Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin Adventures #11-15

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The issues of The Batman and Robin Adventures which coincide roughly with the airing of the first season of Superman: The Animated Series* together form a sort of study in unreliable narrators, always a pleasure to find in the more visual narrative media, given the unfortunate tendency of readers and viewers to treat images as more objective than words.

This study opens with the relatively straightforward issue #11, “Windows to the Soul.” A rare BARA story with no villain, it begins with Alfred seeing a “bat monster” in Wayne Manor and being condescendingly dismissed by Batman. As it turns out, Man-Bat–Langstrom, back on his serum–is living in the cavern system of which the Batcave is part. But his initial framing as a monster–both within the issue, and in his overall portrayal going back to the very beginning of Batman: The Animated Series–falls away to reveal that he is now fully in control of his actions, and has no intention of harming anyone. In his own broken words, he rejects efforts by Batman and Robin to “cure” him, asking what right they have to determine his shape for him. It’s a powerful moment that resonates to the present day: how dare any of us decide another person’s shape for them? What looks like a monster in one light may look innocent in another, and we cannot see through the eyes of the person we’re judging. Each of us is an expert on our own identity and cannot tell another who they are.

This theme is followed up in issue #12, “To Live and Die in Gotham City,” which follows Bane in the aftermath of his defeat by Batman, left for dead and suffering from Venom withdrawal. Much like The Batman Adventures‘ “In Memoriam,” the issue treats time nonlinearly; however, where that issue used sudden “jumps” to represent lapses in memory, this issue does the opposite, blending past and present together, with characters and scenes flowing into each other as Bane’s withdrawal-addled mind struggles to make sense of his surroundings and separate them from his memories. In the end his confusion leads to him rejecting everyone around himself–even the one man who helped him–as enemies, and he returns to the path of drugs and violence. But by showing us Bane at his lowest, through his own eyes, this becomes the “sympathetic villain” story Bane never got.

It also, fittingly, contains a moving tribute to Mike Parobeck, the same one printed in the Annual (the last project he worked on). Parobeck died in July 1996 at the age of only 31, from complications related to diabetes; his clean layouts and fluid, cartoony style helped define Batman Adventures and the early issues of Batman and Robin Adventures. In the letters columns of ensuing issues, multiple readers contrasted his style favorably to the “grim and gritty” style that dominated superhero comics, especially Batman, at the time. There are few characters who epitomize that grim-and-grit more than Bane, a character created to break Batman so he could be replaced by someone more in keeping with that aesthetic–and yet this comic for children presents Bane in a more complex, psychologically realistic way than ever before. Parobeck’s style helped make that possible, and helped point the way forward, out of the morass of adolescent, Miller-esque self-conscious edginess.

Like “To Live and Die…,” Issue #13 also sympathetically presents distorted thinking and hallucinations by letting us see them through the eyes of the sufferer.  In the case of “Knightmare,” that’s Batman, suffering from a combination of paranoia and terrifying hallucinations brought on by exposure to Scarecrow’s fear toxin. He becomes convinced that the attempted robbery at the beginning of the issue–which Batman and Robin prevented, though they failed to capture Scarecrow–was part of a bigger scheme,  one apocalyptic in scale. Neither Alfred nor Robin believes him,  insisting he needs to rest and get the toxin out of his system, but they are unable to stop him from returning to the site of the crime–where, it turns out, Scarecrow is about to trigger his scheme to plunge hundreds of millions of people into abject terror, in the belief that fear will unite the world and bring peace. Batman is the narrative center of the comic, and presented as a paragon of humanity; of course he’s still right, even when he’s raving under the influence of fear toxin.

But the result is, in a series–indeed, an industry–where “madness” is equated with evil, this is nonetheless an issue where the “madman” is right, and his “madness” saves the day. It’s a helpful reminder that there’s truth to the old joke: “Just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean there’s no one out to get you.” Just because there was strong emotion attached to it doesn’t mean Batman’s reasoning was wrong: he’s right that Scarecrow has a history of large-scale attacks using television as a medium, that it doesn’t make any sense for him to bring an electronics expert to rob a television station if he was just after money, and that therefore it’s likely he was intending something else. But Robin and Alfred can’t see past his obsessive behavior and unhinged appearance; they judge him as being in bad shape and ignore the genuine logic of his words. But who are they to judge what shape he should be?

Issues #11-13 thus form a triptych of sorts, about judging others before seeing through their eyes. Issue #14 continues the interest in playing with point of view, but from a different angle: “Dagger’s Tale” is a story from the perspective of one of Gotham’s endless supply of small-time thugs, specifically the story of his tattoo. It’s not a complex story: he was captured by Batman, sent to prison, vengefully attacked Batman as soon as he got out, lost again and went straight back to prison. His is the realization that there’s always someone better, that he’s not the biggest, strongest kid on the block and can’t act like it. Dagger was, in other words, one of those villains who doesn’t want to tear down the hierarchy, but rather stand atop it, and he now realizes he never will. It is as close as anything in or near the DCAU ever comes to acknowledge that the pinnacle of the criminal  hierarchy of Gotham is Batman–that, as we have observed before, he stands above both the city government and its criminals, with the general population at the bottom. Tellingly, however, this story comes near the end of Superman: The Animated Series‘ first season: Gotham isn’t the world anymore, and there’s a bigger dog yet looming over Batman.

The final story in this block, “Second Chances,” plays with audience perspective by acknowledging that there are, broadly, two kinds of reader for an all-ages TV-tie-in comic: obsessive comics fans who devour entire lines, and relative newcomers who picked the book up because of the show. “Second Chances” presents Robin with a mystery that contains red herrings for both kinds of readers, as his old circus returns to town and he learns that they have a new acrobat to replace the Flying Graysons: Boston Brand. Someone has been stealing from the circus, and Robin investigates; there is immediate friction between Robin and Brand, and some circumstantial evidence leading the reader who doesn’t recognize the name to surmise that Brand is the thief. The more experienced comics reader, however, will recognize that Boston Brand is the civilian identity of Deadman, a circus acrobat who was murdered and came back as sort of ghost superhero; that reader’s assumption, therefore, is that the thief will kill Brand, giving us Deadman’s DCAU origin story.

As I said, however, both are red herrings: the real thief is trying to frame Brand, who is still alive at the end of the story. Both the uninformed and informed point of view lead to incorrect conclusions, as both lack critical information which Robin reveals near the end of the comic. It’s not a fair-play mystery, but then it never claimed to be. Rather, it’s a followup to “Knightmare”: not only do we need to not dismiss other points of view out of hand, we need to remember that our own points of view may miss or distort something crucial. There is no objective perspective, only varying subjectivities.

*October 1996 – February 1997. The series started airing in September 1996, but that issue–“Blood of the Demon”–fit in better with the prior group and so was covered there.


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