Something happened to you, didn’t it? (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm)

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It’s December 17, 1993, exactly three months since the first season of Batman: The Animated Series ended. The top song is Janet Jackson with “Again”; Ace of Base, Mariah Carey, Meat Loaf, and Salt-N-Pepa also chart. The top movie is The Pelican Brief, with Mrs. Doubtfire, Wayne’s World 2, Beethoven’s 2nd, and Sister Act 2 rounding out the top five. Not making it onto the charts is the only theatrically released DCAU movie, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, though it does make it up to 11th place next weekend and will cling stubbornly onto the bottom half of the top twenty for most of January.

The movie opens much as episodes of the series do, with a dark skyline set against ominously red skies, harbingers of apocalypse, accompanied by an absolutely stunning score–this film represents some of BTAS composer Shirley Walker’s best work. But this is no tale of apocalypse deferred; rather, it is a story about decay, the loss of a bright past promise.

The film weaves together a present crisis–mobsters are being murdered by a shadowy figure eyewitnesses mistook for Batman–with flashbacks to a period in Batman’s life we haven’t seen before, at the very beginning of his crimefighting career. We are past his training with Zatara and Yoru, but before he put on his mask, the last moment of choice before he gave himself over to the Bat.

Batman is, as we have discussed several times, a trauma survivor. His identity is fractured by the horror of seeing his parents murdered in front of him, the guilt he feels for being unable to stop their killer, for being alive when they are dead. Bruce Wayne and the Bat are both masks worn by the frightened child underneath, but what we see in this film is a moment when both are still half-formed, still visibly full of raw pain and determination. Andrea Beaumont is able to see this pain in Bruce, and is fascinated by it, most likely because she has lost a parent as well.

In the course of the love affair that follows, we see Bruce in a ski mask trying to fight crime and nearly getting killed because criminals don’t fear him. The Bat has driven him to become the protector he never had, but at this stage it is still half-formed, nameless and vague, and hence it is the Bruce-mask that must fight, with limited success both times we see him do it. He is vengeance, but he is not yet the night.

We also see Bruce and Andrea attend the Gotham World’s Fair, a glittering promise of a shining future full of wonders, a deliberate contrast to the modern day, when the Joker is living in the dark, squalid, creepy ruins of that same World’s Fair. It’s a bit on-the-nose, but the point is made: the future ain’t what it used to be. Bruce Wayne makes several references to “the plan” in flashback, first as his intent to fight crime, and later his new plan to spend his life with Andrea. There was a plan for the world, too. If, as seems likely, the flashbacks are about ten years prior to the present-day segments–long enough that Alfred has gone gray, but the people who were young in the flashbacks are still relatively young in the present–then that places them in the early 1980s, when the future of the world was known: fiery apocalyptic conflagration, the final triumph of good (read: the capitalist West) over evil (read: the Soviet Union), and then somehow this would lead into an era of prosperity and peace that looked exactly like Leave It to Beaver.

But instead of conflagration there was decay. The Soviet Union collapsed. A few years later, so did the U.S. economy. Suddenly a future of rocket ships and friendly robot servants and self-cleaning houses seemed absurd; in their place the expectation was for the decay to continue forever, a steady rotting away of the order of things, a descent into chaos and despair.

So it is that the Joker lives in the ruins of the future, a bitter joke lingering in the wreckage. But he’s not the primary antagonist here: that’s the Phantasm, the assassin killing mobsters. The name carries associations with both ghosts and illusions, death and deception. Of course on one level it’s a straightforward description of what she does, using a strange fog to appear and disappear, confuse her victims, and then kill them.

But, oddly, the Phantasm is never named as such in the film. And the title, note, is “Mask of the Phantasm.” Curious given that, over the course of the flashbacks, Wayne discovers the Bat Cave on a date with Andrea, then when she leaves him (because her father is being hunted by the mobsters who, in the present day, she returns to kill) he quite dramatically dons the Batman costume for the first time, the implication being that the discovery of the cave inspired him, and the loss of Andrea motivated him, to adopt the Bat as his totem. The Mask, and potentially the Phantasm as well, the illusion that haunts, is readable as being the Bat as much as it is Andrea. Or, perhaps more accurately, Andrea can be read as an instance of the true Phantasm, that which truly haunts Bruce Wayne.

This, after all, is the nature of trauma. It can be created by a singular event or a lengthy ordeal, but once the trauma exists, it takes on a cyclical nature. The victim re-experiences their trauma again and again throughout their lives, pulled back into it by the very coping mechanisms that let them survive it, as those coping mechanisms are triggered by stimuli associated with the original trauma. Bruce Wayne revisits his trauma every time his origin story is told, reliving the pain and fear and grief and rage of his parents’ death, the helplessness and guilt, the creation of the Bat and its unleashing upon Crime. The pain of that loss, the risk of experiencing it again, led him to shut himself off for years as he trained–and then when he is on the cusp of turning his pain outward onto the world, Andrea appears. He lets himself love again, after begging for his parents’ permission to be happy in a scene that should have won Kevin Conroy every award there is. He lets her in, and the consequence is that once again someone he loves is torn out of his life without warning or explanation. The cycle turns, the trauma repeats, and he becomes the Bat. And then she comes back, only to be again “killed,” again torn away from him by his nemesis, Crime. The cycle turns, the trauma repeats, and the Bat stands brooding on a rooftop, until the Bat-Signal calls him into action.

And it’s not just him. A singular event can be a trauma, but a trauma can be stretched over a long period of time, too. There is such a thing as mass trauma; a natural disaster, a war, these can inflict trauma on large numbers of people. Perhaps trauma can even occur at a cultural scale, in a sense.

What, then, of a decades-long threat of imminent, violent, fiery destruction? Could we not expect a culture which endured that to come out traumatized on the other side? Would we not expect the culture that survived that to stop seeing the shining future of the World’s Fair, to have its vision of the future become the blighted urban decay of cyberpunk instead? The 90s have a reputation for “grimdark,” for entertainment that is obsessed with being loud, angry, violent, grim, dour, despairing, from comics to music to film.

But maybe that’s just the cultural equivalent of putting on a mask to punch crime in the face.

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Retroactive Continuity 8: Strong Female Protagonist

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The key to Strong Female Protagonist vol. 1–the first collection of the webcomic of the same name, published in 2015–appears near the end of Chapter 4, in the flashback to main character Allison’s childhood. At fourteen, she discovers that her budding superpowers are a strange phenomenon affecting many children her age, all over the world, and is brought to a government camp to learn more about her abilities. There, a boy named Hector invites her to join the superhero team he’s organizing, but she refuses on the grounds that there is no manual for being a superhero.

He counters that there is, and hands her a stack of comic books, at the top of which is clearly All-Star Superman #1–its distinctive Frank Quitely cover is unmistakable. The serene, happy, unflappable Superman of the All-Star Superman covers is based on an experience Grant Morrison recounts in his book Supergods. Assuming any of it actually happened (it is difficult to read anything Morrison has to say about himself or comics without the distinct impression that he is never not trying to sell you something), Morrison was at a convention where he met a Superman cosplayer who had this serene, peaceful, sanguine attitude, which struck Morrison as exactly the way a man who cannot be hurt would behave.

Pretty much all of Strong Female Protagonist is a demonstration of just how wrong Morrison is.  Allison–who, like Superman, is nigh-invincible, with her first and only injury occurring at the hands of a being with powers like herself halfway through the book, and even then it’s barely more than a scratch–is in near-constant pain throughout the book, which picks up with her 20th birthday midway through her freshman year of college, about a year after she quit being a superhero. Physically, she is fine, but she has to cope with everything from a friend taking advantage of Allison’s powers to anti-“biodynamic” bigotry to sick and injured friends and loved ones. Most of all, however, she struggles with the knowledge that her powers of super-strength and invulnerability, while handy for dealing with giant robots or supervillains, are useless for dealing with the world’s real problems: poverty, ignorance, environmental issues, war, bigotry.

In this, Strong Female Protagonist bears a notable resemblance to the 1999-2005 comic series Rising Stars, which is similarly about a mysterious meteorological event that granted superpowers to people in utero when their mothers were exposed, and which similarly has powerful heroes struggling with the inadequacy of their powers to solve real problems. Rising Stars will be covered in more depth later in this project, so for now let’s just say that its characters eventually do find a way to truly help, permanently transforming the Earth.

Strong Female Protagonist strongly suggests that that approach is impossible. First, the supervillain Menace (shortly before abandoning supervillainy; he’s Allison’s friend Patrick now, with his former identity known apparently only to the two of them) revealed to Allison that someone killed all the biodynamic individuals whose powers might have really changed the world for the better–people able to generate unlimited energy or talk to diseases are mentioned. Second, Allison rejects her friend Feral’s choice to use her regeneration power to become an endless organ donor, saving dozens of lives a day at the price of unending agony. As Allison points out, the lives she saves will be the wealthy, the powerful, and the insured, while the poor continue to die.

This is, ultimately, a rejection of the protector fantasy. Throughout the book we see its flaws, starting with Professor Cohen, Allison’s teacher who hates her because his husband was a bystander killed in a fight between Allison and a giant robot. When Allison complains about unfair treatment, he’s fired, because the school administration is afraid of what might happen if Allison feels mistreated. People alternately are afraid of her, hate her, treat her with kid gloves, or simply attack her. Even when Allison outright murders someone–a hate-group member who burned Feral and Feral’s medical team, killing the doctors and nurses–and threatens to murder the entire hate-group on national television, she faces no consequences, because she’s a superhero.

Everything is tied together by Allison’s rejection of All-Star Superman as the instruction manual for being a superhero. She accepts that people need protection sometimes, but she rejects the need for protectors. She has a great speech in Chapter 3 in which she argues that Feral’s mistake is in taking everything on herself; that only if everyone agrees to protect everyone else can the world truly be changed for the better.

“I’m nineteen years old, I’m invincible, I’m stronger than any human being who has ever lived, and I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.”

Allison’s words when she reveals her identity on live TV and quits superheroing resonate throughout the book. None of us really know what we’re doing, so we dream of protectors who do. In so doing, however, aren’t we really dreaming of abandoning our responsibility to one another?

Shortly after we see the flashback in which Allison received a copy of All-Star Superman, we learn she is returning home because her father has cancer. In an argument shortly after, her sister Jennifer angrily declares that Allison can do anything, to which Allison responds, “I can’t save Dad.” But in All-Star Superman, Superman actually does cure cancer patients–specifically, he sends in swarms of miniaturized Kryptonians to destroy the cancer cells of all the patients in a children’s hospital, with the possible implication that they will be doing this all over the world.

But Allison isn’t a Supergod. She’s not a transcendent, perfect being, who can shoulder all the burdens of humanity and leave us nothing to do. She’s a person, flawed and complicated, who loves fighting but hates that it can’t really solve anything, who craves friendship and connection, who goes to classes and student protests, and happens to be able to punch very, very hard. We still, ultimately, have to take care of ourselves.

More importantly, we still have to take care of each other.

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Crisis on N Earths (N=4): Animaniacs

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The second of the Warner Bros.-Amblin co-pros made in response to Disney’s success with Ducktales, Animaniacs (1993-8), opens with a bold declaration of intent. Just as the placement of the titular Tiny Toons as students of the classic Looney Tunes characters sets the show up as an heir to the cartoons of the Golden Age, the claim that Yakko, Wakko, and Dot are “lost” characters from the Golden Age brought into the present equates Animaniacs to those same cartoons, announcing its characters as equals to such icons as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Wile E. Coyote.

This ambition pays off almost immediately: one of the most beloved and well-remembered Animaniacs shorts, “Yakko’s World,” is in the second episode. Almost all of the newly introduced characters feel immediately like classics. The Warner siblings are tricksters in the Bugs Bunny mode, sowing chaos and bringing their unique energy to boring and staid settings institutions throughout time and space, though most often the office of their psychiatrist foil, Dr. Scratchensniff. The two duos of Pinky and the Brain and Buttons and Mindy are simple premises with nigh-infinite variations, with especially the former managing to feel incredibly fresh despite their fundamentally formulaic episodes. Meanwhile, the Goodfeathers and Rita and Runt allow the show to riff on movies about the mob or set in New York and musicals, respectively–more limited than the other characters, but still quite usable. The simplest and most formulaic premise of all is Chicken Boo, the giant chicken who (badly) disguises himself as a human only to be found out by the end of the episode, but the sheer absurdity of the concept sustains it. Ultimately, the only segments that really don’t work at all are the (thankfully rare) segments involving Flavia and Marita Hippo, which never quite settle on what exactly is supposed to be funny. In a show which (like the classic Looney Tunes) relies on collisions between programmatic characters who are either comically incompatible with each other or with their surroundings, the hippos never quite settle on a program, and thus are merely flat and uninteresting. Finally, Slappy Squirrel represents the purest expression of the show’s ambition, depicted as a retired Golden Age cartoon character who, in the hands of the show’s writers and animators, is delightfully, unconquerably curmudgeonly.

Overall, the show stands up remarkably well, though the creators’ determination to prove they can do everything the original Looney Tunes did sometimes has unfortunate results, mostly involving uncritically repeating sexist gags in which stereotypically attractive women are harassed by male characters or treated as objects, this being the entire purpose of the character Hello Nurse. But these instances are fortunately brief, and the show does occasionally invert them by having Dot or another female character react the same way to a male celebrity or one-off character depicted as a male sex object.

And of course there is the character of Minerva Mink, who straddles the line between being a straightforward example of the same problem as Hello Nurse, and a satirical subversion of it. On the one hand, her two segments are both plagued with the male gaze, as camera and soundtrack both drool over her nearly as much as her unwanted suitors, and she is depicted as provoking the “hello nurse” response from every male she encounters, as if such behavior were a helpless reflex–which, of course, is one of the most common real-life excuses for sexual harassment and assault, despite its transparent absurdity. On the other hand, both segments are about her life being essentially miserable because of the unwanted and boorish attentions of men, and end with her acting the same way towards a large, muscular man (well, anthropomorphized male animal) as she has been subjected to all episode.

That kind of subversion is where the show works best, especially where the Warners themselves are concerned. They are true tricksters, baffling and humiliating the representatives of authority like Warner CEO Thaddeus Plotz and Ralph the security guard, wreaking comic revenge on people who wrong them or bully others (the candy store owner in “The Big Candy Store,” for instance, or the cheating, greedy garage sale holder in “Garage Sale of the Century”), and providing unexpected inspiration to historical figures like Einstein and Beethoven. They are forces of chaos, which is to say change; they destroy and overturn excessive, oppressive order, but also spark positive change here and there.

In this respect they are, as I said, clearly positioned as the show’s answer to Bugs Bunny, a venerable trickster god himself. The show reaches back into the roots of animation itself to establish the Warners’ pedigree: not only are they lost stars of the Golden Age of Warner Bros., but the segment “Testimonials” presents them as active members of the vaudeville circuit and rivals of Milton Berle. Vaudeville, of course, is the source of that blend of satirical, slapstick, raunchy, and silly humor that characterized Golden Age cartoons, especially Looney Tunes, as well as arguably the birthplace of the cartoon itself: while animation existed and had been publicly presented previously, Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo (based on his pioneering newspaper comic of the same name), How a Mosquito Operates, and Gertie the Dinosaur, all presented as part of his traveling vaudeville act, were the first animated works with defined characters and a plot.

This subversive love of chaos extends to the structure of the show itself. Characters frequently cross over into each others’ segments, consult their scripts, or address the audience, and one episode (episode 35, specifically) subverts the show’s own formulas by mixing and matching the usual character groups, so for example it contains a Mindy and the Brain segment rather than Pinkie and the Brain or Mindy and Buttons. Since the bulk of the show, as already stated, consists of programmatic characters interacting with each other or their settings, this allows new mixes of programs. None of the characters change, because it is the nature of programmatic characters to be unchanging, but putting them in new environments makes them feel fresh–Slappy is still Slappy when placed in Dot’s role, which shifts the dynamics of a typical Warner siblings segment. The episode even subverts its own premise: while it is stated repeatedly to be mixing established characters in new segments, “Katie Ka-Boo,” the mashup of Katie Ka-Boom and Chicken Boo, is actually the introduction of the Katie Ka-Boom character! Katie is, of course, no less programmatic than the rest of the cast–her particular schtick is that she’s a seemingly sweet teenage girl who throws tantrums in which she turns into a terrifying monster–but she had never appeared prior to “Katie Ka-Boo,” sneakily turning the premise of episode 35 on its head.

Despite many such clever ideas, the show never quite sheds a degree of anxiety about its ambition. In the first season finale, “The Warners’ 65th Anniversary Special,” the Warners’ origin is given more detail, as they are tied to the (more or less real) obscure character of Buddy, having been added to his very boring shorts to make them more interesting. On the one hand, this is a pretty straightforward statement that Animaniacs is at least better than bad Looney Tunes; on the other, the plot of the episode involves Buddy coming back to avenge himself on the Warners for ruining his career. For all their ambitions, the animators seem to question whether they will be accepted by their forebears.

This same anxiety animates (if you’ll pardon the pun) the bulk of the Slappy Squirrel segments, since those are similarly built around old cartoon characters seeking revenge, coupled with Slappy’s judgmental dismissal of modern cartoons as overly sentimental, moralizing, and unfunny. (A judgment which is largely justified, given the astounding drop in quality when Animaniacs is forced to do educational episodes, such as episodes 20 and 23, two collections of painfully earnest, unfunny segments lionizing American history or discussing junk food and environmental issues, respectively.) Perhaps no segment represents this anxiety as well as “Critical Condition,” in which thinly veiled parodies of Siskel and Ebert review a collection of Looney Tunes shorts, praising such classics as “What’s Opera, Doc” and “Duck Amuck,” but visiting nothing but scorn on the (entirely fictitious) Slappy Squirrel segments. Slappy of course exacts brutal revenge, but nonetheless the underlying anxiety remains: Animaniacs just isn’t quite as good as the best of Looney Tunes. It never reaches the hilarity of the famous “Rabbit Season”/”Duck Season” bit, never stretches the possibilities of the medium the way “Duck Amuck” did.

But it stands nonetheless as a massive work, and if it doesn’t quite transcend the Golden Age of the 1930s and 40s, it quite clearly declares the wasteland years to be over. It has no qualms about placing itself above the cartoons of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, with the segment “Back in Style” inserting the Warners into scathing parodies of the limited animation, repetitive stories, and lack of humor of Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo, and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, among others. Even if Animaniacs itself doesn’t quite reach its goal, it nonetheless points the way forward: Television animation doesn’t have to be bad and it doesn’t have to repackage the past. There is room for new works, works that surpass the so-called Golden Age.

We’ve talked before, and will talk again, about the 1990s as an era characterized by the question “Now what?” In that sense, for cartoons, the 1990s ended in 1993, because Animaniacs answered the question. Now what? Now we surpass the greats of the past, and reach for new heights undreamt of. Ducktales was the beginning, but a beginning by itself is not an age. It is Animaniacs that, retroactively, establishes 1987 as the beginning of a second, better Golden Age of short-form animation.

Thirty years later, that Golden Age is still going strong.

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Retroactive Continuity 7: The Decline of American Television Animation, Ducktales, Tiny Toons

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There’s quite a lot happening in the world of American television animation in the period we’re talking about following the first season of Batman: The Animated Series, and through to the end of the second, roughly 1992-4. But to understand what’s really going on, we have to step back a moment, to the 1950s and 60s.

In the aftermath of World War II, a combination of relative prosperity and a cultural shift toward consumerism led to the rapid proliferation of a few new home technologies, television most prominent among them. Only a few thousand television sets existed in the United States in 1940; by 1950 nine percent of households owned at least one, and by 1960 nearly 90 percent did.

This growth in television ownership was naturally accompanied by a decline in movie attendance. Staying at home to watch TV was easier and, not counting the cost of the TV itself, cheaper as well. Movie theaters responded, generally, by increasing prices and reducing what a single ticket purchase could buy. Traditionally, a night at the movies was an extended affair, in which the audience could expect to see not only a feature film, but also a newsreel, one or more animated shorts, and possibly a short-subject documentary. With declining attendance, however, theaters cut back on everything except the feature: newsreels disappeared entirely, and cartoons became an extreme rarity except when packaged by the studio with an animated feature (as is the case today with most major Disney and Pixar releases).

Animated shorts had been the bread and butter of multiple studios, and with their disappearance from theaters those studios turned to television, selling packages of old theatrical shorts to be cut into two- or three-segment blocks and aired as half-hour television series. This has remained a dominant format for television cartoons ever since, even for series original to television such as Animaniacs, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and Steven Universe.

However, television proved a difficult medium for original cartoons. Budgets were a lot lower than they had been for theatrical shorts, skittish advertisers and network Standards and Practices offices closely policed content, and corner-cutting measures became the new norm. Increasingly, young animators quit to seek out other work. Quality plummeted throughout the 1960s as the use of subcontractors (and consequential loss of quality control) increased, “masterpiece”-style animation gave way to the stiffer, less expressive, and less labor-intensive “limited” style, and fear of losing advertisers drove the writing away from the slapstick, satirical, and vaudeville elements that had characterized the medium in its heyday.

Warner Bros. Cartoons produced their last animated short in 1969; their successors Warner Bros. Animation would not produce any more until 1987, and even those were repurposed segments of an abandoned movie. They would not produce actual original shorts until 1989. The last producer of animated theatrical shorts, Walter Lantz Animation (creators of Woody Woodpecker, among others), shut down in 1972.

But American television animation’s decline had only just begun. In the 1970s, content restrictions became still tighter with the rise of parents’ groups, who campaigned against content inappropriate for The Children–essentially reenacting what we’ve already discussed regarding “Seduction of the Innocent,” but with cartoons instead of comics the target this time. The result was that cartoons were increasingly marketed to younger and younger children, relying on stock gags and plots that had already proven safe from the disapproving glare of advertisers and parents, straightjacketed by network-wide rules on content.

Even then, the nadir was still to come. The final blow to American television animation came in the form of an apparent savior: the syndicated merchandise-driven cartoon. First-run syndication–in which a show was marketed directly to local stations, instead of airing on a network first–allowed producers to make an end run around network programming restrictions, but represented lower advertising revenues. However, this lower revenue could be made up by merchanding, effectively using the show itself as an advertisement for an associated toy line. The formula was completed when the toy company Mattel approached the animation studio Filmation with an offer to fund development of a series based on an already existing toy line, as opposed to marketing toys based on a show. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe began airing in 1983, first of a wave of shows requested, paid for, and largely controlled by toy manufacturers, such as G.I. Joe, Jem, M.A.S.K., and My Little Pony.

These shows were, if anything, even tamer and more cheaply produced than the limited animation of the 1970s, with the added factor that, like the toy industry that drove their creation, they were heavily gendered. Shows primarily featuring characters of a given gender, like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids or Josie and the Pussycats, had existed prior to the 1980s, but it is with the 1980s that the medium becomes increasingly divided between “girls’ shows” and “boy’s shows.”

A glut of low-quality toy-pushing syndicated shows filled the Saturday morning and after-school airwaves. The rare not-entirely-terrible shows struggled to be noticed amidst a wasteland of near-identical garbage, and with more and more shows, their development paid for by toy companies, chasing after limited airing slots, competition was fierce and failure rates high.

And then Disney came back to the short-form game.

For years, Disney had struggled with the fact that its most popular character–allegedly, at one point the most popular comic book character in the world–was virtually unknown in Disney’s country of origin. Europeans and South Americans adored Scrooge McDuck and devoured both new Scrooge comics and the venerable works produced by Carl Barks in the 1940s, but in the United States he was unheard of. A 1983 animated special, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, had reintroduced the character to American audiences and proven reasonably successful, so Disney began development on a first-run syndicated series. In the process, they made two very smart choices: first, they decided to base the majority of the initial batch of episodes on Barks’ original Scrooge comics, which had the dual virtues of being beloved classics that had withstood the test of time and being almost entirely unknown to American audiences; and second, they outsourced the animation to Japan, where the animation industry was simultaneously booming (meaning lots of eager young talent) and still quite cheap by American standards.

The result was 1987’s Ducktales, which quickly became a major hit, proving that it was possible for a limited-animation syndicated series to be both good and profitable, a combination that had largely eluded animators throughout the 1980s. Warner Bros. Animation saw what their chief rivals were doing, and followed suit by forming a partnership with Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment, to create original syndicated shows of comparable quality. They got their first hit out of the gate with 1989’s Tiny Toon Adventures, the aforementioned first original animated Warner Bros. shorts in 20 years.

Tiny Toons made an interesting contrast to Ducktales. Both were based primarily on content from the 1940s, but where Disney directly adapted stories and characters, Tiny Toons is almost a sequel, presenting its characters explicitly as the heirs and protégés of the classic Looney Tunes characters, studying under them to master the art of being cartoon characters. It is a cute and funny premise which both acknowledges that, by 1989, cartoons are almost entirely relegated to children’s entertainment, and that there is still work to be done in order to return to the heights of the Golden Age of theatrical cartoons. The writers and animators of Tiny Toons–including among them some names already familiar to us, like Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, and Paul Dini–might as well have been describing themselves, sitting at the feet of greats like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, trying to relearn the techniques and theory of an art that had very nearly become lost.

Warner Bros. and Amblin’s next coproduction, however, proved that the art was not lost, and the students had studied well. I speak, of course, of Animaniacs.

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Don’t you have anything better to do? (The Worry Men)

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Shit, I am so sorry I got this up late! Basically on Monday I thought it was Sunday (because long weekend), and today I knew it was Tuesday, and so in my brain Monday never happened? Not an excuse, I know. Anyway, here it is, the end of BTAS S1 and the rough midpoint of NA09 vol. 2!

What a lackluster ending to a stellar first season.

It’s September 16, 1993, just a few days after “Shadow of the Bat,” so see that post for charts and headlines. Tomorrow is the last day of the first season of Batman: The Animated Series, which will go out with “Paging the Crime Doctor,” a melancholic reflection on things past that closes with Batman trying to connect with memories of his father. In production order, on the other hand, we end with this episode, “The Worry Men.”

This episode is a dual let-down. First, it comes at the end of a particularly strong run of episodes, with maybe two or three of the last ten being notably weak (“The Mechanic,” “Blind as a Bat,” and “Fire from Olympus”). Second, the Mad Hatter’s first two outings, “Mad as a Hatter” and “Perchance to Dream,” were both truly excellent episodes.

This isn’t.

It’s not, to be clear, a terrible episode. It’s just not very good, and relies entirely on the notion of Central America (not any particular country, mind you, just the entire region) as this exotic place whose iconography can be rifled for absurd jaguar henchmen for the Hatter, because nothing says Alice in Wonderland like casually racist depictions of Native Americans. (I mean, if he’d been a Peter Pan-themed villain, that would be a different story.) There’s a strange almost-commentary where the characters are ensnared in the Mad Hatter’s schemes by their willingness to believe in–or at least play along with–the notion that the titular little dolls have magical powers, a belief rooted in the same colonialist exoticism as the Hatter’s choice of outfit for his henchmen. Unfortunately nothing ever comes of this; other than both ostensibly originating in Central America, there is nothing to parallel the henchmen and the worry men.

It’s particularly sad because the core idea–Veronica Vreeland meets the Mad Hatter–is brilliant, even better than pairing her up with the Penguin in an earlier episode. Here as in his first appearance, the Mad Hatter is the picture of selfish entitlement: the scene in which he bemoans that, alas, private islands cost money is easily the best in the episode, as Roddy McDowell hams it up exactly the right amount to highlight what an utterly absurd complaint it is, while at the same time selling completely the notion that the Mad Hatter thinks it’s a grave injustice for which he should be pitied. And Vreeland, of course, has served as an excellent example of the out-of-touch rich person, who inherited a fortune and seems to do nothing except host high-society events and travel.

The problem, then, is that the only meeting between them occurs in flashback, and even then the Mad Hatter works mostly through a proxy, the unnamed “native craftsman” who designed the worry men. It’s understandable, as there’s a risk of repeating “Birds of a Feather,” an episode already notably similar to Dangerous Liasons; the probability of appearing unoriginal is high.

But it’s nonetheless a loss, as an examination of the potential outcomes makes clear. After all, in any head-on collision between two such powerful forces of self-centered entitlement, one must emerge as the “victor,” which is to say so entitled that they pull the other into their orbit. Either possibility is fascinating; either Vreeland’s familiarity with the cutthroat maneuvers of high society allows her to manipulate the hapless, foolish nerd, or Tetch’s advanced technology gives him control of the socialite heiress. Pick your villain: the selfish, old-money rich or the entitled, new-money tech geek?

But that’s not the episode we actually have. The question is precluded by the involvement of Batman, and so instead we get the Mad Hatter fuffing about with giant toys in a costume shop. Admittedly, the inclusion of mannequin versions of major villains–and the inclusion of Harley Quinn as one of them in her own right, independent of the Joker–is a nice touch for a season finale, but it’s still more cute gag than substantive element worth talking about.

In the end, the season just sort of fizzles out. Fortunately, next season starts with a bang. But that’s eight months and several chapters away…

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He’ll come back (Read My Lips)

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It’s May 10, 1993, two weeks before “His Silicon Soul” and a week after “The Demon’s Quest.” The top song is, as it will be two weeks from now, Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes.” The top movie is Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story; other movies of note in the top ten include Dave and Indecent Proposal (numbers two and three respectively), and, further down at seventh, The Sandlot. In the news, Paraguay has possibly its first democratically elected president, Juan Carlos Wasmosy; there are allegations of election fraud, but his victory is certified by an international panel. William Randolph Hearst, Jr, son and successor of the infamous publisher, dies on the 14th, which is also the day Disney Channel actress/singer Miranda Cosgrove is born. There’s no evidence that reincarnation was involved, but you never know.

This episode seems like it shouldn’t work. The Ventriloquist and Scarface are really just a lesser reiteration of Two-Face—two personalities, one more criminally inclined and dominant, and with a clear visual distinction of which is which—but without any of the menace implied by both his grotesque appearance and his terrifying obsession with the caprices of random chance. But nonetheless it does work, thanks largely to an excellent script by Joe R. Lansdale.

With this second episode, Lansdale reveals the hints of a pattern, which will be borne out in at least some of his later episodes. Previously, in “Perchance to Dream,” he separated Batman’s two aspects and placed them in conflict against each other, in so doing finding a way to explore how the identities we perform can become our prisons. Here in “Read My Lips” that exploration is even more pronounced, as Wesker’s ventriloquist personality is held prisoner by, essentially enslaved to, his Scarface personality.

Of course the notion that the puppet is the real master is hardly unique to this episode. Puppets and dolls are a staple of horror, thanks to the Uncanny Valley—the effect whereby the almost-human can be more unsettling than the entirely unhuman. Indeed, the Batman comics imply that Scarface is in some sense alive or haunted, as he has retained the same personality across multiple ventriloquists. But in the DCAU, that possibility is toyed with and ultimately rejected. (The best use of this concept is in the far-off Justice League episode “A Better World,” where all the villains in alternate Arkham have been rendered docile via lobotomy, and it is Scarface, rather than the Ventriloquist, who bears the scars.) Scarface is an expression of some aspect of Wesker that the Ventriloquist cannot express himself, so he channels it through the puppet. Despite shock-scares like the doll’s eyes snapping open when Batman touches it, Scarface remains fully inert without the Ventriloquist’s animating presence.

But then, the Bat is inert without Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl, isn’t it? And as we saw in “Perchance to Dream,” Wayne is held in thrall by the Bat, as much a prisoner as the Ventriloquist—and like the Ventriloquist at the episode’s ending, he has carved his own prison, and will rebuild it if it is removed. But this is not the only reflection of the Ventriloquist-Scarface relationship elsewhere in the episode. During the initial heist sequence, Rhino carries one of the other henchmen on his shoulder, not unlike a ventriloquist carrying a dummy. Later, we briefly see Batman and Alfred together; Alfred’s role as manservant is not to dissimilar to the function the Ventriloquist performs for Scarface, right down to both wearing tuxedos.

But it is still the Batman-Bruce Wayne relationship that Wesker most resembles. Both are engaged in elaborate performances that allow them to channel aspects of themselves into fictional constructs that they have reified through performative crafts. Bruce Wayne’s fear and rage are channeled through his costume to become the Bat, just as Wesker’s feelings are channeled through puppetry to become Scarface. Notably, Wesker has chosen a symbol of excess, rebellion, and defiance: long before the now better-known remake starring Al Pacino, 1932’s Scarface told the story of a young man, loosely based on Al Capone, who rises ever higher in the Prohibition-era Mafia before going down in a blaze of glory. It is an attractive story, and in his use of it we can see that what the meek and mild Wesker craves is a way to express not fear and the rage induced by loss, but the defiant anger of someone who feels he deserves better.

Despite that he is clearly ill, there is no tragedy to the figure of Wesker in this story. As always, the episode frames its final reveal of the new Scarface taking form under Wesker’s hands as a moment of horror, but as with the puppet’s eyes earlier, there is no monster here. Instead, the recreation of Scarface is an act of defiance by Wesker; like the prize fight at the episode’s beginning, we have not actually seen the end of his battle.

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A big success, just like (Fire from Olympus)

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It’s May 24, 1993, three weeks after “The Demon’s Quest” aired. In the news, Eritrea formally becomes independent from Ethiopia today; on the 28th it and Monaco join the U.N., and the movie Super Mario Bros., the first major American movie based on a video game, is released. It is terrible, as is every major American video game movie since. I will eventually rent it on VHS and enjoy it anyway. Speaking of me, today is my twelfth birthday, an event of which I have no memory whatsoever, though I’m fairly sure I was busy discovering girls at this point. I think this is the birthday where my brother gave me a box containing all of his old comics from the 70s and 80s, which was pretty amazing, but destroyed in a flood a couple of years later.

The top song this week is Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” with Silk, H-Town, Weak, and Vanessa Williams also charting. The top movie is something called Sliver, which I have never heard of; apparently it is an erotic thriller. It’ll have dropped below Super Mario Bros. by next weekend, which probably says something about its quality.

In Batman, we have “Fire from Olympus,” a strange little episode that appears to be grappling with the notion of superheroes as modern mythology. This is a commonly touted idea, with perhaps its most prominent current proponent Grant Morrison, but suffers from some serious flaws, the most obvious being that superhero stories are not sacred and no one actually believes in them.

But this episode never seriously considers the possibility of superheroes as divinities, because so far the only superheroes in the world are Batman, Robin, and Batgirl, none of whom are actually superhuman. It’s not until Superman and especially Wonder Woman show up that the DC Animated Universe will begin seriously grappling with the mythological; in this episode, it is treated solely as a delusion of the hubristic and disconnected Maximillian Zeus, whose name literally means “god”—the Greek Zeus is a cognate of the Latin deus.

In a way, this episode is a B-side to “His Silicon Soul”: it is definitely the less significant of the two, but works well as a companion piece. “His Silicon Soul” questioned the humanity of the people at the bottom of the social pyramid; “Fire from Olympus” questions the divinity of those at the top. Faced with overwhelming pressures and a failing business, “Maxie” convinces himself that he is above ordinary humans, literally the Greek god Zeus reborn, but this very declaration of superiority is revealed as a form of human frailty in the episode’s final scene, when the broken Maxie is wheeled into Arkham, convinced that he has ascended to Olympus and that the other villains held there are his fellow gods. Tellingly, he messes up and identifies Two-Face as Janus, a Roman god with no Greek counterpart, the imperfect scholarship of a man who isn’t as well-versed in the classics as he thinks.

But the first person he recognizes as a fellow god (since he seems to treat Clio’s status as a Muse as something between mortal and god, though historically they were regarded as gods) is Batman, whom he sees as Hades—not just a god, but his brother. In this he judges better than he knows: like Hades, Batman is a dark figure associated with death, dangerous certainly, but not an evil figure at all. And even more so, like Maximillian Zeus, Bruce Wayne is one of Gotham’s wealthy, an elite elevated above the masses.

But if it is delusional of Maxie to assign godhood to himself, it is just as delusional to assign it to Bruce Wayne. A rich man is still a man; like any system that seeks to rank some people as worthier than others, capitalism is a delusion. Neither the wealthy nor the superheroic are gods.

Maxie is guilty of the most classic (and Classical) of sins, hubris, the elevation of oneself to the level of the gods. He seeks to steal the fires of Olympus, the power of the thunderbolt and the status of Zeus, and as the saying goes, those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. But ultimately, it is his attempt to elevate himself above the rest of humanity that destroys him; his delusions begin with his turn to crime in a desperate attempt to shore up a failing business, which is to say that he saw the possibility that he might cease to be rich and be forced to live like the rest of us. He never really believed that he was a mortal; he simply switched which kind of self-declared superhuman he considered himself to be, the titan of industry giving way to the god of Olympus.

And therein lies a warning to Batman as well. The role he plays, the role of protector, is close enough to divinity that people confuse his stories with mythology. This is no less hubristic than the roles Maxie played, and someday, if he keeps it up, Batman will be struck down for his arrogance.

But that’s a long way off still.

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