A dose of reality (Terror in the Sky)

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It’s November 12, 1992, the day after “Moon of the Wolf,” so see that entry for charts and news.

On Batman, a curiously final moment. We are at neither the end of the show nor the end of a season: “Christmas with the Joker” airs tomorrow, and there’s a full slate of episodes next week. Indeed, we are less than halfway through the first season, episode 37 of 65 in the broadcast order.

Yet there is a feeling of finality here nonetheless. Snow falls throughout the episode, bringing with it the feel of winter, of sleep, of hiatus. Professor March burns his formula and abandons his research, ensuring there will be no further Man-Bats–as, indeed, there are not, though Langstrom’s notes on the topic will leave ripples in Justice League and Batman Beyond.

Most of all, we are returning to the beginning, as one tends to do as one approaches the end. Man-Bat was the villain of the pilot, and here he returns, as do all the major players from “On Leather Wings”: his alter ego Kirk Langstrom, his wife Francine, and Francine’s father and Langstrom’s coworker Dr. March. There’s been a bit of a shuffle, however: now it is Francine who transforms, ostensibly without her knowledge, due to an accident with March’s formula, which he’s been secretly continuing to develop.

This story is nonsense. How can Francine be unaware that she transforms? She tears out of her clothing when she transforms; does she just not notice periods of unconsciousness followed by waking up in the torn remains of her blouse? And it’s simply not true that only Francine is transforming; there are distinct visual differences between She-Bat and Man-Bat, and the creature attacking the mango crates at the beginning of the episode is clearly Man-Bat, which is to say a transformed Langstrom.

Now it’s possible that’s just an error, or done deliberately to hide that a different character is transforming, but either way, that’s still Man-Bat at the beginning, which means everyone involved in this story misinterprets what’s happening. Batman’s cure doesn’t work after all, and Langstrom is still transforming on occasion, but now Francine has been exposed to the formula and is transforming as well. Which makes sense; of course Batman doesn’t have a drug that can suppress the Bat!

The Bat is, as always, an expression of rage. For Francine, that rage is expressed verbally only once in the episode: she’s still angry at her husband’s use of the Man-Bat formula, and possibly with his behavior since–the episode is not specific, but there’s some implication that Langstrom has become depressed and remorseful, which can be quite frustrating for one’s loved ones. Later, she expresses it in her actions by leaving him. By the end of the episode, she’s forgiven him and they’ve reunited, but that old anger remains unaddressed. The cure doesn’t work; She-Bat still exists within Francine.

Langstrom’s rage is mostly self-directed. He is terrified of what he did as Man-Bat, and of the possibility that he could become such again–Man-Bat’s mango run is framed as if it is Langstrom’s nightmare, because it is Langstrom’s nightmare. He turns that fear outward against Batman, blaming him for the failure of the cure, but his self-loathing becomes clear when Francine leaves him. His responses to Batman are those of a man who holds himself to blame, and that anger likewise remains unaddressed. Once again, the cure doesn’t work; Man-Bat still exists within Langstrom.

And then there is Batman. Over the course of forty-five episodes and a handful of side projects we have looked at him from many perspectives: the trauma victim; the submissive; the protector and beneficiary of established authority; the protector fantasy; the little boy desperately seeking validation from a father who, being dead, can no longer give it; the demon of guilt who blames himself for his parents’ deaths and half his rogue’s gallery, and the angel of hope who never kills because he is convinced everyone is redeemable, even Bruce Wayne. But at the bottom of all of this is the simple fact of what Batman does: he hurts people. He tortures people for information. He beats his victims into submission. That they are “bad guys” is, ultimately, irrelevant to this simple fact: Batman is a tremendously violent person.

Because, of course, he is driven by rage. Rage at the loss of his parents, and by extension at anyone who hurts children. Rage at the people who undermine established authority, who threaten the structures of society. And so, of course, rage at himself: for being helpless to save his parents, and for being the violent criminal he is. The Bat is Bruce Wayne’s totem and protector, his driving impulse and his soul, and it is made of rage. Which, of course, is why he chose to become the Bat in the first place: he wanted to be feared. He wanted to feel power over the objects of his rage.

But he is not the Bat; he is Batman. It is a part of who he is, but not the totality. We see that with She-Bat; she never harms Langstrom, even rescuing him when he falls from a plane. Later, in his human form, Langstrom returns the favor when she falls from a bridge. They end the episode holding one another as Langstrom pronounces their nightmare ended.

And for them, perhaps, it is. Langstrom and Francine have a brief cameo, in human form, in a later episode, and Langstrom/Man-Bat has a couple of appearances in the DCAU’s spinoff comics, but otherwise the two will never appear again.

For Batman, there can be no true end. There are years of episodes still to come. The snow will melt. No matter how many of its avatars he punches in the face, Crime continues, because only a fundamental change to society could end crime for good, and that is part of what he fights against. Nor can he abandon his quest, because that would require a fundamental change in who he is, and part of the point of Batman is to keep Bruce Wayne–the real Bruce Wayne, not the one he puts on as a mask over the Bat, but the one he was born us, that hides under all the masks–safe, protected, unchanged, frozen forever at the age of eight.

Neither Batman nor Gotham can change, because they are both defined by the Bat, by rage against change, against death, against chaos. Every change is an apocalypse, and Batman will always save the day in the nick of time.

And a near apocalypse just isn’t enough.

End of Volume 1.

 


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These people (Day of the Samurai)

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Ironically, this episode takes place mostly at night.

It’s February 23, 1993, a day before “See No Evil,” so see that entry for charts and news. In Batman the Animated Series news, we have a sequel to “Night of the Ninja.” This time, instead of traveling to Gotham, Kyodai Ken draws Batman to Japan by kidnapping Kairi, the star pupil of their old teacher Yoru.

What follows wants very badly to be an examination of the moral complexity of Batman’s role. A contrast is drawn between the samurai, which is here acquainted with honor, honesty, and goodness, and the ninja, which is equated to sneakiness, deception, and evil. It’s all very reductive and orientalist, but ultimately it’s just trying to unpack the notion of “the Dark Knight,” trying to figure out where Dark ends and Knight begins. The episode’s title, along with Yoru’s final statement to Bruce Wayne (whom he pretty obviously knows is Batman) that Batman’s use of ninja-like techniques does not change that he is, at heart, a samurai, both suggest that the conclusion the episode reaches is that Batman is ultimately a positive figure.

But the episode repeatedly belies itself in this assertion. First, there is the simplistic equation of samurai to goodness and ninjas to evil; the samurai had a strict code of honor, yes, but they also drew their power from the hierarchical class system which they enforced. When that hierarchy began to fall apart in the transition from the Edo period to the Meiji period, so too did much of the samurai culture and associated code. The comparison of Batman to a samurai is, in other words, not without merit: like them, he is bound to defend the status quo and powerless without it. Despite positioning himself as a force for good, he can only oppose evil when it seeks change; the evil that already exists as an inherent part of Gotham’s culture and economy is as much under his protection as the good.

Second, there is the problem of Kairi. Her story in this episode seems curiously curtailed: she serves as a damsel in distress to get Batman initially involved, but has an unusual amount of both combat ability and dialogue for that role. After her rescue, she seems fascinated with Batman, referring to him as “the spirit of the Bat” on the night of her rescue, and asking Bruce Wayne if he thinks Batman will fight Kyodai Ken the next day. She then immediately vanishes from the episode. One keeps expecting her to show up in Batman’s fight with Ken, hopefully in a way that helps him, but with this show’s track record, she’s equally likely just to be taken hostage again. However, neither occurs; Kairi is not seen again until years later (both in and out of story) in the Batman Beyond episode “Curse of the Kobra.”

Her absence makes the final fight scene, dramatic as it is given its backdrop of an erupting volcano, feel rather disconnected to the rest of the episode. Batman figures out a fairly straightforward solution to the problem of Ken’s “death touch” (armor), and then in classic Batman-villain fashion Ken (apparently) dies due to a stubborn refusal to let Batman rescue him.

But Kairi does serve a purpose, limited though her role may be. I mentioned earlier that Yoru clearly knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman, but nowhere in the episode does he ever actually say this. Instead, he communicates through what he doesn’t say: he never says that Wayne is Batman, but he also never asks Wayne to call in Batman, either. He just acknowledges that there is a connection between them early in the episode, and then at the end gives Wayne the speech about having the “heart of a samurai” that Batman needs to hear.

Kairi’s role is similar. She is impressed with Batman, yes, but more than that: she calls him the spirit of the Bat. She recognizes him as being essentially nonhuman, an animal in spirit, much as recent episodes have dealt with cat-men and wolf-men. Ken recognizes it as well, observing that he and Batman are both creatures of the night, more at home sneaking around in the darkness than dueling openly in the light. And Batman is, in many ways, as close as Western characters come to being a ninja: he is stealthy to a nigh-magical degree, always shrouded in darkness, ruthless, canny, able to throw blades with stunning accuracy, and possessed of gadgets that could look (as we saw in “P.O.V.” and “See No Evil”) like flight or summoning fire to the unprepared onlooker.

When Yoru says that he is a samurai, which is to say that he is a defender of the social order and the status quo, he says this to Wayne, not Batman. Indeed, he never speaks to or sees Batman in costume; his interactions are all with Wayne as Wayne, and always have been. That colors his view, because it is Wayne the businessowner, the heir to a fortune, the rich boy, that is the origin of this part of Batman. The spirit of the Bat that Kairi saw is a spirit of vengeance and rage, a dark and violent force that Ken recognizes as being essentially the same as himself. Wayne, however, has something to lose, and therefore something to protect. It is Wayne who contains the Bat, constrains it, channels it toward the arguably positive ends of defending society from destructive forces of change.

But the Bat cannot be contained forever. Neil Gaiman once wrote that the reward for being Batman is “You get to be Batman.” The reverse is true, too: the price of being Batman is that you have to be Batman. The price is that you never get to be just a samurai or just a ninja, just a man or just a bat, just dark or just light. Batman is a creature of the shadows and the in-between places, a dweller in caves and on rooftops, at once just like Ken and deserving of the admiration of Kairi and Yoru.

The circle is closing. We began with an apocalyptic vision of red skies, and followed it with our introduction to the Bat. Most of the time since has been spent with the man; but now we return again to apocalyptic images, as the ground melts away and consumes Kyodai Ken in its volcanic flames. What could be next, but another visit from the Bat?


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Don’t touch my dog (Moon of the Wolf)

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It’s November 11, 1992, roughly halfway between “Tyger, Tyger” and “Heart of Steel.” In the charts, Boyz II Men finally reach the “End of the Road” for their song, unseated from months at number one by The Heights. The top movie this weekend is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with Passenger 57 and A River Runs Through It filling out the top three.

In the news today, the Church of England decides to allow women to become priests, and, appropriately enough for this story, American Olympic gold-medalist Earle Meadows dies.

In Gotham we have “Moon of the Wolf,” adapted by Len Wein from his own 1974 Batman comics story of the same name. It is also the second story in a row to deal with characters transformed into part-animals; this time it’s Olympic athlete Anthony Romulus, who gets some bad steroids courtesy of Professor Milo and starts transforming into a werewolf.

The show is continuing to play around with some potentially interesting concepts, but as in “Tyger, Tyger” it fails to stick the landing. Pitting Batman against a once-human foe who has unleashed their animalistic nature is a good match, as we saw way back in “On Leather Wings.” There, we saw the struggle between the Man and the Bat; here there is only an oddly wisecrack-prone Batman fighting against a generic, B-movie werewolf.

Yet once again there is almost a good episode here. Indeed, where “Tyger, Tyger” mashed together three potentially good episodes, the lack of ambition on display in “Moon of the Wolf” makes the shape of the one good episode underneath easier to see. Key would be to parallel Romulus’ drive to win athletic competitions at any cost with Batman’s own drive, fighting crime. Both wield their bodies as weapons, refining and sharpening them at any opportunity. The scene where Romulus and Bruce Wayne are working out at the same gym comes closest to acknowledging this parallel, but is too busy laying down exposition about Romulus’ trap for Batman.

Because there is much to be mined in a bored, rich man who, in search of ways to push his physical conditioning to the limit, transforms into a monstrous animal creature some nights. As the wolf, Romulus is a creature of pure rage. He seems to retain enough of his intellect to carry out such plans as “attack the zoo guard” or “kill Batman,” but does so while snarling, biting, clawing, and charging. He is not quite a raw force of nature–he can, more or less, pick his targets–but he retains much of the savagery.

In this respect, he is not too dissimilar from the Bat, whether we mean Man-Bat–who, like Romulus, is readable as a drug abuser–or the figure of terror Batman seeks to create in the minds of Gotham’s criminals. He is a predator, attacking from the shadows under the moon, nigh-unstoppable, feeling neither pain nor pity. He ought to be terrifying.

Yet he isn’t. After Man-Bat, robots, shapeshifters, and cat monsters, a werewolf feels almost prosaic. It’s a generic movie monster, and Romulus shares none of the pathos of the best villains. He’s just a rich athlete who wanted to keep winning, cheated, and became a monster. He’s not even a very effective monster, getting driven off by Batman in his first attack, and defeated by Batman in his second.

The best we can do, really, is play around with his name. Romulus, of course, is the mythical founder of Rome, abandoned as a baby with his brother Remus and raised by a wolf. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he is elevated to godhood by Mars and Jupiter; this Romulus, by contrast, is struck down by Jupiter’s weapon, a lightning bolt. We can, with a bit of effort, put together a case for him being guilty of that crime traditionally punished by divine judgment, hubris. Most obviously, Romulus let himself be manipulated by Milo into downing the serum without questioning what it would do to him in the long term, which made him subject to Milo’s demands.

He is, in the end, one model of a paragon. Athletic, wealthy, driven to win, he shares many of the features that make Batman who he is, up to and including the animal side of him that goes on rampages in the night. The difference is that Romulus is unbound by any rules, neither moral considerations nor an awareness of the structures which provide and maintain his wealth, hence finding himself very quickly a target of the police. Note that Bullock willingly allows Batman to take Romulus on without interference; in part that is Bullock choosing to let someone he dislikes do the difficult and dangerous work, but at the same time it is evidence that Bullock has come to understand that Batman will fight the enemies of the state, which is about as close as Bullock is likely to come to recognizing Batman as an ally. Romulus, on the other hand, attacks his personal enemies and the targets selected by Milo for the latter’s (particularly opaque in this episode) schemes. There is no possibility that Bullock, acting here as a synecdoche for the police as a whole, will ever see Romulus as anything but an enemy.

But in the end, even to get that much of a reading out of the episode requires straining it to its limit. There’s just not enough here to work with.

At the same time, something odd is happening in the show. We keep finding cause, in recent episodes, to reference the Bat, an idea that originated in our very first episode. A circle is drawing closed, and with it, the end of the first phase of the Near-Apocalypse approaches.


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Let’s just say I put the cat out (Tyger, Tyger)

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It’s October 30, 1992, the day after “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne,” and a good example of why, for Batman the Animated Series at least, I’ve chosen to do these in production, rather than chronological, order: this has a Selina Kyle who is not in jail and involved in animal-related charity work with Bruce Wayne, yet it aired between her arrest in “The Cat and the Claw” and release in “Catscratch Fever.” This is, more or less, the Halloween episode, and so we get a story about monsters and evil scientists transforming people against their will.

Unfortunately, other than the fairly obvious idea of making Catwoman into a cat-woman, there just isn’t much to this episode. Catwoman herself is bizarrely passive for most of the episode, utterly lacking the fire and dominant presence that defines her character. She’s just a timid catgirl with Selina Kyle’s hair color and voice actress, sitting around while Tygrus and Batman effectively fight for her affections. She does get to explain to Tygrus that she can’t be “won that way,” but it takes her a lot of sitting around to get there.

Paradoxically for an episode that is sorely lacking in ideas, it also suffers from trying to do too much. It wants to be an episode about Catwoman being turned into a cat-woman, it wants to be a “sympathetic villain” story about Tygrus, it wants to be an Island of Dr. Moreau pastiche, but none of this gets any room to breathe. The life has to be sucked out of Catwoman’s character to get her to accept being experimented on, rather than using the enhanced physical and sensory abilities Dorian is giving her to smack Dorian around and take the antidote, so her story falls flat. There seems to be some effort at creating a parallel between her and Dorian with Langstrom’s line that Dorian “likes cats better than people,” but this is never explored, and Dorian is never more than a generic “mad scientist” villain.

In “Mad as a Hatter” the Mad Hatter’s Alice in Wonderland theme was employed in clever and creative ways that showed the writers had most likely actually read the book. “Tyger, Tyger” is, of course, titled after the first line of “The Tyger” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, the first two lines of which are quoted in the episode by first Dorian and later Batman. But other than Tygrus being a large cat-person and there being a forest on the island, there is nothing remotely Blakean here. Similarly, beyond the presence of an island and a scientist making human-animal hybrids, there’s no engagement with The Island of Dr. Moreau, either. Even Dorian’s name–Emile Dorian–suggests a literary source, Emile and Dorian both being young men who become corrupted in Herman Hesse’s Demian and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, respectively. But that’s not actually a very good description of Emile, whose “corruption” leads ultimately to enlightenment and an ability to move beyond the stifling and self-destructive moral codes of the 19th century, while Dorian Grey becomes a murderer. In short, it’s honestly questionable whether any of Cherie Wilkerson (in her only DCAU credit), Michael Reeves, or Randy Rogel have actually read any of the works they’re referencing here, and not at all questionable whether they’ve bothered to think about those works in relation to this episode–they clearly haven’t, except in the shallowest possible sense.

It is the same problem as the excess of plots, actually: there’s so much being jammed into this episode that there’s no room to engage with any of it. It functions like a laundry list: Catwoman pun, check. Island, check. Blake reference, check.

There is potential here. The idea of an evil scientist creating animal-human hybrids will show up again in an episode of Batman Beyond which, while not one of that series’ best, is still miles ahead of this. Or an episode about Catwoman being transformed into a cat could be quite good, if it focused on her, the horror of transformation, and her efforts to break out. Or a “sympathetic villain” story about Tygrus discovering how little his creator cares about him and turning to solitude, preferably with a different cause then a crush on one of the scientists’ victims. The sexist cliche of being “tamed by the love of a woman” is literally the oldest one in the book, said book being The Epic of Gilgamesh. But if that absolutely had to be the way, at least make it a character who was created to be a peril monkey, like Summer Gleason, instead of tearing down Catwoman.

But instead of three potentially good episodes, we get one laundry list. It’s just a hollow shell of an episode. There’s not even enough here to attempt a redemptive reading on, because there’s nothing to read. One has to ask, in regards to this episode: did they who made “Heart of Ice” make thee?


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Imaginary Story 2: Batman Adventures vol. 1 #1-3

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It’s October through December, 1992, which (with a few outliers here and there) corresponds roughly to the time period we’ve talked about so far. It was essentially inevitable that there would be a comic book tie-in for Batman the Animated Series; tie-ins for successful children’s shows are a staple of children’s comics, and here was a children’s show based on a comic which, in 1992, was decidedly not aimed at a child audience. So another comic, Batman Adventures, was released alongside the series, utilizing similar character designs and plots.

In short, what we have here is a comic based on a cartoon based on a comic. And what is the opening scene of the first issue? Batman fighting what are presumably criminals on a rooftop–then we cut away to a man watching the fight on television, rooting for the criminals. Within this comic, there is a television show about Batman–and the way the opening panels are framed, there’s no way it’s using “real” footage–this is a fictional Batman TV show existing within the Batman comic. The sound effects are even reminiscent of the ones shown onscreen during fights in the Adam West show!

So what we really have is a show within a comic based on a cartoon based on a comic–and, as is traditional for a Batman cold open, although it has no plot relation to the rest of the story, it has quite a bit of thematic relevance. The plot of this three-issue arc involves a shadowy figure who sends a television set to the Penguin (in the first issue) and Catwoman (in the second issue), providing them with plans for schemes suitable to their usual shticks in exchange for them stealing one item for him each. Or at least, that’s the plot the shadowy figure is trying to achieve–thanks to bumbling henchmen, he’s revealed to be the Joker early in both issues, meaning Penguin, Catwoman, and the audience all know who’s behind this from the start.

Recall in his first appearance, “Christmas with the Joker,” the Joker attempted to make himself into a framing device around the show, demonstrating its fictionality and emboiting it within himself. Here, he is taking the opposite tack–appearing on a screen only a couple of pages after the cold open, he thus equates himself with the show-within-a-comic-about-a-show-based-on-a-comic. In short, he is a living reminder of the layers of fictionality at work here, and thus the fictionality of his world. In both schemes, too, he works to undermine the structures of authority that dominate this world.

In the first issue, the Joker targets the structures of wealth and class, helping the Penguin to steal from the rich without their knowledge, then use that to set himself up as a high society figure and well-known philanthropist. But as we discussed in regards to Batman Returns, the Penguin is a grotesque figure, and as a member of high society he serves as a reminder of the grotesque nature of the power wielded by the upper class, while the fact (repeatedly demonstrated throughout the issue) that one of his working-class henchmen is notably smarter and better educated than the Penguin belies any notion that class status corresponds to ability. Yet even the Penguin is able to fool the “legitimate” upper class, using money stolen from their banks both to fund his new lifestyle and for his new charitable activities. Ultimately, of course, this scheme is foiled by Batman by issue’s end–at least, the Penguin’s scheme is.

The Joker, however, is still controlling the show (in more ways than one), and he got what he wanted from the Penguin, while Batman remains apparently unaware of his involvement. In issue two, the Joker provides Catwoman with a plan to steal the crown jewels of Great Britain. There’s a few things going on here; first, Catwoman bears very little resemblance to her depiction on the show, being apparently a jewel thief motivated solely by greed and the challenge of the heist, rather than the animal rights activist of the show. The degree of sexual and romantic tension between her and Batman is also toned significantly down; there are hints of both mutual respect and playfulness in their interactions, but none of the complexity of their relationship in the show.

Second, the choice of target is interesting. As in the first issue, the Joker’s plan is not only a massive theft, but a prank as well: Catwoman steals the jewels by hiding them inside their podium, with the intent that, once the investigation into their disappearance disrupts security, she will sneak back in and remove them. Once again, the goal is not just to take something from figures of power and authority, but to humiliate and delegitimize them. Of course, once again Batman figures out the scheme and saves the day, but at the same time the Joker connection remains unknown to him, and Joker now has both of the items he wanted.

This leads to the third and final issue of the arc, in which the Joker uses the exotic technology stolen for him in the prior two issues to create Joker TV, an untraceable pirate show that temporarily takes over all television in Gotham City at midnight each night. On his first night, he reveals he has kidnapped Commissioner Gordon, and that the purpose of his scheme is to demonstrate to the people of Gotham that law and order are illusions.

There’s again quite a lot going on here. First, of course, is that the Joker is (as in “Christmas with the Joker”) using metafictional layering to call into question the ways in which we use various narratives to structure our world. Batman, within this comic, can be both a fictional character that exists in a television show, and just as real as the viewers of the show, because the show-within-a-comic is no more or less fictional than the comic; both are just stories and images. Which, in turn, explains the necessity of the second issue, which is otherwise the weakest of the three: it was necessary for the Joker to attack the legitimacy not just of class and government structures in Gotham, a fictional place, but in a fictional representation of a real place as well. How can Britain be both a fictional place in the comic-within-reality, and a real place in our reality? The answer is clear, if not necessarily one that’s comfortable to contemplate: Britain is just as fictional as Batman is, a story, a cultural construct, a narrative crafted as a means by which to organize ourselves and our world, or at least that particular corner of it. Britain isn’t a place; it’s an idea. If everyone in the world simultaneously decided that the sun didn’t exist, it would still rise tomorrow*–but if everyone in the world simultaneously decided that there was no nation of Great Britain, there wouldn’t be. The archipelago would still be there, the people would still be there, but the nation would not. And of course the same is true of every other nation-state, along with a host of other constructs that shape our lives, and most of us never even stop to question their reality.

The Joker does. The entire intent of his scheme here, and of his character in general, is to get people to reject the narratives by which they structure their world, to acknowledge the stark, beautiful, terrifying, chaotic flux those narratives seek to constrain, control, and obscure. And here at the beginning of the 1990s, where the supposed master narrative of history–the great war of East and West, capitalism versus communism, US against USSR–has fizzled and collapsed without ever reaching its climax, he can use the tools of narrative themselves to bring the ultimate narrative collapse, the end of all stories and total embrace of chaos. In place of nations and laws there will be pure anarchy; in place of television shows that tell coherent stories there will be rapid cuts between frequently incoherent images–the music videos implied by the close similarity of the “JTV” logo to the iconic MTV logo of the 1980s. Note too that the second act of the third issue, the point at which the Joker appears to have won, is titled “I want my JTV” in reference to one of MTV’s slogans. He is deliberately allying himself with the new and the young, in defiance of old orders, old structures, old narratives.

But of course, in the end Batman wins. Just as in the show, the gravity of the main character cannot be overcome. In an elaborate ruse of his own, Batman disguises himself as a pre-Two-Face Harvey Dent and Dent as himself, then allows Joker to capture them, getting him inside Joker’s TV studio. After that there’s just a fight scene with the henchmen, a silent, page-long chase sequence over water, and then a fist-fight on a speedboat culminating in the Joker getting away.

Which in some ways is the most important part of the whole arc, that he ends by getting away. After all, his goal was to prove that the forces of law and order are powerless in Gotham, and he was not stopped by the police or the government; he was stopped by a vigilante who routinely violates laws against stalking, trespassing, and assault, and even then he escaped. There really is no law or order in Gotham; there is only the Bat, the rage and terror of a traumatized child who happens to have a lot of free time and a seemingly endless supply of wealth.

With “Joker’s Wild” we saw that at least part of the Joke is that the Joker is ultimately a pathetic figure, unable to overcome the sheer force of Batman’s main character status, overshadowed by his more entertaining sidekick, and ultimately a tool of the very order he fights against. Here, then, is the other half of the Joke: every time Batman stops him, the Joker wins.

*Well. Not exactly. To quote one of the premier philosophers of our time, Terry Pratchett, the next day “A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.” But close enough.


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Ain’t coming out of my allowance (Joker’s Wild)

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It’s November 19, 1992, three days after “Heart of Steel: Part 1,” so see that episode’s entry for headlines and charts.

As the title implies, “Joker’s Wild” is another Joker episode, and appropriately for the character it’s a pun–that apostrophe transforms it from the poker term to a statement about the Joker’s state of mind. It’s not a particularly good pun, mind, but then that’s also part of the point, because, like “Christmas with the Joker,” this is an episode about the Joker taking over the show.

As in that episode, we begin and end with him in prison. He also dominates the setting, the Joker-themed casino Joker’s Wild (which, note, shares the same pun as the title, a clue that the purpose of the place is not to entertain guests or encourage them to spend money, but to anger the Joker). The episode even spends more time following the Joker than it does Batman. Even the setting, a casino, is a place of excess where people revel in chance, which is to say chaos.

This ought to be the Joker’s triumph. The show is his; he has devoured every aspect of it. It is another sense in which he is “Wild”–this should be the Joker rampant, a victorious explosion of chaos that rewrites the show in his own image.

But it isn’t; it’s a casino, and the thing about casinos is that they are built of illusion. The illusion of excess, of chance and chaos, when in reality the house controls all and the house always wins. Yes, there is a randomness in the games themselves, but rest assured, everything has been carefully calculated such that, on average, the house always ends up making a tidy profit.

Cameron Kaiser’s casino is even more of an illusion. Its Joker theme is literally wallpaper thin, overlaying the originally planned Camelot theme, and even its nature as a casino is an illusion; in actuality it is a trap, a complex insurance fraud that, in true casino fashion, finds ways to channel the Joker’s randomness into predictable paths for profit.

We’ve talked before about how Harley Quinn seems to have a habit of outdoing the Joker at his own game, and this episode is further evidence of that. Specifically, it shows how easy the Joker is to manipulate when she isn’t around, how quickly the avatar of chaos becomes just another tool for the established powers that be, exemplified by (admittedly, struggling) corporate tycoon Kaiser. Indeed, from the episode’s start the Joker is at the mercy of such powers, as it’s a corrupt Arkham guard who both shows him the news program about the casino and permits his escape.

Consider again that initial scene. Joker and Poison Ivy are squabbling over what TV show to watch, a gardening show or a comedy. In a sense, this is an argument over what kind of TV show we in the audience are going to watch, a Poison Ivy episode or a Joker episode–at this early point, it could conceivably go either way, though the Joker’s considerable gravity as a character suggests that he’ll probably win both the argument and the episode. But he doesn’t–the guard does. The guard–which is to say, state power–has pretty obviously been purchased by Kaiser’s corporate power, and they’re making use of the media as the first step in their plan to control the Joker.

And they’ll largely get away with it. The casino is financially underwater and heavily insured–that’s a little suspect, but hardly proof. Nor is the last-minute change of themes; that could be simple creative inspiration. Batman isn’t going to testify against Kaiser–he can’t, because Kaiser would then have a right to know his identity. The Joker could, but no jury in the world would believe testimony from the Joker.

No, Kaiser gets away with it. He’s stuck trying to run a casino while deep in debt, but that hefty insurance policy will cover the damage the Joker did, so he’ll have a casino to run. We don’t even get a scene of the sort we got at the end of “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich,” Kaiser trembling in terror at the knowledge that sooner or later, the Joker will be back. It’s a plausible enough outcome, but not certain, and there’s nothing in this or any other episode to suggest that the Joker does come back.

So, the Joker, our primal force of chaos, our symbol of anarchic change, is reduced to a mere pawn of a no-name corporate criminal–not even Roland Dagget or someone like that, just a crooked CEO we’ve never seen before and never will again. But that’s what we’ve come to expect, isn’t it? Harley Quinn is funnier and more entertaining (and, when she gets the chance, better at pulling one over on Batman). The Joker cannot prove the absurdity of order and bring it all crashing down; that particular apocalypse will be endlessly deferred, if for no other reason than that the Cameron Kaisers of the world run Warner Bros. too. The structures of power which undo the Joker in this episode are the very structures that empower Batman: the police and money, which have served as signifiers for Batman since the opening credits of the very first episode.

No. The Joker may not realize it, but he has already lost right from the beginning. The apocalypse already failed to happen, and it will be a long time until there is room for another. Until then, the Joker is doomed to perpetual failure. The joke, in the end, is on him.


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The guy who created the game (If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?)

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It’s November 18, 1992, the day after “Heart of Steel: Part 2.” This has been a big year for video games, a major topic of today’s episode. At least three major genres and one subgenre have their origins this year: the real-time strategy game (Dune II), the first-person shooter (Wolfenstein 3D), survival horror (Alone in the Dark), and the mascot racer (Super Mario Kart). Other firsts include the first appearances of Kirby (Kirby’s Dream Land), Wario (Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins), and Tails (Sonic the Hedgehog 2). And more: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis brings the SCUMM adventure game engine to new heights, paving the way for future classics like Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, and Full Throttle; Mortal Kombat, Art of Fighting, and Virtua Racing receive their first entries; and, obscurely but most importantly, the single greatest video game that ever was or shall ever be, Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters, was bestowed upon an undeserving world.

In Gotham, the hottest game ever is a dungeon-crawler reminiscent of Adventure! for the Atari 2600, with a little bit of the original Legend of Zelda and a strange gimmick of asking the player to solve riddles and answer trivia questions. The most modern (in 1992 terms) thing about it is its sound effects, which are clearly borrowed from Super Mario Bros 3, already three years and an entire console generation old.

But that’s typical of the show’s anachronism. More interesting, perhaps, is the story around that game, Maze of the Minotaur, which seems fairly likely to have been inspired by the case of Alexei Pajitnov, who in 1984 created one of the best-selling and most popular games ever, Tetris. But because he was working for the Soviet government when he created it, he received no royalties as Western corporations fought over the rights (most notably in a 1989 lawsuit between Nintendo and Tengen, resulting in Nintendo having exclusive console rights to the game outside of Japan). Indeed, other than his initial pay, Pajitnov did not receive a dime for any Tetris game made prior to 1996, when he cofounded The Tetris Company.

Pajitnov, by all accounts, is not particularly bitter about the riches others made off his game. Edward Nygma, his Batman the Animated Series parallel, rather is, to the point of becoming the Riddler. Sadly, he pales in comparison to Frank Gorshin’s glorious portrayal of the character in all but one of his appearances in the 1960s Batman TV series, a giggling force of anarchy second only to the Joker, whose absurd riddles were at once childish and grotesque. (“What weighs six ounces, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous?” “A sparrow with a machine gun!”)

But BTAS is clearly uncomfortable with the character in this outing. It takes a perfunctory stab at portraying his backstory, but with nothing like either the sympathy shown Mister Freeze or the brutally honest scorn it directs at the Mad Hatter; it’s simply sketched in a couple of scenes suggesting that he went largely unnoticed and was denied royalties, then skip to the present and supervillainy. His riddles lack the absurdity and panache of the Gorshin version. (“What has yellow skin and writes?” “A ballpoint banana!” Robin answers, pencil in hand.) His scheme–the giant maze full of traps, with a brief time limit to rescue his former employer Mockridge from the titular Minotaur–is convoluted and lacks menace, and in the end he escapes, becoming a figure of terror for Mockridge, but Mockridge still makes millions selling his company to Wayne Enterprises.

But of course BTAS is uncomfortable with this character. Much like the worker/robots in R.U.R. and “Heart of Steel,” he is resisting his place in the order Batman defends. He signed a contract for his labor to be exploited by Mockridge, and so under the rules of capitalism (written, of course, by and for people like Mockridge and, well, Bruce Wayne) deserves nothing further for it. His circumstance is not too dissimilar (especially with the reference to “work for hire” contracts) to the all-too-common case of classic comic book creators who received next to nothing for creating massively popular characters–figures like Siegel and Shuster (Superman), Steve Gerber (Howard the Duck), Alan Moore (Watchmen), and Jack Kirby (Captain America, Fantastic Four, the New Gods, and countless others) were famously denied creative control or royalties by major comic book companies. This very situation led to the departure from Marvel of a group of artists who founded Image Comics, which released its first books in the months prior to this episode–too late to be a direct influence, but the BTAS staff were almost certainly plugged in enough to the goings-on of the comics industry to be aware of the discontent leading up to it.

So on the one hand, there is the natural allegiance to one’s fellow creatives, the sense that what happened to Pajitnov with Tetris or Siegel and Shuster with Superman could just as easily happen to, say, Dini with Harley Quinn. On the other, there is the natural allegiance of Batman to law, order, and the power of wealth: Nygma signed a work-for-hire contract, and has no legal right to royalties or a share of merchandising in his game. He is seeking revenge not for criminal acts by his corrupt employer like Mister Freeze, but because he feels cheated on moral, but not legal or business, grounds.

He is, of course, right. Assuming that it is true that he’s the sole or primary creator of Maze of the Minotaur, a claim which both Nygma and Mockridge seem to accept, there is no good reason, once one sets aside the destructive and corrupt traditions of capitalism, for Mockridge to receive more of the money from the game than Nygma does.  But Batman, at least in this stage of his development, cannot separate the moral and the legal. He cannot allow Nygma to destroy Mockridge anymore than he can stop Roland Dagget.

He is bound by too many rules to do what’s right. There will be no help from Batman in resolving the endless dispute between the creators of art and the financial backers. Maybe heroes bound by no rules at all will do better.

(Spoiler: No they won’t.)


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