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Interview with Ben Rowe of BAT TO THE BEGINNING

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Welcome back to another round of interviews with the Geeky Godfathers of the internet. This week we had the great opportunity to talk to Ben Rowe of Bat to the Beginning, a blog which endeavors to cover every Golden Age Batman story available. Ben’s been at it for quite a while, and he’s dug himself a strong foothold in the fanboy community, so I thought he’d be the perfect candidate for an interesting discussion about the wide world of geek blogs. Let’s dive into it.

1) First things first, if you had to introduce yourself in 3 sentences, what would you say?

My name is Ben Rowe and I’m a filmmaker living in Calgary, Canada. I write, produce and direct, but my career is only just getting started. I’m also a ravenous reader and a big geek, with a lot of opinions, hence the review blog.

Screen shot 2014-03-20 at 2.44.40 AM2) Have you always been a geek? Was it a life long passion, or was it something you later developed into?

I think I’ve always been a geek. I was raised in a bit of a geek home. My dad loved Spider-Man and Dune and Star Trek, so definitely from a young age I was reading comics and watching sci-fi, and in fact it’s my geek passions that evolved into a wider passion for literature and film.

3) And on that note, how did your passion for Batman evolve? Was it the animation? The Adam West show?

I remember they did reruns of the Adam West show on a channel called YTV here in Canada when I was a kid and they would broadcast it at dinner time and when I was little (like, five years old) I would refuse to eat dinner unless we could watch Batman. Of course at the same time (the early nineties) there was also the excellent Bruce Timm animated series and the Burton and Schumacher movies. I definitely saw Batman Returns at a much younger age than someone should — I think seeing Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman when I was around five meant I never had a “girls are icky” phase!! What I remember as a kid is that I didn’t see a difference between any of the interpretations – I didn’t know the Adam West show was supposed to be funny – and so they all seemed to me to be the same Batman, although clearly the stories with Robin came after Batman Forever (in my kid brain).

4) What drew you to the Golden Age? Usually modern fanboys read a Golden Age comic as a sort of “voyeurism”. They look at it like a spectacle. But you’re really diving in there with enthusiasm and a type of earnestness you don’t really see.

I think it was a couple of things. First, I remember I had gotten really disillusioned with “decompressed” storytelling in Big Two comics. Y’know, Brian Michael Bendis taking six issues to tell Spider-Man’s origin when Stan Lee did it in twelve pages. So I was interested in seeing this period when so much story was packed into such a small space and then sold for a dime. It seemed like an economy of storytelling that we don’t get anymore.

The second element was that I was going through a period of fascination with the idea of “original continuity” and “creator’s intent”. We’ve had so many retcons and reboots of our favourite characters over the years, often vastly different from the original authorial intent of the creator — look at Steve Ditko’s “The Question”, once a hard-as-nails Objectivist hero with a strict black/white rationalist outlook, now DC has him as a kind of mystical Wandering Jew character.

So seeing these concepts in their original form and taking note of how they originally developed holds fascination for me. Who was the Joker, or Catwoman, or Two-Face for Bill Finger and Bob Kane? Where did they come from? How did the mythos evolve? I mean, you learn fascinating things, like the fact that originally Bruce Wayne adopted Dick Grayson years before they ever hired Alfred! Or that Commissioner Gordon was a friend of the Waynes and didn’t support the Batman until it was necessary to use Batman’s evidence to acquit Bruce of a crime he didn’t commit!

Golden Age stories are definitely an acquired taste. The shorter page count means there’s less room for characterization, so it’s just plot-plot-plot and that can certainly get formulaic and repetitive reading it back-to-back for someone used to modern comics. But the Golden Age also has this kind’ve “no one’s ever done this before” crazyness to it that you just have to love for it’s pure imagination, and because it’s pre-Comics Code there’s still a lot of bite to it – it’s like all the dark grittyness of the 80s mashed up with the pure insanity of the early 60s.

5) How fun is it to see this characters at their origin? Not just the main guys, but the side characters and villains, some of whom we only recognize by their modern iteration. You ever find a Miles O’Hara lookalike and think “Aha! That’s where they got the idea!”

It’s a lot of fun. It’s interesting to see the gradual development. Batman started as this kind of hardcore riff on the Shadow, who would just cold murder people. He kills something like twenty people before Robin shows up, and that’s when he begins to soften up. And there are definitely times reading the old issues where I think “ah, Frank Miller or Steve Engelhart or Denny O’Neil MUST have read this issue!” because there are so many little things you can see that were riffed on later.

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6) About how many reviews do you try to complete per month? What’s your schedule?

Well, I run two review blogs along with a personal blog. The personal blog has definitely suffered for updates because it’s not as focused. I recently started an Iron Man review blog, looking at his stories from the beginning as well, but the main focus is still Bat to the Beginning. I try to achieve a once-a-week, four-times-a-month schedule, but if I actually make that in a month it’s a major victory.

7) What are the difficulties achieving that? Does real life ever get in the way?

Real life always gets in the way. You’d think reading an eight-page story and writing a thousand-word review wouldn’t take up much time, but when you’ve got scriptwriting to do and grant proposals to work on and shooting schedules to work around and of course the ordinary day to day of making ends meet, well, it’s harder to keep the site up to date then I’d like it to be.

8) When do you think the project will be completed? Do you intend to pass it on to the kiddos?

Well, I plan on launching a second Batman review site, focusing on the Silver Age stories, very shortly now. With both going simultaneously I hope to get through more stories in a shorter amount of time, but it’ll probably just slow me down more. That being said, if I keep to four reviews a month, it means I cover about two years worth of comics being reviewed every real-time year, which means I should have all the Golden Age issues reviewed by… 2025.

9) What’s the most rewarding part of it all? At the end of the day, when your fingers are all typed out, what makes you think “Totally worth it”?

The same kind of things that make it worth it for any blogger. Increasing view counts, comments from readers, advertisers coming to me and wanting to promote on the page. Sometimes something as simple as knowing that if I just make it through THIS review, I have a really cool story to read next, like a Two-Face issue.

10) And on that note, how has the fan reaction been? Any word from some Batman writers?

I’ve had some good responses from readers and that’s always encouraging. If an actual Batman writer read my reviews it would blow my mind, however I do know some comics bloggers I really respect have seen the site and linked to it and that’s been a huge morale boost. Patrick Curley, who does “Silver Age Comics” and “Nothing But Batman” has linked to my site and that was awesome.

11) And now some fanboying questions. What are your favorite Batman movies? Burton? Nolan? Shumacher?

For live-action nothing has beat out Nolan, even if Burton’s films had a cool style they were a mess storywise and in characterization. Nolan’s films aren’t perfect either, but they’ve hit the mark closer than anyone. Of course the Adam West movie is always fun and I’ve got a soft-spot for the 1943 serial, which I’ll be covering on my site very shortly now.

That being said, the absolute best Batman movie is Mask of the Phantasm, the spin-off to the animated series released in 1994. It just hits every note exactly right. The recent animated DTVs have been great too – Year One, Under the Red Hood and Dark Knight Returns make a better trilogy in my mind than Nolan’s.

12) What do you think is the best medium for the Caped Crusader? Film, Animation, Comics?

I mean, he’s been a comic book character for seventy-five years now so it’s hard not to say comics, but then again there are vast swaths of that seventy-five year history that can be unreadable to modern sensibilities. So pound-for-pound the best medium for Batman has been animation. I mean, the 1990s Animated Series is still the high water mark for quality with the character, and the follow-ups to it are spectacular as well – Justice League, Batman Beyond, etc. Brave and the Bold taught me how to love the Silver Age and “goofy” comics after years of dismissing them. Batman works in animation because you can look back at all those years of comics, streamline them into something that works, but not feel compelled to dial down the imagination for sake of “realism” like you do in a movie.

13) Are you particularly upset with the Affleck casting, Snyder directing, or Gadot casting news for Batman vs Superman? What do you think of it all?

The Affleck casting definitely threw me for a loop. I mean, he can’t be Batman, he’s Daredevil! And all of Warner Bros. best casting for their heroes have been unknowns or left-field choices: Christopher Reeve, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Henry Cavill — when they try to go with “names” for heroes it never works (George Clooney and Ryan Reynolds, anyone?) That said, Affleck has really evolved from his days as Kevin Smith’s go-to guy, so I’m willing to give him a chance.

Gadot is more of an unknown quanity, but I’m not concerned because I know Snyder will have her bulked up approriately in time for filming – I mean look at what they did to Henry Cavill! And besides, she served in the Israeli military, so that’s all the badass cred I need.

But Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor?? Did I wake up on Bizarro World or something??

14) There are such huge difference, both in tone and plot, between the Golden Age Batman and both the modern film and comic book version of the character, that it hardly feels like the same thing. What do you think about it?

One of the reasons Batman works so well, and has been so consistently popular for seventy-five years, is that he can be in any kind of story. Gritty detective Batman, globe-trotting romantic Batman, apopheniac campy Batman, world-at-stake superhero Batman, even adventures in outer space Batman, all these have been done and all of them have had good stories.

The Golden Age Batman is a strange beast. In tone it’s like mixing Frank Miller’s stripped down Year One Batman with Tim Burton’s mysterioso version from his first film, but also with some of the “square” goofiness of Adam West’s version (although I have a hard time imagining Adam West dangling someone from a rooftop and threatening their life). I mean, we have to remember that when Denny O’Neil, and later Miller, did their runs on the character one of their goals was to bring things back to the Golden Age version, which can certainly be a darker incarnation of the character. A darker incarnation who fights Nazis and Monster Men and vampires.

15) What’s the future of the blog? What can we expect? Do you have any other projects?

Well, in the near future I’m going to begin covering the 1943 Batman serial, which starred the father of the guy currrently producing the James Bond movies as Batman, and was directed by the guy who did “Dracula’s Daughter”, the first lesbian vampire movie. It’s also the only live-action Batman to feature a real Boy Wonder Robin, with a 13-year old in the role. And being a wartime production, it also has a wickedly racist caricature of a Japanese villain. So that should be a whole lot of fun. And soon after that I’ll begin looking at the Batman newspaper strip that ran during mid 1940s, which Bob Kane left the comic book to work on, leaving room for Dick Sprang to begin his iconic run.

As I mentioned earlier, my other project is my Iron Man review site “All Jets Ablaze!”, which is a lot of fun as I look those early Stan Lee comics and poke a few holes in their Silver Age science.

But the big thing on the horizon I’m excited for is to get my Silver Age Batman site off the ground, which will look at the Carmine Infantino “New Look” stories from 1964 onwards, which eventually inspired the stories and style of the Adam West series!

16) That’s all from me, but would you like to say anything else to our readers?

Well, for starters, thanks for reading UnleashTheFanboy.com and this review. I’d love to see more readers and comments on my site of course — here on the internet we have a wonderful comics reading community that only gets better the more we share with each other. As a bigger message though, it would be to head down to your local shop and give Golden Age stories a chance. With DC and Marvel both putting out very affordable reprint series like the Chronicles and Masterworks line, there’s really no reason to deny yourself Captain America punching Nazis or Batman stabbing sharks.2344425-trailer_batmanarkhamorigins_tvspot_20131017

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