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'Batman: The Winning Card' and 'Batman' #1 is the same story told 84 years apart

Comic Books

‘Batman: The Winning Card’ and ‘Batman’ #1 is the same story told 84 years apart

A deep dive into an extra important Batman story.

While remakes are commonplace in other media such as film, it’s a rare case in comics. Despite this, the evolution of the comic book medium should not be sidelined compared to its sister entertainment arts. Other than visual and physical differences in the way comics are made and sold, modern conventions in the way comics are written, including the disappearance of thought bubbles and narrations, also work to open doors for more varied ways of storytelling while creating novel experiences of emotional feeling.

Batman: The Winning Card is one such remake. Having just hit stores recently, the latest collaboration between writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads is a prime example of a remake done right, and one that builds on the original and leaves room for both to exist side by side.

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In the past, this writer-artist team has yet to miss a mark, from the Eisner-winning 12-issue series Mister Miracle to the single issue One Bad Day: Riddler. This time around, they’ve remade the plot of the first ever Batman issue — all the way back from Batman #1 (1940) — with the first appearance of the Joker. This four-issue story about Batman and Joker’s first encounter, previously included in the Batman: The Brave and The Bold anthology series, is finally collected in trade paperback. In celebration of that, I would like to explore the similarities and differences to the story it’s retelling. How different can a comic be with the same story told 84 years apart? Turns out, very different indeed

One of the team’s motives for this reinvention was to turn it into a horror comic — and it shows. From the get-go, it’s clear that the mood is distinct as the modern comic’s art and paneling reflect the dark atmosphere of the story more than the flat colors of the original (a weakness it was limited to with the tools of the time). The current look benefits the story greatly, as it not only reads like a classic horror movie but it looks like one to boot. Bright primary colors are replaced with a grungier aesthetic. Indoors have appropriate amber lighting while outdoors are bathed in pale moonlight, desaturating Joker’s hair and Batman’s belt.

The original panels are claustrophobic, with speech bubbles occupying a quarter of the space. Then, to top it off, there are narration caption boxes covering even more. With limited pages to tell the story, Joker’s horrifically gruesome acts aren’t as impactful as later iterations, as they pass by quickly in a mere 11 pages. Yet even without sufficient room, Joker left such a big impression with his signature look and modus operandi that he still remains Batman’s most popular adversary to this day. And it is this vert iconography that Gerads capitalizes on in the modern comic.

 

Batman

Joker’s new design by Mitch Gerads. Courtesy of DC Comics.

Joker’s deep-set eyes are accentuated even further with an all-black shadow and pure white dots where his eyes should be, a look inspired by his iteration in the New Batman Adventures animated series. His purple overcoat replaced with an all-black blazer — he is less a clown and more a well-dressed serial killer in makeup. His more monochrome uniform also echoes The Man Who Laughs (1928), the silent film that partially influenced Joker’s original look.

Speaking of the film, how Joker speaks in the modern comic is reminiscent of how silent films convey dialogue, through title cards. While everyone else speaks through the standard speech bubbles, Joker’s words take the space of an entire panel, making him sound otherworldly and beyond the confines of time and space. How any comic book character sounds is up to the reader’s imagination — they are differentiated by how they physically appear on the page. By having Joker’s words exist in their own space, it invokes how his voice takes precedence above all others, highlighting how alien he is. In the original, Joker speaks like your run-of-the-mill insane supervillain, and he cracks jokes and monologues. In contrast, he tells gags that are off-puttingly out of context in the new one, making him feel more unknowable and unhinged; like he’s not present and yet he’s everywhere.

The following images are courtesy of DC Comics.

 

'Batman: The Winning Card' and 'Batman' #1 is the same story told 84 years apart'Batman: The Winning Card' and 'Batman' #1 is the same story told 84 years apart

That dynamic is central to understanding King’s storytelling approach. comparing the original pages with the modern’s mostly nine-panel grids, it’s apparent that King’s usual writing style works well with a more structured pacing. Though having less flexibility in the panel sizes, this method is beneficial in that the pace is more controlled, and the payoffs hit harder, as reveals gradually creep in and the anticipation builds from panel to panel. Earlier comics have a tendency to have compressed storytelling while modern ones can be more decompressed. What this means is that, in a decompressed comic, each page spends more time in a certain scene. A fight scene that lasts one page in the original gets more room for detail across five pages for the modern take. More panels mean more detailed movement and a slower pace, and one that’s closer to real-time.

With more pages, character development is also extended, as we get to see how exactly Batman gets better to defeat the Joker and the extent of chaos and death left in his wake while he’s recovering. That’s something that just can’t be afforded in the original comic. The original, then, tells a story in the most efficient manner, with every panel showing an important action and beat and narration to fill in the blanks. The modern instead gives events time to linger and fester, making readers bask in the moment. There are panels that set the scene, windups to actions, and more room to breathe and be immersed in.

It’s this immersion that sets the stage for horror. While reading, the silent film title cards give pause, with the reader’s expectations boiling beneath. When Joker finally does horrific things, when he murders and maims, often details are left to the reader’s imagination. The horror happens off-panel, in the reader’s mind. In Scott McCloud’s 1993 book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, this is what’s called closure. It’s when Joker holds a bloodied knife to a person holding a balloon on one panel, and then the balloon slowly floats from panel to panel on the next page, with the title cards filled with Joker’s laughter. It is when the reader consciously fills in what happens in between two panels, and when we have input on how terrible a fate befalls a character based on the context of two consecutive panels. That’s horror — we are complicit to the crime.

The following images are courtesy of DC Comics.

 

'Batman: The Winning Card' and 'Batman' #1 is the same story told 84 years apart'Batman: The Winning Card' and 'Batman' #1 is the same story told 84 years apart

Through decompression, Batman: The Winning Card has a more cinematic pacing compared to its predecessor. The comic feels similar to a movie, where each panel is an important frame that leads to the next one, with splash pages that can give a moment or reveal more impact. The action has more buildup — there’s a question being posed by the first panel and answered in the third. The nine-panel grids give each page an arc that the original comic is more lenient with overall. Funnily enough, there’s a lot of flexibility afforded by the grid. The angles are far more varied, with more zoom-ins and insert shots like a movie storyboard. They’ve done away with all narration boxes, and the speech bubbles are more compact, leaving more room for the art to speak for itself instead of describing what’s happening. Characters don’t just say what they’re thinking now and there’s more nuance.

In older comics, every scene seems to have the same weight and shot from the same perspective. Both the colors and the art are not as dynamic, and it feels like they had to tell what’s in the story in the minimum amount of pages required (often without enough room for artistic license). The timeless plotting, however, makes it perfect for a modern retelling with contemporary conventions.

The writing by Bill Finger, along with art by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, created a firm foundation. (One that even inspired director Christopher Nolan in structuring certain scenes in The Dark Knight, including having Joker pose as a police officer and poisoning people in power.) Compared to an 84-year-old comic, current comics can play with the established medium, having caption boxes that are like silent film title cards, grainy semi-realistic art, and borderless panels. Everything is more stylized and facilitates the plot in a more evocative manner, with the colors fitting in with the tone and the way the characters are written. In the original issue, with the traditional way of pacing and paneling, Joker is scary in deed but not as much in presentation. In this modern take, the anticipation and build-up of the panels make the horror stick in the reader’s head. Form is being played — it’s not just words explaining the art or vice versa, it’s both working in tandem to deliver an experience and elicit an emotional response from the reader.

The following images are courtesy of DC Comics.

 

'Batman: The Winning Card' and 'Batman' #1 is the same story told 84 years apart'Batman: The Winning Card' and 'Batman' #1 is the same story told 84 years apart

Some other discrepancies between the two comics are more textual than visual, with those due to the decades of continuity built up on the back of countless Batman issues. The biggest difference being the removal of Robin in the modern comic. This is most likely due to keeping up with Batman’s Year One origin story and having Batman’s early years without a sidekick. This single anomaly, however, does a lot to change the story. Without a sidekick, Batman is a towering monument of rage, obsessed and unrelenting. Plus, the story as a whole is removed from any sense of levity. Without Robin, this is not as typical of a superhero story. Left to fight madness alone, our hero’s sanity is tested.

Batman #1 is a quintessential superhero story: the villain causes death, the hero is called to action but gets defeated for a while, and then they return and foil the villain by the end. In the modern retelling, it’s more complicated than that. With years of Batman canon behind it, it delves more into the early rageful and inexperienced Batman, with him having more of an arc and learning how to be better and become the Batman of today. It also delves into Batman and Joker’s relationship, and how different or alike they are on several levels. Plus, the horror of the Joker is far more pronounced; it’s now comparable to Michael Myers or Pennywise, if anything. In the original issue, Batman and Joker’s relationship does not get any highlight as it was the first time they shared the same page together. While the original is the beginning of something, this remake feels like a prequel that fills the foundation for a lot of comics’ past and future.

The text and content of Batman: The Winning Card adds the weird and upsetting relationship between Batman and Joker and how, in a twisted way, they could be the only person who gets one another. It explores how different Batman is from the criminals he catches, and how different he has to be to excel. With the benefit of having 84 years of history, the comic uses a lot of readers’ preexisting knowledge of Batman — one that the original 1940s issue was unable to utilize. How the conflict is resolved and the story’s ending is also completely different. Without Robin, Alfred gets more play here, taking the place of the Boy Wonder as Batman’s trusted conscience, bestowing sage advice and moral lessons passed down from Bruce’s father. It’s a change I’d argue is for the better because of its thematic significance, exploring the parallels between the villain’s unstoppable force and the hero’s immovable object.

Batman

A splash page showing boot-delivered bat justice. Courtesy of DC Comics.

The changes made to the original plot in the remake, including Robin’s absence and Joker’s dialogue, serve to make the comic a horror story through and through. The various alterations to the story made after decades of comic book history have then afforded a more stylistic art and freedom of visual expression. The DC comics of old were synonymous with a house style that made it less easy for artists’ to stand out from one another, especially with the limited color palette. Nowadays, variety is not only viable from a visual standpoint, but comic book writers too can be more subtle in delivering the story, without having to explain everything in text bubbles.

The first time I read Batman: The Winning Card, I felt something that I’d never felt previously when reading a comic: the fear of turning a page. If anything, the remake succeeds in creating a terrifying read, where horror resides at every page turn. With that in mind, I feel this is a remake that more than justifies its existence, as it never once discounts the original. Though some plot beats may remain the same, the way they are presented creates an entirely new experience. Not just visually but emotionally — it’s a familiar story charged with fresh life. While Batman #1 may be the blueprint for superhero stories for decades to come, Batman: The Winning Card is a different beast altogether, taking the genre to new heights, or more appropriately, to darker depths. It is interesting to see what other old comics can be retooled to great effect, not just retreading familiar ground, but injecting it with new vigor.

It’s evident that the years have been kind to the comic book medium. The core techniques have evolved significantly, from combining traditional and digital tools for drawing to the prose being able to play with form and expectations. Without the original Batman issue from Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson, we would not be here today. They set the foundation at the golden age of comics for it to grow and develop into the art form that it is now, capable of inducing horror and awe. King and Gerads are a direct result of that foundation, and their work to push Batman and the medium forward honors the trailblazing spirit of this beloved medium.

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