Bruce Wayne may like sparring with the Riddler in Batman Forever, but in most of the 40-odd interwoven Batman stories DC Comics publishes each month, he's playing glum and glummer. ''When you take Batman from one medium to another, you have to change it,'' says Dennis O'Neil, who oversees DC's Batman sagas. And you don't have to be Little Mary Sunshine to see why the filmmakers might shy from the direction the Caped Crusader has taken recently.
For starters, Bruce Wayne had to deal with getting the stuffing beat out of him by a supervillain named Bane, the product of prison steroid experiments. Packing a sort of intravenous venom drip, Bane snapped Batman's back over one knee. Wayne, in a wheelchair, passed his cowl to a small-time superhero named Azrael, who went crazy and took a little too much pleasure in kicking butt, going so far as to add razor talons to his Batsuit. So Batman came out of retirement, outwitted Azrael, and took back his job.
All's well that ends well? Not quite. Lately Wayne's been virtually alone. His trusty butler, Alfred, quit when Wayne refused to lay off crime fighting and recuperate. Commissioner Gordon had a very public falling-out with Batman. Even Dick Grayson, the original Robin, drifted away, exchanging his sidekick gig for a life as ponytailed superhero Nightwing. A second Robin (Jason Todd) ran off in pursuit of the Joker, who killed him. Now we're on to number three, a guy named Tim Drake, who, fortunately, seems like he'll be around for a while.
O'Neil proudly defends Batman's new Prozac-ready state of mind. ''Good comic books aren't the neat and pretty things they once were,'' he says. ''But he's not in a funk, I mean, c'mon. He's a hero. Heroes don't feel sorry for themselves, that's off-limits.''