Imaginary Story 6: Batman Adventures Annual #1

 

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

One of the most prominent recurring themes in the second season of Batman: The Animated Series was the seemingly reformed villain who either returned to their life of crime or never actually reformed. Batman Adventures‘ first annual special, released in 1994, takes that theme and runs with it. All but the last few pages of the book are spent on a series of stories about villains released from Arkham and inevitably returning, within a frame story about Roxy Rocket (created by Paul Dini for this issue) being released.

This frame story, “Going Straight,” seems at first glance as if it may belie the apparently ironclad rule that the villain-gone-straight always returns to crime. However, remember the reason for this: a character created to be a villain, with a long history of being depicted as such, experiences a gravity of sort toward that position. They cannot remain non-villainous because most of what makes them an interesting character is tied up in their villainy. There are more stories to tell with Two-Face than Harvey Dent, and so he will be switched back to villain as soon as someone wants to write one.

But in “Going Straight,” after Roxy’s release, she doesn’t return to crime. She is the primary suspect for a crime, but she’s being framed, and resumes her gimmick not to commit crimes, but to clear her name. By the close of the story she is closer to a vigilante hero than a villain, though it’s left ambiguous whether she takes up crimefighting or just returns to her civilian life.

But remember, Roxy was created for this story! In other words, she was invented for a story about a former criminal wrongfully accused, not a story in which she’s the villain. Except for the first two pages of the comic, she has never been a villain, and as such experiences no gravity toward it! Even her gimmick seems like a better fit for a superhero than a villain–the old-fashioned fighter-pilot garb recalls square-jawed leading men like Errol Flynn or Steve McQueen, and her rocket seems designed more for dramatic entry than stealthy getaway.

Most importantly, there is no tradition of stories in which Roxy Rocket is the villain. Nobody grew up reading about her battles with heroes, no one who can say, “This reformed character isn’t my Roxy.” She is free, at the story’s end, to return back to the aether whence she came, her purpose fulfilled.

And she really is necessary! The specific device within “Going Straight” that frames the other stories is a conversation between Alfred and Batman while watching a news report about Roxy’s release, with Alfred raising incident after incident of villains released from Gotham, each transforming into a tragedy. In “Puppet Show,” Alfred Wesker has managed to build a life for himself free of Scarface, voicing and puppeteering a character in a children’s show. But when the presenter discovers who she is, she brings a Scarface puppet to him in order to persuade him to kill for her–and soon Scarface is calling the shots once again, with Wesker losing the friendly, balancing frog character in a dark reprise of his inability to let go of Scarface in “Public Enemy” (issue 14). In “Study Hall,” Dr. Crane escapes Arkham and takes on a new identity as a professor, living peacefully and teaching literature, until his favorite student is assaulted in what is heavily implied to be a date-rape, and he resumes the Scarecrow identity in order to torture the perpatrator.

But the most fascinating story of the bunch is “24 Hours,” unsurprisingly a Harley Quinn story, but one which places our avatar of chaos in a rigidly structured, heavily rule-bound tale. There is no dialogue except a single syllable (“Oy!”) in the last panel, and no continuity of action from panel to panel; instead, each represents a tableau of a single scene in the 24 hour period from Harley’s release to her arrest and return to the prison. Even the layouts are rigidly determined in a six-panel grid, with the top two panels merged into a single wide panel on the first and last pages, which together with the art style (which blends elements of Bruce Timm’s style with the long-time house style of the Archie comics) gives the story a decidedly retro feel. The only panels to deviate from the grid are the one in which she rejoins the Joker and the following panel, in which they bomb a jewelry store. Even then, those two panels are merely shifted left by the width of the gutter, so that the left edge of the right panel lines up with the right edge of the left panel in the row above. The overall effect is as if the sheer energy of Harley’s leftward leap into the Joker’s arms pulled the entire row in that direction.

It’s a clever use of comic-book visual logic: we read from left to right, and hence tend to treat motion in that direction as progress, while motion in the opposite direction can be read as regression–which is certainly what Harley returning to the Joker represents! Meanwhile, Harley’s wordless goodbye to Poison Ivy involves soulfully reaching toward the right, a clear sign of where a progressive (in more ways than one) future for her can be found. But as stated, she encounters the Joker shortly after leaving, pulls a heist with him within hours of release, and is there recaptured by Batman.

All three of these stories are tragedies in the original sense, tales in which a well-intentioned character is unable to overcome their flaws and their efforts turn to disaster. For Wesker, that’s his susceptibility to manipulation using and by his Scarface persona; for Harley, her feelings for and inability to say “no” to the Joker; for Scarecrow, it’s his temper. But note too that all three involve a greater villain who serves as a catalyst for the focus character’s return to crime: the children’s presenter, the Joker, and the rapist. It is not, in other words, merely a flaw of the villains that they return endlessly to crime, but also a flaw in the world that inevitably brings them face-to-face with circumstances that cause them to fall prey to their own worst tendencies.

Which is to say, of course, that the need for superheroes to be given villains to fight is as much to blame for the inevitability of return as the construction of the characters themselves.

Even “Going Straight” involves such a return, though it happens offstage and doesn’t involve Roxy: Catwoman is a straightforward villain in this story, framing Roxy so that she can make a robbery of her own. No noble motivation involving protecting wildlife, no quest for revenge on someone who nearly killed her; she’s back to being a straightforward jewel thief, serving as the greater villain catalyst–but after all of Alfred and Batman’s discussion, the question of whether there is any hope of redemption for his opponents, Roxy resists falling prey to her flaws, and helps take Catwoman down.

This is why her story was necessary, to balance the others. Batman’s villains can never reform, but the reason he doesn’t kill them is because he needs the hope that they will reform. The endless failure makes him look like a stubborn fool (well, even more of one than usual), and raises the question of why he doesn’t despair. In Roxy we have the answer: sometimes he succeeds. Sometimes they succeed. Maybe redemption really is possible for anyone.

Queue the Joker falling from Heaven, and then rising from the deep, his soaked clothing and hair making him look far more like the terrifying multiple murderer of comics like The Killing Joke than the unsettling yet ultimately kid-friendly “clown prince of crime” from the cartoon. This is “Laughter After Midnight,” the final story of the issue, and the only one not part of the frame story, and it depicts a Joker who needs no greater villain, no flaw, because he never reformed to begin with. He ends the story triumphant, escaping the attempt by the police to use Harley as bait to trap him, stealing some doughnuts and a cop car and driving off into the night, laughing.

On second thought, maybe it isn’t.


Current status of the Patreon:

Imaginary Story 5: Batman Adventures vol. 1 #16-28

 

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

1994 was a busy year for Batman Adventures: 13 regular issues of the comic, plus an annual and the one-shot Batman Adventures: Mad Love, later adapted into the episode of the same name. Meanwhile, the TV series had a relatively light year compared to its first two: 15 of the second season’s 20 episodes aired in May or September-November.  In other words, there were as many Batman Adventures comics published in 1994 as there were new episodes of Batman: The Animated Series aired, a rather unusual state of affairs for a tie-in comic connected to a currently airing show.

The 13 regular issues cover a wide range of subject matter, but seem to be settling on a handful of themes. While they are just as episodic as the 1993 issues, there appears to have been some thought put into treating the year (and, to a lesser extent, the comic’s entire run) as an organic whole.

For instance, both January and December are Joker stories, and the January story connects thematically to the original arc covering the first three issues of Batman Adventures back in 1992, by once again involving a plot by the Joker to emboit the comic within a world of his control. In this case, we are introduced to Gotham Adventures, a comic made and published in Gotham, based on the adventures of Batman. (Presumably, it’s a licensed tie-in comic to the Batman TV show we saw in Batman Adventures #1.)

Insulted by his depiction in the comics, Joker kidnaps the new writer-artist and forces him to witness the Joker’s actual crimes and submit comics based on them. Meanwhile, the story and its component acts are given some truly great titles: “The Killing Book” for the story as a whole, and the three acts “Seduction of the Innocent” for the kidnapping/recruitment of the comic artist, “How to Draw Comics the Joker Way” for the reveal of what Joker is having him do, and “Comics and Sequential Death” for the final confrontation. We’ve already covered the source of the first two titles (Alan Moore’s mediocre but influential comic The Killing Joke and Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent); the other two are riffing on two classic books on writing and drawing comics, Stan Lee and John Buscema’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way and Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. Note that all except “Seduction of the Innocent” are changed to make them more menacing or align them with the Joker’s plot; apparently that is the only one villainous enough on its own to need no changing. Even the book centering DC’s greatest rival is depicted as less villainous than Wertham!

Similarly backpedaling on 1993’s tendency to make the individual issues as standalone as possible is the increase in continuity and references to past stories. Issue 17 is a direct sequel to the earlier Talia al-Ghul story, in which Batman uses the information from the microfilm given him in that story to play a complex double-bluff against Ra’s al-Ghul. Fittingly, the structure of the issue resembles the globetrotting, film serial feel of the TV show’s Ra’s al-Ghul episodes, introducing serialization to the comic.

Issue 18 is similarly serialized, though it is not obvious from the issue itself; rather, its story, in which Batgirl and Robin team up to investigate a bombing connected to a conspiracy that could cost Commissioner Gordon his job, has a sequel in Issue 26. There we see the other side of their relationship; while Batgirl and Robin are collegial and a bit flirty, Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson are bitter rivals. In other words, their relationship is an inversion of the Batman/Catwoman relationship depicted in the show. Furthering the serialization going on with these issues, albeit almost certainly unintentionally, is Dick taunting Barbara about whether she wants to become Commissioner Gordon II–which of course she will in Batman Beyond, still years away from conception.

Issues 19 and 20 are also sequels to 1993 issues, with the former involving Scarecrow using a new application of the same technology with which he rendered Gotham illiterate, as well as revealing where he got the tech, while the latter involves the return of the three very silly new villains from 1993’s Riddler story.

With Issue 21, the serialization becomes more ambitious, weaving together three distinct episodes from the TV series into a single comic. Specifically, this story, “House of Dorian,” involves Emil Dorian, the scientist who created human-animal hybrids in “Tyger, Tyger,” breaking out of prison and forcibly turning Kirk Langstrom into Man-Bat with a modified formula that gives Dorian control of him. At the same time, Anthony Romulus (the werewolf from “Moon of the Wolf”) is searching for Dorian in hopes of a cure for his condition, and teams up with Tygrus (likewise from “Tyger, Tyger”): Romulus helps Tygrus reach Selina Kyle, and Tygrus helps Romulus find Dorian. Chaos, rather predictably, ensues, as the comic once again struggles against the limitation of having to fit a complex story into a handful of pages: in addition to multiple players with differing motivations, allegiances swap around halfway through. It’s a noble effort, but simply cannot work in the space available. It does at least work better than Issue 24, which endeavors to fulfill the apparent legal requirement of all 90s comics to include ninjas at some point by presenting a sequel to “Day of the Samurai” and “Night of the Ninja.” It succeeds in capturing the tedium of both near-exactly.

Thematic continuity is somewhat present in this run, too. Issue 22, “Good Face Bad Face,” does a wonderful job of distilling a Two-Face story down to its essentials. Because of course Two-Face’s first appearance would be the issue with two twos in its issue number and two faces in its title.: the entire story is about his duality, to the point that there are even literally two Two-Faces as part of his scheme–himself and a decoy in a mask. Batman alone sees through this ploy to find the real Two-Face, just as Batman alone sees the real Harvey Dent underneath the Two-Face persona. He even presents the remarkable insight that the coin has nothing to do with chance, but rather denial of responsibility: Dent’s moral core is still strong enough to prevent Two-Face from choosing to kill and destroy, so he lets the coin make the decision.

This theme of duality is explored further, albeit not quite so masterfully, in Issue 27, “Survivor Syndrome,” as an Olympic athlete named Tom Dalton loses his wife in a gangster crossfire and puts on a Batman costume to fight crime. When he’s wounded, Batman finds him and trains him, as a delaying tactic to give Batman time to bring the mobster responsible to justice. It works quite well up until the last couple of pages, when it runs out of space and nicks the climax from “Robin’s Reckoning,” failing at the last moment to provide any real insight into Batman the way the duals and mirrors in “Good Face Bad Face” gave us insight into Two-Face.

Speaking of Olympians, by far the weirdest story of the bunch is Issue 25, “Super Friends,” in which Superman and Batman team up against Lex Luthor and Maximillian Zeus. Apparently Harley Quinn’s spell was even more effective than we previously discussed, if Superman could be summoned into the comic a mere six months after “Harlequinade.” But it’s a bizarre, deformed Superman, a 90s Superman complete with mullet or rattail depending on whether he’s Superman or Clark Kent, and a pale Lex Luthor with a huge shock of red hair and red beard that makes him look like Cain from House of Mystery and Sandman.  This story sits within the continuity-heavy year like a counterweight, a burst of anti-continuity that serves to reassert the comic as its own thing, and remind us that despite the name, the DC Animated Universe isn’t a universe, it’s a franchise.

That is to say, for all the flirtation with continuity and serialization this year, when it comes down to it Batman: The Animated Series is nearly as episodic as the comics–but the comics presage the coming development. Superman: The Animated Series will be just that little bit more serialized, and its sequel Justice League will be heavily serialized. But in the end, there is no requirement that any given entry adhere to any “rules” laid down by a prior entry, let alone a later one; the illusion of continuity is always just that, an illusion. It is a juggling act, a sleight of hand, but there is no magic here.  There is no other world into which the writers and artists somehow tap, no Tolkienesque “Secondary Creation”; there is simply whatever the writers happen to come up with.

Fortunately, that’s plenty.


Current status of the Patreon:

Imaginary Story 4: The Batman Adventures: Mad Love

 

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

This is the big one.

A special issue of Batman Adventures outside the normal numbering, Mad Love is, famously, the origin story of Harley Quinn, drastically expanded from the brief summary given by Batman in “Harlequinade,” and interwoven with a story about Harley trying to kill Batman in an attempt to get the Joker’s attention. It is by turns dark, disturbing, funny, and creepily romantic/sexual, basically everything the relationship between Harley and the Joker can be at its best. Also incredibly unhealthy and abusive, which is also (sadly) the best the relationship can be–there’s a reason Harley comes across as happier and healthier when she’s with Poison Ivy.

The comic is nearly identical to the New Batman Adventures episode of the same name, which we’ll eventually be covering. The only major difference is a brief scene, included in the comic but not the episode, in which Batman recounts Harley’s life prior to interning at Arkham Asylum. According to Batman, she attended Gotham University on a gymnastics scholarship and then slept her way to top grades–she is depicted in the flashback as seducing a teacher to change a D to an A.

This scene is suspect on multiple levels. It seems to serve no purpose except to establish that Harleen Quinzel was not ever an academic success, but instead someone who relied entirely on her physical assets and abilities–specifically, athleticism to get into college, and sex to get through her coursework once there. She is tied closely to performance: gymnastics is one of the more performative sports, and her stated goal is to become the host of a psychology-themed talk show. The professor she sleeps with is depicted as hapless, helpless, left frazzled and bemused by her attentions–we have regressed back to the “Pretty Poison” model of the female villain, as well as an assertion of Harley’s inherent criminality, since she was already cheating long before she met the Joker.

Except that Batman’s narrative is nonsense. Harley would have had to earn an MD before she could even start an internship as a psychiatrist, and there’s simply no way she could have gotten through a decade of medical training–at what is stated to be a highly prestigious program!–without someone noticing that she was terrible at it. Medical school is notoriously competitive; if nothing else, a rival student would have caught on to and reported her affairs. Not to mention that we’ve seen how good Harley is at reading and manipulating people, skills closely tied to an understanding of psychology. Her “ditziness” or “stupidity” or whatever you want to call it is very much an act, one she maintains in front of the Joker or in public, but which she largely dropped in much of “Harley and Ivy.”

It’s narratively odd, too. Much of the story is about Harley Quinn being better than the Joker, as we’ve observed before: over the course of Mad Love, she breaks the Joker out of Arkham, comes closer to killing Batman than he ever did, and succeeds in making Batman laugh. Had Batman not exploited the Joker’s psychological weaknesses, turning him against Harley, she would have won! Why, then, do we open with what amounts to character assassination?

There is a way out of this apparent contradiction, but it requires something fairly rare in the greater Batman oeuvre generally and Batman: The Animated Series in specific: Batman has fallen for her act. Remember, the Harlequin is an actor, trickster, and magician; Harley is triply adept at projecting a false self. She puts those skills to good use in this story, successfully tricking Batman at least once, when she pretends to be a frightened damsel in distress to draw out and trap him. We see her construct the Harley Quinn persona in the comic, very much framed as a performance she puts on for the Joker so that he will give her the attention she wants from him.

On both diegetic and extradiegetic levels, Harley is a highly intelligent, complex, powerful woman. In a very real sense, she is the destroyer of BTAS and the mother of the DCAU, a sorceress of apocalyptic power. But she is contained within a skintight jester’s outfit, within silliness, sexiness, and performativity, the “ditz” or “bimbo” to Ivy’s femme fatale. After all, up until this point she has mostly been written by Paul Dini, who on the one hand gave us episodes like “Harlequinade” and “Baby-Doll,” but on the other penned “Pretty Poison.” It therefore shouldn’t be that surprising that within the rather stereotypical performance (again, very much a mirror of how he originally wrote Ivy) there is a much more complex, interesting, human woman.

That woman’s name is Arleen Sorkin. Her role in creating Harley Quinn is all too often forgotten; to his credit, Dini typically makes her contribution clear, but it is nonetheless frequently erased among fans and int he press. Wikipedia,the DC Database , and The New York Times  all credit Dini and Bruce Timm as her creators; the DCAU Wiki  does as well, albeit with an aside that she is “based on” Sorkin. Vanity Fair credits Dini alone, although they do mention part of Sorkin’s contribution.

In short: Sorkin was an experienced comedy writer–her credit list includes Tiny Toon Adventures, among others–and actress, who performed as a “ditzy” comedy relief character named Calliope Jones in Days of Our Lives. After watching The Princess Bride, she suggested to the showrunners that they should write a dream sequence with a fantasy or fairy tale setting into the show. Sorkin helped write that sequence, in which her character appeared as a rollerskating Harlequin who told Vaudeville-style jokes.

Later, while working on “Joker’s Favor,” Dini was trying to decide how to characterize the henchwoman he was writing into the episode, when he happened to watch a tape Sorkin had given him of her favorite moments in her run on Days. Inspired by the Harlequin in the dream sequence, he decided she should be funny, and named her Harley Quinn. Timm then designed her costume essentially as a sexed-up, villainous version of the traditional Harlequin, and Dini called Sorkin in to voice her.

Rewatch “Joker’s Favor.” Harley’s design is good, yes. Her dialogue is very good–but Dini wrote it specifically for Sorkin, which is to say it’s an old friend of Sorkin’s trying to emulate her voice. It is Sorkin who animates the character, who brings her to life, Sorkin’s original idea that brought the Harlequin into the picture. Sorkin is where the magic comes from.

And yet Dini gets the credit. She’s just an actress, after all; she can’t really have the skills to meaningfully contribute to the creation of the most prominent character to come out of the DCAU.  And Harley’s just a gymnast who wants to be on TV; she can’t really have the skills to become a psychiatrist.

The apocalypse can’t come soon enough.


Current status of the Patreon:

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

 

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

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.


Current status of the Patreon:

Crisis on N Earths (N=9): Sailor Moon

 

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

As we discussed while talking about Megas XLR, in hindsight one of the most significant influences on Western animation in the 21st century was the anime explosion of the late 1990s, ushered in by the wild popularity of Pokémon. Like any revolution, however, this particular apocalypse had foreshocks, of which one of the most popular, and arguably the most significant, was Sailor Moon.

Originally airing on Japanese television in 1992 and continuing through 1997, Sailor Moon debuted on American television on September 11, 1995, just two days after the launch of Kids’ WB! Based on the manga series of the same name by Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor Moon followed the titular magical girl–which, for our purposes, can be regarded as a sort of teen superhero, though this really only describes a subset of magical girls–and her slowly expanding group of similarly superpowered friends and allies as they fought to protect the Earth from a new extraterrestrial threat in each of the show’s five seasons. Combining teen melodrama, a dizzying array of ever-changing cute outfits for the young protagonists, and impressive action sequences fully of energy blasts and explosions, the show was a massive hit on both sides of the Pacific, and arguably largely responsible of the ubiquity of the subgenre of magical girls in which they form teams and fight evil.

I’ve never seen it.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Somewhere between the summer of 1994 and the summer of 1995, when I was 13 or 14, I watched something with my friend Cyrus’ sister Sanaz in their family’s basement, because for some reason she wanted someone to watch it with her, Cyrus and our other friends refused, and I had a bit of a crush on her. (The first of many times over the next decade or so in which a crush influenced my entertainment choices despite going nowhere.)

It turned out to be in Japanese with no subtitles, and as near as I could tell, involved evil cantaloupes that possessed people, and a tall woman with prehensile hair who later turned into a little girl with a scythe before finally becoming a baby. I now believe this to have been some kind of compilation of the end of the anime’s third season, which had already aired in Japan by the time any of the series started airing in the U.S.

Much more recently, I’ve watched the remake, Sailor Moon Crystal, which was advertised as being much closer to the plot of the original manga than the 90s anime. The original series overall followed the plot of the manga, but ran into a common problem for manga adaptations, namely a large episode order that meant it very quickly ran out of manga to adapt. To give Takeuchi time to create the story it was meant to follow, the anime inserted large numbers of what fans dubbed “filler” episodes. These were largely monster-of-the-week adventures, in which the villains of the ongoing season-long plot engaged in some kind of scheme against the main characters or the people of Tokyo, but were defeated by episode’s end in a way that left the status quo unchanged from the end of the last manga chapter to be adapted. (Episodes like this occurred in the manga, too, especially early in each arc, but the anime had many, many more of them.)

The result was a series which was sometimes episodic and sometimes serialized. This was not entirely new to American television; Batman: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and many other series had episodes which served as sequels to earlier episodes, introducing a small amount of serialization to an otherwise episodic series; at the other extreme, series like Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine started out mostly episodic but later became more heavily serialized (though in the former this transition was deliberately planned, while in the latter it was the result of a tug-of-war between writers and producers, with the latter winning out early on but gradually letting go as the series continued). Sailor Moon, however, represents a third structure, one common in anime but largely unseen in American television prior to Sailor Moon: on the level of episodes within a season, each episode might be part of the serialized plot of the season or a largely episodic, standalone “filler” episode, while at the same time each individual season is a largely standalone “arc” within the larger show. In other words, while most serious early-90s attempts at serialization involved a single, series-long story arc, Sailor Moon consisted of multiple successive, largely independent, season-long arcs.

A quick glance at my live-action  TV watching over the past couple of seasons reveals just how widespread this structure became, at least within genre television: Doctor Who, iZombie, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Agents of SHIELD, and Agent Carter all use this same structure, though the amounts of “filler” in a given season, and the amount of serialization between seasons, vary widely.

Look again at Sailor Moon, and it may become clear how this happened. In particular, look at the filler episodes, in which the monsters of the week often take the form of reifications of adolescent anxieties and perils, especially early on. What is the evil gym manager who drains the lifeforce of the women who work out there but a fantastical version of the eating disorder which might drive a young woman to work out excessively in fear of gaining weight? Evil jewelry and evil cosmetics abound, reifications of unrealistic beauty standards driven by capitalist consumption. Love interests turn out to be villains in disguise, or are mind-controlled into becoming villains, because beginning to explore one’s sexuality is scary and dangerous. This is high school as a horror movie, with each season introducing a new primary antagonist, mingling that season’s ongoing story with monster-of-the-week plots that reify the pitfalls and dangers of modern adolescence, led by an outwardly unremarkable blonde teen who’s a subpar student but grows into being a strong leader, with great power in her own right plus the support by a close circle of friends.

So yes, there’s a reason why Sailor Moon‘s narrative structure has become the default for live action genre television–and that reason would have a profound impact on the DCAU, leading directly to the development of one show in particular, and indirectly influencing one or two others (depending on what you consider a series). Because the best translation of Sailor Moon protagonist Usagi’s name into English isn’t, as the 1995 dub would have it, Serena, nor is it the more literal translation used in the pitch video DIC distributed to try to sell the series to affiliates, Bunny.

It’s Buffy.


Current status of the Patreon:

Crisis on N Earths (N=8): Kids’ WB!, Freakazoid!

 

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

This is where I come in.

I’ve said that before, but that’s because there’s more than one point where it’s true.  But for whatever reason, I didn’t watch Batman: The Animated Series on Fox, or if I did I don’t remember it; all of my memories of it are of reruns on Kids’ WB!, which became my go-to Saturday morning fare in high school, at least until sleeping in became more interesting than watching cartoons. (Which, as signifiers of American adolescence go, really ought to be up there with zits and making out in cars.)

But I was definitely watching Kids WB! before it inherited BTAS and STAS, most likely from very nearly its beginning, given the prominent place watching Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Earthworm Jim, and Freakazoid! (in approximately that order each week) occupies in my media memories.

Kids’ WB! was the children’s programming block of the WB, a network launched in January 1995 in an attempt to replicate the success of Fox. In many ways, the WB (along with Paramount’s similar effort,  UPN, which launched five days later) was a last stand of sorts against the ongoing sea change in American television. Local, independent TV stations were dying, their economic viability undermined by the rising popularity and availability of cable. Many independent stations tried to sustain themselves with first-run syndicated programs, some of which–like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Baywatch–rivaled  major network shows in popularity, but this merely served to homogenize their  content,  rendering them still less relevant.

In 1993, Warner Bros. and Chris-Craft Entertainment launched the Prime Time Action Network in an effort to replicate Fox’s success in becoming a new network. Like Fox, PTEN originally only aired a couple of hours of programming a couple of nights a week, sold as a block to local stations in much the same way that syndicated programming was. Where Fox attempted to make its mark with edgy, transgressive content (by 1980s standards, anyway) like Married… with Children, The Tracey Ullman Show, and 21 Jump Street,  PTEN went after the cult audience that had made shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files into hits, filling its block with science fiction and action programming like Babylon 5, Time Trax, and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.

While PTEN was commercially successful, many of the stations which ran it were already Fox affiliates, making it difficult to expand into a full network lineup. Instead, Warner Bros. allowed PTEN to more or less peter out–it aired its  last programming in 1997–while building up the WB instead. Once the initial January launch proved  successful, the WB began expanding its programming, adding Kids’ WB! in September.

From my pubescent perspective, there was a clear transition in which the Disney Afternoon–Disney’s syndicated block which contained such shows as Ducktales, Rescue Rangers, Talespin, and Darkwing Duck went into a steep decline after Ducktales was dropped from the lineup in 1992, and became simply unwatchable when the last of its original shows, Talespin, was dropped in 1994, to the arrival of Kids’ WB! and the funnier, more transgressive, more entertaining shows it presented, like Animaniacs, its spinoff Pinky and the Brain, and most importantly for our purposes,  Freakazoid!

Freakazoid was, quite simply, nonsense. Ostensibly a superhero show about a boy who gained superpowers from the Internet, it was mostly a vehicle for absurd, Animaniacs-style adventures poking fun at pop culture or just generally being wacky. The third Amblin-Warner Bros. coproduction (the first two having been, as already discussed, Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs), Freakazoid! was the brainchild of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, two names which should be quite familiar by now; it is, in essence,  a sister series of sort to the DCAU. However, the original concept was more of a serious action series with comedic undertones–Timm later compared it to the original Spider-Man comics in that respect–but as development continued and it became clear that the series was going to be a comedy series with an aesthetic closer to Animaniacs than BTAS, Timm dropped out.

Nonetheless, his influence remained on the series’ visuals: several key character designs (particularly Freakazoid himself, who looks like a combination of later DCAU villains Livewire and the Creeper) show clear influence from Timm’s signature style, as do virtually all of the young women depicted in the show, presaging that style’s emergence as the defining look of the DCAU in Superman: The Animated Series. Further, its general color palette is clearly inherited from Animaniacs and passed on to STAS: far lighter than BTAS’ dark palette, but (with the exception of the hero’s costume) less saturated than the bold, primary colors that traditionally typify superhero comics.

After the end, this is where the DCAU will be born.


Current status of the Patreon:

Slag it (Batgirl Returns)

I have decided to move from a Monday-Wednesday-Sunday update schedule to Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday, in the hopes that this will make it easier to, for example, not forget to post on Mondays that I’m off work. I have clearly gotten off to a swimmingly good start.

This may therefore not be a great time to mention it, but my Patreon has plummeted by about 1/3 over the last month. It could use some love! If you enjoy my work, please consider contributing or encouraging others to contribute. Thanks!

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

It’s a fitting ending. Batman Returns provided much of the impetus for the creation of Batman: The Animated Series; now it provides the title–and Catwoman–for its final episode.

It’s November 12, 1994. The top song is, of course, “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men. The top movie is Interview with the Vampire. In the news, last week’s midterm  elections demonstrated just how effective Clinton’s plan to secure Democratic control of the U.S. by turning the Democrats into Republicans Lite was, as Republicans seized both houses of Congress for the first time in  40 years;  tomorrow, the Chunnel opens full public service and Sweden votes to join the European Union.

Amusingly, in his only appearance in the episode, Bruce Wayne mentions that he is engaged in a merger that is important to the European Common Market, a frequently used alternative name to the European Economic Community–an entity which had been absorbed by the European Union a year before this episode aired. But that’s fitting for the swansong of Batman: The Animated Series; Batman is  clearly being marked as part of a past that has already ended, while the future belongs to Batgirl, Catwoman, and, to a vastly lesser degree, Dick Grayson.

It’s fitting, too, that Batman is barely in the final episode of his series; with very few exceptions, Batman: The Animated Series has never really been about him.  He has remained in the shadows, observing, occasionally swooping in to save the day, but in most episodes the bulk of characterization has fallen on some other character, most obviously in the “sympathetic villain” episodes. He is fixed permanently as an eight-year-old boy wearing an adult suit called Bruce Wayne, wearing a mask called Batman; he cannot change, cannot grow, cannot experience an arc, and therefore makes for a poor main character,  but he has always been an excellent magnet around whom more interesting characters accumulate.

Instead, we get the far more dynamic figure of Batgirl, reintroduced in this episode through Barbara Gordon’s absolutely delightful power fantasy, in which she swoops in, saves an injured, almost cowering Batman from the trio of Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face,  and then very nearly claims a kiss as her reward before being interrupted by Dick Grayson. It’s a perfect inversion of the power fantasy superheroes supposedly represent, an adolescent boy saving a cowering damsel in distress from grotesque villains and earning her affection as his reward.

We have been quite critical of the notion that superheroes function as power fantasies in general, but it’s difficult to read Batgirl’s role in this episode as anything else. She’s not  tortured by any past trauma, not driven by any neurotic compulsion; she just wants to dress up in a costume and kick some ass. She is, in that sense, more of a kindred spirit to Catwoman than to Batman or Robin: both women use their alternate identities as a release of frustration, a way to express their power and desire to make the world a better place outside of the confines placed on them by their respective social roles.

But we’ve been down that road before. Perhaps, rather than saying Batgirl and Catwoman are  kindred spirits, it would be better to say that both have kindred  spirits in our departed mascots of impending apocalypse, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, and leave it at that.

Regardless, Batgirl is clearly a power fantasy here, which perhaps explains why Catwoman’s attempt at recruiting her seems to be working right up until the moment that Catwoman insults Commissioner Gordon. Clearly she is to some degree sympathetic to the desire to upend the world, as witness that opening fantasy with its upending of the traditional damsel in distress phenomenon. It’s difficult to blame her–once again, Barbara Gordon is the daughter of a man who thinks it’s appropriate to try to pick his daughter’s romantic partners.

Which gives us yet another (quasi-)villainous parallel to Batgirl: Talia al-Ghul. Indeed, the degree to which Ra’s al-Ghul and Commissioner Gordon form mirror images of one another–older men, one who wishes to make himself  Batman’s father figure and the other adopted by Batman as a father figure, one who seeks to make the world a better place by overthrowing its power structures and the other by using them, one a pure power fantasy and the other a protector–makes it quite regrettable that we’ve never really had an episode in which they both play a prominent role. The next generation seems to have inherited these parallels, but to a degree seem to have swapped their positionalities: two young women, both attracted to Batman, yet it’s Talia who wants to either retire in peace or continue her father’s work, and Batgirl who wants to break out of the role chosen by her father and fight as a vigilante.

Batgirl is not content to simply protect things as they are. She wants to change them. She is someone who can take her costume on and off without changing who she is, a unified identity rather than broken fragments of child and protector, Bat and Man. She fights–and defeats, so thoroughly that he is never seen again–one of the recurring corporate villains against whom Batman so frequently struggled without ever entirely defeating. Batman could never truly overcome Roland Daggett, because both ultimately drew their power from the same source, the vast resources, entitlement, and immunity to consequences that come with great wealth; Batgirl’s power comes from a different source entirely, and hence she can stop him.

Well, except for the part where she and Catwoman comes within moments of being killed before Robin swoops in to save the day. The positive reading of this episode twists and turns back on itself; superheroes as a power fantasy are, we have observed before, primarily the domain of very small children. Batgirl–emphasis on the infantilizing term girl–is in over her head and has to be rescued by a man who condescends to her with almost every line. She’s depicted as a child engaged in childish pursuits, which is why in Batman Beyond she’ll grow up to do a real job–but Batman and Robin (who will become Nightwing in his next appearance) get to be manly adult men to who have to be taken seriously when they do the same things.

For a moment, just a moment, we had a glimpse of a new (or, perhaps, very old) kind of hero. But Batman: The Animated Series has room for only one kind of hero–indeed, only one hero, one who lurks in the shadows and on the sidelines. If we want a hero who can stand in full daylight, at the center of things, BTAS has to be broken open. Destruction, rebirth, a new art style and a new network.

And then it’ll have to be done again, and again, and again. A major shock to the system will be needed before we can truly get beyond Batman and break free of the limits restraining our conception of the superhero and the world–if we can get there at all.


Current status of the Patreon: