On one level, The Batman And Robin Adventures Annual #2 and The Superman Adventures Annual #1 are a sort of crossover, telling two sides of a story involving magical amulets. But the amount of actual crossover is quite small, and tonally these are very different stories that function almost entirely independently of each other. The elements of each story that appear in the other are readable, if one hasn’t read the other, as simple Easter Eggs. “Oh, Bruce Wayne was apprenticed to Zatara when Superman met him.” “Oh, Zatara was involved in some kind of Superman adventure while Bruce Wayne was apprenticed to him.”
Instead of something like “World’s Finest,” which had both Superman and Batman working together against both Superman-style and Batman-style problems, this “crossover” maintains each of them alone, in their own space, dealing with their own styles, with only Zatara himself bridging the gap. Unlike “World’s Finest,” therefore, which has the overall effect of uniting the BTAS and STAS ideaspaces into the beginnings of the DCAU, this serves instead to highlight their differences, as illustrated by the two’s respective treatment of the shared character Zatara–and through him, of magic.
For Superman, Zatara was a wizard, a provider of magical artifacts that could be invoked by the power of words, that led to a chaotic realm of demons and time travel. But for Batman Zatara is much more mundane, a stage magician who operates by trickery. The villain of the Batman story has mind-control powers, but they are simply an advanced form of mundane persuasion, not spells of enchantment–and any apparent magic is actually a product of self-deception, whether accidental (the villain’s belief that the amulet grants his powers boosts his confidence sufficiently to allow him to employ them) or deliberate (the “meditation ritual” Zatara teaches Batman and Batman teaches Robin is fairly obviously the same kind of confidence booster, in this case to resist control).
Both take a playful approach to the ideas within, but ultimately the Superman comic is far more playful, extending that even to the structure of the comic itself (with, as we’ve discussed, mixed results). It jumps gleefully into concepts like demons, magic, and time travel, while the Batman comic tries to be more straightforwardly logical, to lay the groundwork to explain everything that happens in mundane terms. At the same time, it’s more aware of mundane darkness: Superman’s demon is just a generic evil, monstrous invader who destroys and disrupts and must be fought, while the Batman story takes pains to have its villain point out that he does not and will not use his powers for rape.
Compare the Batman annual to issue #25, the final issue of The Batman and Robin Adventures (though, just like TBA before it, TBRA will be followed by a functionally identical series under a new name). In this story, Batman is kidnapped by a flying saucer piloted by Ra’s al-Ghul, who claims he stole it from aliens who abducted him. Batman breaks free and is contacted by the Men in Black (generic, X-Files-esque ones rather than the ones from the Aircel/Malibu comic book that inspired the Men in Black movies–those characters were purchased by Marvel in 1994 and are thus unfortunately unlikely to show up in a Batman story), then takes on Ra’s again and stops him from using the saucer to destroy the polar ice caps.
This comic, which came out the month after the Annual, flirts rather more openly with what the Annual merely hinted at: that Batman’s world of dark alleys and gothic villains is embedded in something larger and weirder, a realm of aliens and speedsters and actual magic, psychic gorillas and Amazons and living radiation. Batman resists this, insisting right up until the end of the comic that the saucer is a craft built by Ra’s al-Ghul, not an alien vessel, but the fact that it can be controlled by holding a crystal and focusing one’s will makes clear that he is wrong: this is magic–space-themed magic, as aliens and spaceships in fiction usually are, but magic nonetheless.
He is in denial, but he cannot remain there forever. The future of the DCAU is not to delve deeper into dark streets, solving dark mysteries and exploring the corners of dark minds; it is striking out into the wild and the weird, outward rather than inward, expanding into new ideaspaces rather than lurking in the one. We’ve known this, of course, since the apocalypse and the art style shift–but here is confirmation.
The Batman of the Future is coming, and like Superman’s epithet, he is a Man of Tomorrow. His world may look superficially like Batman’s, but it lies within Superman’s–dark streets occupied by mutants and aliens and psychics. It is a world that the Bruce Wayne Batman cannot fight in and cannot fight against–but as we see here, he will break himself trying.
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