Imaginary Story 8: Batman Adventures vol. 1 Holiday Special and Annual #2

 

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Although we have now covered all regular issues of the original run of The Batman Adventures, there are still two special issues to discuss. One, the Holiday Special released in January 1995, was adapted almost completely faithfully into the New Batman Adventures episode “Holiday Knights,” with the exception of one story exclusive to the comic, “White Christmas.”

A typically tragic Mr. Freeze story, it appears to be set sometime prior to “Deep Freeze,” as Freeze is still under the impression that Nora Fries is dead. He thus breaks out of prison on Christmas, builds a new cold gun, and creates a freak blizzard in Gotham, all so that he can stand at his wife’s (empty) grave and remember the snowy Christmas on which he asked her to marry him. The key moment of this story–and, indeed, of the entire issue–is when, during their fight in the graveyard, Freeze throws Batman into the Waynes’ grave. Though Batman cites the holiday as the reason he gives Freeze the option to explain his motivations and go free instead of being beaten and returned to prison, it is fairly transparently because of this reminder of his own motivations, especially when Freeze answers by pointing silently at Nora’s grave. Christmas, for those who once celebrated it but have suffered great loss, ceases to be a time of celebration; it is the death of the year, a sober moment of reflection on the now-departed sunny past and the chill of winter lying ahead. Which is precisely how the issue ends, with Batman and Gordon (in what is clearly an annual ritual) sharing a drink in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, toasting the fact that they made it through another year alive, but aware that they might not survive the next.

As, in a sense, they didn’t, as neither Batman Adventures nor Batman: The Animated Series made it through 1995 uncanceled. There is thus only one issue of Batman Adventures left to consider. Unlike the first annual, which had multiple stories connected by a framing device, Annual #2 is one long story, the second-longest in the comics’ run. (Counting multi-issue arcs as multiple stories, only the Mad Love one-shot is longer)

The story involves an unusual element of the supernatural. As we observed back in “Avatar,” Ra’s al-Ghul has, throughout BTAS, represented an intrusion of the supernatural into Batman’s world–a world in which even Zatanna’s magic is sleight of hand, and monsters rise from chemistry and biology, not witchcraft. But al-Ghul is an immortal sorcerer, and so where he goes, old magic invades.

In this story, that takes the form of a tablet which al-Ghul intends to use to summon a plague demon that will wipe out humanity, and Etrigan, a violent demon bound to al-Ghul’s fellow “immortal mortal,” Jason Blood. This is a dark story, even by the standards of BTAS, and from the start makes clear that it will not be pulling any punches: it opens with a page showing the five people in and around a large office building one night, while captions that feel equal parts Silver Age story introduction and film noir narration briefly describe each of them in turn, and then announce that they have three seconds to live.

The next page does not show them being rescued in the nick of time. It instead shows the building exploding and collapsing sideways, a quintuple homicide to kick off a story appropriately full of death for our final look at Batman Adventures. Death fills these pages: the tablet kills the minion of al-Ghul unlucky enough to find it; Batman seeks out Jason Blood’s help because of the work he did aiding Commissioner Gordon in solving a series of tarot-themed murders; Batman’s deam-vision involves Talia transforming into a corpse in his arms, then falling into a pool of lava and emerging as a burning Ra’s al-Ghul; the demon kills all of al-Ghul’s minions shortly after being summoned; and of course al-Ghul’s purpose in summoning it is to have it wipe out all of humanity except for those under his protection, starting with Gotham City. Even Blood, who describes himself as having “a toehold on immortality” and recalls an encounter with al-Ghul 200 years prior, is referred to as “mortal flesh” by the demon.

“Demons” is a story of death and magic, because al-Ghul is a creature of death and magic–he is, as we have established back in “Avatar,” a ghost. More importantly, this period of transition, Harley Quinn’s apocalypse, is a time of magic and death. We have already observed that the magical trickster powers of the Harlequin began this ending in “Harlequinade,” and of course any apocalypse is necessarily concerned with death. Both magic and death, ultimately, are about change: magic is change in response to a living being’s will, and death is the final and most extreme change such a being can experience, the change from living to unliving, body to corpse.

Interestingly, as she is our go-to example of how little magic there is in BTAS, al-Ghul invokes Zatanna in the incantation to summon the demon: like all of her spells once she starts doing real magic, the incantation is a series of phrases uttered backwards. But where Zatanna’s incantations are simply reversed announcements of the spell’s function, al-Ghul’s are a series of references. The first, “Kirby is the greatest,” refers to Jack Kirby, creator of Etrigan the Demon among many other characters for both DC and Marvel. The others all refer to famous instances of backwards speech. “My sweet satin” refers to the infamous “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, one of the claims of which was that Satanic messages were hidden in famous rock songs via “backmasking,” but could be heard clearly if the song were played backwards; “Here’s to my sweet Satan” was supposedly part of the message hidden in (ironically) Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” “Sometimes my arms bend back” is part of a line uttered by Laura Palmer during the infamous “red room dream” in the third episode of Twin Peaks; her lines in that scene were given a bizarre cadence and accent by recording her speaking the lines backwards, and then playing that recording in reverse. Finally, “I buried Paul” is a line supposedly backmasked in the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” considered the first “clue” by adherents of the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney died and was replaced by an imposter in 1966.

All of these references are intimately connected with death, “I buried Paul” most obviously. But the Red Room in Twin Peaks is eventually revealed to be the Black Lodge, a place of terror accessed through murder, while supposed references to Satan in “Stairway to Heaven” give us Heaven and Hell, the afterlife. The most complex relationship with death is the first incantation. In part it is a tribute to a recently deceased creator–Kirby died in 1994–but beneath that there is complexity to be unpacked. For Kirby, Etrigan in some ways represented the death of a dream: Kirby was pulled off what he considered his magnum opus, his “Fourth World” comics, to work on the project that became Etrigan; as a result, he was never able to finish his greatest work. And it is from that “Fourth World” that we get the planet Apokolips and its evil ruler Darkseid, who would bring an end to both Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited, and thereby to the DCAU as a whole.

Death and magic, magic and death. Apocalypse. And rebirth: though summer must inevitably fall into winter, winter gives way eventually to spring. The Batman Adventures are dead. Let The Batman and Robin Adventures begin.


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2 thoughts on “Imaginary Story 8: Batman Adventures vol. 1 Holiday Special and Annual #2

  1. “Here’s to my sweet Satan” was supposedly part of the message hidden in (ironically) Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

    Frank Miller references this backward message on the page of The Dark Knight Returns (p.89 of the collected edition, so somewhere late in book two) that tells the story of Arnold Crimp. Googling the other key phrase I could remember from that page, “a nun is doing something”, I found:
    * one 2004 post to a Christian forum which speaks of a generic nun doing something “only a few people are wonderful enough and smart enough to do”;
    * a page for Crimp on Adherents, a website for mentions of religion in fiction, added in 2006;
    * five posts from July of 2012, drawing parallels between Arnold Crimp killing three people in a fictional Gotham porno theater and James Holmes killing 12 people at a Colorado showing of The Dark Knight Rises.

    Whether the comic writer(s) only included that “nitas teews ym” as a nod to the Zep, or also had Miller in mind, the connection exists in my mind.

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