Imaginary Story 3: Batman Adventures vol. 1 #4-15

 

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The first full year of Batman Adventures, covering January through December 1993, corresponds roughly to the last quarter of the first season of Batman: The Animated Series, and the break prior to the second season. More specifically, it runs alongside a handful of the first 50 episodes we covered here, all of 51-65 except “His Silicon Soul,” and Mask of the Phantasm.

Unfortunately, looking at the episodes it runs alongside reveals something we’ve somewhat obscured by following the series in production order: 1993 wasn’t a great year for BTAS. Of the 20-odd episodes that premiered that year, “Robin’s Reckoning,” “The Man Who Killed Batman,” “Harley and Ivy,” and maybe “Shadow of the Bat” are quite good, as is Mask of the Phantasm, but the rest is firmly mediocre. Part of this is just the sheer number of episodes that aired in 1992: 40-odd episodes gives twice as many opportunities to be great than 20-odd. On the other hand, there is such a thing as having too many episodes; a shorter run allows greater focus on each individual episode. A more likely factor is simply the desire to attract new viewers by frontloading the good stuff, hence “Heart of Ice” being the third episode aired.

Regardless of why it happened in the show–assuming there is a reason, and it’s not just the vagaries of chance–it seems fairly clear why issues 4-15 of Batman Adventures aren’t as good as the first three: space. The first story was built across issues 1-3; the second comprises only two issues, and the rest of the year is made entirely of one-shots. So even where the ideas are good, there is little space to explore them.

Even then, there are no ideas here as sublime as declaring the non-existence of the UK. The closest is probably a single panel in issue 13, “Last Tango in Paris,” in which Talia al-Ghul and Batman hunt a rogue member of Ra’s al-Ghul’s organization; after their inevitable escape from his elaborate death trap, he bemoans, “I could have just shot him, but no! I must lock him in a burning building! Why!? Why must I have so much style?”

There are a few other moments that stand out. In “Raging Lizard,” Killer Croc’s opponent in the underground boxing ring is very clearly Hooded Justice from Watchmen. That his signature move is called Enola Gay, the name of the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, confirms the intent, tying in to both the excerpt of Hollis Mason’s biography within Watchmen that establish Hooded Justice as being gay, and that book’s apocalyptic preoccupation with the Cold War and nuclear weapons. But by making Hooded Justice and the Enola Gay into a throwaway reference, a gag, and a reasonable menace that is nonetheless handily defeated by Batman and Croc, the comic declares that these things are behind us, that it does not need to address Watchmen‘s concerns.

Instead, the comic mostly tries to emulate the show, with limited success. “The Third Door” is where it comes closest, a locked-room mystery complicated by the fact that Bruce Wayne can’t explain what he was doing in the room without endangering his secret identity. The whole thing turns out to be a weapons manufacturer lashing out in panic and rage at a diplomat, a relic of war trying to prevent the world from shifting to peace. It is, in other words, a serious take on the joke in “Raging Lizard”: the 80s and the Cold War are over, the world is changing, but not everyone wants it to. Unfortunately, just as it establishes this premise, the book ends.

Other attempts at capturing the aesthetic of the show similarly strain against the limitations of the medium and the short length of a single issue. “Larceny, My Sweet” tries to do a sympathetic villain story about Clayface from the perspective of Summer Gleeson. Unfortunately, Gleeson’s characterization is limited in the show, and there’s no space to expand on it here while also showing the action of Clayface’s robberies. Clayface’s anguish at being unable to make the connection with Gleeson, and her own sadness at being apparently stood up, ring more or less true–but the story is over so quickly it’s hard to really feel them. “Puglic Enemy” (sic) tries to draw parallels between Robin’s difficulty in letting go of his time as a sidekick to focus on college with the Ventriloquist’s disastrous inability to let go of his puppet, but spends most of its length focusing on a ridiculous Die Hard-inspired bank robbery and as a result has to spell the parallels out too explicitly for them to be really effective.

Nonetheless, “Puglic Enemy” points out a way for Batman Adventures to break free of being a tie-in and stand on its own merits: ironically, it has the freedom to be sillier than the show. The dark palettes and brooding tones of BTAS make it a poor fit for comedy, to the point that it has to die to make room for Harley Quinn, but the tie-in comic has taken a lighter tone from the start, with the Adam West-flavored show-within-a-comic cold open of the first issue. The lighter romps are where the comic shines, for example with “The Last Riddler Story,” which writes itself into a seemingly insurmountable corner: the Riddler has sworn that if Batman solves his next riddle and captures him, then he will admit ultimate defeat and give up on his life of crime. This obviously can’t happen, because it means permanently letting go of an iconic villain. On the other hand, the one-off structure of the book means that Batman can’t fail, either–he wouldn’t just fail and give up, but there isn’t room in a single issue for him to fail at stopping Riddler once and then track him down afterwards.

The solution the comic hits on is simple,  funny, and utterly inconsistent with BTAS’ tone: Batman fails to solve the riddle, but ends up running into Riddler anyway because he’s pursuing a different criminal trying to steal the same object! It’s an absurd coincidence, but not unthinkable–both Riddler and the Professor, after all, are portrayed as people desperate to prove their mental superiority through their crimes. It’s not that farfetched that similarly motivated villains would pick the same target!

A similarly farcical, coincidental collision enlivens “Batgirl: Day One,” the September issue. Some time between “Harley and Ivy” and “Shadow of the Bat” (which aired in September 1993), possibly even during Harley and Ivy’s crime spree in the former, Barbara Gordon attends a costume party dressed as–well, it’s hard to call her costume anything other than “slutty Batman,”  a Batman costume clearly made by the Gotham equivalent of the real-world costume manufacturers who have made heavily sexualized versions of monsters or common jobs into a Halloween staple: it’s designed to be worn by a woman, form-fitting and skintight, with an opening in the cowl to let her hair hang down. The fact that it’s identical to her eventual Batgirl costume is, of course, the point: as we have noted before, unlike Batman and Robin, Batgirl is a costume Barbara Gordon can doff and don at will, able but not compelled to perform as a superhero–and viewing it as a performance, just as a revealing (or, indeed, any) Halloween costume is a performance.

The nature of Barbara’s performance necessarily shifts, however, when Harley Quinn (in her first-ever comic book appearance) and Poison Ivy raid the party. Batgirl’s triumph against first them, and then Catwoman, is a glorious romp in which she combines beginner’s luck, genuine cleverness, and a cunning trickster streak that enables her to turn Poison Ivy against Catwoman, stealing back the stolen diamond, and then tricking Catwoman into fleeing rather than murdering Batgirl and taking it back. It’s clever, playful, and fun, and manages a surprising amount of plot for a single issue by dint of keeping action sequences brief.

In other words, the two best issues of the year are the ones which are least like BTAS. This is the dilemma of the tie-in; if it is just another comic, it loses its primary selling point. (December’s “Badge of Honor,” a noir tale from the perspective of an aging, but still badass, Jim Gordon, highlights this: it’s not a bad story, but it feels like typical Batman fare with some corners filed off for the kiddies.) But it can’t be the show, for the simple reason that it’s not a show, it’s a comic. Its strengths and weaknesses lie elsewhere.

The solution, then, is to do something rooted in the show, while being its own thing: lighter, a bit less character-driven, but more fun. Time will tell if Batman Adventures sticks to that path, or takes a different tack; either way, as we’ll see, that is the path forward for the DCAU.


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3 thoughts on “Imaginary Story 3: Batman Adventures vol. 1 #4-15

  1. “the excerpt of Hollis Mason’s biography within Watchmen that establish[es] Hooded Justice as being gay”

    As somebody who collected Watchmen in its initial serialization, I’m honor-bound to pick this nit. HJ’s sexuality is revealed not in any of the Under the Hood excerpts, but in the bundle of Sally’s papers at the back of Chapter IX.

    Like

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