The Big Re-Brand

I’ve been working my way through the final episodes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold (some of them have yet to air in North America), confirming my feelings about this show: I really enjoyed it, even though it didn’t always have the resources to do what it was trying to do. The animation budget it was working with didn’t always allow the visuals to match the epically entertaining comics that inspired it. Still, the series was almost always enjoyable because of the sheer fun everyone was having with the material, and because of the obvious respect and love for often-disrespected works. It was, as I’ve said in the past, pretty audacious of producer James Tucker to launch this kind of Batman series at a time when so many people were used to thinking of dark Batman as the only authentic Batman. The show was able to go to dark places when it wanted, something that actually became a plot point in the somewhat too-meta-for-its-own-good finale. But what set it apart was that it didn’t condescend to the goofy Batman.

The tone of the series is often what I would call non-parodic parody: it reconstructs the style of these older comics, winks at them or encourages us to stand outside and giggle at the silliness, but it usually deals in homage and pastiche rather than out-and-out parody. (Sort of like a song may incorporate elements of older styles, and nod to the fact that these styles are anachronistic, but still not cross the line that divides pastiche and parody.) An episode that features many tributes to ridiculous Silver Age Superman stories, including many re-creations old covers where Superman acts like a jerk, was obviously inspired by the Superdickery.com website. They even come as close to using the term as they can without getting censored. But it still seems to stop short of outright spoof.

Perhaps the most daring example of this non-parodic tendency was a teaser that was done as a Space Ghost cartoon. Making fun of Space Ghost is the heritage of Cartoon Network original programming; it started with taking a character who had been rerun on the network once too often and just making vicious fun of him. The Cartoon Network style has been to take old Hanna-Barbera characters, or parodies of them, and put them through things they’d never have done in the bad old cartoons. But the Batman: TBATB short completely turned this around, playing Space Ghost almost totally straight – really, the only joke in the segment is how faithful it is in style to the old Space Ghost cartoons, right down to the sound effects and the fact that nobody can use a sentence without saying the character’s name. (Though there’s also an implied contrast between Batman, a strong silent hero, and the H-B heroes and villains, who simply can’t do anything without announcing it first.) They even brought back the original voice actor, Gary Owens, who was replaced on Space Ghost Coast To Coast because they didn’t want to pay for him. It’s the most non-ironic treatment of an old H-B cartoon I’ve seen in years. That itself may be some kind of meta-irony, but it fits with the show’s belief that making fun of goofy old cartoons and comics is old hat, and it’s more fun to pay tribute to them.

It will be interesting to see what kind of Batman series Warner comes up with next. One thing about the company’s recent work with its “classic” brands is that it’s been trying to split the difference between doing them in the classic style and trying to update them for a new generation. The Looney Tunes Show still doesn’t really work for me, but it’s an attempt to use the familiar, old-school personalities of these characters in a context that modern kids can understand. Whereas Looney Tunes: Back In Action deconstructed them and Loonatics Unleashed tried to make them Extreme and Radical.

Likewise the recent Scooby-Doo reboot, Scooby-Doo: Mystery Inc., is likewise halfway between updating the old series and playing it straight. (It also has better writing than The Looney Tunes Show, with contributions from such writers as Freakazoid!‘s, Paul Rugg, but then Scooby is easier to write for because there’s a lower original standard to live up to.) And on both shows, the writers and animators amuse themselves – and adult viewers – with lots of shout-outs to old characters and incarnations; the times I’ve seen the Scooby-Doo series, I’ve seen Vincent Van Ghoul from the ’80s 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo and an episode built around the many Scooby ripoffs from the ’70s.

These reboots have their differences from each other, and the best of them is The Brave and the Bold, but they do seem to represent an overall trend away from out-and-out parody of old characters, and also away from trying too hard to modernize them. Which overall is a pretty decent trend.

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