Between all those Robins and Batgirls, Batman does seem to have a thing for sidekicks. In the 1980s, the Dark Knight took this to the extreme when he brought in all the weirdos he could find and put together his very own super-team, called The Outsiders.
The resultant comics were not very good, but they were packed with interesting ideas. I suppose the high-concept behind the Outsiders was that, much like Batman, they were all loners who learned to bond by fighting crime together (as you do). That said, I’ve always thought of them more as a group of odd and/or lame heroes who have a bunch of odd and/or lame adventures.
Like the team itself, though, for all their flaws these comics are certainly greater than the sum of their parts…
They also look goofy as hell:
Although most of the team was created by writer Mike W. Barr and artist Jim Aparo, two of the characters had actually been around for a while: Jefferson Pierce (aka Black Lightning) and Rex Mason (aka Metamorpho, the Element Man).
The former, who could shoot electrical bolts from his fingertips, was one of the first African-American superheroes to take a starring role at DC. When he joined the Outsiders, Black Lightning was going through an existential crisis because he had gotten a girl killed while trying to take out a couple of robbers. He eventually achieved some closure after talking to the girl’s parents (though not before they hired the Masters of Disaster to go after him). There was also a subplot about Black Lightning teaching at a fucked up Gotham City school, but it wasn’t exactly the 4th season of The Wire…
As for Metamorpho, the multicolored shapeshifter who could change into any element in the human body, he already had a history of cool team-ups with the Caped Crusader on the pages of The Brave and the Bold. Besides looking like an LSD-induced hallucination, Metamorpho had a mind-boggling love life – he kept breaking up and getting back together with ditzy socialite Sapphire Stagg, whose rich father wanted to kill the Element Man in order to arrange her marriage to his Neanderthal servant.
The comics gave us some strong female characters as well. Tatsu Yamashiro (aka Katana) was a badass Japanese martial artist who saw her family killed in front of her, including her two children. This may sound like a pretty standard vigilante origin, but Mike Barr made sure she was offbeat enough for the group by having her carry a sword inhabited by the spirit of her slain husband! Katana had many neat moments in the series – I especially like ‘The Silent Treatment!’ (Batman and the Outsiders #21), in which her mission to take a valuable Japanese vase to an exhibition while piercing through a horde of thugs is cleverly juxtaposed with a radio broadcast about football.
Moreover, Katana forged a nice friendship with Gabrielle Doe (aka Violet Harper, aka Halo), the youngest member of the team. In a sweet bit of characterization, Batman explicitly paired these two because he learned from his own experience with Robin the importance of having someone younger and more upbeat around to restrain your vindictive brooding.
Halo’s backstory kept getting more convoluted as the series progressed. She started out as an amnesiac girl who could fly and create colorful auras, each color associated with a different superpower. Then she discovered she was a runaway teen who had stolen a formula for a new drug (‘whose addictive properties make heroin look like talcum powder’) and had ruthlessly killed her boyfriend when he’d gotten cold feet. Then she found out she was actually a mystical energy-being who had taken over a human body, in a story that looked like the inside of a lava lamp. Boy, no wonder she ended up joining a cult at one point!
The Outsiders were eventually joined by Emily Briggs (aka Looker), a mousy bank clerk who, much to her and her husband’s surprise, turned out to be an astonishingly sexy heir to the throne of the ancient underground civilization of Abyssia. The thing is, being super-hot was actually part of her vast set of powers, which raises some obvious gender issues – and in his defense, Barr didn’t shy away from them, pitting Looker’s peculiar notion of empowerment against the views of both male and female characters.
Finally, after Batman inevitably left the team, the closest thing to a leader was Brion Markov (aka Geo-Force), prince of Markovia, one of the many fictitious Eastern European nations in comics. Geo-Force had earth-based powers and a conflicting relationship with his family. Oh, and there was an issue where he decapitated a dude with a huge swastika-shield – although, to be fair, his kill-rate was still fairly low compared with Katana, who slayed dozens of guys throughout the series…
Come to think of it, the oddest thing about the Outsiders wasn’t the fact that Batman had a private superhero team for a while, but how unbelievably nonchalant everyone seemed to be about breaking the ‘don’t kill’ rule. Yep, even the Dark Knight. Oh, Mike Barr.
As you can probably tell, these comics were all over the map, although not without a certain charm. There were amusing fight scenes, overwrought soap opera moments, and quite a lot of Christmas stories. Jim Aparo’s art was already past its prime, but Alan Davis took over for a while and his pencils can make even less-inspired designs look slick and fun.
Between Batman and the Outsiders, Adventures of the Outsiders, and The Outsiders, plus a couple of annuals and a special, Barr wrote around 80 issues of this stuff. He devoted a lot of it to characterization, but I never found the series’ protagonists to be all that engaging… By contrast, I genuinely love the smorgasbord of quirky super-villain teams they had to face:
My favorite aspect of these stories, though, is how political they were from the get-go. In the first arc, Batman quit the Justice League of America because Superman and Wonder Woman refused to intervene in a revolution taking place in Markovia. After crushing the Markovian insurgence, the Outsiders went on to face disgruntled Vietnam vets, anti-capitalist terrorists, Soviet troops, an African dictatorship, a cyborg oil magnate, and an armed group called ‘The Liberators’ who supposedly took over a zoo to protest the fact that society pampers and protects animals while letting people live in poverty.
The Dark Knight and his gang of misfits also stepped in when Maxie Zeus disrupted the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics, with Ronald Reagan asking Batman to prevent another Munich. Furthermore, in the 1984 Annual, our heroes stopped the Orwellian director of the American Security Agency (appropriately called Eric Blairman) from installing a spyware system in everyone’s home – which suggests that Batman was an inspiration for Edward Snowden!
And, of course, there was that priceless team-up between the left-wing People’s Heroes and the right-wing Force of July…
In fact, Mike Barr wrote plenty of Cold War adventures, especially in the final stretch, and the ones involving Soviet superheroes are always fun to read. Still, Barr is no Garth Ennis, so we never get anything as good the Glorious Five Year Plan (and certainly no Love Sausage).
What we do get is all sorts of bizarre manifestations of the 1980s’ understandable obsession with nuclear terror. In Batman and the Outsiders #5-6, we meet a telepathic professor who’s been in a cryonic sleep chamber since 1947, convinced that the world has been devastated by an atomic war. In issues #25-27, Lord Kobra’s terrorist cult takes over Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ missile defense system. We get some nuclear winter imagery in issue #31 (albeit in a story about Halley’s Comet crashing onto earth) and once again in Adventures of the Outsiders #39:
(Man, those are some sick colors by Adrienne Roy…)
This last story involves an expert in the field whose family died of radiation poisoning and is himself terminally ill, so he builds a group of radioactive automatons to blow up Los Angeles and show the world how terrible a nuclear war would be! The man may be mad, but he’s not without a twisted sense of humor – the automatons look like his younger pipe-smoking self, his wife, children, and dog, so he calls them Nuclear Family.
The motif returns near the end of the series, when the Outsiders are actually joined by a hero called Atomic Knight! One of the final stories involves yet another depressed scientist who creates a set of robots to rule humanity, thus saving it from itself and the impending threat of nuclear destruction…
DC has revived the Outsiders a few times since then – and while those comics weren’t all bad, they weren’t nearly as memorable as Mike W. Barr’s original run, uneven and cheesy and sometimes just plain weird as it undoubtedly was.
That said, if the 1980s’ Outsiders comics channeled their decade’s zeitgeist for all its worth, the 1990s’ version (also written by Barr) sure kept up with the times…
These comics are sooooo ’90s… But what the hell, at least we got to see Katana fight AzBats:
NEXT: Batman, the lady killer.