Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Batman and the Outsiders

(or "The Key Word Here Is 'Batman'")

Last week, I spent some time talking about the Legion of Super-Heroes, an amazingly successful spin-off from the Superman titles that has lasted for decades in continuous publication. Today, though, I'm going to turn my attention to a somewhat...let's just say less successful...spin-off, 'Batman and the Outsiders'. Or, as it's been known since issue #32, 'The Outsiders'.

As with many books of the 1980s, 'Batman and the Outsiders' started with the fading of the trend of "team-up books". 'Marvel Team-Up' became 'Web of Spider-Man', 'Marvel Two-In-One' became 'The Thing', and 'The Brave and the Bold' was canceled to make way for another Batman series. DC, though, decided to retain the "teaming" concept by having Batman quit the Justice League and form a super-team more in line with his own sensibilities.

This is a solid central concept for a book. Over the course of the 70s and 80s, Batman's character evolved to the point where he seemed out of place with the Justice League, and yet the character has never truly been a "lone wolf". (Some fans might dispute this, but four Robins, two Batgirls, a Huntress, a Catwoman, an Azrael, an Alfred, a Commissioner Gordon and an Ace the Bat-Hound later, it's kind of hard to argue against.) Unfortunately, very little thought was given to the team dynamic of a "Batman-esque" super-team. Instead, Black Lightning and Metamorpho were brought in from their own canceled series, and a few new super-heroes (Halo, Katana, and Geo-Force) were created to round out the team. Nothing was particularly wrong with any of these new heroes, but most of them never really seemed like "outsiders" of any sort. Geo-Force and Halo could have just as easily been slotted into the Justice League or the Teen Titans as they were into Batman's new, "edgier" team concept.

The tone, too, seemed to be more "Justice League" than "Batman." They stopped super-villains, they fought crime, they did the things that super-teams tend to do. Nothing wrong with that, of course; superheroic action is a pretty popular genre, and Mike Barr was writing some entertaining stories. The storytelling engine of "Batman's dark team doing things the Justice League can't or won't" simply wasn't there, but it was beginning to evolve into a pretty good super-hero title in its own right. It even developed a spin-off title of its own, 'The Outsiders', which told Batman-less tales of the team.

Then Batman left abruptly in issue #32. Presumably, editors worried about "over-exposure" of one of their most popular characters, or complained that Batman didn't really fit in with the tone that 'Outsiders' had developed, but whatever the reasons, Batman decided to abandon the team he'd created and go back to being a solo crime-fighter. The series redubbed itself 'Adventures of the Outsiders', limped along for 14 more issues (8 of which were reprints of 'Outsiders' stories), and died in May of 1986. Less than two years later, its own spin-off joined it in comic-book limbo.

There have been a few attempts to revive the series since--during the comics boom of the 1990s, the team reunited for a new series, but this one lasted fewer issues than the first 'Outsiders' run. In 2003, DC launched a new series with the name, but it was really more of an updating of the Teen Titans than a continuation of the original title, and featured none of the original Outsiders. It managed to last fifty issues, though, before being relaunched...as 'Batman and the Outsiders'. Once again, Batman has decided to form a super-team to do the things the Justice League can't or won't, and has recruited heroes who share his worldview. After several attempts, DC seems to have learned a lesson from the failed relaunches of the series.

And what are those lessons? One, it might be cynical marketing-driven logic to include a "big draw" popular character in a series just for the sake of getting their fans to buy the book, but it's cynical marketing-driven logic that works. Fans of Batman bought 'Batman and the Outsiders' for the guy with the bat-symbol on his chest, and while they might have eventually come to like the other characters as well, thirty-two issues wasn't enough time for them to bond with the rest of the team. Spin-offs eventually need to stand on their own, but that doesn't mean you want to kick the crutches out from under them right away. (This may be why television is littered with so many failed spin-offs. The demands of scheduling mean that they can't have more than the occasional guest appearance from members of their parent series' cast.)

The other lesson? When you have a central concept for a series that's a good idea, run with it. A Batman-created team should look different and act different from an assemblage of generic superheroes, it should have a unique style and adventures that can't happen in any other comic. That never seemed to happen in 'Batman and the Outsiders', despite some entertaining stories, and only time will tell if it happens in the new book. If it doesn't, then everything old will be new again...including cancellation before issue #30.


Matthew Johnson said...

Hi John,

A quick correction: "The Outsiders" was not precisely a spinoff of "Batman and the Outsiders" -- it was part of a move by DC to change their top-selling books (BTAO, New Teen Titans, and Legion of Super Heroes) to direct sales and higher quality printing. Each team ran in two titles for a few months, after which the original title was renamed ("Tales of..." in each case) and began to reprint the direct-sales version. In each case the reprint series quickly died, presumably proving to DC that the newsstand market was no longer relevant.

Each of the new series debuted with a "big" story to get reader attention: in Titans it was the return of Trigon, in Legion it was the return of the Legion of Super Villains, and in The Outsiders it was the departure of Batman. Barr was both writer and editor at the time, so it seems safe to say he was solidly behind the decision.

Incidentally, there was some logic in calling both Black Lightning and Metamorpho "outsiders" -- each had previously turned down JLA membership.

John Seavey said...

There's only one problem with that--the timing doesn't work out right for it to be part of the change you mentioned. 'Batman and the Outsiders' didn't become 'Adventures of the Outsiders' until May of 1986, and didn't start reprinting issues of 'The Outsiders' until November of 1986. 'The Outsiders' started in November of 1985, and didn't start with the departure of Batman--that happened in the "main" title, 'Batman and the Outsiders', issue #32.

I couldn't find a whole lot of information on this (for some reason, the Outsiders isn't a hot topic for comics historians), but what I did find suggested that the direct-market book was a spin-off, and that the idea of reprinting it came along later. But like I say, I didn't find much, and I'd be happy to learn more about the circumstances of the change.

Matthew Johnson said...

Hi John,

This is according to Wikipedia:

"The New Teen Titans series experienced some title and numbering confusion in 1984 when the title was relaunched with a new #1 issue as part of a new initiative at DC informally referred to as "hardcover/softcover." The New Teen Titans, along with Legion of Super-Heroes and Batman and the Outsiders, were the first and only titles included in this program, where the same stories would be published twice, first in a more expensive edition with higher-quality printing and paper distributed exclusively to comic book specialty stores, then republished a year later in the original low-budget format and distributed to newsstands."

You're right, though, that the departure of Batman was not the "big story" used to launch the new series. I was a casual BTAO reader at the best of times, and had assumed (based on the name change)that that was the case, but clearly I was wrong.

Anonymous said...

The concept of the new Batman & Outsiders seems to me to be lifted off from the recent Justice League Elite maxi-series more than the previous incarnations of Outsiders... And the JL Elite in turn was pretty far removed from the team's original appearances in Action Comics.

Sticking with a good idea once you've gotten one seems to be tricky.

John Seavey said...

You're right--I remember now that DC wanted to have a year's gap between the new series and the reprints, which explains why they launched 'Outsiders' when they did. Strange policy, seemingly designed to cause the cancellation of books. (I was misled by a website who insisted that 'Batman and...' did well enough to warrant a sequel. There's just not a ton of info out there on this series. :) )

Someday I'm going to go back and revise all these columns to take little tidbits like that into account, I swear.

Batman said...

Well, since this would seem to be take 2, I'll try again... :)

B&B was not really canceled, as it was refitted into BATO, and there was no time lost in between. The theory was that instead of contriving a team up for Batman every month, simply give him a team to have adventures with....

And, 25 years later, we'll be discussing it at Comic Con....

Besides, it gave us Batcave West, therefore, it can't be all bad....