Trigger Warning: sexual assault and rape
While we have mostly focused on Superman thus far, the world was not entirely devoid of the DCAU Batman. He wasn’t on television (except in reruns) in 1996-7, but Batman and Robin Adventures continued its regular monthly issues. The eight issues discussed here, corresponding roughly to the period from the beginning of 1996 to the beginning of the first season of Superman: The Animated Series, largely continue with the mood and quality of BTAS, though as always somewhat constrained by the more limited amount of story that can fit into a 22-page comic relative to a 22-minute episode.
There are a couple of recurring themes throughout this handful of months. One is the Riddler as a tragicomic figure, carrying on from his strange Pyrrhic victory in previous issues. Issue #3, “The Christmas Riddle,” begins this trend, as the Riddler publicly declares he has discovered Batman and Robin’s identities despite having at best a vague guess, then pegs two different rich families belonging to the Peregrinator Club as the duo, all as an elaborate distraction from robbing the club. All this succeeds in doing, of course, is drawing Batman to the club, where he foils the robbery and the Riddler’s attempt to discover his identity.
Two issues later, in “Second Banana,” the Joker is incensed when an ex-Arkham doctor states in an interview that the Riddler is the smartest inmate of the asylum (which seems farfetched, to say the least–Batman’s rogues gallery has a significant number of scientists, scholars, and inventors, so at minimum the question should be hard to answer). In response, Joker hatches an elaborate double-blind scheme where he pretends to be planning to murder the Riddle to draw attention away from his real target, the doctor, and then when that fails returns to kill the Riddler, violating the rules of the Riddler-style game he was playing because “I play by my own rules.” This is then turned back on him when Batman, after a rooftop scuffle, saves the Joker’s life–when Joker says it, he means “I do what I want,” but when Batman says it, he means “I act according to a strict moral code.”
Another bad day for the Riddler occurs in #7, “His Master’s Voice,” in which the Riddler’s attempt to break out of Arkham is sabotaged and exploited by Scarface, such that Scarface and the Ventriloquist escape while the Riddler is left unconscious to be recaptured. It’s his final humiliation (at least for now), beaten by quite possibly the silliest and least imposing of Batman’s villains–but it’s all part of the natural progression. In “The Christmas Riddle,” Riddler broke his own rules–he didn’t leave riddles, but instead simply announced what he was doing. As Batman correctly surmised, this lack of riddles was the riddle, his choice of location a clue to what he was really after. But it was still stretching his rules to their breaking point–which, of course, is what the Joker does in “Second Banana.” Notably, the Joker is not only willing to abandon his riddle-hinted plan in favor of another when it doesn’t work out, but his entire plan is to commit one of two murders–as Riddler notes in “His Master’s Voice,” he’s not a killer. (Though of course early in his career he tried to kill someone, unlike Joker he’s never actually succeeded, and does appear to have given up trying.)
Most of “His Master’s Voice,” however, is about the Ventriloquist once again serving as Scarface’s hapless victim. As a result of Riddler’s escape attempt, Scarface discovers Ventriloquist has created a sock-puppet friend. Scarface’s rage is very obviously rooted in existential terror: he nearly ceased to exist (not that he is ever anything but a construct of Ventriloquist’s imagination, but then that makes him as real as Ventriloquist or, for that matter, England) when Wesker gave up being the Ventriloquist in favor of working in children’s television, the frog-puppet incident Scarface mentions. He thus decides that the Ventriloquist needs to be punished, hence hijacking Riddler’s escape attempt and sneaking into the manor house of the Wesker crime family, pursued by Batman and Robin. There we learn that the Ventriloquist is despised by most of his family, and Scarface intends to kill the only person he cares about: his mother. That way Scarface will be all he has left, impossible to abandon.
When Batman and Robin finally confront Scarface and the Ventriloquist, the latter tells them they’re too late. His mother is dead and has been for years–she died after taking a bullet for him when he was 10, with a single photograph all he had to remember her by. Now Scarface has shredded that photograph, and in response, the Ventriloquist shot him in the head. The issue ends with Wesker pleading for someone to help Scarface, because “he’s all I have left.”
The final panel, Wesker standing alone, bleeding from his puppet-hand, saying the final line, highlights the degree to which Batman and Robin have failed. That’s one of the most interesting things about Scarface as a villain: he almost always wins the main battle, which is not whatever heist he’s planning but the war for the soul of Arnold Wesker. And so much of that war is explained by this issue! Young Arnold lost his mother, the only person who ever cared about him, to gun violence, just like Bruce Wayne. He came to hate guns and crime, just like Wayne. And, just like Wayne, he created a protector-persona modeled on a mixture of his father and a figure from pop entertainment–but instead of Thomas Wayne and the Grey Ghost, he had his crime-syndicate father and the title character of the film Scarface (the 1932 version, not the now-better-known 1983 remake).
As already mentioned, two of the issues in this run involve villains borrowing from one another–Joker using a Riddler-style scheme, and Scarface using the Riddler’s escape plan. Issue #4, “Birdcage,” pulls a similar trick, as the Penguin uses technology given to him by the Mad Hatter to create an army of birds, his goal being to steal rare birds from zoos and aviaries and smuggle them to their home habitats. (Which itself carries more than a whiff of the environmental and animal-rights based motivations often attributed to Poison Ivy and Catwoman, respectively.)
But much like Wesker, the Penguin is undermined by his essential failure to understand that things are not people. For Wesker, that means breaking down at the destruction of a photograph and taking orders from a hand puppet; for the Penguin, it means failing to recognize that captive animals cannot simply be flung back into their original habitats and expected to survive. Wesker ends up miserable and wounded, while the Penguin ends up elated at news that some of the birds he smuggled out seem to have escaped, but in the end they’re both equally deluded.
Deluded characters and borrowed schticks, not to mention people breaking their own rules and having it go awry, are all major factors in the very funny “Round Robin,” Issue #6. National Insider, a tabloid with more than a passing resemblance to National Enquirer and especially its sister publication Weekly World News, reports that Batman has fired Robin, causing numerous people throughout the city to dress up as Robin and engage in various ridiculous attempts to become his replacement. (By far the funniest of these is Carrie, who in a classic BTAS anachronism is very clearly Carrie Kelley from 1983’s The Dark Night Returns wearing the original Robin costume from the 1940s, and whom Batman just cannot get to stop following him, even after she’s arrested.) One of these pretenders is mistaken for the real Robin, kidnapped, and held for ransom, a scenario which could be easily resolved if Batman could go more than five feet without a would-be Robin trying to impress him. While all this is going on, however, Robin succeeds in freeing the kidnapped pretender and taking his place, allowing him to get the drop on the kidnapper.
At the end comes the rule-breaking, as Robin convinces Batman they should allow themselves to be photographed to end the rumors that Robin’s been fired–leading to National Insider using the photo to report that Batman and Robin are secretly agents of the CIA. (Also that Mother Theresa rescued a “wild child” in the Everglades and TV network programmers are secretly aliens, all of which are perfectexamples of the kinds of stories Weekly World News reported without actually being stories Weekly World News reported.) They really should have known better–1996 was the height of the tabloid’s popularity, as well as the year in which the sole season of the TV version aired. Founded in the late 1970s, Weekly World News‘ purpose was to make money off the black-and-white press National Enquirer had recently stopped using after its switch to color. It quickly established itself as the most ridiculous of tabloids; while National Enquirer became mostly celebrity gossip, Weekly World News ran what was in essence weird fiction–tales of Biblical prophecies, Elvis sightings, and aliens secretly advising government officials. Of course its equivalent in the DCAU would run stories about Batman and Robin–the real-life Weekly World News, after all, gave us Batboy, the long-eared child found in a cave in a 1992 issue who, according to later issues over the years, led the capture of Saddam Hussein, endorsed Al Gore’s Presidential bid, and was the subject of a prophecy that he would become President in 2028.
(This is the one place so far where I show up in these entries on the comics, since I didn’t read comics as a teen. I did, however, avidly follow Weekly World News in the latter half of the 90s. I found it hilarious.)
Issue #8, “Harley and Ivy and… Robin?” inverts the fake-Robin conceit of “Round Robin.” Here, Robin is real, but forced out of character in a weirdly psychosexual tale of mind control and jealousy that had me double-checking the credits to make sure it wasn’t by Chris Claremont. It opens with Robin in his occasional pervy creeper mode, as he swoops down on a fleeing Harley Quinn saying, “You know, Harley, I love it when a girl plays hard to get.” This gets grosser when he picks her up, and Harley says “Hey, watch those hands, Boy Wonder!” The latter in isolation is an uncomfortable joke about the (presumably horny, as fictional teen boys invariably are) teen boy superhero accidentally grabbing the female supervillain’s breasts; in combination with the first panel, however, it becomes an actively gross joke about the horny teen boy superhero deliberately molesting the female supervillain he’s just caught.
But Robin has no monopoly on being gross; after she kisses him with her “magic lipstick,” Poison Ivy goes into full-on dominatrix mode, teasing the mind-whammied Robin about him wanting to kiss her again, then telling him he has to “work his way up” starting with kissing her boots. Which might be fine if it were consensual, but Robin is under her control, and can consent to neither the boot-kissing nor the implied promise of performing oral sex on Ivy when he’s “worked his way” about halfway up. And much like Robin’s line in the first panel, this is made even grosser by Ivy commenting on his age, saying there’s “something about” men that young. Given that Robin is described as both a teenager and in college, he is presumably 18 or 19, making Ivy’s comments a gender-swapped version of the kind of thing creepy men say about the “barely legal” young women ubiquitous in porn.
(Me showing up in these is apparently less rare than I thought, because here’s a second place: I worked in a video rental store in the early 2000s, and like most non-chain video stores, new releases got people in the door, but it was children’s movies and porn that kept us in the black. The titles alone were an education on the horrifying sexual proclivities of my fellow man.)
There is one genuinely funny, albeit still horrifying, joke in what’s apparently intended to be a light, comedic issue about Robin being sexually enslaved and possibly raped: Harley, who hates all this because she’s jealous of the time and attention Ivy is giving Robin, makes a crack in response to Ivy calling him “baby”–that if he’s a baby, Ivy is “cradle robin.” Still, this just serves to highlight the ugliness lurking under the surface of this issue, given that it’s exactly the same as what Mad Hatter did to Alice in his origin episode, but played for laughs because men being raped is, apparently, no big deal. (Meanwhile, at the same time as this issue–the summer of 1996–34-year-old elementary school teacher Mary Kate Letourneau is raping her 12-year-old student Vili Fualaau, a case which will make national headlines when she’s arrested and tried the following year. She will get six months, and then another two years after she goes right back to Fualaau immediately on release.)
So, to summarize this issue: a teen boy molesting a grown woman is funny, at least if he’s a superhero and she’s a supervillain. Also, a grown woman molesting a teenage boy is funny. It’s rape culture in a handy 22-page child-friendly format.
And then the next issue is also about a female supervillain mind-controlling a man. Titled “Tears,” this is the first half of a two-parter, yet another in which Talia al-Ghul serves as villain for the first part and Ra’s al-Ghul for the second. In this case, Talia attempts to kidnap Barbara Gordon’s chemistry professor, and basically wipes the floor with Batgirl, telling her it takes more than a costume to be a warrior. Batgirl manages to jury-rig together a form of tear gas (entirely fictional, as near as I can tell–there does not appear to be any such substance as denzenel or denzel bromide; perhaps there was concern about giving instructions to make tear gas in an all-ages comic, because apparently teaching children to make weapons is dangerous but teaching them that sexual assault and abuse are funny is A-OK), with which she takes down Talia and rescues her mind-controlled professor. (Oddly, the professor is going by the name Mr. Siddiq, but was once an employee of Ra’s al-Ghul under the name Dr. Fazil; it is difficult to read this as anything other than a reference to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine star Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderrahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi changing his stage name from Siddig El-Fadil to Alexander Siddig the year before this comic came out. Coincidentally, as of this writing Siddig has been cast to play Ra’s al-Ghul in Gotham, though he has not yet appeared as the character.)
A fun story continuing the arc of Batgirl learning both that superheroing is harder than she expected it to be and that she has what it takes, this leads into Issue #10, “Blood of the Demon,” where Talia seeks out Batman’s help after her scheme to capture Fazil/Siddiq fails. It seems that, prior to fleeing, Fazil created an airborn version of a deadly pathogen previously limited to a single tropical island; al-Ghul plans to release it around the world, killing off everyone but a select few. Of course Batman is able to stop the scheme with a bit of misdirection and help from Robin, once again averting al-Ghul’s near-apocalypse.
But it’s September 1996, and on TV, there’s nothing near about the apocalypse: Krypton is exploding as we speak. The old world is dead and the new is upon us; Superman: The Animated Series has begun.
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