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Monday, June 19, 2017

Batman Returns 25th anniversary -- what a great film!

June 19th, 2017 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Batman Returns (directed by Tim Burton, starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer). Since Batman Returns is easily one of my favorite superhero films ever, I felt it would be a missed opportunity if I didn't take a few minutes out of my day to write about it in some capacity or another.

I lived through 1989's Batmania (a direct result of the hype building around Burton's first Batman film) and was fortunate enough to have experienced it first-hand. I remember the excitement of seeing the movie at the drive-in with my dad and cousin during opening week. I remember all of the t-shirts, merchandising promos, the Taco Bell tie-ins and Diet Coke commercials. I remember seeing teens getting the Batman emblem shaved into the sides of their head. I also remember being too young (and thus having no real money to my name) and not being able to partake in any of it. [Let's not break out the violins, yet. I was actually a very spoiled child and had more G.I. Joe, Super Powers Collection and Masters of the Universe action figures and playsets than anyone else in my neighborhood. I'm sure I also owned a few Official Batman Movie t-shirts and other apparel by that point, as well.]

With the announcement of the NEW Batman film sequel launching on June 19th, 1992 I resolved that this time it was going to be DIFFERENT -- now I was eleven years old and commanded a hefty 5 dollars per week allowance to spend on whatever I pleased (within reason). This was my chance to experience Batmania's second-coming from the ground floor and to actually be an active participant. I did not waste time with this. I purchased trading cards, collected McDonlads happy meal toys, convinced my mom to buy cereals that had promo items in them, persuaded relatives to buy stuff from Zellers so I could acquire the trading cards -- let's just say, if it had anything to do with Batman Returns and was attainable through a small purchase (or even free), I was on it.

Batman Returns cereal. How bad could it possibly be?

Overlooking the fact that I got swept up in all of the Batmania hype -- how was the actual film? I was expecting to see a really entertaining sequel with two villains (instead of one), and Batman fighting a lot of people. Batman Returns delivered on both expectations. As an eleven year old boy, there's nothing you want more than to see a guy dressed up in a Batman costume kicking some bad guy ass. While 1989's Batman was very VERY good, and easily ranks as another one of my favorite films from my youth, it was also an origin story. so it meant there was a lot of build-up before you got to REALLY see Batman suit up and take action.

It's very rare that a sequel is just as good (if not better) than the first film. For me, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to really dig into something with the full conviction that they will probably never be able to top this, so I'm going to squeeze every second of joy out of this that I can.

My mom didn't have the type of patience/stomach for these types of movies, so I'm 100% certain it would've been my dad who brought me to see this movie. Probably at a drive-in. Probably as part of a double feature. It was a little unsettling that the entire story of Batman Returns takes place in December (considering it premiered late June in North America), but hey... that was a moot point... just show me Batman fighting the Penguin.

...but this article won't be about the film (because I'm sure there are already plenty of other blogs talking about that this week), today we'll take a look at the comic book adaptation of Batman Returns.

The 1992 Batman Returns comic adaptation came in two different variants: the Prestige Format and the New Format. The Prestige Format cost $2 USD more than the New Format, had a (mostly) painted wrap-around cover and an ISBN number. Meanwhile, the New Format had an illustrated cover with an advertisement for the Batman Returns film on the back cover. Despite paying a higher price for the Prestige Format, both formats contained the same interiors and neither formats contained any ads (unless you count the subscription page on the interior back cover of the New Format edition). I'm under the impression that the New Format was the 'newsstand edition', and the Prestige Format was only available in finer comic book shops and bookstores everywhere.

Prestige Format (left) and New Format (right)

The 'movie adaptation' comic book was pretty important in its day. In the pre-internet age, unless you possessed a VHS copy of said film, you couldn't revisit scenes from your favorite action/super-hero movies without resorting to your memory, the novelization, the trading cards, specialty magazines based on the film (see: Starlog) or -- best scenario of all -- the comic book adaptation of the film.

My best friend in the whole world bought the New Format comic adaptation for me that summer -- I *think* it was a birthday gift, since my birthday falls around the end of summer. Or maybe it was a gift while I was in the hospital (I had a medical issue that summer, and had to spend a few weeks in the hospital). Nevertheless, Nick Mureta surprised me one day with the film adaptation of a movie I was already psyched about. I was actually unaware this item existed before he surprised me with it -- within seconds of laying my eyes upon it, this comic had become so sacred to me that it felt like I had just gotten my hands on a mint copy of 1963's X-Men #1. Nick always knew where to find the coolest stuff.

The comic adaptation was written by Denny O'Neil, penciled by Steve Erwin and inked by José Luis Garcia-Lopez. This was my first real exposure to Steve Erwin art (without me realizing it, yet) -- Erwin had already been illustrating Deathstroke: The Terminator and was best known as the regular penciller on 1988's Checkmate [a title I hadn't even heard of, yet]. Garcia-Lopez inked over Erwin's pencils, and it's also well known that Garcia-Lopez illustrated the official artwork for Batman Returns merchandise. If you saw a cool-looking Batman Returns t-shirt in the early 90s, there's a good chance the graphic was based on Garcia-Lopez' original artwork.

Erwin and Garcia-Lopez did a great job with this comic and the art was spot-on.

Michael Keaton/Bruce Wayne looked like he was supposed to:

As did Michelle Pfeiffer/Selina Kyle:

...even Danny DeVito/Oswald Cobblepot and Christopher Walken/Max Shreck received faithful adaptations:

Tim Burton's Gotham City was very gothic-looking and dark. And what I mean by 'dark' is that there wasn't very much natural lighting -- I can't remember too many scenes from that film that occurred during the day. To help convey this 'dark mood', the pages all had thick black borders between the panels. It worked out quite well.

page from the Batman Returns adaptation. New Format.

This comic book was integral in helping me understand the nuances of the story that I obviously missed the first several times watching the film. As an eleven year old, I just wanted to see Batman fighting thugs or using his vehicles to blow up bad guys, I didn't have time for sub-plots about political conspiracies or romantic tension. As far as I was concerned, any screen time that didn't have Batman in it (or was leading up to Batman fighting someone) was a waste of time. Naturally, my favorite scenes were the ones in which he fought the Red Triangle Circus gang:

Eleven year-old me loved this comic! Of course they didn't add *every* scene from the movie (this was only a 32-page comic, after all), but they did get the more important ones -- namely: Batman fighting circus thugs, Batman battling Catwoman, Batman's Batmobile getting hijacked, the BatSkiBoat and the big finale at the end. One scene that I can't believe they omitted was... well... notice anything different about Batman's second encounter with the Red Triangle Circus gang?


Did you spot it? In the film, rather than throw the bomb into an open manhole, Batman attaches it to a rather large, brutish member of the gang and kicks him into a sewer (causing him to explode).

Considering the intended audience of this comic book, it was probably in DC's best interest not to show Batman killing a man. But still... you and I both know it happened.

There were no splash pages in this comic: every page had at least 5 panels, and some even had 10 panels or more. The creative team did a great job with the pacing and flow of the panels. Easy to follow along. Love the details in the background -- all that architecture must've been a chore to pencil and ink.

Needless to say, my Batman Returns New Format adaptation is a priceless possession in my comic collection (if for no other reason than sentimental value). Batman Returns had a really big impact on my love of comic books. I still cite it as my favorite superhero movie (even though I honestly haven't sat through a full screening of it since... I don't know... 6 years ago). I still collect Batman Returns vintage memorabilia when I can grab it on the cheap, and I find nothing more enjoyable than re-visiting the video game adaptations.

I had to re-watch parts of this movie for this write-up and, while I still see why the 'eleven year old' me loved this film, I don't seem to remember Batman delivering so many zingers. It's really not as sinister/serious as I seem to remember it to be, but it was a great movie nonetheless. 

Can't believe it's been 25 years!


1 comment:

  1. Great article, Justin! I'm a little older than you so Batman '89 was my big moment in the cultural zeitgeist sun, so to speak. I owned - and still do own and need to write about one day - that film's comic book adaptation (art by the Amazing Jerry Ordway). By the time Returns came along I was in high school and losing interest in comics. I'd scaled back my monthly visits to the shop, probably out of some misplaced desire to fit in better at school - I mean, comic geeks did not yet rule the earth as we do today. Thankfully in a few years I accepted and proudly wore my geeky comic tendencies right out in the open. But at this point in '92, I think I might've passed on the comic adaptation out of apathy. I did see the movie, of course, and then rewatched it a bunch of times throughout the years. I was underwhelmed by it at first but have really warmed to it since. I still can't say I love it, but there are things about it that I love or at least find absurdly fascinating - it's the weirdest Batman movie ever made, by a mile. It's got that bizarro Burton vibe dialed up to eleven. Michelle Pfeiffer was incredible as Selina. I'm still in awe of her performance today. Still, the movie often feels like a Batman movie filtered through the Burton sensibilities, making it feel more like a Burton film that just HAPPENS to be about Batman. That's a complaint I still have about the first movie also, but it doesn't stop me from enjoying both of his Batman films.