A corporate logo, gold and red on a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. But the music is ominous, a low minor chord, and the image fades swiftly, inverting to a black dirigible occupying the same space as the Warner Bros. shield, the blue sky turned apocalypse red.
This both is and is not the first image the DC Animated Universe. It is definitely the first image of Batman the Animated Series, and indeed of every episode thereof until the series was retooled into The Adventures of Batman and Robin. And Batman the Animated Series is the first entry in the DC Animated Universe, a meta-series of cartoons based on popular superhero comics that spanned 14 years, from the early 1990s into the mid-2000s.
But that’s the problem with beginnings; they are liminal spaces, state changes, points of transition from is not to is. There was no DC Animated Universe when Batman the Animated Series began; there was only Batman. It is only when Superman the Animated Series started up that there began to be a universe, a shared space occupied by and uniting more than one entity.
Or not. Perhaps that universe already existed; perhaps within the realm of ideas there is an idea-space that is the DC Animated Universe, and yet contains more than that; then we could say that this was indeed the first image of a universe, an idea-space that burst into being with Batman the Animated Series, yet already contained more than that.
And so there is. Already we have seen some of what this universe contains: the red sky harkens to DC Comics’ sprawling 1985 event series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, where it heralded the end of all things. We are thus fading from sunny skies and corporate logos to apocalypse and darkness–the dissolving of a cheerily capitalistic world. It is a particularly apropos image to open with in 1992, as we shall see.
Yet, as this stunning, minute-long short film unfolds, we see no apocalypse, just a small explosion in a single bank. The apocalypse fails to materialize; there is trouble, but not on the expected scale. Deep black shadows and bright, brief flashes of color evoke a noir aesthetic; together with the hats and trench coats sported by the apparent bank-robbers, and the design of the police car which chases them, there is a distinct 1940s feel to the imagery.
The Batmobile, however, is different. Its flaring fins and rocket exhaust evoke the pulpy sci-fi aesthetic of the 1960s, reminding us that here in 1992, even after the grim, gritty Dark Knight Returns and the two gothic, expressionistic Tim Burton Batman films, the dominant image of Batman in the larger culture is still the campy Adam West version, and rightly so. Still, as the music bursts into a rendition of the main theme from those movies, we switch to a front view of the Batmobile, sleek, long, black, and not remotely campy.
The bank robbers flee onto the roof and Batman descends. His eyes narrow; despite his mask, he is the only character in this little drama depicted with a face. He takes out one of the men almost immediately; the other fights him, but Batman bobs and flows, curving, a seemingly boneless shadow. He triumphs, and as the police arrive, baffled to find the robbers already defeated and bound, we pan up to see Batman standing atop the skyscraper, straight and tall and proud as lightning flashes dramatically behind him.
One minute to tell this small, but complete, story. It is a singularly odd way to start a cartoon, and even more so in 1992. There is no explanation of who Batman is, but rather demonstration; even the word “Batman” (or, for that matter, “the,” “Animated,” or “Series”) never appears. Instead the only two words in the entire opening sequence are labels, one a building and one on a blimp: “Bank” and “Police.” They serve as a metonym for Batman, which is to say wealth, power, violence, and authority.
So yes, there is a space here, and it contains much: superheroes, of course, but also power, money, politics; camp and noir; failed apocalypse and failing structures. And that is only in this first minute; hundreds more follow, and we shall find many more ideas occupy this space as we move along it. How, then, to explore so vast a space?
Because that of course is what this project will be: not a guide to the DC Animated Universe nor, strictly speaking, an analysis of it, but rather an exploration of the ideaspace which contains it. The answer to the question in the previous paragraph is psychochronography, a technique developed by Philip Sandifer for his TARDIS Eruditorum, and derived from the psychogeography of Alan Moore, Ian Sinclair, and the Situationist International. As the name implies, where psychogeography is the exploration of the interaction of a particular space with the human mind, psychochronography is the exploration of the interaction of a particular time, selecting a work extended across time–such as a television series, or metaseries in this case–and drifting along it, allowing the prevailing currents of the ideas it contains to shift the explorer into this or that adjacent concept, event, or work.
The bulk of this project, therefore, will be the discussion of individual episodes and storylines within first Batman the Animated Series, and ultimately the entire DC Animated Universe. However, there will also be frequent detours into other elements of the ideaspace: other versions of the characters, major contemporaneous pop-cultural events and works, history, works influencing and influenced by it, other works by its creators. Some things we will address once, and pass on; others will recur again and again, some because they are endemic to the genre (power, authority, the protector fantasy), others because they are appropriate to the time (late capitalism, averted apocalypse), and still others because they are both (survivor guilt). Some detours can be seen from here, at the start of the journey; others may be surprises.
This is the derivé, a technique of exploration which neither pretends to objectivity nor descends fully into subjectivity. There will always be a connection, one long meandering path to take us through as much of the ideaspace as possible, but returning always to continue flowing down the temporal river that is the sequence of episodes that comprise the DCAU.
And so here we are, at the beginning. This is the start of the project, and yet it is the first thing written; there is no project until the next post. It both is and is not, a liminal space, halfway between safe, comfortable blue and apocalyptic red. So, with a title taken from a throwaway line in an episode that is still, here in 1992, eight years away, we start the project, the first complete, minute-long story of the DCAU already behind us.
Welcome to The Near-Apocalypse of ’09.
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