The deliciously retro Batman ’66 is a huge step forward for DC digital comics

The deliciously retro Batman ’66 is a huge step forward for DC digital comics

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Batman ’66 #2. Written by Jeff Parker (Agents Of Atlas, Thunderbolts) and drawn by Jonathan Case (Dear Creature, Green River Killer), this DC2 title takes advantage of technology in ways that puts it leagues above the rest of DC’s digital library.

Ever since Frank Miller’s one-two punch of “Batman: Year One” and The Dark Knight Returns, Batman has been one of DC’s most serious superheroes. The publisher tried to distance itself from the hero’s campy past portrayals after seeing the success of a pitch-black Dark Knight, and because 20th Century Fox still owned the rights, the 1966 Batman TV series was strictly off limits. In 2005, Michael Allred had to change the cover to his issue of Solo from an image of Adam West’s Batman performing the Batusi to a similar portrait of Wonder Girl because of DC’s trepidation regarding anything related to the old TV series, so it’s fitting that Allred would be brought on to contribute covers to a new comic set in the retro televised Batman world. 

Fox may still own the rights to the show footage, but Warner Bros. has finally acquired the Batman licensing rights, meaning a wave of nostalgic merchandise that includes the new Batman ’66 digital-first comic book. Rather than using the format of DC’s other digital-first titles, which cut a normal comic page in halves that are easily viewed on digital devices, Batman ’66 layers words and images with each finger swipe to create a sense of animation that can’t be replicated on a paper comics page. The publisher is calling this technology DC2, but it’s essentially the same format as Marvel’s Infinite Comics and Mark Waid’s Thrillbent Comics, both of which have been around for more than a year. Yet while it may have taken DC longer to catch up, they’re running out of the gate at full speed with the pairing of writer Jeff Parker and artist Jonathan Case on Batman ’66

Parker and Case create DC’s best digital release yet, and, with the pair’s delightfully silly look at a bygone era of Batman, it’s also one of the year’s finest superhero comics. Parker’s tongue-in-cheek script mines humor from the exaggerated dialogue of the TV series, capturing the bravado of Adam West’s vocalization and those signature pauses in his speech. To get a good idea of just how different this title is from The New 52 depiction of Batman, last week’s Batman ’66 #1 ended with the hero pondering the Riddler’s latest brainteaser, cupping his chin as he said, “Hot pads make me shake… a tail.” The stakes of modern superhero comics have gotten so high nowadays, and it’s refreshing to read a Batman story where everything is a little lighter. In #2, Bruce and Dick brainstorm the riddle after Alfred brings them some milk, and then hit up Catwoman’s nightclub to battle some thugs wearing trucker outfits with little cat ears on their hats. It’s just so goddamn fun, and the opportunities offered by the digital medium give the title a breathtaking visual flair.

Jonathan Case is not primarily known for being a superhero artist, but he displays a remarkable ability to balance fantasy and reality that makes him invaluable to this book’s success. In order to make this comic really look like the TV show, there needs to be a certain amount of detail and weight to the characters and environments, which Case provides in spades. Batman and Robin’s costumes don’t cling to their bodies the way superhero uniforms tend to, helping to create the impression that these are actors playing dress-up. To further sell that retro TV illusion, Case adds an occasional blue outline around his inks to mimic the shifting intensity of colors on those old devices reliant on antenna signals. His use of Ben-Day dots calls to mind the “dot sequential color system” pioneered by RCA, and connects the book to Silver Age Batman stories that used similar coloring.

Case’s sharp talent for capturing celebrity likenesses and Parker’s pitch-perfect dialogue create a reading experience that is almost equivalent to catching a Batman rerun; it’s just missing sound and motion. Then there are the things that comic books can do that network TV in the 1960s could not, like stage a thrilling aerial action sequence that would have been far too expensive and dangerous to try with real actors. Comics also offer a more active experience than watching a television show, and the digital format introduces further interactivity as the readers control the flow of time even more than they would when reading a printed page. (On his website, Case breaks down how he modifies the art that will appear in print to take advantage of transitions that are only possible in the digital medium.)

Last week’s debut was a charming story that emphasized Batman and Robin in action, but #2 brings in more detective elements while introducing Bruce Wayne’s home life to the story. The first issue was great, especially Parker and Case’s portrayal of Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, but there are three things that make this second chapter even better: Alfred, Dracula, and Julie Newmar’s Catwoman. Alfred is the entry point into Wayne Manor, shooing off Dick’s nosy Aunt Harriet at the start of the issue when she becomes suspicious of sounds coming from under the house. Careful not to hit the switch that releases the freshly cleaned superhero costumes, the superbutler slides down the Bat-Pole, which he calls the “Alf-Pole,” keeping the two glasses of milk perfectly balanced the entire time. 

This issue provides the first glimpse of the Batcave and its Batspresso machine, beginning a series of jokes that poke fun at the conventions of the old TV show. When Robin yells “Holy double-cross!” while climbing up the side of a building with Batman, Dracula peeks his head outside a window to check if he’s in any immediate danger of being attacked with dual crucifixes. This allows Parker to make some bat-related jokes while introducing a character that would be out of place in other contemporary Batman comics, and having Dracula as a member of Batman’s rogues gallery is just the type of wacky development that would have occurred on the TV series.

One of those wacky developments was the unexplained switch between Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, and the creative team of Batman ’66 has promised to randomly swap the two actresses’ likenesses throughout their run. Like the TV series, Julie Newmar is the first to take the role, with Case rendering her Catwoman in all her slinky, shaggy-eyebrowed glory. Parker hints at the attraction between the villain and Batman, and hopefully the series will expand on that relationship later, even if Selena Kyle is mysteriously changing races.

With no connection to the mainstream DCU and two wildly imaginative creators at the helm of Batman ’66, there are so many exciting possibilities for this project. Parker and Case could introduce DC heroes and villains into the comic series that never appeared on the TV series, and maybe even create a Justice League ’66 if they’re allowed to use the likenesses of George Reeves for Superman and Lynda Carter for Wonder Woman. At this point, the only thing missing from this series is the Batusi, but a remark made in this second issue suggests that even that’s not very far away.

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