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The Art of Audio Comics
By Lance Eaton, August 2005

A friend once laughed at me for proposing the idea of comic books in audiobook format. 'Isn't that like tap dancing on the radio?' she asked, questioning how a visually-oriented medium could work for the ears. I thought it was the question that was silly - but then again, being both an audiobook fiend and a comic book geek, I have a different perspective.

Batman BeginsComic books are huge today. Or maybe it should be said that comic book characters and stories are hot. The actual comic books (small booklets of some thirty to fifty pages, filled with a story as well as advertisements, and selling anywhere from one to five dollars) are barely holding their own. But, like a super-villain, comic book creations are conquering the world. We see them in the movies (Batman Begins, Fantastic Four, Sin City of recent release), on television (X-Men Evolution, Teen Titans, Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and in bookstores - as novelizations of recent comic book movies or standalones such as Wolverine: Codename Weapon X. What's more, graphic novels (often bound collections of some four to twelve comic books, usually containing a full story arc) are on the rise both in sales and reputation. Reviewers are paying attention to them, and they're finding shelf space in bookstores and libraries.

So my thought was, 'Well, what about audio comic books?' What keeps fans interested in these decades-old series is plot, background, and action. Yes, the art is important in kickstarting the imagination, but it's not everything. And comic books have a history in audio. Those familiar with old time radio will know that Superman had an ongoing radio serial for a long time, as did Batman. Though Fantastic Four's serial didn't last as long, other comic books have been narrated to listeners over the years. With that in mind, let's look at two classic audiobook productions from the 1990s first released on cassettes and recently re-released onto CD. In the early to mid-1990s, DC Comics struggled to find new plotlines for two of their oldest character, Batman and Superman. Both - having fought on the side of good for over fifty years - had become virtually undefeatable. So questions were posed: Could Superman be killed? What would Batman do if he was injured beyond recovery?

Batman: The Complete Knightfall Saga pits the Gotham Knight against the most vicious and cunning villain Batman has ever faced. Born and raised in a Brazilian prison, Bane wants to utterly destroy Batman but is smart enough not to face him head on - at least not yet. Bane's power comes from an experimental steroid known as Venom, that is pumped directly into his brain.

Batman KnightfallAlready tired from his constant battles with the numerous sociopaths who wend their way to Gotham City, Batman must also contend with inner turmoil about his new apprentice, Tim Drake. After the first Robin left and his second Robin was killed, Batman is incapable of fully trusting Tim. His fatigue is becoming obvious to his butler Alfred, Gotham's Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, and most importantly, to Bane. Preying on this weakness, Bane blows up Arkham Asylum, releasing all the violent criminals that Batman has spent most of his career locking up. In addition to second-string villains like the Mad-Hatter, Ventriloquist, Firefly, and Killer Croc, Batman must recapture his most vicious opponents including the Scarecrow, Riddler, and Joker. And when it's all done, he will face Bane, who intends to show no mercy and to break the Bat. Though he survives, Batman must find a way to recover from what seems like an incurable ailment, and to deal with this deadly enemy.

As one of the most popular story-arcs for the Batman comic books, this page-turner morphed fantastically into the audio format - due mostly to great script writers, superb direction, and an amazing sound-effects team. What's interesting about the production is that like an actual comic book, it transitions from scene to scene fairly fast, but unobtrusively. Dialogue between characters flows easily, with sound effects defining background and action. Though some verbal cues from characters are needed to explain the action, it's much less than one might expect. The cast play their parts well with Batman's actor showing great subtlety in voicing the dark and stern Batman in contrast to easy-going millionaire playboy, Bruce Wayne.

The Death and Life of Superman (released as Superman Lives! in a CD audiobook) cannot be overlooked either. Making headline news across the world, DC put forth a story arc that would show readers the demise of the oldest and greatest comic book superhero. When you're as strong and powerful as Superman is, finding a formidable enemy can be tough. Enter Doomsday, an alien imprisoned in a capsule and sent out into the universe. After the capsule lands on Earth, he escapes, paving a road of death and destruction, with Metropolis directly in his path. Everyone wants to stop him, but no one knows how. Though giving it their all, the Justice League is swept aside by this powerful menace. In an all-out battle, Superman goes head-to-head with Doomsday in a cataclysmic conflict that leaves Metropolis in shambles. Though Doomsday is defeated, it is at great cost to Superman, whose death is felt around the world.

Superman Lives!But in his death, four new heroes materialize, all claiming to be Superman. One is a human covered in steel, who uses various gadgets and tools like Batman. Another appears to be a younger version of the original, i.e. Superboy. A third seems to perfectly resemble Superman except for a shield over his eyes. The last looks exactly like Superman too, except that half of his face is torn off revealing a metallic visage resembling the Terminator. Each provides some proof that he is the true Superman but none is accepted as the real thing. What happened to the original Superman's body? The answers surprise everyone and though Superman obviously returns, the story is still compelling.

Like Batman Knightfall, this production shows superior craftsmanship. The character voices are all tight and aptly cast. The battle scenes have excellent sound effects, and great direction and audio cues from the characters. With three hours of action and drama, comic book fan or not, you may be tempted to start reading the ongoing series.

These are classics. Though I have not heard of further audio dramatizations of comic books, I hope that - just as these great heroes returned in full force - this sub-genre will explode even more strongly than before. The industry is primed for such a boost. With the rising popularity of science-fiction and fantasy audiobooks, comic book movies and graphic novels, as well as the general growing appeal of audiobooks, it seems to me that the realm of audio comic books remains an unexplored yet highly lucrative market that's ready to take off and fly high.
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