Batman 66, by Jeff Parker and Jonathan Case
There are two stories to be told here. First is the comic itself, a funnybook version of what some argue is the best take on Batman ever done: the 1966 Adam West television series. While I personally wouldn’t say it’s the very best, I think it’s easily in the top five, and this comic does a pretty good job of recreating it on the page.
Writer Jeff Parker has said that he’s trying to do the show, but with a bigger budget, and that comes across here. This first issue is pretty much just one big action sequence, feeling more like one of the show’s pre-credits intro sequences than a full episode. But Parker captures the tone really well, especially in one key area: the dialogue. A large part of the show’s appeal comes from that dialogue, a parody of stiff, square heroism delivered with a straight-faced seriousness that allows the show to be taken as exciting super hero adventure by children, while playing as comedy to adults. And Parker nails that, as seen in this early bit of dialogue between Millionaire Bruce Wayne and Chief O’Hara:
That panel also gives you a taste of the book’s look, a pop art pastiche from the pen of artist Jonathan Case. I wasn’t expecting that approach, but it fits the proceedings well, the exaggerated imitation four-color dot pattern and double linework giving the whole thing a sort of hallucinatory feel. That particular sample doesn’t serve Case’s art itself that well, though: some panels (like the one above) are obviously blow-ups of artwork intended to be seen at a smaller size. This panel revealing the issue’s villain is a much better indication of the man’s talent:
The full pages look really good, as well, leading me to think that the print version due out soon will be a nice package:
But this question of the issue’s presentation brings us to the second story to be told here: it’s the first comic released under the DC2 digital formatting scheme, a “guided reading” format in the style of Alex de Campi’s Valentine (free to read here: http://www.comixology.com/Valentine-English/comics-series/3849) and the stuff Mark Waid’s been doing at Thrillbent (also free to read here: http://thrillbent.com/). In this format, the comic is loaded for you on-screen one image, sound effect, and word balloon at a time. Proponents of the format argue that it gives the creative team control over the pacing of the story, ensuring that it gets read the way they want it to be read. People who aren’t fans of the format (such as myself) argue that we’re perfectly capable of deciding how to read something on our own, thanks, and find guided reading to be a distracting gimmick that takes us out of the story.
There’s more to it than that, of course. If you’re reading on a tiny smart phone screen, guided reading is really the only way to go. Otherwise, you’re stuck navigating a full-sized page of comics art with your finger. The panels may or may not fit the screen, and so you’re having to constantly shift the page around to read all the words and see all the art. It sucks. Of course, I bought a tablet specifically because I don’t want to read anything on a tiny smart phone screen. And on a tablet or computer screen, guided reading causes a similar annoyance to that of traditional reading on a phone: the constant clicking required just to get the next word balloon is maddening. I paid for the bigger screen so I wouldn’t have to do that shit, so my blood pressure goes up with
Ahem. I should take a moment to differentiate between regular guided reading and what’s going on here. Regular guided reading just loads one panel at a time. Which is still annoying, but I can deal with it. What DC’s copying from Waid and de Campi is a more aggressive guided reading that, as I’ve referred to, loads the comic one image, word balloon, and sound effect at a time. You get an image, click to get a word balloon loaded onto it, then another word balloon, a narrative caption, a sound effect, etc. It can leave you clicking, tapping, or swiping (depending on the screen you’re reading from) every few seconds. It’s not a smooth reading experience,
after a few pages,
you fall into more of a rhythm,
it’s still a bit maddening
after a while
you grow impatient with it
I’m exaggerating for effect here, but it’s still too much, and I find myself rushing through the comic just to get the unpleasant reading experience over with.
That unpleasantness was magnified by some technical difficulties with the initial release of Batman 66 yesterday. I downloaded the first issue to my Android tablet through the Comixology app before work yesterday morning, and found myself with something that separated every individual image, word balloon, and sound effect into a separate page. So I’d get a picture, turn the page, get the same picture with one word balloon, turn the page, get the same picture with two word balloons, turn the page, get the same picture with two word balloons and a slight art change, turn the page, get the same picture with two word balloons, a slight art change, and a sound effect, turn the page, and etc.
It was disorienting in the extreme, forcing me to reorient myself to the art every time as I figured out what had been added. I was completely taken out of the story after about ten page-turns, and blind with frustration by the end, 85 page-turns later (and this for what I’d estimate would come out to 10-12 pages in print). It also didn’t help that some of the pages didn’t load properly, leaving me with a black screen, and confusion as to whether that was some kind of intentional scene change thing, or a bug, or… what. I went to the Comixology website to try reading it again last night, and found proper transitions that made the reading easier. But I still got black pages, and it froze up completely about two-thirds of the way in. Worse, it didn’t save my place. So when I left the comic and came back, I had to start over at the beginning, and click back through the whole damn thing again. And it still froze up at more or less the same place.
Complete technology fail.
This morning, however, I went back to the Comixology app and was informed that an updated version of the book was available if I wanted it. That update wouldn’t download when I hit the “update” button, of course, but once I deleted the thing from my tablet and started a fresh download, it was fine.
but far less so. My third attempted reading went off without a hitch, and I was actually able to appreciate some of the finer aspects of this style of digital formatting. There’s one sequence, in particular, where the guiding reading provided a nice bit of comedic timing. I can’t recreate it for you here without reproducing the problems of my initial Android download
(and it’s a bit SPOILERY)
but let’s give it a shot. After an exciting fight scene on the Riddler’s retreating bi-plane, Batman bails out and the plane crashes with a taken-directly-from-the-show sound effect…
…followed by an appropriately-shaped plume of smoke…
…creating a perfect, reverently silent beat before the final addition of a single word balloon brings the house down:
HEH. I can hear Adam West saying it even now. Bravo.
Not all of the guided reading transitions work so well, though. As you can see above, the big sound effects get a separate presentation all to themselves, which is entirely appropriate to the show. But the timing on them is often poor, and leaves the sound disconnected from the action that causes it. There’s one sequence, for instance, in which Batman jumps through the wing of the Riddler’s plane. So we get the plane, then Batman jumping through it and telling the pilot to land, and only then the sound effect. The dialogue throws the timing off. At another point, we see the Riddler rapping Batman across the knuckles with his cane and Batman crying out in pain all at once, then we get the “RAP!” sound effect. I can’t believe I’m arguing for them to add yet still more clicking to the story, but that would read a lot better, I think, if the order was action, sound effect, reaction.
Of course, that’s my real issue with this particular style of digital formatting. I don’t mind the clicks so much if they’re used to good effect. Transitions that enhance comedic or dramatic timing are good, as are things done to add more oomph to action scenes. But making me click just to get
three word balloons
spaced across one panel
in the order I would have read them in anyway
makes me want to throw the comic across the room.
And my tablet was way too expensive to be doing shit like that.
So. Taken on its own terms, separate from the digital silliness, Batman 66 is a fun and entertaining read that captures the feel of the Adam West TV show rather well. It’s not perfect. I’d like to see a little less action and a few more jokes. It’s also perhaps lacking a bit in the show’s sly hipness, but hey. We’re only ten pages in. That might still come. I’ll be back for more, anyway. Though, considering what a poor launch this was for DC2, I might very well wait for print to see how it turns out.
That being the case, I think it’s only fair that I give it two ratings. One for the content…
…And another for the format: