What the Influence?: On “Batman #19”, Cartoons and Music

I’ve been using music as a crutch. Trying to find inspiration in unlikely verses or choruses or fleeting notes from a dramatic bridge. Recently the songs of Franz Nicolay, Into It. Over It, Papa, The Avett Brothers, Centro-Matic and Nothington have been on steady rotation, shuffled actually. I’ve argued that comics should come with a soundtrack, and while books like The Li’l Depressed Boy and Demo have stated the music that has inspired them, and Marvel recently announced a new digital music venture for ambient soundtracks to books, nothing like what I’ve hoped for seems to be coming to fruition.

To fill the void, over the last six months I’ve been providing soundtracks for my reviews and features. It started at New York Comic Con, trying to find songs that highlighted dramatic points, tying together different popculture media. A Rob Gordon for the comics crowd, however inconsequential.

There’s a point here about finding inspiration in other media. While some comic writers and artists find inspiration in the past or the future or other artists or other genres, there are others that choose to jump platforms and find a muse in, say, television. Case in point: Batman #19. While it operates like what we can expect from much of DC’s April titles, there’s another influence, one that grounds the title in past Batman incarnations and the character’s rich history.

The point of April’s DC comics is for us to utter, “What The [….],” just by the covers giving away a surprising plot point in a gatefold reveal. They may have abandoned that marketing language, but the covers and their function remain, and the cover to Batman #19 might just have elicited that very expression from a few gapped mouth readers.

All of DC’s April issues beg one important question, what came first? The stories or the covers? But that question can be rendered mute if the story in question is rather good. That’s the case with Batman #19.

Writer Scott Snyder crafts a story that sits after his “Death of the Family” storyline meditation on the Joker and right before his New 52 Batman origin “Zero Year.” It’s an adventure of the non-epic nature that we haven’t seen from Snyder yet, and shows possibly a major influence on his current work and his work to come. Namely, the seminal TV show Batman: The Animated Series.

Much like the Batman Annual where Snyder and his creative partners used The Animated Series version of Mr. Freeze as a jumping off point for their new version of the villain, Batman #19 operates nearly as the script to a lost episode. While it lacks the reserved yet sophisticated art deco atmosphere of Batman: The Animated Series, the set-up and narrative style is in keeping with the tone of that hallmark of Batman’s various other media incarnations. Plus it gives the author the opportunity to reintroduce a villain that has only had a cameo up to this point in the New 52 universe, Clayface.

This Clayface is of course different from the version that was used in The Animated Series, but Snyder’s take on the character, while mixing some supernatural and horror influences, definitely derives from that version. The added feature of Clayface mutating is narrative progression that seems natural if we view this as a loose homage to the cartoon series, despite the varied difference between the two characters.

But really, the more interesting aspect is that Batman: The Animated Series continues to influence its comics brethren beyond the crossing over of characters like Harley Quinn.

That a series that ended its run in 1999 (if you include The New Batman Adventures) still has relevance and speaks to how seminal the cartoons were for forging a shared idea of Batman. Also considering that two other Batman cartoons, The Batman and Batman: The Brave and The Bold, have aired since.

Many have written about the merits and legacy of Batman: The Animated Series, I won’t try anything to that extent here, but only throw limited focus on how various media forms have come to influence and affect the storytelling presently in Batman comics. More to the point, unlike how I’ve been using music as a crutch to inspire my work, the various Batman authors like Snyder have used The Animated Series to launch into new worlds and attempt deeper understanding of just how much a hero like Batman can transcend changing times and cultural understandings.

Batman: The Animated Series seemed to come out of nowhere, yet many will claim that it came directly from the Tim Burton Batman films. While cartoon and films share similar darker tones, The Animated Series took the very distinct iconography of earlier Batman work, most notably the very early Bob Kane and Bill Finger work and then the later Denny O’Neil edited work. It nearly completely ignored the sci-fi influenced years and the campy Adam West-era (except for that one episode that paid tribute to various Batman incarnations). Batman: The Brave and The Bold would resurrect that campy and lighter tone, and while that property certainly has its place, a calling back to a more innocent time, its place in Batman media history has yet to yield a strong influence on the present magazines.

The Brave and The Bold cartoon did however make an interesting point in a meta-inspired episode addressing some of its own criticism.

“Batman’s rich history allows it to be interpreted in a multitude of ways,” Bat-Mite (Paul Rubens) says in episode 19 of the show’s first season. “To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots as the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”

One interesting point about The Animated Series and The Brave and The Bold is that for settings, both took Batman out of the current, or rather placed him in a city that functions as an anachronism – elements from the past, present and foreseen future were mixed into a stunningly realized art deco (or is it dark deco) vision.

Getting back to the point of influence, it’s a testimony to the overall impact of The Animated Series, which was influenced by the likes of Kane, Finger, O’Neil, Jerry Robinson and Steve Englehart, that it continues to influence the comics. While certainly Snyder and the various Batman Family writers owe much to the creators before them, that they can similarly pay tribute by acknowledging the Bruce Timm produced cartoon series nearly brings us full circle. If by circle we recognize the linear cannibalism inherit in our culture – what was old is new again.

I’ve noted for over a year now that Batman currently has a much more horror influence, and while I may direct our attention to the cartoons of the 1990s, let’s not forget how much darker the cartoons were compared to earlier Batman TV efforts, and how much darker Batman in general has become over the last decade. What made The Animated Series darker was a combination of the aesthetic and that it took the material and its audience seriously. I’m not convinced that that’s the case currently with Batman comics. Rather, the current comics seem to derive their tone from the horror infecting much of popculture and much of the world.

And while I’ll more than likely continue to use music as a source for inspiration, I would hope that the Batman writers would continue to utilize Batman: The Animated Series as baseline for their adventures, just like Batman #19 does. It would be a shame not too.

And just because I mentioned them earlier, here’s my playlist for this article.

Franz Nicolay – “Note on a Subway Wall”

Into It. Over It – “Pinky Swear”

Papa – “Collector”

The Avett Brothers – “I Never Knew You”

Centro-Matic – “Numbers One and Three”

Nothington – “Captive Audience”