Saturday, August 13, 2016

Tales of the Batman: Alan Brennert

A few weeks ago, I got to meet one of my favorite authors, Alan Brennert. Today, he is probably best known for his historical novels focusing on Hawaii (although I also love Palisades Park, his novel detailing the history of the popular New Jersey amusement park and the people whose lives it affected). The bulk of his career is in television, and that may be the first place I encountered his work; he was a script editor for part of the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Other shows he worked on that I watched: Twilight Zone (the 80s revival), China Beach, Simon & Simon, Star Trek: Enterprise, LA Law, and many others. But in the 80s, and very occasionally since then, he's written comic books.

[Spoilers for Tales of the Batman: Alan Brennert after the jump.]

The first story of his that I read, which is the first published comics story he scripted, was "To Kill a Legend," in Detective Comics #500. This is a comic that really should be reprinted on its own in hardcover. In addition to Brennert's story, there was a story featuring Slam Bradley (and maybe other straight DC detective characters) by Len Wein and Jim Aparo, There was an Elongated Man story by Mike W. Barr and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. There was a Hawkman story by Paul Levitz and Joe Kubert. There was a prose Batman story written by Walter Gibson, creator of the Shadow. And there was a Deadman story by Cary Bates (I think) and Carmine Infantino.

However, the lead story, out in front of all those veteran creators, was "To Kill a Legend," written by Alan Brennert and drawn by veteran Batman artist Dick Giordano, and it absolutely holds its own. In it, Brennert tells a tale of Batman and Robin, sent to a parallel earth by the Phantom Stranger to try to save the parents of that Earth's Bruce Wayne. You can clearly feel the influence of the Twilight Zone--one of Brennert's favorite shows--permeating the story. And, like the best Twilight Zone tales, what makes it effective isn't the plot or its twists, but what it says about the characters.

In it, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (Robin) are divided on what course of action to take. On the one hand, Bruce obviously wants to save “his” parents, so that this Bruce Wayne can grow up without the tragedy that defined “our” Bruce Wayne. Dick, on the other hand, isn’t quite so sure. He discovers that this Earth apparently has no literature about heroes: no Robin Hood, no Camelot, no myths of Hercules or Gilgamesh, nothing. He also discovers that the planet Krypton doesn’t seem to have ever existed in this universe, which means no Superman ever coming to Earth. He speculates that maybe, if this Bruce Wayne isn’t inspired to become Batman, this world may never have any heroes.

To be honest, this is the one bit of the story that makes little sense to me. I don’t get how there could be no stories about fictional heroes at all in the first place. In the second, we clearly see that there are police officers (we meet Lieutenant Gordon and the GCPD), and presumably there are fire fighters and so forth as well. We also learn that there are wars. Presumably, there must be acts of heroism, even if they are not committed by fictional characters, and those acts can be just as inspiring, if not more so. However, I chalk all this up to Dick Grayson a) being confused about being on another version of Earth and its differences from his own, b) conflicted about whether it’s right to interfere with “destiny.”

Besides, ultimately, Dick does realize that there’s never a good reason to stand by and watch someone get murdered, so he and Bruce step in as a team and save the Waynes. They disappear back to Earth One, but we get a glimpse of the Bruce Wayne of this other Earth as he grows up. While before his encounter with the Batman, he had been the spoiled brat that “our” Bruce only pretends to be. Following the foiled holdup, he is inspired to read books about crime-solving and criminology, as well as the adventures of Sherlock Holmes (who must be a real-life figure in this universe, just as he is in the Mike W. Barr/Alan Davis Detective Comics 527, because otherwise the whole “no heroic fiction” thing falls apart). 

The implication is that this Bruce will still grow up to be Batman, or something similar. Only this Batman won’t be haunted by the murder of his parents, but inspired by a heroic example to help others. 

It’s a nice, touching story and it showcases Brennert’s focus on character, explored through plot. We don’t take time out from the story to learn about Batman, Robin, and what they are thinking; we learn it through the story and what they do. That, to me, is the hallmark of Brennert’s writing. He delivers interesting, engaging stories, but they all illuminate the characters with warmth and heart.

This theme, illustrating emotion and character through story, runs throughout all of Brennert’s comics work, almost all of which, save an issue of Daredevil, is collected in the new book, Tales of the Batman: Alan Brennert. This is the latest in DC’s series of collections focusing on a specific creator, and only the third focusing on a writer. The other two were Len Wein and Archie Goodwin, both writers with huge bodies of work beyond their work on Batman. Since Brennert’s work has mostly been in other media, this represents almost the totality of his comics work. The only other creator I can think of who made such a mark with such a small number of comics stories is Dave Stevens, creator of the Rocketeer.

The emotional core at the heart of Brennert’s stories, while still being action-packed, effective stories is what makes them all standouts. His stories aren’t the sort of “characters sit around talking” tales that fit in between big action epics in ongoing superhero comics. They are superhero stories that come out of the characters, that make the reader care about them and end up developing and illuminating them. And without that heart and soul, without that human connection to the characters, what do you have? The flip answer would be, “The average contemporary DC comic,” but sadly, there is a reason that Brennert’s work stands out, is frequently included in “best of” collections, and has finally been collected all in one volume. 

Maybe because his work in comics was so rare, Brennert took every opportunity to fill each story with as much meaning and character as he could. It’s not like he could just tell a story of the Batman fighting Calendar Man one month, and save something with more emotion and meaning for the next. Consequently, each story in this book is a gem. 

For example, instead of a typical appearance from Hawk and Dove, where we are reminded once again that neither all-out aggression nor total pacifism can solve problems on their own, but that they need to be balanced against each other, we get a story where an aging Hank and Don Hall have to look at how the world around them is changing, and how their super-hero methods have kept them from growing and changing with it. (Development pretty much ignored by every subsequent appearance of the characters, but whatever.) 

Similarly, a visit to Earth-2, where Batman has recently died, is used as a vehicle for the Robin, Batwoman, and—in an entirely different way—Hugo Strange to work through their grief and express to Batman how much he meant to their lives. At the same time, “our” Batman is reminded of how important personal connections are. Honestly, it’s the sense that Batman has lost that again, that the people around him are regarded as nothing more than soldiers in his war on crime, that has me less interested in reading current Batman books. 

One of my favorite stories from this collection is the Batman/Catwoman team-up from Brave & the Bold 197. I had bought this off the racks when it first came out. On the surface, it’s a tale of the Batman—this time of Earth-2, set back when he was still alive—fighting and defeating the Scarecrow. What it’s really about, however, is the Batman, beaten down and physically scarred by his years of fighting, having to rediscover the need to trust and love, in this case realizing his love for his future wife, Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman. 

It’s clear that Alan Brennert had a fondness for writing stories set on the parallel world of Earth-2, and he talks about it in that in the introduction to the book. By writing about these alternate versions of the characters, who were allowed to grow, age, change, and even die—it had been established in DC Comics continuity that the Earth-2 Batman did indeed eventually marry Catwoman, and their daughter would grow up to become the Huntress, whose parents did eventually pass away—Brennert was able to write stories with genuine consequences for the characters. Since that emotional growth is so completely at the core of his writing, I don’t know any other way he could have written so effectively about the DC heroes.

Another favorite story of mine is from the fantastic Christmas with the Superheroes #2. That was probably a really good anthology comic all around; a quick search of the contents reveals stories by Paul Chadwick, Dave Gibbons & Gray Morrow, Eric Shanower, John Byrne, and Bill Messner-Loebs & Colleen Doran. But to this day, the only story that stuck with me was the Brennert Deadman story, featuring Supergirl.

Yes, it features Supergirl. The story is coy about it, since she had just been removed from continuity by the sweeping Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline. Once again, however, Brennert manages to use the lore and mythology of the DC Universe to tell a more touching, human universal story. Deadman—a character with no real physical existence of his own, who only exists by possessing the bodies of the living—is lonely at Christmas. He is tired of his phantom existence, and longs for human company. This longing manifests itself in frustration that he does so much for the world, and yet drifts through it unacknowledged, alone.

Alone, that is, until he is visited by a mysterious blonde woman. She reminds him that what he does is important, and he does it because it needs to be done. Heroes do the right thing, not for the applause, not for the recognition, not for the glory, but because it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter if anyone knows, or even remembers. Chastened, Deadman realizes he’s been, in his words, “a putz.” Before the woman leaves, he asks her her name. She tells him it’s Kara, and then disappears.

On the one hand, the story is a reaffirmation that even though this version of Supergirl had been wiped from continuity, her stories still happened. They still matter. On another level, though, it’s a reminder that true heroes are heroes no matter what, no matter whether or not someone is watching. It’s a story that touched my adolescent soul when I read it, and I believe, on some level, it provides an example I’ve tried to live up to ever since. I still think I fail more often than I succeed, but at least I try.

Despite this book being published under the “Tales of the Batman” series banner, the Deadman story is one of two which do not feature the Caped Crusader. The other is the secret origin of Black Canary. Black Canary has been another of my favorite characters since I first really saw her in action in the pages of the Green Arrow miniseries by Mike W. Barr and Trevor Von Eeden. Not too long after, DC published the untold tale of how the Black Canary on Earth-1, previously thought to be the Canary of Earth-2, was actually the daughter of that original Black Canary. This tale revises and expands upon the origins of both mother and daughter, adjusting it for the then-current continuity that had eliminated the parallel earths, and adding layers of familial drama that deepens the relationship between the characters and their motivations for becoming superheroes. 

While these stories were, for the most part, published in the 80s and 90s, they absolutely hold up today without feeling dated. Sadly, that’s particularly the case for the Brave & the Bold story featuring the Creeper, and in Batman: Holy Terror, an Elseworlds tale set in a version of the world where America is governed by a theocracy. In the Creeper tale, the villain is a hate mongering broadcaster, preaching to the masses that Gotham City’s problems (and, by extension, America’s) are caused by lazy, wellfare-dependent poor/minority communities and immigrants. 

In Holy Terror, the Waynes are executed because they dared to provide abortions and other medical care to women, and treating homosexuals who had been tortured, ostensibly in attempts to change their sexual orientation. The most recent of those two stories, Holy Terror, was published in 1991. It would be wonderful to look at those stories just as products of their time, but sadly, they have just as much relevance today as they did when they were published.

While the focus of this book, and this blog, is on the writing of Alan Brennert, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the art, because it’s all fantastic. We get two stories illustrated by Dick Giordano, three stories drawn by Jim Aparo, two penciled by Joe Staton (one inked by Giordano, the other by George Freeman), one drawn by Norm Breyfogle, and one by the great Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. As in indicator of those artists’ stature, I should point out that Aparo has two Legends of the Dark Knight volumes dedicated to his work, Norm Breyfogle has one (I don’t even know the difference between the Legends of the Dark Knight and Tales of the Batman series; they seem interchangeable) and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez has a volume of the equivalent Superman series, Adventures of Superman, dedicated to his work. Reading the list of artists in this book is like reading a list of my favorites, and I hope this book not only gives more exposure to the work of Alan Brennert, but also the criminally under-appreciated Joe Staton.

I’m so happy that DC has published this volume of Brennert’s work for them—almost the sum total of his comics output—and I’m even happier that I got to meet him and have him sign my copy. 

He’s every bit as much of a nice guy as the depth of his writing would suggest. I’ve read all these stories multiple times over the years, and as soon as I finished reading this book, I wanted to read them all again all right away. 

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