WHAM! BAM! POW! These are the words comic book readers have grown accustomed to that represent hitting, smashing, and getting knocked on your ass, amongst other things. They’re a staple of the medium as they give us a way to envision what things sound like in an otherwise very quiet medium. But what if we didn’t have to imagine anymore? What if we could hear the ruffle of a cape, the pounding of a fist, and the exasperation of a desperate scream when engaging with our favorite comics? This is a question that Batman Unburied, a popular new narrative podcast, asks its listeners.
Okay, I’ll be real with you, it doesn’t ask that question at all. I’m asking that question because all I could think about when listening to Batman Unburied was how dope it would be if there were visuals to go along with it. I’m talking glowing white eyes in a shadowy corner, a long draping cape inching toward a criminal, or a Dark Knight perched atop a gargoyle. Sure, I can envision these images in my head, but that’s never gonna be as good as an artist’s interpretation.
I won’t blame you if you’ve never heard of Batman Unburied. Not only is there an insurmountable amount of content out in the world to be consumed, there’s also an egregious amount of Batman-specific content. For better or for worse, Batman is DC’s most milkable product, and it’s why you see him in countless concurrent comics, television shows, movies, games, and now with Batman Unburied, the aforementioned narrative podcast.
This podcast brings you the Caped Crusader as you’ve never seen him before: Completely in your mind! But let me be the first to tell you if you haven’t already experienced it for yourself. It’s an instant classic that does a wonderful job carving itself a comfortable space in the overall canon of the character.
This Batman is Begrudgingly Good
At this point, you might be wondering what the hell Batman Unburied is about. The wholly original story takes place in a Gotham that’s slightly different than the one that we’ve come to know. Bruce Wayne is a forensic pathologist, and his parents are shockingly still alive. But deep down, Gotham is still Gotham, and the freaks and weirdos still run the town. Things come to a head when Bruce and The Harvester, a new serial killer in town, come to psychological blows when Bruce tries to take him down.
Listen, I’m often unapologetic about my disdain for the overabundance of this deeply troubled, bat-obsessed man in all of our media, but there’s really a lot to like about his first foray into this burgeoning medium. It’s a project that so fundamentally understands its characters, that it never felt like I was engaging with something new, even though this is an entirely fresh space for this character. Never once did I say to myself “That’s not Batman.” It really just felt like I was tuning in to a new issue of a monthly comic or going to see the latest movie. But enough of my uncharacteristic fawning over the Bat. You don’t need my opinion, I’ll just give you the facts.
For starters, the talent behind the scenes is absolutely incredible. It’s produced and written by David S. Goyer who is no stranger to adapting comic book characters for other mediums. He wrote the screenplays for Batman Begins and Man of Steel, as well as being the creator, executive producer, and writer of the upcoming Sandman show on Netflix. My guy knows his stuff.
The cast of the show is as surprising as it is talented. We’ve got Winston Duke as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Hasan Minhaj as The Riddler, Gina Rodriguez as Barbara Gordon, Jason Isaacs as Alfred Pennyworth, Lance Reddick as Thomas Wayne, Sam Witwer as the Harvester, Emmy Raver-Lampman as Kell, Jessica Marie Garcia as Renee Montoya, Jim Pirri as Arnold Flass, Toks Olagundoye as Martha Wayne, John Rhys-Davies as Dr. Hunter, and Ashly Burch as Vicki Vale.
I can talk about the heavy hitters providing their vocal talents for hours on end, but all I’ll say for now is that everyone really brought their A-game. Each one completely embodies these characters in a way that feels unique to their performance choices, as well as respecting what came before them. Also, Winston Duke is the Black Batman that we deserve, and the one that we need right now. Even if I didn’t particularly like Duke’s Batman voice, his portrayal of Bruce Wayne is one for the Mount Rushmore of Batmen. What’s really dope is that none of these actors have played these characters before, so they had some big shoes to fill. But they all did a phenomenal job.
Listening to Batman Unburied was an experience unlike any other. If you’re looking for a slow-burn mystery to keep your mind racing for hours on end, or if you want to know what it was like for your parents or grandparents when they were young and didn’t have television, look no further. The Harvester embodies all the aspects of a serial killer that keep people engaged in murder podcasts and documentaries. He’s as intriguing as he is creepy.
Not only were the story and characters incredibly engaging, but the score and sound design also had me hooked from start to finish, which is something I was worried about, to be honest. I have a short attention span and wasn’t sure I’d be able to listen to full episodes without getting distracted by something, but the cultivated atmosphere transports you to this other world, even if it’s just in sound only.
Marry the Mediums!
I’m always looking for ways to enhance my experience when reading. That’s why when reading comics, I try to match the tone of the story with some great instrumental music to elevate my engagement, and I like to listen to audiobooks alongside the novels I read. But because Batman Unburied is based on a comic book character, I couldn’t shake that itch to want to read along with the dialogue and narration. And once I thought about that for a while, the question dawned on me: Do audiobooks for comics exist, and if so, why don’t we see more of them?
The short answer is yes, they do exist, and I feel like they’re on the verge of blowing up. At least I hope they do. Batman Unburied isn’t the first time a comic book character has had an episodic audio series. Just two years after his debut in comic books, Superman debuted in The Adventures of Superman, a bi-weekly (twice a week) radio show. The show adapted story arcs from the comics, as well as told original stories over the span of eleven years. So comic books, specifically DC Comics, have roots in audio storytelling.
The Adventures of Superman had a famous series of episodes called Clan of the Fiery Cross, which took aim at the KKK and their racist exploits. With insider information from The Anti-Defamation League, the show shared an unapologetically judgmental view of the Klan, through the lens of Superman to show their many listeners where they stood on the side of right and wrong.
Just a few years ago, Gene Luen Yang adapted those episodes into a graphic novel called Superman Smashes The Klan, which I highly suggest you read if you haven’t. Anything Yang writes is gold.
While Superman Smashes the Klan borrows and takes some liberties in its craft of the story, it’s still an instance of two mediums sharing aspects with each other. It isn’t word for word the same as the original series, but it’s only a small leap to see where the potential for a more direct marrying of the mediums could yield some really fantastic and engaging results.
That brings me to The Sandman, and its audio adaptation. Still ongoing, there are two series on Amazon’s Audible that are working to adapt the entirety of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Just like Batman Unburied, the cast is stellar, featuring James McAvoy as Dream, Riz Ahmed as Corinthian, and even Neil Gaiman himself as the narrator. It’s billed as a version of the story “how it’s meant to be heard.”
I think what gets me excited about something like this is that it’s a wholly new experience. It’s not strictly audio, and it’s not strictly comics. It’s something in the middle that both elevates and creates a unique way for the audience to participate. And what makes it even better is that the two separate mediums can still exist on their own. You can still read a comic with the voices you provide in your head, just as you can listen to an audio narrative with the images you come up with on your own. Choosing to combine the two doesn’t invalidate their singularity, and that’s really beautiful.
Speaking of The Sandman, I’d have to say that a big reason why I haven’t read it yet is that (at least from my limited perspective) it seems pretty dense, even for a comic, and I can just feel the exhaustion without having even read a single word. Knowing there’s an audiobook with stellar production is something that’s going to convince me to finally read it.
That’s what makes audiobooks a beautiful thing. Purists like to talk about how it may invalidate the reading experience because it takes away the agency and participation from the reader, or that it might be a distraction, but what I really think it does is make reading more accessible to people who either have a harder time reading, or don’t get the same things out of the experience as others. If it helps bridge the gap between someone’s affinity for reading, I think it can only be a good thing.
Why Not More?
So, why don’t we see more audio adaptations or companions to comics? The easy, and most logical answer is money. It’s always money.
I think where comics can explore this still fertile ground is by doing exactly what The Sandman did. Take an existing, marketable classic, and build something around that. It gives the publisher a reason to put out new editions of the book. The demand for that book will be higher because of this new experience. And because it’s already a proven hit, it essentially sells itself.
GraphicAudio is a studio that adapts a lot of audiobooks for novels. They’ve even done so for the first two volumes of Ms. Marvel, as well as a slew of Vault Comics titles. They may not have the big A-list Hollywood names attached, but they adapt the stories with just as much passion and all-around production. These publishers need to be funneling more money into studios like GraphicAudio.
Imagine audiobooks for Daredevil: Born Again, Chris Claremont’s X-Men, or even Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther. Already popular comics with a new flair. I think it’s a lost opportunity to not explore this.
I don’t envision ever getting audio versions of monthly comics. It’s simply too much of a monetary risk in real-time. And that’s okay. But giving it to a tried and true popular story just adds new life and wrinkles to the legacy of that story, and brings new eyes to it that otherwise may not have been aware or concerned about its existence.
I even think it’s a more bankable route than a full television or movie adaptation for a comic book. Or at the very least, it’s a good testing ground for an audience’s desire. When you can keep the integrity of the original story intact without changing things, but add aspects of movies and television by including audio, you can see more clearly how something might fare if it were adapted. But it can also stand on its own as well. I’m of the mind that not every single thing needs to be adapted into a movie or television show. This could be a dope middle ground.
It pains me to admit that I’ve gone down this rabbit hole because of Batman, but when I really think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Batman was a pioneer in American comics, and with Batman Unburied, he’s spearheading himself into another new medium, inspiring ideas about how we can push the envelope even further. I can’t be mad at that. All I ask for is that if we do get more audiobooks for comics, they aren’t overwhelmingly dedicated to the Dark Knight.