You’re no Batman, you whacked out old FRAUD! (Beware the Gray Ghost)

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It’s November 4, 1992, the farthest we’ve yet gotten. The top movie is the Wesley Snipes action-on-an-airplane film Passenger 57; other movies in the top ten include A River Runs Through It, The Mighty Ducks, and The Last of the Mohicans. This weekend Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” which has been the top song since before the first episode of Batman the Animated Series, has the last of its 13 consecutive weeks at the top of the charts. Elsewhere in the charts are Madonna, Mary J. Blige, and TLC.

In the news, Bill Clinton won the election for U.S. President yesterday, but we’ll cover that more in a later article; last week, Pope John Paul II lifted the Inquisition against Galileo and issued a formal apology for his treatment; and next week, the Church of England will vote to allow women to be priests.

On TV, we have the excellent “Beware the Gray Ghost,” story by Dennis O’Flaherty and Tom Reugger, teleplay by Reugger and Garin Wolf, and notably starring Adam West as Simon Trent, an aging actor who cannot find work because he is typecast as the Gray Ghost, a serial action hero of whom Bruce Wayne was a fan as a child. West’s casting–which was planned from the start, and considered absolutely essential to the episode, according to Dini and Timm–adds even further layers to an already packed script.

Right from the start, we have an elision of time, as the episode flashes back and forth between a black-and-white episode of the Gray Ghost, being watched by young Bruce (in an interesting touch, not only the television show but the scenes of Bruce’s childhood are in black and white), and events in the present that mirror that episode, with Batman and Commissioner Gordon in the place of the Gray Ghost and his police contact.

This is deliberate anachronism of the sort that characterized Burton’s first Batman movie, and which has been present in the mise-en-scene of The Animated Series but rarely brought into the foreground, until this episode, where it abounds. Bruce (who seems to be a young adult of, at most, about 30 in the series’ present day) is a child watching an action serial of the sort that children watched on television in the 1940s and 50s. (The most notable example for ou purposes is the 1949-55 serial Captain Video and His Video Rangers, almost all episodes of which were destroyed in 1970. Star Al Hodge was typecast and faded rapidly into obscurity after the series, ending up living alone in a small apartment crammed with Captain Video merchandise and memorabilia, just like Trent in this episode). The timing works out quite well; a Batman who was 10 in 1949 would be 27 in 1966, when the Adam West Batman appeared.

Except that this isn’t 1966. VHS tapes are commonplace, and a People magazine cover shown at the end of the episode indicates that it is the October 19, 1992 issue (which in real life had a cover story about Magic Johnson and AIDS)–a cover which also mentions Matt Hagen as if he is a currently working actor, foreshadowing his transformation into Clayface. Foreshadows it in production order, anyway; in broadcast order, it’s a further anachronism, because Hagen became Clayface in a two-parter broadcast September 8 and 9, 1992. Yet if this is 1992, the implication is either that The Gray Ghost aired as a black and white show in the early 1970s, which would be quite odd, or that Bruce Wayne is significantly older than he appears, which seems unlikely.

Of course there is a simple solution: the episode is anachronistic because the series is anachronistic; it doesn’t take place at any particular time but rather at every time. The figure of the Gray Ghost makes this clear: his appearance is clearly modeled on Batman’s antecedents, the “cape, mask, fedora” pulp and comic heroes of the early 20th centuries such as the Shadow, the Spirit, and the Sandman (the Golden Age version, not Neil Gaiman’s). Thus the Animated Series Batman is depicted as being modeled on them, giving him a kinship to the early, Golden Age Batman. At the same time, the Gray Ghost serials parallel the Batman film serials of the 1940s, which in turn served as one of the sources for the Adam West Batman, and so Animated Series Batman is akin to him. But by giving the Gray Ghost Adam West’s voice, Animated Series Batman is also a successor to that Batman–that is to say, he is three eras of Batman distilled into one, and so of course his world exists across multiple eras simultaneously, from the Art Deco era of its architecture and fashion to the 1960s and 1990s this episode simultaneously implies.

That declaration of intent–to make the Animated Series Batman the distillation of every Batman, a sort of “Greatest Hits” tour–is an act of impressive confidence in a show still so relatively young. Nonetheless, it is well-earned; as we will see, in many ways Batman the Animated Series does give us the (or at least a) definitive Batman, and the DCAU in general is something of a distilled, “best of” version of DC Comics’ checkered history. It also makes this episode one of the strongest counterarguments to the assertion that superheroes are not generally an empowerment fantasy. After all, young Bruce hero-worships the Gray Ghost, dressing up as him to watch his show, and later models much of his approach to crimefighting on him, down to modeling the Batcave on the Gray Ghost’s lair.

Contrasted to Bruce Wayne’s approach to the Gray Ghost as an empowerment fantasy are the two collectors in the episode, the slovenly unnamed collector and Ted Dymer, the “mad bomber” who is emulating the Gray Ghost villain of the same name. It is notable here that both collectors are modeled on producers–Dymer both looks like and is voiced by Timm, while the other collector is a caricature of Dini. Both are depicted quite negatively, which sets up a contrast between the collector or “nerd” approach to media, which is highlighted by a feeling of possessiveness, as being the “wrong” way to watch, while Bruce’s childlike wonder and desire to emulate the Gray Ghost (“the Gray Ghost was my hero,” he says twice) is the “right” way.

Yet this is complicated by the episode’s positioning of Trent as a red herring. The title of the episode tells us to beware of the Gray Ghost, and his goggles and gray costume resemble Mr. Freeze, priming us to expect a sympathetic villain. The episode takes pains to set up a motive for Trent, with his despair at being forgotten and his financial difficulties–modeling his crimes on episodes would be a way to punish the world for forgetting and abandoning him, while the ransom would get him the money he needs. It is only when he saves Batman from the exploding toy cars that the real villain can be revealed–one of the makers of the modern show.

There is a deep ambivalence here about the relationship of the show to its predecessors. BTAS has firmly broken with the camp and color of the 60s, embracing instead the dark and dour aesthetic of the 90s, but despite its bravado in declaring itself the heir to every version of Batman, it is still unsure whether that break was a good idea. In trumpeting a vision of Batman–and the Gray Ghost–as an empowerment fantasy, it is rejecting the old series’ subversiveness and inherently anti-authoritarian camp aesthetic. Can Batman be Batman without being silly? And can a Batman who refuses to acknowledge the underlying silliness of the concept be worth emulating?

Near the end of the episode, Trent states that knowing he inspired Batman makes it all worth it. That, in other words, superheroes may or may not be empowerment fantasies, but the creators at least of this version of Batman want very much to believe that their superhero will function as one, preventing them from ending up bitter and desperate like Dymer or early-episode Trent. In other words, the makers of the show are wishing for Batman to save them by empowering someone else–yet another savior fantasy. Even in one of its strongest episodes, the empowerment-fantasy construction of the superhero belies itself.


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