Film Strips: Batman (1989)
Posted by Seb Patrick at 13:00 on 25 Jun 2014
A telling indicator of the weight DC decided to throw behind the book - which was released in the cardstock-covered Prestige Format introduced to great success with the previous year's The Killing Joke, as well as a regular newsstand edition - was the creative team hired. Rather than bringing in jobbing, workmanlike creators who could turn the book around quickly with the minimum of fuss, DC tapped legendary Bat-writer Dennis O'Neil for the script, with pencilled and inked art by Jerry Ordway, who at the time was pretty much at the height of his popularity for his work on Adventures of Superman. Even the colourist, Steve Oliff, came to the book off the back of successfully pioneering digital colouring on Marvel's translation of Akira.
Given O'Neil's lengthy and memorable contributions to the Bat-mythos, however, what surprises here is how much he restrains himself from putting his own stamp on the book. There's an almost reverent level of fidelity to Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren's script, with just about every memorable line, good or bad, making it in. "You look fine" "I didn't ask"; "Where does he get those wonderful toys?"; "'Course, if anyone else calls you Beast, I'll rip their lungs out"; "I have given a name to my pain..."; and of course, yes, the ever-dreaded "Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?"
Even lines that don't match the film ("What are you?" "I'm Batman" is replaced with "You don't own the night!" "Tell all your friends... I am the night.") actually tend to reflect the earlier draft O'Neil is working from, rather than changes he's chosen to make. Generally, he's entirely happy to sit back and let the film's dialogue do the work, with his skill mostly extending to condensing the narrative, and making sure there's enough additional exposition in scenes where the static page can't quite convey what the moving film can. The plot, similarly, plays out almost exactly beat-for-beat as it does on screen, with just the odd tweaking or shuffling of very minor details - and the inclusion of a couple of elements from the script that were cut from the final film (such as the suspicion by the GCPD of Alexander Knox being Batman).
While O'Neil's work is unobtrusive and professional, however, what really sets Batman '89 apart is the contribution of Ordway. An artist with a distinctive and recognisable style, the fact that he's never really been associated with Batman means he doesn't fall into the trap of Curt Swan having to go off his famous model on Superman III. Instead, he goes absolutely hell-for-leather with the actor likenesses, capturing pretty much every character to a near photo-realistic degree.
And while his takes on Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson are perfect throughout, he doesn't stop with the leads - the likes of Pat Hingle, Michael Gough and Robert Wuhl are dead on, too. Hell, even the two thugs Batman takes down in the very first scene (one of whom I always think is Tom Waits when I watch the film, but isn't) are there. In fact, he even goes so far as to have the younger version of Jack Napier - who looks basically nothing like Jack Nicholson in the film - look basically nothing like Jack Nicholson.
The dreaded curse of photo-realistic art is usually that it comes at the expense of fluid storytelling - looking instead like a succession of traced still photographs - but Ordway swerves that one, too. The work he put in developing each character's look means that rather than basing each panel on existing photos, he's simply drawing the characters in that way, and it means he's not constrained from bringing his trained storyteller's pen to bear. There's nothing especially standout or dramatic about the panel layouts, but the action always flows, and is always clear.
Thanks to this level of fidelity from both writer and artist, whether or not this is all actually a good read depends very much on whether you think Batman is a good film. The plot is relatively uninspiring as Batman stories go - and doesn't really have enough of him in it - and although the script has the odd moment of flair (and a boatload of good, if often silly, one-liners), it's in the visuals and performances that it becomes a stylish, well-produced film. As such, the same is absolutely true here - it might not be the best Batman comic published in the late 1980s, but it's certainly a stylish, well-produced comic. And that's enough to make it comfortably the gold standard for this kind of adaptation.