01 December 2013

More Retrospective Than Retroactive

A while back I looked at DC Comics’s Legacies miniseries, a summary of its 1986-2011 superhero universe’s history. Just after Legacies the company announced a line called DC Retroactive, pitched as exercises in nostalgia.

Editor Ben Abernathy told Newsarama that “the opportunity to revisit that era, with the creators who made it great, is a welcome change from everything else going on in the industry these days.” It was almost an explicit admission that DC’s audience had become middle-aged folks chasing memories of their early teens.

That announcement ran in mid-April 2011. At the end of May, Newsarama was running breathless stories about DC’s “New 52,” which replaced the latest continuity with a new one. That news took up all the attention of comics fandom and critics, leaving little for the DC Retroactive magazines when they came out. I don’t know if this fact is at all pertinent, but Abernathy is no longer with DC Comics.

The idea behind DC Retroactive was to publish stories in the style of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s from creators who had worked on the properties then. There were triads devoted to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Justice League. (There was no Teen Titans equivalent, but Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s finally-completed Games would push similar buttons.)

The only DC Retroactive book to feature a Robin was the 1980s Batman issue. It was created by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham, collaborators on the Batman: Son of the Demon graphic novel from 1987. But Barr’s story has more connections with Detective Comics stories he created with Alan Davis featuring a young Jason Todd.

Thus, as in Barr’s issues of the digital Legends of the Dark Knight, we see a Batman who calls Robin “chum” and shouts to him not to look at one of the villains kills another. The bat-cave’s criminal files are actually file cabinets.

Robin adds puns to a fight scene and needs to sit on a Gotham phone book to drive the Batmobile. It would have been nice to see Davis‘s small, spindly Robin in these scenes instead of Bingham’s bigger, tougher-looking version.

Barr’s DC Retroactive story is also a sequel to his Year Two series from 1987, set before any Robin. (A previous sequel, Batman: Full Circle from 1991, had brought Dick Grayson into the story.) All these stories featured a murderous vigilante named the Reaper, a role taken on by a series of people.

Year Two has been controversial for many Batman fans because it shows Bruce Wayne thinking about using a gun in his war on crime—and not just any gun but the gun that killed his parents. The fact that the story ends with him deciding against that method doesn’t stop many readers from declaring that action completely out of character.

At the end of its 1994-95 Zero Hour crossover, DC apparently repudiated the Year Two story. Yet here the Reaper is back. The DC Retroactive: Batman—The ’80s comic book even reprints the story that ends with Bruce holding up the old gun. This magazine was thus an exercise in reclamation not just for old readers but for an old writer.

(As I composed this posting, I discovered that weekly Robin essays comprise this website’s discussion of Jason Todd. Needless to say, I agree with most of the insights there, but I disagree on reprinting them without permission, credit, quotation marks, or links.)

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