Sorry to do this twice in a row, folks, but there’s just no way I can make it today. Next time!
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One of the most prominent recurring themes in the second season of Batman: The Animated Series was the seemingly reformed villain who either returned to their life of crime or never actually reformed. Batman Adventures‘ first annual special, released in 1994, takes that theme and runs with it. All but the last few pages of the book are spent on a series of stories about villains released from Arkham and inevitably returning, within a frame story about Roxy Rocket (created by Paul Dini for this issue) being released.
This frame story, “Going Straight,” seems at first glance as if it may belie the apparently ironclad rule that the villain-gone-straight always returns to crime. However, remember the reason for this: a character created to be a villain, with a long history of being depicted as such, experiences a gravity of sort toward that position. They cannot remain non-villainous because most of what makes them an interesting character is tied up in their villainy. There are more stories to tell with Two-Face than Harvey Dent, and so he will be switched back to villain as soon as someone wants to write one.
But in “Going Straight,” after Roxy’s release, she doesn’t return to crime. She is the primary suspect for a crime, but she’s being framed, and resumes her gimmick not to commit crimes, but to clear her name. By the close of the story she is closer to a vigilante hero than a villain, though it’s left ambiguous whether she takes up crimefighting or just returns to her civilian life.
But remember, Roxy was created for this story! In other words, she was invented for a story about a former criminal wrongfully accused, not a story in which she’s the villain. Except for the first two pages of the comic, she has never been a villain, and as such experiences no gravity toward it! Even her gimmick seems like a better fit for a superhero than a villain–the old-fashioned fighter-pilot garb recalls square-jawed leading men like Errol Flynn or Steve McQueen, and her rocket seems designed more for dramatic entry than stealthy getaway.
Most importantly, there is no tradition of stories in which Roxy Rocket is the villain. Nobody grew up reading about her battles with heroes, no one who can say, “This reformed character isn’t my Roxy.” She is free, at the story’s end, to return back to the aether whence she came, her purpose fulfilled.
And she really is necessary! The specific device within “Going Straight” that frames the other stories is a conversation between Alfred and Batman while watching a news report about Roxy’s release, with Alfred raising incident after incident of villains released from Gotham, each transforming into a tragedy. In “Puppet Show,” Alfred Wesker has managed to build a life for himself free of Scarface, voicing and puppeteering a character in a children’s show. But when the presenter discovers who she is, she brings a Scarface puppet to him in order to persuade him to kill for her–and soon Scarface is calling the shots once again, with Wesker losing the friendly, balancing frog character in a dark reprise of his inability to let go of Scarface in “Public Enemy” (issue 14). In “Study Hall,” Dr. Crane escapes Arkham and takes on a new identity as a professor, living peacefully and teaching literature, until his favorite student is assaulted in what is heavily implied to be a date-rape, and he resumes the Scarecrow identity in order to torture the perpatrator.
But the most fascinating story of the bunch is “24 Hours,” unsurprisingly a Harley Quinn story, but one which places our avatar of chaos in a rigidly structured, heavily rule-bound tale. There is no dialogue except a single syllable (“Oy!”) in the last panel, and no continuity of action from panel to panel; instead, each represents a tableau of a single scene in the 24 hour period from Harley’s release to her arrest and return to the prison. Even the layouts are rigidly determined in a six-panel grid, with the top two panels merged into a single wide panel on the first and last pages, which together with the art style (which blends elements of Bruce Timm’s style with the long-time house style of the Archie comics) gives the story a decidedly retro feel. The only panels to deviate from the grid are the one in which she rejoins the Joker and the following panel, in which they bomb a jewelry store. Even then, those two panels are merely shifted left by the width of the gutter, so that the left edge of the right panel lines up with the right edge of the left panel in the row above. The overall effect is as if the sheer energy of Harley’s leftward leap into the Joker’s arms pulled the entire row in that direction.
It’s a clever use of comic-book visual logic: we read from left to right, and hence tend to treat motion in that direction as progress, while motion in the opposite direction can be read as regression–which is certainly what Harley returning to the Joker represents! Meanwhile, Harley’s wordless goodbye to Poison Ivy involves soulfully reaching toward the right, a clear sign of where a progressive (in more ways than one) future for her can be found. But as stated, she encounters the Joker shortly after leaving, pulls a heist with him within hours of release, and is there recaptured by Batman.
All three of these stories are tragedies in the original sense, tales in which a well-intentioned character is unable to overcome their flaws and their efforts turn to disaster. For Wesker, that’s his susceptibility to manipulation using and by his Scarface persona; for Harley, her feelings for and inability to say “no” to the Joker; for Scarecrow, it’s his temper. But note too that all three involve a greater villain who serves as a catalyst for the focus character’s return to crime: the children’s presenter, the Joker, and the rapist. It is not, in other words, merely a flaw of the villains that they return endlessly to crime, but also a flaw in the world that inevitably brings them face-to-face with circumstances that cause them to fall prey to their own worst tendencies.
Which is to say, of course, that the need for superheroes to be given villains to fight is as much to blame for the inevitability of return as the construction of the characters themselves.
Even “Going Straight” involves such a return, though it happens offstage and doesn’t involve Roxy: Catwoman is a straightforward villain in this story, framing Roxy so that she can make a robbery of her own. No noble motivation involving protecting wildlife, no quest for revenge on someone who nearly killed her; she’s back to being a straightforward jewel thief, serving as the greater villain catalyst–but after all of Alfred and Batman’s discussion, the question of whether there is any hope of redemption for his opponents, Roxy resists falling prey to her flaws, and helps take Catwoman down.
This is why her story was necessary, to balance the others. Batman’s villains can never reform, but the reason he doesn’t kill them is because he needs the hope that they will reform. The endless failure makes him look like a stubborn fool (well, even more of one than usual), and raises the question of why he doesn’t despair. In Roxy we have the answer: sometimes he succeeds. Sometimes they succeed. Maybe redemption really is possible for anyone.
Queue the Joker falling from Heaven, and then rising from the deep, his soaked clothing and hair making him look far more like the terrifying multiple murderer of comics like The Killing Joke than the unsettling yet ultimately kid-friendly “clown prince of crime” from the cartoon. This is “Laughter After Midnight,” the final story of the issue, and the only one not part of the frame story, and it depicts a Joker who needs no greater villain, no flaw, because he never reformed to begin with. He ends the story triumphant, escaping the attempt by the police to use Harley as bait to trap him, stealing some doughnuts and a cop car and driving off into the night, laughing.
On second thought, maybe it isn’t.
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Commissioned episode for Bennet Jackson. Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos up to 3 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles three MONTHS early, commission videos and essays, and more! We’ve dipped below the threshold for monthly bonus vlogs–just a few dollars could put it back over the top!
1994 was a busy year for Batman Adventures: 13 regular issues of the comic, plus an annual and the one-shot Batman Adventures: Mad Love, later adapted into the episode of the same name. Meanwhile, the TV series had a relatively light year compared to its first two: 15 of the second season’s 20 episodes aired in May or September-November. In other words, there were as many Batman Adventures comics published in 1994 as there were new episodes of Batman: The Animated Series aired, a rather unusual state of affairs for a tie-in comic connected to a currently airing show.
The 13 regular issues cover a wide range of subject matter, but seem to be settling on a handful of themes. While they are just as episodic as the 1993 issues, there appears to have been some thought put into treating the year (and, to a lesser extent, the comic’s entire run) as an organic whole.
For instance, both January and December are Joker stories, and the January story connects thematically to the original arc covering the first three issues of Batman Adventures back in 1992, by once again involving a plot by the Joker to emboit the comic within a world of his control. In this case, we are introduced to Gotham Adventures, a comic made and published in Gotham, based on the adventures of Batman. (Presumably, it’s a licensed tie-in comic to the Batman TV show we saw in Batman Adventures #1.)
Insulted by his depiction in the comics, Joker kidnaps the new writer-artist and forces him to witness the Joker’s actual crimes and submit comics based on them. Meanwhile, the story and its component acts are given some truly great titles: “The Killing Book” for the story as a whole, and the three acts “Seduction of the Innocent” for the kidnapping/recruitment of the comic artist, “How to Draw Comics the Joker Way” for the reveal of what Joker is having him do, and “Comics and Sequential Death” for the final confrontation. We’ve already covered the source of the first two titles (Alan Moore’s mediocre but influential comic The Killing Joke and Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent); the other two are riffing on two classic books on writing and drawing comics, Stan Lee and John Buscema’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way and Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. Note that all except “Seduction of the Innocent” are changed to make them more menacing or align them with the Joker’s plot; apparently that is the only one villainous enough on its own to need no changing. Even the book centering DC’s greatest rival is depicted as less villainous than Wertham!
Similarly backpedaling on 1993’s tendency to make the individual issues as standalone as possible is the increase in continuity and references to past stories. Issue 17 is a direct sequel to the earlier Talia al-Ghul story, in which Batman uses the information from the microfilm given him in that story to play a complex double-bluff against Ra’s al-Ghul. Fittingly, the structure of the issue resembles the globetrotting, film serial feel of the TV show’s Ra’s al-Ghul episodes, introducing serialization to the comic.
Issue 18 is similarly serialized, though it is not obvious from the issue itself; rather, its story, in which Batgirl and Robin team up to investigate a bombing connected to a conspiracy that could cost Commissioner Gordon his job, has a sequel in Issue 26. There we see the other side of their relationship; while Batgirl and Robin are collegial and a bit flirty, Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson are bitter rivals. In other words, their relationship is an inversion of the Batman/Catwoman relationship depicted in the show. Furthering the serialization going on with these issues, albeit almost certainly unintentionally, is Dick taunting Barbara about whether she wants to become Commissioner Gordon II–which of course she will in Batman Beyond, still years away from conception.
Issues 19 and 20 are also sequels to 1993 issues, with the former involving Scarecrow using a new application of the same technology with which he rendered Gotham illiterate, as well as revealing where he got the tech, while the latter involves the return of the three very silly new villains from 1993’s Riddler story.
With Issue 21, the serialization becomes more ambitious, weaving together three distinct episodes from the TV series into a single comic. Specifically, this story, “House of Dorian,” involves Emil Dorian, the scientist who created human-animal hybrids in “Tyger, Tyger,” breaking out of prison and forcibly turning Kirk Langstrom into Man-Bat with a modified formula that gives Dorian control of him. At the same time, Anthony Romulus (the werewolf from “Moon of the Wolf”) is searching for Dorian in hopes of a cure for his condition, and teams up with Tygrus (likewise from “Tyger, Tyger”): Romulus helps Tygrus reach Selina Kyle, and Tygrus helps Romulus find Dorian. Chaos, rather predictably, ensues, as the comic once again struggles against the limitation of having to fit a complex story into a handful of pages: in addition to multiple players with differing motivations, allegiances swap around halfway through. It’s a noble effort, but simply cannot work in the space available. It does at least work better than Issue 24, which endeavors to fulfill the apparent legal requirement of all 90s comics to include ninjas at some point by presenting a sequel to “Day of the Samurai” and “Night of the Ninja.” It succeeds in capturing the tedium of both near-exactly.
Thematic continuity is somewhat present in this run, too. Issue 22, “Good Face Bad Face,” does a wonderful job of distilling a Two-Face story down to its essentials. Because of course Two-Face’s first appearance would be the issue with two twos in its issue number and two faces in its title.: the entire story is about his duality, to the point that there are even literally two Two-Faces as part of his scheme–himself and a decoy in a mask. Batman alone sees through this ploy to find the real Two-Face, just as Batman alone sees the real Harvey Dent underneath the Two-Face persona. He even presents the remarkable insight that the coin has nothing to do with chance, but rather denial of responsibility: Dent’s moral core is still strong enough to prevent Two-Face from choosing to kill and destroy, so he lets the coin make the decision.
This theme of duality is explored further, albeit not quite so masterfully, in Issue 27, “Survivor Syndrome,” as an Olympic athlete named Tom Dalton loses his wife in a gangster crossfire and puts on a Batman costume to fight crime. When he’s wounded, Batman finds him and trains him, as a delaying tactic to give Batman time to bring the mobster responsible to justice. It works quite well up until the last couple of pages, when it runs out of space and nicks the climax from “Robin’s Reckoning,” failing at the last moment to provide any real insight into Batman the way the duals and mirrors in “Good Face Bad Face” gave us insight into Two-Face.
Speaking of Olympians, by far the weirdest story of the bunch is Issue 25, “Super Friends,” in which Superman and Batman team up against Lex Luthor and Maximillian Zeus. Apparently Harley Quinn’s spell was even more effective than we previously discussed, if Superman could be summoned into the comic a mere six months after “Harlequinade.” But it’s a bizarre, deformed Superman, a 90s Superman complete with mullet or rattail depending on whether he’s Superman or Clark Kent, and a pale Lex Luthor with a huge shock of red hair and red beard that makes him look like Cain from House of Mystery and Sandman. This story sits within the continuity-heavy year like a counterweight, a burst of anti-continuity that serves to reassert the comic as its own thing, and remind us that despite the name, the DC Animated Universe isn’t a universe, it’s a franchise.
That is to say, for all the flirtation with continuity and serialization this year, when it comes down to it Batman: The Animated Series is nearly as episodic as the comics–but the comics presage the coming development. Superman: The Animated Series will be just that little bit more serialized, and its sequel Justice League will be heavily serialized. But in the end, there is no requirement that any given entry adhere to any “rules” laid down by a prior entry, let alone a later one; the illusion of continuity is always just that, an illusion. It is a juggling act, a sleight of hand, but there is no magic here. There is no other world into which the writers and artists somehow tap, no Tolkienesque “Secondary Creation”; there is simply whatever the writers happen to come up with.
Fortunately, that’s plenty.
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We’re all kind of exhausted by Psycho-Pass; it’s good, but we want something light next. Please comment with your preference from these two options:
- Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid
- Sweetness and Lightning
Poll ends this weekend, and I’ll post the results Monday!