Chip Zdarsky’s Batman Has the Best Backups in Comics Right Now

Batman #126 by Chip Zdarsky.

Comics have had a long, tumultuous and inconsistent relationship with backups.

They’ve been a mainstay on certain books for years, providing the space for new creators to test their stuff without asking readers to fork over the money for a whole new #1. They’ve been a breeding ground for new characters, and a launching pad for supporting characters ready to graduate to the big leagues. They’ve also been summarily dismissed as a viable part of the medium about as many times as Big-2 company changes its editorial staff. Which is to say: often, frequently and to a degree that counting the times would prove an inefficient use of time – a criticism many editors, and readers, would likely level at the backup itself.

In many ways, it feels like the backup format is that one ex that western comics just can’t help but keep going back to. Despite knowing that neither of them have done the work to figure out how to prevent this latest affair from burning incandescent with the best of intentions, only to die out in a messy and unceremonious fashion not long after, they just keep finding each other. It’s like that ships in the night metaphor, if the ships clattered head first into each other every half-decade, ripping up the hull and scraping off the paint, just so the captain’s of each ship could high five one another.

If you’re wondering why it sounds like the mere concept of backup stories has dislodged the part of my brain that tries to find balance between the terms mad and genius, it’s likely because I’m channelling my inner Chip Zdarsky. Only, his real world thought bubbles don’t lead to paragraphs like the one above – they lead to an intimate understanding of the nature of the backup, elevating his Batman run beyond the already lofty heights it already occupies.

Comic Book Backups – What Are They Good For?

First, let’s take a step back – specifically to 2021. Dark Nights: Death Metal just wrapped, 5G laid freshly slain at reader’s feet. Future State rose from its ashes and a new era – the Infinite Frontier – was peeking up just over the horizon.

Not since at least the New 52, over a decade prior, had there been a backup anywhere in sight in the pages of DC Comics. Then, suddenly, just like the annals of DC canon restored by Wonder Woman punching an evil Batman into the heat-death of the universe (Death Metal was a wild time), the backups returned! Now legions of books sported this growth in their back pages. Roughly ten extra pages a month in the pages of titles like Batman (then under James Tynion IV’s pen), Detective Comics, Action Comics, Wonder Woman and more were presented to readers.

These backups were used to varying effect, much in the same way they always have. At their best, they were mostly used either as set up for new ongoing series (see: “Photosynthesis,” a Poison Ivy set-up in the pages of Batman) or as tangential tales that spill out from the main narrative. Detective Comics arguably has some of the better examples of this, using the page real estate to flesh out The Huntress’ new, supernatural status quo while Batman dealt with the main narrative.

However, for every one well-made backup, there were two or three that failed to meet the mark. Whether it was subpar art or inconsequential stories, they failed to justify their inclusion in the monthly releases. And all of this is exacerbated when you consider readers were paying an extra dollar a month for work that, in a lot of cases, felt inferior to main book (and that they couldn’t choose not to buy).

Chip Zdarsky himself has even spoken about the pitfalls with backups in interviews before. ‘I never liked, even as a reader, when the backup stories don’t feel like they have that much of an impact [on the main story],’ he tells John Siuntres on the Word Balloon podcast.

Making Backups Back Up Your Comics

The chief reason why Zdarsky’s Batman utilises backups so well is it understands them not as a commercial instrument that has to be used each month, but instead as a unique aspect of the medium with its own capabilities.

Looking at the backups in Zdarsky’s run so far, readers have been treated to three stories outside the main narrative: “Catwoman: Two Birds, One Throne”, “I Am A Gun” and “The Toy Box”. First and foremost, these stories matter. They aren’t throwaway 8-10 pagers featuring a writer’s favourite underserved C-lister who, while fun, has little relevance to the story at hand. Nor are they new talent showcases sneakily tucked into the back of the book like contraband. Chip Zdarsky understands that if Batman must charge readers an extra 25% on cover price, then they better feel like they’re getting an extra 25% of the ongoing Batman plotline.

The opening Catwoman backups achieve this by following up on a couple of key elements from the opening issue of the run, before leaving those developments to simmer in the background, ready to be picked back up by the main narrative a few months down the line.

Catwoman in Batman #127 Backups.
Belen Ortega. Courtesy of DC Comics.

In this case, they take the opening events of Penguin’s apparent suicide and expand upon it. Veteran readers know there is more than meets the eye with his overly public death, but rather than derail the high-octane conflict between Batman and Failsafe by cutting away within the main narrative, Zdarsky allows events to transpire outside but tangential to it. It helps maintain the pace of the main event, while also supplementing the depth of events. It’s markedly creative exposition. Also, with news of a Batman/Catwoman crossover on the horizon in the form of whatever “Showdown” is, readers are made doubly aware that this is no disposable side arc – the time they’ve spent having read this will pay off, both narratively and economically.

Subsequent stories perform similar feats of spinning multiple plates, with “I Am A Gun” delving into a Year One-type origin for the Batman of Zur En Arrh (making accessible a very high-concept, lore-heavy element of the Bat-mythos that has found sudden relevance) while the “The Toy Box” tees up the ultimate resolution to the second arc, “The Bat-Man of Gotham”.

In addition to the supplemental capabilities of backups to play with time and structure, Zdarsky also recognises that a supporting featuring might best be used to highlight supporting characters. Rather than pour more of The Bat onto readers so directly, the backups invest time in alternate perspectives – both on the events Batman is facing, but also the way he’s facing them.

Catwoman’s backup pulls double duty, in that it both furthers the Penguin plotline while also addressing that most controversial of topics – the break. Particularly for readers that aren’t buying Tini Howard’s Catwoman, it’s becomes a valuable use of the backup’s time to explore how Selina feelings about their relationship are affected by current affairs. My personal favourite though is Zdarsky’s characterisation of Tim Drake in the third set of stories. Having lost Bruce once again to forces beyond his control, readers get to see how Tim copes with and responds to such a loss.

Not only does Zdarsky get to call back to Final Crisis, showing implicitly how Tim’s current response mirrors and differs a similar, previous experience, but he also gets to play off the emotional beats set up in the previous arc. It therefore becomes more than just a retread of past stories, and instead uses a familiar narrative language to articulate how a post-Damian-Wayne-as-Robin Tim Drake handles the feelings of superfluousness as Batman’s sidekick, only to then have those feelings complicated by being the only one capable of saving him.

The other key element that makes these backups so strong is the powerhouse artists that bring them to life.

Belén Ortega, Leonardo Romero and Miguel Mendonça all bring their A-game to proceedings, delivering pages that are not just stylistically impressive, but elevate the small page count they’re given with intelligent choices in composition and design. For example, Romero’s clean, uncomplicated linework follows in the tradition of other artists like Samnee or Pulido, while simultaneously carrying the same grit and weightiness as Year One‘s Mazzucchelli. It all culminates in an aesthetic that is at once eminently a contemporary Batman, while also evoking the visual trappings of classic 60’s comics.

It all helps sell “I Am A Gun” as a successful attempt at sliding a Zur En Arrh Year One a ways back into continuity without it feeling awkward or self-indulgent. Rather, it feels like this story was always there, that it fits the era – or the sense of an era – that it’s gesturing towards. It’s just been hiding somewhere out of sight, or memory, until now.

Ortega and Mendonça should also be commended for ensuring that their styles, while both very defined and confident, also support the tone of the main story artist’s work too. Ortega’s Catwoman sparkles with an energy and glamour all her own, but it never feels at odds with Jiminez’s Selina. Likewise, while Mendonça delivers a Tim Drake story that (for my money) makes the case he should be headlining a Robin solo title all his own, he also manages to render characters with a solidity and weight that matches Hawthorne’s work in “The Bat-Man of Gotham”.

Whether these choices are intentional on the artist’s part, or a result of editors Dave Wielgosz and Ben Abernathy’s excellent project management, praise is deserved for keeping things as aesthetically consistent as possible in the backups while allowing for each artist to flex their creative muscles.

A Bright Showing For The Dark Knight

All of this culminates in a series of backups that are exceptionally well conceived. They exploit the best that the form has to offer, both in a publishing sense but also an on-the-page creative one.

Zdarsky’s Batman succeeds not just as a creative powerhouse, threading backup narratives in and out of the main story with expertise, but also as a book that respects the reader – and their wallet. Comics continue to face an accessibility problem at times, least of all that DC Comics’ premier superhero now costs $4.99 a month to keep up with. And with that in mind, and the immense weight of fan expectation undoubtedly breathing down his neck, Zdarsky has endeavoured to give the people what they’re asking for: more Batman for every Bat-dollar!

More than that, however, he’s giving the readers an imaginative, well-constructed look into the various aspects of the Caped Crusader’s ever-complicated life. And he never takes his foot off the pedal to do it.


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