Friday, September 14, 2012

Showcase Presents: The Brave and The Bold, vol. 1

Okay... this one is going to require a little bit more of a history lesson than my last review.  And you know how much I love history...  No.  Really.  I love this stuff.  If you don't, skip down below the cover image where I will get into the volume proper.  Otherwise settle in.

Remember a couple of posts back when I said I'd get into the reason why DC called their black and white reprint line Showcase Presents?  Well, here's where I make good on that promise.

In 1956 DC Comics launched a title called Showcase which was a 'try out' book.  The title would feature new characters or old characters with a new spin put on them.  DC would then gauge reader reaction to these characters and if they did well enough they were then launched into their own solo titles.  It should be made clear that this wasn't a one-shot deal -- a character often appeared several times in Showcase before DC made a decision on whether they would go on to solo stardom or disappear into the archives.

Showcase was essentially *the* comic that launched the Silver Age.  Most comic book historians (yes, such people exist) date the start of the Silver Age to the first appearance of the revamped Flash in 1956.  And where did the Flash premiere in 1956?  On the pages of Showcase.  So DC choosing to call their black and white Silver Age reprint series Showcase Presents has a significance to both the history of DC and the history of comic books in general.  It's a nice touch that, to be honest, I like a little better than Marvel's comparatively bland Essential title (which is also a little disingenuous now that I think about it.  I mean, "Essential" implies that it's the kind of 'best-of-the-best' or the stuff that's vital to understanding a character and, really, every character out there has some long stretches of stuff that was kind of the comic book equivalent of jogging in place.  And I would hardly call that "Essential"... but I'm getting off track)...  What, I'm an historian I like it when people tip their hats to history!

Now, if you're expecting this series to be like the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon you'll be sadly disappointed... or happy depending on how you felt about that particular cartoon.

That animated series was inspired by this comic book series but the two are really polar opposites... as you will soon see...

The Brave and the Bold as a title originally began in 1955.  At the time of it's launch, however, it was used to tell stories about non-superhero characters.  Over the next decade or so The Brave and the Bold went from stories about knights and Robin Hood to another try-out book for new characters to finally being a 'team-up' book.

For the first few issues of it's team-up days writers basically mashed together any two heroes in the DC stable at that time.  For example, Green Arrow could team up with the Atom or Aquaman could team up with the Flash if the writer had a good story to tell.  That, however, quickly changed as the popularity of Batman, thanks to the 1960's TV series, swept the country.  The Brave and the Bold suddenly and pretty much irrevocably changed to being a "Batman and...." team-up book as each issue Batman teamed up with another DC hero.  So what DC is here calling Showcase Presents: The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 is actually only those issues of the series where they started featuring Batman.

So how is it?...... a little weird, and a slice of history.

The writer responsible for most of the content in those days was Bob Haney.  Haney was one of those 'work horse writers' who populated the Silver Age.  Guys like Gardner Fox and Haney churned out story after story.  They were often simplistic, thin on characterization, and started and finished in a single issue, but guys from this era really cranked the stuff out.

Haney created a number of characters but the ones he would probably be most familiar for today were Sgt. Rock and the Teen Titans.  Of course, he didn't create the individual characters who made up the early Titans -- Robin, Speedy (Green Arrow's side-kick), Aqualad (Aquaman's sidekick), Kid Flash (guess who's sidekick), and Wonder Girl (again, guess who's sidekick) -- but it was his idea to put them together in a team-up story and the idea took off to the point where they soon had their own title which Haney was scripting.

But we're here to talk about the stories in this volume.

If nothing else you have to give Haney his due in the difficulty in scripting these stories.  Think about it, you have Batman -- a basically normal guy with no real superpowers and only a beltful of gadgets -- and he's often teaming up with heroes who far outpower him.  For example, Wonder Woman -- who has super strength, super speed, and the ability of flight.  In trying to put these two together in a story you have to come up with a villain and a situation which is powerful enough to cause difficulties for Wonder Woman but yet vulnerable enough that it would be believable for Batman to be helping out instead of just getting swatted out of the way like an ant.  It can be a delicate balancing act and it's one that Haney mostly manages well.


I mentioned that the stories here are "a little weird" and I mean it.  I'm a fan of Silver Age stuff.  The wacky pseudo-science gives me a chuckle and the clunky dialogue and bad attempts at topical stories and teen angst and street slang are hilarious but that stuff here, in these stories, just never quite clicks.  There is a bit too much silly science and bad slang that it just pulls you too far out of the story.  In addition, there are some examples of the casual misogyny of the times that makes me cringe.  One story in particular in which Batman tries to lure the villain Copperhead into stealing a priceless artifact by making Copperhead think he's too distracted by Wonder Woman and Batgirl fighting for his affections to guard the city.  The twist being that while Wonder Woman and Batgirl were at first pretending in order to help Batman flush out Copperhead at the worst possible moment they really fall for him!... And then just as suddenly fall back out of love with him at the end... for no good reason... except that they're women and that's just what women do don't you know.  Ugh!

Anyway, as I was saying, not only are the stories a little too silly but they also tend to have plot holes you could drive a tractor-trailer through... sideways.  Take, for example, a story featuring Batman teaming up with WW II soldier Sgt. Rock.  The story mostly takes place during WW II where Bruce Wayne is acting as a secret agent on a mission to find and destroy a mysterious Nazi secret weapon.  The problem is that Bruce is recounting the story in the then present day of the 1960's -- where even if he had been in his early 20's during WWII it would now put him over 40 -- and he is drawn in the comic as not looking a day over 35.  Not only that but Bruce has never been allowed to age over about 37 except in the case of the version of him on the parallel world of Earth-2 but this story never says it's and Earth-2 story so....  I'm confused!....

And you probably have no idea what I'm talking about.  Suffice it to say the timelines just don't work here.

So, you might be asking after I've rambled on this long, is there anything GOOD about these stories?  Well, yes... and here's where the 'slice of history' thing comes in.

After the Silver Age came what most comics historians call the Bronze Age.  There are some arguments over where it officially starts and ends but it's roughly the 1970's through the mid-1980's.  As the 1970's saw a lot of social changes and a lot of pop culture changes as well comic books followed suit.

For example, the 1970's saw a rise in a new breed of horror movies.  There was a fascination with the occult in pop culture and we see those influences start to creep in amongst these stories.  And here Haney managed the change rather well.  We see him begin the volume with bright, very Silver Age stories with silly, gimmick-y villains and we see him finish with more weighty stories about evil and family and villains who blend in with everyday life -- as well as some who wear the mask of upstanding citizens. 

We also see reflected the changes wrought in characters -- Early on we see the more Golden Age version of Green Arrow but towards the end of the volume we meet a new, more modern GA with a new look, a new costume, and a new attitude which includes questions and doubts about his superhero career.  Likewise, we have that rather stereotypical story with Wonder Woman acting a bit like a 'silly female' but later we run into the 'new Wonder Woman'...  I guess I have to explain again...  At one point The Powers That Be felt that Wonder Woman should be depowered in order to relate more to 'ordinary women'.  It was a move that, reportedly, editorial thought would go over well with the women's movement in the country at that time.  It didn't.  Still, it lasted for quite a few years.  During this period Wonder Woman renounced her Amazon heritage and with it all her powers -- no more super-strength, speed, flight, nor even bullet-deflecting bracelets.  Instead Wonder Woman learned martial arts from a blind mentor named.... (I can't believe I'm writing this)... I Ching.  I wish I was kidding.  Wonder Woman was even given a new, white, 'action costume' that had more than a nod to Emma Peel of the British Avengers fame.  Anyway, we see that change in the character reflected in the stories in this volume.

In shortwith The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 you can actually see the Silver Age turning into the Bronze Age of comics and I, for one, find the changes and they way they happen here, to be fascinating.

The other thing to mention is some of the artwork.  There are some big names here like Ramona Fradon and Gil Kane and Mike Sekowsky but the biggest deal is the swath of stories toward the end of the volume featuring the art of Neal Adams.  Moody, heavily shaded, dynamic, at times creepy and at times psychedelic, Adams' work heralded a new art style which would soon sweep the comic book world and kind of reflect the Bronze Age as well.  This is some of Adams' first work for DC but he would go on to become regular artist for Batman for quite some time and is still considered one of the premiere Batman artists.  His style has become classic and almost remarkably you can see here that, despite only just getting started at DC, his style is already almost fully formed.  Even with the color stripped out his stuff is gorgeous to look at.  Heck, with the color stripped out it looks in some ways even better as it emphasizes the noir touches to his work.

So, enough is enough and it's time for a roundup...  The first time I read this volume I loved it.  I loved all the strangeness and the wildness of seeing Batman team up with characters who were not necessarily a natural fit for him -- like Plastic Man or the Metal Men.  On a recent re-reading though the flaws hit me and I found myself all-too-willing to put the volume down and not come back to it for a few days.  It didn't drag me in and compel me to read the stories.  The silliness and the plot holes were just too front-and-center and they disturbed my reading enjoyment too much.

The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 is probably worth a purchase if you're an amateur comic book historian like me.  It is still worth a look though so if you can pick it up at a discount or better yet at your local library go ahead and then skim through it hitting the better stories and the Neal Adams art.

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