Batman: The Complete History

by Les Daniels and Chip Kidd

Published by Chronicle Books

210 pages, 1999


Buy it online


 

 

A Loving Bat-Tribute

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

 

Although Batman: The Complete History (like 1998's Superman: The Complete History) is credited on the dustjacket to the author of the book's text, Les Daniels, this book (again, like its predecessor) is at least as much the creation of superstar book designer Chip Kidd. As such, it can be seen not only as a companion to the aforementioned Superman volume but also as a sequel of sorts to Chip Kidd's two previous Bat-books: Batman Collected (1996), an homage to decades of Batman memorabilia, and Batman Animated (1998; co-credited to producer/writer Paul Dini), the definitive reference book to the award-winning animated series that debuted in 1992. All four of these books celebrate not only their subject matter but also the potential of the book as objet d'art, a thing to be fondled, ogled, desired, held, and cherished -- not just for its content but for its material beauty and splendor. Certainly, every page of Batman: The Complete History (and its predecessors) is absolute eye candy, often surpassing the aesthetic pleasures provided by the source material.

In Batman: The Complete History, Kidd does a wonderful job of integrating the different Bat-aesthetics of the character's 60-year legacy. Batman has been many things to many people over the years and various creators have put their stamp on the malleable cultural icon who started his war on crime in Detective Comics #27 (1939).

In the 1930s, Batman was a merciless avenger who had no qualms about gunning down criminals. Despite the crude stiffness of Bat-creator Bob Kane's artwork, the early Batman stories were permeated with a somber creepiness. In the 1940s, the creepiness was increasingly diluted: the wisecracking, brightly clad Robin became Batman's ubiquitous sidekick in 1940 and Jerry Robinson's artwork shifted the emphasis from atmosphere to kinetic action. By the end of the decade, the dark avenger of the night had become a smiling, wholesome role model who walked around in the daylight and attended public ceremonies. This image, mostly associated with the robust expressionism of illustrator Dick Sprang, would last through the 1950s and early 1960s. At that point, as we learn in Les Daniels's informative and entertaining chronicle, DC Comics considered canceling the Batman titles: they were selling that poorly. Instead, it was decided to assign to veteran editor Julius Schwartz the task of updating Batman for the 60s (this is when the yellow circle was added to the bat symbol on his chest). Schwartz' plans for a more serious Batman were sabotaged by the flash-and-burn success of the pop-art camp television show starring Adam West. For the next few years the strip floundered without a definite voice or style.

And then came Neal Adams. With slick realism, he returned the character to his roots and to the night. No longer smiling or wisecracking, Batman was now a sleek, grim detective who relentlessly stalked those who preyed on the innocent. Adams' successful reinvigoration of the character paved the way for the next 30 years and was expanded upon most significantly, as briefly demonstrated in this book, by Denny O'Neil, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli and Bruce Timm.

These myriad visions and representations -- 60 years of comics, the insipid movie serials of the 1940s, feature films, a live TV series, various animated adaptations, action figures, and international merchandising -- are all beautifully brought together in a kind of design tour-de-force that operates as a strange yet hypnotic narrative as our eyes are guided through this phantasmagoria of Bat-images. At least the title page credits Chip Kidd for "Art Direction and Design," but the lack of a cover credit is a gross oversight.

Les Daniels does a good job of making the text accessible to the curious reader not familiar with comics history or the Batman mythos while still succeeding in creating an engaging historical account filled with interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes to spice up the longtime Bat-fan's knowledge. This is in no way a critical or analytical text (the copyright of this volume is owned by DC Comics, owners of the Batman franchise), but it nevertheless flirts (but only flirts) with some controversial issues, such as the attribution of proper credit for the creation of Batman's classic rogues' gallery and the highly questionable 1988 event "A Death in the Family," where readers were asked to call a 900 number to cast a vote of life or death for the second Robin, Jason Todd. Most interestingly, Daniels digs deep into pop-culture archives for pulp and film antecedents to Batman and his supporting cast. Some are familiar (like the Shadow), while others are delightfully obscure (Commissioner Wildcat Gordon).

A few classic Batman comics stories are reprinted to give readers a taste of the real thing. First, the book offers the very first telling of Batman's tragic origin, from Detective Comics #33 (1939). Featured next is the 1952 Dick Sprang tale "The Joker's Millions!" (The book also includes two pages of storyboards from the subtly retitled Paul Dini/Bruce Timm 1998 animated adaptation, "Joker's Millions.") Culled from the 1970 Detective Comics #400, the Frank Robbins/Neal Adams "Challenge of the Man-Bat" provides an outstanding example of Adams' moody take on the series. The real treat, however, is a "remastered" version of a print story by animator Bruce Timm (he only rarely unleashes his talents on the printed page) from 1996's Batman Black and White #1. Bruce Timm's Batman, animated or printed, is, in my opinion, second only to the Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli Batman: Year One (1987), and this short tale of corruption, sleaze and madness perfectly captures his vision.

Batman: The Complete History is a sensual journey of pop-culture nostalgia, a loving tribute to an icon that has captured the imagination of children young and old for the last 60 years. It's also a beautifully seductive example of the book as art and of designer Chip Kidd's passionate virtuosity. | December 1999

 

Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays, and articles can be found on his Web site.