Like a lot of folks, my first experience with The Dark Knight in film was Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. I cannot recall whether or not I saw it in the theater (I was, after all, the tender age of six), but I do remember it being an exciting part of my childhood once my grandmother got ahold of a VHS copy. I bought the soundtrack, read the novelization of the follow-up Batman Returns, and had some action figures. While it may not be my favorite Batman film of all time, Batman ’89 will always have a special place in my heart. So when I found a copy of “The Official Comic Adaptation of the Warner Bros. Motion Picture” at my local 2nd & Charles, and saw that it was written and pencilled by two industry titans–Denny O’Neil and Jerry Ordway–I gladly forked over the buck they were asking and took it home to dig in.
You don’t own the night
Let me get the bad out of the way up front: as a comic, on its own, this is pretty terrible. In an effort to hit specific beats from the film, but still fit within a reasonable number of pages, O’Neil produces a disjointed script that feels more like the skimmings from something larger. But because of the length (and the way it’s put together), it fails to have the punch of a trailer or teaser, and reading it is a cumbersome task. Scenes that were standouts in the film fall flat when they are condensed for the book.
Take this, for example:
Vicki needs to brush up on her conversation skills…
This was a very humorous scene in film, and so it is not surprising that O’Neil wanted to include it. But in the film, Burton allows enough time to pass so that the distance between Bruce and Vicki feels as awkward as it should. Here, however, we get a single panel of them sitting at the large table, and then the punchline in the following panel. I never really feel like the distance between them is well-established, and so the joke falls flat. Vicki’s unnatural transition from “I’m flattered” to “pass the salt” doesn’t help.
I am the night
Such a great improvement over “I’m Batman”
Thankfully, there are moments where O’Neil deviates from the formula and offers some things not seen in the film. While the movie makes a strong suggestion that Eckhardt is the one who told Grissom about Jack and Alicia, the book states it explicitly. Grissom then has Alicia make the call that will (unbeknownst to Alicia herself) put Eckhardt and the rest of the GCPD at Axis Chemicals. It’s a neat little twist that actually adds some value to the comic, and it’s a shame that these sorts of things are such a small part of this adaptation.
In the art department, Ordway and Oliff do a fantastic job of creating a city that feels like Burton’s Gotham. Grissom’s office, Vicki’s apartment, the cathedral–each recalls the corresponding scene in the film, and there’s a good nostalgia buzz every time I look at them.
Ordway’s facial work is quite good, as well. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is particularly accurate, and at times I almost feel like I’m watching instead of reading. That’s not an overstatement, either. It’s hard to explain, but even without going for complete photo-realism, Ordway has so captured the essence of Nicholson’s performance that my mind makes up the difference between the page and the screen and I’m transported.
Tell me that’s not Jack Nicholson on the page
A man dressed as a bat
If there’s any way in which this comic improves on the film, it’s in Ordway’s drawings of Batman. Whether because of Michael Keaton’s physical proportions, or because of decisions made by costume designers, I’ve long felt that the Burton Batman looks far more weird than intimidating or cool. The head seems much too large when compared to the body, and the whole package seems too small overall. Add to that the rubbery look of the suit, and it just has not stood up well over the years.
Ordway’s rendering fixes just about every complaint I have. The head is right, the suit no longer seems like a huge chunk of rubber, and he just looks generally more like a comic book Batman (it helps that Oliff’s color choices often give the appearance of a gray jumpsuit with a black cowl, cape, gloves, and boots). With the exception of the “underwear model midsection” on the cover, Ordway and Oliff knock it out of the park when it comes to drawing the Dark Knight. It doesn’t fix the narrative flaws, but it does make it a fun book to flip through, and for the buck I paid for it, that’s not a bad deal at all.
- You have a soft spot in your heart for Batman ’89.
- You want to see some awesome shots of Batman that improve upon what you get in the film.
- You like collecting interesting, quirky comic books.
This is no masterpiece, but that’s okay. If you grew up watching the heck out of Batman like I did, then this is a fun bit of nostalgia with excellent art, even as its narrative fails spectacularly. Have a look in your local secondhand store, or keep your eyes open next time you’re at a Con. At the right price, this is a fine addition to any collection, whether you’re a fan of the film or the comics or both.