 with Neal Adams, and introduced Ra's al Ghul to the list of recurring villains, to say nothing of Talia. But there you have it - no matter how artistically merited Miller's portrayal was, the upper echelons believed this should be the norm for Batman in all instances. It may not have begun all at once, but again, by the turn of the century, it was getting to that point, and for all we know, even Dixon/Moench may not be blameless. Here's a comment from Duffy herself:
Even when Frank was working on The Dark Knight Returns — which I enjoyed thoroughly at the time and still tremendously admire — I knew his take on a possible future Batman bore no resemblance to mine. I never foresaw DC’s artistic decision makers en masse deciding Frank’s dystopian take would thereafter completely define and dominate the character. I am much more a Bill Finger/ Dick Sprang kind of girl. Not My Batman!!
Here's another comment noting where DC practically went with the rest of their shared universe in the years following:
The worst thing about the toxic take on Batman is DC’s insistence that every hero needs to have Batman’s origin. Flash and Green Lantern do not need tragic back-stories to motivate them. Flash is a hero because he loves being able to do what he does and that he can help people, and Green Lantern is a space cop with Aladdin’s lamp on his finger.
To which another guy replied:
Well, that was Geoff Johns who retro-grafted the tragic-loss-of-parents onto those characters. Johns did a lot of good in terms of preserving and restoring the legacies of various DC characters, but yeah, I agree he got both of those wrong.
It's a good thing somebody acted responsibly and reminded us all what's wrong with Johns, who makes even Dixon's biggest mistakes look tame by comparison. Sure, Johns may have restored Joe Chill's status as the culprit in the murder of Bruce's parents to canon - something which was omitted during Zero Hour - but it's still no excuse for much of the jarring violence prevalent in some of his early work, which included allusions to sexual abuse. That's why any alleged "recognition" he showed for the optimistic angle in the Flash did not work. And on that note, painful as this is, I've decided to present some of the most repellent moments in 2 of Johns' works, both in the Flash and his brief Avengers run, that make the case for why he was as bad an omen for the DCU and MCU as Dan DiDio, who came aboard nearly 3 years after Johns did. First, here's 3 panels from Flash #213 Vol.2, where the Golden Age Turtle turned up, and I hope all taking a look at this have a strong stomach; I feel very bad about posting these here, no matter how important I believe it is everyone should know what took place:
In the above Flash story, as you'll notice, the Turtle may have acquired a new (and forced) superpower, but that's the least of the problems here. What's horrific is that the villain - an established one at that - is strongly implied to be a child molestor. I'm sure some of the people studying these obnoxious panels are shaking their heads in disbelief and horror at how a comic once known to be otherwise family friendly came to serve as a vehicle for what looks like cheap sensationalism, and if you're as disgusted as I am, you have every right to be. There was once a time when supercrooks robbed banks and jewelry stores, and maybe even post offices. Now, if the above demonstrates anything, we have cases of costumed crooks and such threatening sexual assault, even on children, and lacking the sense of honor and restraint most villains even in the Golden Age were usually characterized with. And the Turtle wasn't even a convincing threat to the Crimson Comet in the filthy tale above. Why, when he picks himself up after being knocked over at one point, he doesn't focus all his attention on the hero, but rather, on more innocent pedestrians. This was around the same time as Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis did even worse with its rape theme, and demonstrates just how low mainstream comics were scraping the barrel's bottom at the time.

And this is precisely what Isabella and his respondents were alluding to in their conversation - how superhero comics not known for the kind of viewpoint Batman embodies were not only becoming more like Batman in tone and vision, the writers and editors were even stooping to elements you probably wouldn't even expect in the Masked Manhunter's own flagship stories to boot. And I must disagree Johns has ever really done a good job with legacies, because he certainly didn't early in his undeserved career (I seem to recall he distorted Cyborg's exact origins in the Flash during 2002).

There's also his Marvel work to consider, as seen in the following panels from the 71st issue of the Avengers's 3rd volume from about 2003:
So, what do we see in the above? It looks like Whirlwind's licking Wasp while she's stunned and readying himself to force himself upon her sexually during a scuffle. In hindsight, I'm not shocked Johns would stoop to at least one such act when he was working for Marvel, and maybe I shouldn't be shocked Quesada would greenlight that scene either; lest we forget what he approved in Sins Past when J. Michael Straczynski was writing Spider-Man. There's also the following panels from issue 76 to ponder:
Based on Johns' track record, I think that's why a story he wrote about a child killer is one more thing the Earth's Mightiest Heroes would've been better off not being tainted with. When somebody's writing is that sensationalized and grimy, that's why it comes off as an embarrassment. One of the respondents to Isabella's post says something I disagree with, but does almost get it right about why Johns was bad news:
I was being nice by not naming names. I like a lot of what Johns has done, but he has certain tics that drive me nuts, one of which seems to be the “heroes can’t be happy” mantra. But I seem to remember that Stargirl was happier after she put on the costume. He should have noticed that.
I think it's regrettable the above poster took such a lenient stand on Johns, but at least he makes a good point that Johns is of the same school of thought as DiDio - the notion superheroes shouldn't have happy lives. The claim about Stargirl misses the boat too, because Johns' characterization, as once noted, was pretty poor, explaining why Stars & STRIPE was short-lived. But you know what's really ironic? The notion Johns, based on the following from Flash #210 vol.2:
...doesn't seem to respect Batman, even as he takes elements from the Caped Crusader's own book and applies them to whatever he's writing. I thought this was a pretty odd scene, presumably written to cover for how Johns was more or less using tactics not all that different from what you might see in a Batbook.

It's possible that, in the post-Harvey Weinstein era, Johns may have moved away from some of the more repellent tics you could see in his earlier work. But the damage has already been done, and again, these above examples are just what's wrong with his work from the 2000s. If he's still kept some of his focus on sensationalized violence intact, then he certainly hasn't improved.

And this is mostly a result of a whole obsession with making every possible comic out there same as Batman. I vaguely recall reading a history book from the early 90s (it may or may not have been by Paul Sassienie) which claimed Batman was better written than Superman when these stories first debuted in the Golden Age. But I must firmly disagree, and regarding today's stories that aren't marketed on merit, isn't that why Supes might not be read as often as Bats? The failure of DC's execs to concern themselves with how good the writing is or to market them based on that premise is precisely what's brought them down along with Marvel. Assuming they really want Superman to be the success he once was, they wouldn't have appointed Brian Bendis to write Superman any more than Marvel appointing him to write Avengers, and they'd concentrate on hiring writers based on talent and understanding of the material at hand. When brightness and optimism isn't handled well, that's why books with an emphasis could fail to the point they'd trail those using darkness. But then, it's not like those in charge today really do care, and tragically, they don't.

I think the time's come for DC to stop lavishing so much attention on Batman, and Warner Brothers should stop making so many movies and other products adapting the Caped Crusader. More importantly, they should cease forcing the vision Batman's built upon into the rest of their shared universe. I know I won't be watching the upcoming movie they may have in store for next year, because I've grown so tired of these superfluous comic-based movies as it already is. And they have to stop hiring writers like Johns, since, even if hasn't written much of Batman, is still one of those who've been utilizing the angle in the other comics they're writing. But it's become a foregone conclusion they've going to keep all their awful writers around till the end of the studio as we know it. Which is a truly terrible thing.

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  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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