By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
April 12, 2011 -- It’s cliché to say that comics aren’t just for kids any more, but sometimes neither are superhero cartoons.
Case in point is Batman: The Brave and the Bold, now in its third and last season. Maybe its impending demise has emboldened the creators to take the gauntlets off, but recent episodes have been a huge Easter egg hunt for comics fans.
B&B takes the square-jawed, campy Batman of the 1960s and teams him up with other DC characters, which was the format of The Brave and The Bold comic book from 1966 to 1983. Some other characters are also from the 1960s, like Green Arrow, who is presented as the Batman knockoff he was before 1969 (a competition which is played for laughs.)
But Brave and Bold is more than just an exercise in nostalgia. Batman existed before the ‘60s, and continues to exist 40-odd years later, and B&B isn’t afraid to lift from any of it. It’s like a mix-tape of Batman’s 70-year history, with other characters sprinkled in for spice.
Take for example the first episode of season three, “Battle of the Superheroes,” which debuted March 25. This is the first episode to co-star Superman, which is significant, because Batman co-starred with Superman in nearly every issue of World’s Finest Comics from 1954 to 1986. Even before the team-up was formalized, the two first co-starred in a 1952 story where they *gasp* revealed their secret identities to each other, which was unheard of in 1950s superhero circles.
In “Battle,” Superman and Batman are pals, until red kryptonite (provided by Lex Luthor) turns the Man of Steel into – in the words of Jimmy Olsen – a “Super-jerk!” Batman has to keep his friend busy, and non-lethal, until the red K wears off.
It’s an amusing story for kids, but what’s amazing for adult fans is the execution. In one scene, Mr. Mxyzptlk shows up, and runs Jimmy Olsen through a series of bizarre transformations in seconds – most of which first appeared in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen comics from 1952 to 1974. Running down the list, I can practically hear comics fans whooping with joy: Blimp Jimmy, Genie Jimmy, Werewolf Jimmy, Porcupine Jimmy, Future-Boy Jimmy and – of course – Giant Turtle Man Jimmy. Those transformations were all the subject of 8- or 10-page stories decades ago, but I think they still work as 8- or 10-second sight gags today.
Superman is old school as well, a squinty-eyed hero (1940s) who changes in a Daily Planet supply closet (1960s), and whose famous 1950s TV theme (“faster than a speeding bullet”) is incorporated into the dialogue. The computer villain Brainiac shows up, and wants to steal Metropolis “to re-populate my home planet” – a confusing line, unless you know that’s exactly how he was portrayed in his first appearance in 1958 (he’s changed a bit since then). Lois Lane has brief daydreams that mirror “Imaginary Stories” from her book in the ‘60s, the Metropolis mayor is named for long-time Superman artist Curt Swan, and Luthor’s lair is modeled on those depicted when Swan was drawing the books.
But we also get the 1970s Metallo, and Bat-armor straight out of the best-selling 1986 graphic novel Dark Knight Returns. Batman says to Luthor, “You diseased maniac!” -- a line from 1978’s Superman: The Movie. The “World’s Finest” team – yes, a newspaper headline calls them that – defeats Luthor with the same identity-switching trick they used in that first team-up in 1952.
I could go on, but then I wouldn’t get to talk about episode 2, “Bat-Mite Presents: Batman’s Strangest Cases!” Bat-Mite – a 1950s magical imp similar to Mxyzptlk – speaks directly to the viewer from his “Bat-Museum” full of genuine Batman toys and costumes. This meta-mad episode doesn’t just break the fourth wall – it chews it up, along with all the other scenery.
First we see an adaptation of the famous “Bat-Boy and Rubin” parody from Mad #8 (1954), with Rubin sounding exactly like Jerry Lewis. Then we see an adaptation of a 1960s Japanese Batman comic book that was itself adapted from an American comic book. Then the Super Friends version of the Dynamic Duo meet the Scooby Doo gang, although they’re hampered by the TV “Standards and Practices” rules of the 1970s – until Bat-Mite changes them.
This maddening ouroboros of self-reference is almost enough to make your head hurt – until you realize you’re laughing too hard.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org