What took you so long? (The Clock King)

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It’s September 21, 1992, the day before “The Last Laugh,” so see that article for charts and news. On TV we have “The Clock King,” a strange little story about a strange little man.

The most interesting thing about said strange little man is his lack of a predecessor–while there is a comic book character known as the Clock King, the character in this episode is never actually called that, though he does at one point claim to be the king of clocks. No, due to Batman figuring out his identity quite early in the episode, he is known as Temple Fugate throughout. This is not the character known as the Clock King in the comics: he has a different real name, a different motivation and origin story, and different abilities–the comics Clock King used clock-themed gimmicks in his crimes, as opposed to being a master of careful timing. They do share in common being excellent swordsmen, but that’s about it.

No, Temple Fugate–his name a pun on the Latin tempus fugit, “time flies,” though unlike the English the Latin carries a connotation of “so get to work”–is essentially a new character, making this an attempt to go farther than “Heart of Ice” in reinventing a rather silly villain from the 1960s to be a more serious threat for a more modern Batman. Fugate makes a competent enough villain, the precision timing of his schemes just ridiculous enough that we more-or-less believe him when he claims to be able to dodge Batman’s punches because he knows they take exactly 1/20 of a second to throw.

However, the episode remains less compelling than the masterful “Heart of Ice,” primarily because it lacks the tragedy of that episode. Fugate is not remotely as sympathetic a figure as Victor Fries. We see too much of him before he lost his business, and his petty insistence on exact timing–knowing to the second how long it takes to make copies, and berating an employee for being late–cues the viewer to dislike him from the start. We recognize the future Mayor Hill’s advice as being both well-intentioned and a good idea; it’s not his fault that bad luck and some misbehaving children caused it to backfire. Hill is thus a much more sympathetic figure than Ferris Boyle, and Fugate’s desire for revenge on him is correspondingly less possible to empathize with and more petty-seeming.

Fugate is another in the long line of Batman the Animated Series characters to have “one bad day,” and like many of them, he was clearly just as bad before it. He does not particularly stand out in Batman’s rogues gallery, and his most impressive achievement is still years in the future, when the team of Fugate and Waller is unleashed on Justice League Unlimited to terrifying effect. He is, frankly, not a particularly interesting villain at this point, and his showcase episode is thus not particularly interesting, either.

Except for one little detail: his abandoned lair, which Batman investigates early in the episode. It is, predictably, full of clocks; less predictably, every clock is set to a different time. Not even different time zones; the minute hands are all in different positions. Fugate also checks his watch frequently before his “one bad day,” but not at all in the “present” sections of the show.

There are two ways to read this, though they are not exclusive. The first is as a comment on Fugate’s character: in the past, before he lost everything, he was constantly worried about time and complaining about things not being on time. In the present, he is time’s master, the self-declared “king of clocks.” He doesn’t need a timepiece to know that it is 9:09 and therefore if he throws himself off the roof he will land on the 9:15 train; he simply knows. Notably, he takes advantage of the fact that the train is always early; it is by learning to adapt to variations in timing that he has become its master. That, in this reading, is the meaning of the clocks in his lair; they represent the rest of the world, ignorant of the real time yet predictable in their ignorance, and by mastering that prediction Fugate masters them.

Alternatively, the clocks are a nod to Batman the Animated Series‘ own anachronism, which is definitely on display in this episode, with its 1940s cars and fashions, but distinctly 1980s laptop computers. It is no time and every time, and the clocks reflect this. Fugate is thus a major menace to the show: as someone who knows exactly what time it is, a victory by him could impose a specific time period on the show, and in so doing kill its timelessness. Just as the Joker threatens to destroy the show by plunging it into chaos, Fugate represents a destructive excess of order, stripping away one element of the show’s vitality. Perhaps that is why he showed up so infrequently.

Or perhaps because he really is a fussy, petty little man, and of such things great villains are rarely made.


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