Imaginary Story 2: Batman Adventures vol. 1 #1-3

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It’s October through December, 1992, which (with a few outliers here and there) corresponds roughly to the time period we’ve talked about so far. It was essentially inevitable that there would be a comic book tie-in for Batman the Animated Series; tie-ins for successful children’s shows are a staple of children’s comics, and here was a children’s show based on a comic which, in 1992, was decidedly not aimed at a child audience. So another comic, Batman Adventures, was released alongside the series, utilizing similar character designs and plots.

In short, what we have here is a comic based on a cartoon based on a comic. And what is the opening scene of the first issue? Batman fighting what are presumably criminals on a rooftop–then we cut away to a man watching the fight on television, rooting for the criminals. Within this comic, there is a television show about Batman–and the way the opening panels are framed, there’s no way it’s using “real” footage–this is a fictional Batman TV show existing within the Batman comic. The sound effects are even reminiscent of the ones shown onscreen during fights in the Adam West show!

So what we really have is a show within a comic based on a cartoon based on a comic–and, as is traditional for a Batman cold open, although it has no plot relation to the rest of the story, it has quite a bit of thematic relevance. The plot of this three-issue arc involves a shadowy figure who sends a television set to the Penguin (in the first issue) and Catwoman (in the second issue), providing them with plans for schemes suitable to their usual shticks in exchange for them stealing one item for him each. Or at least, that’s the plot the shadowy figure is trying to achieve–thanks to bumbling henchmen, he’s revealed to be the Joker early in both issues, meaning Penguin, Catwoman, and the audience all know who’s behind this from the start.

Recall in his first appearance, “Christmas with the Joker,” the Joker attempted to make himself into a framing device around the show, demonstrating its fictionality and emboiting it within himself. Here, he is taking the opposite tack–appearing on a screen only a couple of pages after the cold open, he thus equates himself with the show-within-a-comic-about-a-show-based-on-a-comic. In short, he is a living reminder of the layers of fictionality at work here, and thus the fictionality of his world. In both schemes, too, he works to undermine the structures of authority that dominate this world.

In the first issue, the Joker targets the structures of wealth and class, helping the Penguin to steal from the rich without their knowledge, then use that to set himself up as a high society figure and well-known philanthropist. But as we discussed in regards to Batman Returns, the Penguin is a grotesque figure, and as a member of high society he serves as a reminder of the grotesque nature of the power wielded by the upper class, while the fact (repeatedly demonstrated throughout the issue) that one of his working-class henchmen is notably smarter and better educated than the Penguin belies any notion that class status corresponds to ability. Yet even the Penguin is able to fool the “legitimate” upper class, using money stolen from their banks both to fund his new lifestyle and for his new charitable activities. Ultimately, of course, this scheme is foiled by Batman by issue’s end–at least, the Penguin’s scheme is.

The Joker, however, is still controlling the show (in more ways than one), and he got what he wanted from the Penguin, while Batman remains apparently unaware of his involvement. In issue two, the Joker provides Catwoman with a plan to steal the crown jewels of Great Britain. There’s a few things going on here; first, Catwoman bears very little resemblance to her depiction on the show, being apparently a jewel thief motivated solely by greed and the challenge of the heist, rather than the animal rights activist of the show. The degree of sexual and romantic tension between her and Batman is also toned significantly down; there are hints of both mutual respect and playfulness in their interactions, but none of the complexity of their relationship in the show.

Second, the choice of target is interesting. As in the first issue, the Joker’s plan is not only a massive theft, but a prank as well: Catwoman steals the jewels by hiding them inside their podium, with the intent that, once the investigation into their disappearance disrupts security, she will sneak back in and remove them. Once again, the goal is not just to take something from figures of power and authority, but to humiliate and delegitimize them. Of course, once again Batman figures out the scheme and saves the day, but at the same time the Joker connection remains unknown to him, and Joker now has both of the items he wanted.

This leads to the third and final issue of the arc, in which the Joker uses the exotic technology stolen for him in the prior two issues to create Joker TV, an untraceable pirate show that temporarily takes over all television in Gotham City at midnight each night. On his first night, he reveals he has kidnapped Commissioner Gordon, and that the purpose of his scheme is to demonstrate to the people of Gotham that law and order are illusions.

There’s again quite a lot going on here. First, of course, is that the Joker is (as in “Christmas with the Joker”) using metafictional layering to call into question the ways in which we use various narratives to structure our world. Batman, within this comic, can be both a fictional character that exists in a television show, and just as real as the viewers of the show, because the show-within-a-comic is no more or less fictional than the comic; both are just stories and images. Which, in turn, explains the necessity of the second issue, which is otherwise the weakest of the three: it was necessary for the Joker to attack the legitimacy not just of class and government structures in Gotham, a fictional place, but in a fictional representation of a real place as well. How can Britain be both a fictional place in the comic-within-reality, and a real place in our reality? The answer is clear, if not necessarily one that’s comfortable to contemplate: Britain is just as fictional as Batman is, a story, a cultural construct, a narrative crafted as a means by which to organize ourselves and our world, or at least that particular corner of it. Britain isn’t a place; it’s an idea. If everyone in the world simultaneously decided that the sun didn’t exist, it would still rise tomorrow*–but if everyone in the world simultaneously decided that there was no nation of Great Britain, there wouldn’t be. The archipelago would still be there, the people would still be there, but the nation would not. And of course the same is true of every other nation-state, along with a host of other constructs that shape our lives, and most of us never even stop to question their reality.

The Joker does. The entire intent of his scheme here, and of his character in general, is to get people to reject the narratives by which they structure their world, to acknowledge the stark, beautiful, terrifying, chaotic flux those narratives seek to constrain, control, and obscure. And here at the beginning of the 1990s, where the supposed master narrative of history–the great war of East and West, capitalism versus communism, US against USSR–has fizzled and collapsed without ever reaching its climax, he can use the tools of narrative themselves to bring the ultimate narrative collapse, the end of all stories and total embrace of chaos. In place of nations and laws there will be pure anarchy; in place of television shows that tell coherent stories there will be rapid cuts between frequently incoherent images–the music videos implied by the close similarity of the “JTV” logo to the iconic MTV logo of the 1980s. Note too that the second act of the third issue, the point at which the Joker appears to have won, is titled “I want my JTV” in reference to one of MTV’s slogans. He is deliberately allying himself with the new and the young, in defiance of old orders, old structures, old narratives.

But of course, in the end Batman wins. Just as in the show, the gravity of the main character cannot be overcome. In an elaborate ruse of his own, Batman disguises himself as a pre-Two-Face Harvey Dent and Dent as himself, then allows Joker to capture them, getting him inside Joker’s TV studio. After that there’s just a fight scene with the henchmen, a silent, page-long chase sequence over water, and then a fist-fight on a speedboat culminating in the Joker getting away.

Which in some ways is the most important part of the whole arc, that he ends by getting away. After all, his goal was to prove that the forces of law and order are powerless in Gotham, and he was not stopped by the police or the government; he was stopped by a vigilante who routinely violates laws against stalking, trespassing, and assault, and even then he escaped. There really is no law or order in Gotham; there is only the Bat, the rage and terror of a traumatized child who happens to have a lot of free time and a seemingly endless supply of wealth.

With “Joker’s Wild” we saw that at least part of the Joke is that the Joker is ultimately a pathetic figure, unable to overcome the sheer force of Batman’s main character status, overshadowed by his more entertaining sidekick, and ultimately a tool of the very order he fights against. Here, then, is the other half of the Joke: every time Batman stops him, the Joker wins.

*Well. Not exactly. To quote one of the premier philosophers of our time, Terry Pratchett, the next day “A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.” But close enough.


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