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Happy 40th anniversary, Batman and the Outsiders

Writer: Mike W. Barr

Art: Jim Aparo

DC Comics, July 1983 to April 1986

Wherever the Bat signal appears, dollar signs follow. American superhero character Batman, owned by DC Comics, is usually considered to be a fundamental element of the character grouping called Justice League of America. Having Batman on the cover of a comic has long been DC Comics’ method of promoting sales. And so it was a surprise back in 1983 to see Batman spurning his erstwhile colleagues for an alternative team.

Batman and the Outsiders was written by Mike W Barr and drawn by the late Jim Aparo. Mr Aparo is a much-loved Batman artist, who worked on Batman comics for decades. Mr Barr is a writer whose influence on the American comic book industry during the 1980s has strangely been overlooked. Amongst many other achievements, Mr Barr wrote two very influential comics: the science fiction epic Camelot 3000 (which we have reviewed back in 2017 and Batman: Son of the Demon. That latter title was controversial amongst the DC editorial team at the time – the suggestion that Batman was even unintentionally a delinquent father we guess was the main objection from the late Dick Giordano – but was eventually adopted by writers Mark Waid (with Batman’s son Ibn al Xuffasch in Kingdom Come) and Grant Morrison (Batman’s son Damien Wayne who appears in the present Batman titles).

As a reader of comics in the early 1980s, this reviewer can attest that having Justice League stalwart Batman depart from the team in a huff to head up his own group was a mind-blowing development. The rejection of the Justice League was underscored by the inclusion in the Outsiders of two other long-established characters, who had previously declined Justice League membership: the shape-changing Metamorpho, and DC Comics’ first black superhero, Black Lightning. Batman and the Outsiders was a concept built on repeated repudiations of the Justice League of America’s purpose, never challenged before.

In an interview for Comics Alliance Mr Barr said:

I thought the maximum impact of the story would be not to have Batman continue as an active member of the Justice League while he was leading the Outsiders, so I pitched it to [editor] Len [Wein] as “Batman takes a leave of absence from the Justice League.” Len, bless his heart, said “It’ll be more effective if Batman quits the League, so we’ll have him do that.” That was far beyond anything I thought we could get away with, so I was very grateful to Len for having implemented that.

The team also consisted of other, new characters: Geo-Force, Katana and Halo. Again, Mr Barr speaking to Comics Alliance:

Len Wein and I worked out what the new characters would be and sent descriptions to Jim, saying “Draw these up and see what you think.” Jim submitted his visual ideas for those characters, with the exception of Geo-Force, who turned out to be the brother of Terra from The New Teen Titans. I’m pretty sure George Perez designed that costume, because it was based on Terra’s costume. We decided even before the book was printed that that would be the connection between the two characters. I had not known about the character. She was still in the planning stages when I came up with the idea for Geo-Force, and Len said “Well, we have this other character with Earth powers in New Teen Titans, what are we going to do about that?” Marv Wolfman was brought in on the discussion of that, and it was Marv’s idea that they’d be half-brother and sister.

I’d always liked Black Lightning as a character. Tony Isabella is a good friend of mine, and I thought his solo title was canceled far too quickly. Not only was he a good character with good powers, but this would help keep him in the public eye as well.

Each of the Outsiders brought something unique to the mix that you could use for a story backdrop. With Geo-Force, there was this Balkan, European politics and spooky castles and all that, with Black Lightning, there was urban grit. With Katana, there was Oriental mysticism. With Metamorpho, there was that whole weird Simon Stagg universe of political intrigue, and with Halo there was that cosmic storyline we could go back to anytime. Which, again, plays back to what Stan Lee did with the Marvel books.

Katana in particular has had a duration continuing long after the Outsiders series concluded. In an interview for Comicity in 2015, Mr Barr talked about Katana’s inception:

I have to admit that I didn’t necessarily sit up and say, “Let’s make being Asian and a woman the focus of this character.” I had an interest in Asian culture and enjoyed tales of samurais and samurai characters. I thought it would be interesting to have a samurai on the team. Then, when the line-up came, there were a lot of male characters. I figured a female samurai may not be totally unique, but at least it was something that had not been done a lot. And from there, we came up with Katana… I always thought, when I developed the character, that it would be interesting to tie into the mythos of Japanese mysticism, which is tied into a lot of samurai stories. Exploring some of that, the sword became this repository of souls of those killed by it over the years.

The idea that a superhero would wield a sword which caught the souls of the wielder’s victims was not very superhero-y. But Katana was from the start a rough and tumble character happy to use throwing stars as weapons (even if she usually used the flat of her sword otherwise). The character has since appeared in many comic book titles published by DC, and also in the first Suicide Squad motion picture.

Of the other new characters, Halo has all but disappeared. Geo-Force is now infrequently pitched as an arrogant Slavic anti-hero. A later member, a telepath named Looker, eventually became a vampire and has not appeared in a DC title for many years.

Inevitably, Batman left the team in issue #32 to re-join the Justice League, and the title, re-branded as Adventures of the Outsiders, lost momentum and was cancelled with issue #46. But the adventure was fun if somewhat hokey. Many of the team’s adversaries had themed characteristics – the Masters of Disaster (with disaster-themed powers and names – New Wave, Shakedown, Windfall, Heatstroke, and Coldsnap), the patriotic Force of July (Major Victory, the Mayflower, Lady Liberty, the Silent Majority, and the Sparkler), and the Duke of Oil, a cyborg dressed as a Texan oil baron.

The title has been revived a few times, most recently in 2019, lasting a mere 17 issues.

A last word on Mr Barr, to do with an event which occurred while he was on editorial duties for the Adventures of the Outsiders. Writing to Noblemania, Mr Barr talked about his treatment at the hands of Dick Giordano in respect of the lost legacy of Batman co-creator Bill Finger:

My admiration for Bill Finger and my dismay at his lack of credit for his co-creation of Batman are both very nearly boundless. Unfortunately, not everyone in the comic book business feels that way.

In 1986, I was freelance-editing The Outsiders, a spin-off of the DC title Batman and the Outsiders. I wrote a letter to The Comics Journal stating that Finger deserved credit as the co-creator of Batman. The next time I was in the DC offices, Vice President Dick Giordano told me he considered that letter “your resignation as a DC editor” because I had “spoken out against the company,” conduct which (in Giordano’s eyes) was a firing offense for a DC staffer.

I replied to Giordano that I was not on staff. All payments I received for writing and editing were as a freelancer. I received no paid vacation time nor sick leave, and all medical coverage I received was paid for by my own pocket. I had no office on the DC premises; I did all my work at home.

None of this made any difference to Giordano, who said I had resigned. I said I would not resign and he would have to publicly fire me, which he did.

Giordano, despite a long history as a freelancer, never had any sympathy for Finger’s plight. In a last attempt to reason with him, I asked him if he had no empathy for Finger’s lack of credit on Batman. Giordano simply shrugged coldly and said “Finger should have stood up for himself.”

“Sure,” I said. “And we’re seeing how well that’s working out for me.”

We like Mr Barr’s depth of creativity, but we admire Mr Barr for his principles.

Happy 40th anniversary, Batman and the Outsiders.