Imaginary Story 10: The Batman and Robin Adventures vol. 1 #1-2

 

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Immediately following the end of The Batman Adventures,  the follow-up comic, The Batman and Robin Adventures, began. The title change corresponds to a shift in the responsible creative team, including a significant increase in  Paul Dini’s involvement–he wrote the first three issues and multiple thereafter. And who else would Dini make the villain of a two-parter comprising the first two issues of the second Batman: The Animated Series tie-in comic than Two-Face?

In discussing “Two-Face,” I suggested that Batman is a creature of both hope and guilt. I also suggested that Grace, Harvey Dent’s fiancee, was precisely what her name implied, a symbol of the possibility of forgiveness and healing. Now we have “Two-Timing,” the story which closes off that possibility. At a regular weekly visit from Bruce Wayne and Grace (because of course Two-Face’s visitors come in a pair), we learn that Harvey feels he is improving, that he might be able to have the operation to fix his face and, possibly, eliminate the Two-Face personality forever. But the Joker, for his own amusement, starts planting the seeds of jealousy, suggesting that Bruce and Grace are having an affair, and Bruce is only paying for Harvey’s treatment to keep him out of the picture.

There follows a curious scene in which Bruce and Grace attend a society function, and their conversation is fairly easily readable as Grace coming on to Bruce pretty intensely. It’s not quite blatant enough to be the only reasonable reading, but it’s certainly plausible, in which case we can read this as Grace giving up on Harvey. It’s understandable that she would: it has been months or years at least since he became Two-Face, in which time she has been presumably alone (romantically speaking), while Bruce is right there, emotionally available, attractive, single, familiar, and going through the same stresses regarding Harvey that Grace is. On the other hand, for those same reasons she might reach out to Bruce not because she has chosen to give up on Harvey, but simply out of momentary confusion and grief. Regardless of her reasons, she kisses Bruce, and Harley Quinn snaps a picture, gives it to the Society editor at the local paper of record, and then flees. The fact that she then runs straight into Batman means Bruce must have abandoned Grace immediately after the picture was taken.

So on the one hand we have Grace–the possibility of redemption and healing–abandoning Harvey (at least momentarily), and on the other we have Bruce abandoning that same possibility to become Batman. In other words, Two-Face has been abandoned by Grace, redemption, and healing, and Bruce has similarly abandoned that possibility. Where Two-Face is concerned, Bruce’s hope and friendship are a grace he will no longer receive; now there is only the judgment and vengeance of Batman. Certainly that would explain the second part, where Batman refers to Two-Face by that name, prompting Two-Face to say that Batman has given up on him. Batman doesn’t argue; the implication is that Two-Face is right. Later still, when Two-Face is taken away in a scene that parallels the ending of “Two-Face,” Grace isn’t crying as she was in that episode, but glaring after him, a clear rejection.

Two-Face can never be healed. We know that, have known that since he first appeared. Once a villain, always a villain, or at least eventually back to being a villain, because that’s generally how the characters are most interesting and memorable. But, crucially, Batman didn’t know. Bruce Wayne never gave up on his friend–but now he may have. The ending of this story at least implies, even if it stops short of outright declaring, that he and Grace will no longer be visiting Harvey weekly. This is largely confirmed by Grace’s next and final appearance 20 issues later, which suggests that she has not visited Harvey since–he states that he hasn’t heard from her in a year.

Grace offered herself to Bruce Wayne, and he rejected her to become Batman, who no longer hopes that Two-Face is redeemable.  There is no longer grace or hope for Batman’s  villains, and therefore none for himself. This is a step on a long road that leads to his falling out with Robin, his refusal to fully join the Justice League, his eventual withdrawal from it, from crime-fighting, to a bitter old age alone–and Beyond.

There is only darkness left for him. We must seek elsewhere for light. Fortunately, we know how to find light, the same place from which it always comes: Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…

The End of Volume 2 of the Near-Apocalypse of ’09


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Imaginary Story 9: Batman Forever

 

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This is not a good movie.

The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 is not a review series.  We are not, generally speaking, interested in the quality of the episodes and works we look at; we are interested in reading the work, not evaluating or recommending it.  It may often be the case that appreciation or disdain for a particular work or character comes through in the course of discussion, but it is never (or at least, should never be) the focus.

But it’s hard to talk about Batman Forever without talking about how bad it is, because it wears its badness like a badge of honor. It is defiantly, deliberately bad; one can envision director Joel Schumacher looking at his villains, veteran character actor Tommy Lee Jones and “rubberfaced fartsmith”* Jim Carey, and demanding the former model his performance on the latter.

But there’s a more likely source for both performances, whose grating garishness is one of the movie’s biggest problems: the 1960s Batman television series. Carey’s constant prancing about and giggling are strongly reminiscent of Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, while Two-Face’s two modes are less good and evil than they are Cesar Romero’s Joker and Jack Nicholson’s.

But the 1960s Batman was excellent, a genuinely funny, entertaining show that ruthlessly satirized traditional authority, as represented by the police and Adam West’s depiction of Batman. Gorshin’s giggling and Romero’s facial gymnastics are part of the fun, where Carey’s and Jones’ are like fingernails on a chalkboard. What’s different?

The answer is in one word we used above: this film is garish. Its visuals teem with violence, not just in the sense that people are constantly being shot, set on fire, or blown up, but in the sense of deliberate clash, neon-bright buildings and characters standing against pitch-black skies. It assaults the senses,  seeking to overwhelm, and in the process becomes monotonously loud, and hence boring. It is camp sans joy, or rather camp in which the only joy to be found is Two-Face or the Riddler laughing as they destroy. It is the 90s neon to the 60s Batman‘s pastels, the ecstasy to its Mary Jane, the rave to its love-in.

What has happened here, fairly clearly, is that one or another of the Joker’s attempts to take over the franchise actually succeeded. This is his vision, his future: the post-apocalyptic world in which the Joker, rather than Harley, is responsible for the end of the old world. So of course it is neon in the dark, a comedy whose only punchline is gunfire. All villains are the Joker, whether that is Jones playing Romero’s Joker, crowing and gurning as he sows chaos out of pure love for the concept; Jones playing Nicholson’s Joker, a capriciously violent terror who laughs at others’ fear; or Carey attempting to play Hamill’s Joker, a gleeful prankster driven by an obsession with Batman/Bruce Wayne and a drive to tear down the hierarchy so he can build a new one with himself at the top.

So, being the Joker’s vision of Batman, any trace of empathy is snuffed out. We don’t, as with BTAS or Batman Returns, have any sense that the villains are, if not justified, at least understandable. The Riddler is simply an entitled nerd, not a creator denied the fruits of his labors; the tragedy of Two-Face almost entirely erased as the close friendship of Batman and Harvey Dent, and the former’s subsequent refusal to give up on the latter even after he became Two-Face, is relegated to one quick flashback to Dent being shot during a trial.

The Joker’s handiwork is visible elsewhere. Women, in this film, exist as decoration or seductive distractions turned damsels in distress. The romance of Dr. Meridian and Batman is perfunctory and by-the-numbers, her fetishization of him one-sided and vaguely almost-comedic, and her role in the story virtually nonexistent. Robin is treated similarly: the beats of his story are there, but there is never any sense of a character underneath; he is filled with rage about his parents’ death until he’s suddenly not, and dislikes Bruce Wayne and Batman until suddenly he doesn’t. The only relationship in the entire movie which feels even the slightest bit real is Alfred’s gentle, patient nudging together of Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne–and even then, Alfred himself is hardly a character, existing solely to fulfill the emotional needs of Wayne and Grayson, needs that their performances barely convey.

This is the Joker triumphant. Not because this is a bad movie–there are other bad Batman movies aplenty–but because of the specific ways in which it is bad. This is camp turned callous, color turned to neon glare, the desire to be less “serious” turning into the empty motion of ciphers through story beats by rote.

Ironically, for a movie in which the Joker doesn’t appear, it may tell us more about the role he plays in the Near-Apocalypse than any of his actual appearances, because this is what it looks like when he wins. It is a world of surface appearances without depth, of empty revolutions that change nothing except the tyrant’s name. This is the Joker, the false apocalypse. The promise of nuclear war that fizzles into the Soviet Union’s economic collapse and dissolution. The promise of 60s counterculture that fizzles into the neoliberal consensus of the Bushes and Clintons. The promise of a new, campier, more colorful, more fun Batman that is really just the same grim, grimy darkness with a few more neon lights.

The Joker is the 90s, but not just that single decade, nor even the Long 90s. He is the 90s extended, the 90s without cease or respite, the 90s inescapable, forever.

He is the world that actually happened.

*Hat tip to Our Dumb Century: One Hundred Years of the Onion for this spot-on description of Jim Carey’s default mode.  He is  capable of good acting, if leaned on by a director with sufficient weight and persistence, but that clearly didn’t happen here.


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Imaginary Story 8: Batman Adventures vol. 1 Holiday Special and Annual #2

 

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Although we have now covered all regular issues of the original run of The Batman Adventures, there are still two special issues to discuss. One, the Holiday Special released in January 1995, was adapted almost completely faithfully into the New Batman Adventures episode “Holiday Knights,” with the exception of one story exclusive to the comic, “White Christmas.”

A typically tragic Mr. Freeze story, it appears to be set sometime prior to “Deep Freeze,” as Freeze is still under the impression that Nora Fries is dead. He thus breaks out of prison on Christmas, builds a new cold gun, and creates a freak blizzard in Gotham, all so that he can stand at his wife’s (empty) grave and remember the snowy Christmas on which he asked her to marry him. The key moment of this story–and, indeed, of the entire issue–is when, during their fight in the graveyard, Freeze throws Batman into the Waynes’ grave. Though Batman cites the holiday as the reason he gives Freeze the option to explain his motivations and go free instead of being beaten and returned to prison, it is fairly transparently because of this reminder of his own motivations, especially when Freeze answers by pointing silently at Nora’s grave. Christmas, for those who once celebrated it but have suffered great loss, ceases to be a time of celebration; it is the death of the year, a sober moment of reflection on the now-departed sunny past and the chill of winter lying ahead. Which is precisely how the issue ends, with Batman and Gordon (in what is clearly an annual ritual) sharing a drink in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, toasting the fact that they made it through another year alive, but aware that they might not survive the next.

As, in a sense, they didn’t, as neither Batman Adventures nor Batman: The Animated Series made it through 1995 uncanceled. There is thus only one issue of Batman Adventures left to consider. Unlike the first annual, which had multiple stories connected by a framing device, Annual #2 is one long story, the second-longest in the comics’ run. (Counting multi-issue arcs as multiple stories, only the Mad Love one-shot is longer)

The story involves an unusual element of the supernatural. As we observed back in “Avatar,” Ra’s al-Ghul has, throughout BTAS, represented an intrusion of the supernatural into Batman’s world–a world in which even Zatanna’s magic is sleight of hand, and monsters rise from chemistry and biology, not witchcraft. But al-Ghul is an immortal sorcerer, and so where he goes, old magic invades.

In this story, that takes the form of a tablet which al-Ghul intends to use to summon a plague demon that will wipe out humanity, and Etrigan, a violent demon bound to al-Ghul’s fellow “immortal mortal,” Jason Blood. This is a dark story, even by the standards of BTAS, and from the start makes clear that it will not be pulling any punches: it opens with a page showing the five people in and around a large office building one night, while captions that feel equal parts Silver Age story introduction and film noir narration briefly describe each of them in turn, and then announce that they have three seconds to live.

The next page does not show them being rescued in the nick of time. It instead shows the building exploding and collapsing sideways, a quintuple homicide to kick off a story appropriately full of death for our final look at Batman Adventures. Death fills these pages: the tablet kills the minion of al-Ghul unlucky enough to find it; Batman seeks out Jason Blood’s help because of the work he did aiding Commissioner Gordon in solving a series of tarot-themed murders; Batman’s deam-vision involves Talia transforming into a corpse in his arms, then falling into a pool of lava and emerging as a burning Ra’s al-Ghul; the demon kills all of al-Ghul’s minions shortly after being summoned; and of course al-Ghul’s purpose in summoning it is to have it wipe out all of humanity except for those under his protection, starting with Gotham City. Even Blood, who describes himself as having “a toehold on immortality” and recalls an encounter with al-Ghul 200 years prior, is referred to as “mortal flesh” by the demon.

“Demons” is a story of death and magic, because al-Ghul is a creature of death and magic–he is, as we have established back in “Avatar,” a ghost. More importantly, this period of transition, Harley Quinn’s apocalypse, is a time of magic and death. We have already observed that the magical trickster powers of the Harlequin began this ending in “Harlequinade,” and of course any apocalypse is necessarily concerned with death. Both magic and death, ultimately, are about change: magic is change in response to a living being’s will, and death is the final and most extreme change such a being can experience, the change from living to unliving, body to corpse.

Interestingly, as she is our go-to example of how little magic there is in BTAS, al-Ghul invokes Zatanna in the incantation to summon the demon: like all of her spells once she starts doing real magic, the incantation is a series of phrases uttered backwards. But where Zatanna’s incantations are simply reversed announcements of the spell’s function, al-Ghul’s are a series of references. The first, “Kirby is the greatest,” refers to Jack Kirby, creator of Etrigan the Demon among many other characters for both DC and Marvel. The others all refer to famous instances of backwards speech. “My sweet satin” refers to the infamous “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, one of the claims of which was that Satanic messages were hidden in famous rock songs via “backmasking,” but could be heard clearly if the song were played backwards; “Here’s to my sweet Satan” was supposedly part of the message hidden in (ironically) Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” “Sometimes my arms bend back” is part of a line uttered by Laura Palmer during the infamous “red room dream” in the third episode of Twin Peaks; her lines in that scene were given a bizarre cadence and accent by recording her speaking the lines backwards, and then playing that recording in reverse. Finally, “I buried Paul” is a line supposedly backmasked in the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” considered the first “clue” by adherents of the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney died and was replaced by an imposter in 1966.

All of these references are intimately connected with death, “I buried Paul” most obviously. But the Red Room in Twin Peaks is eventually revealed to be the Black Lodge, a place of terror accessed through murder, while supposed references to Satan in “Stairway to Heaven” give us Heaven and Hell, the afterlife. The most complex relationship with death is the first incantation. In part it is a tribute to a recently deceased creator–Kirby died in 1994–but beneath that there is complexity to be unpacked. For Kirby, Etrigan in some ways represented the death of a dream: Kirby was pulled off what he considered his magnum opus, his “Fourth World” comics, to work on the project that became Etrigan; as a result, he was never able to finish his greatest work. And it is from that “Fourth World” that we get the planet Apokolips and its evil ruler Darkseid, who would bring an end to both Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited, and thereby to the DCAU as a whole.

Death and magic, magic and death. Apocalypse. And rebirth: though summer must inevitably fall into winter, winter gives way eventually to spring. The Batman Adventures are dead. Let The Batman and Robin Adventures begin.


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Imaginary Story 7: Batman Adventures vol. 1 #29-36

 

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Continuity, at least as it exists in comics, is not the presentation of the history of a fictional world. Rather, it is the presentation of the memory of a fictional individual. Rarely is that difference presented as clearly as in the final issues of Batman Adventures.

The year opens with “Demonseed,” yet another identical round in the dance that is Talia and Batman. Once again she believes her father to be dead; once again this seems to free her to be on Batman’s side; once again she abandons him to follow her father’s path. Programmatic characters collide and follow their programs, their interactions differing from past encounters only in the details. The same old pains recur again and again, inescapably.

The tragedy of Batman and Talia reiterates again and again, from comics to TV and back to comics. Robin’s origin is a retelling of Batman’s: a young boy whose family is snatched from him by the demon Crime, obsessively training in order to pursue revenge by means of stalking the night in long underwear. There are new stories from time to time, of course, but the ones which stick are told again and again with varying details, because that’s how memory works: when you remember the past, you don’t replay a recording, let alone read a transcript; you reconstruct past perceptions out of fleeting impressions, the same basic beats but with the blanks filled in by details created on the spot. The precise form those details take is shaped by the moods and interests of the present, so the Batman of the 60s is all campy counterculture, the Batman of the 90s a grimdark product of apocalypse deferred, yet both are recognizably Batman.

Fairly straightforward reiterations comprise the next issue as well, with “Natural Born Loser,” an odd and somewhat silly story that prevents us with the origin stories of the comic’s trio of joke villains, Mastermind (an aggrieved self-described victim who turned to meticulous and elaborate planning as his means of revenge, reiterating BTAS’ Clock King), Mr. Nice (someone who just wanted to entertain children but whose particular skills “forced” him into a life of crime, reiterating the Ventriloquist’s story in the annual), and the Perfesser (who playfully refuses to provide a backstory, reiterating the Joker).

That last, a recycling of the Joker, carries us into the next issue with “Anarky,” whose titular villain comes across as essentially a college freshman version of the Joker. He spouts rhetoric about anarchy, the corruption of the upper classes, and letting the people judge, but ultimately proves hypocritical. He sets up a death trap for several rich men (including Bruce Wayne) at a fundraiser, but releases a phone number that, if enough people call it and tell him to spare the men, he’ll let them go. However, he admits that Bruce Wayne is innocent of the other men’s crimes, and is only there because of guilt by association, and further when the police arrive he’s willing to abandon the men without disarming the death trap or leaving instructions on how to do it, regardless of how the people vote, because “that’s showbiz.” Rather than empowering the people or tearing down power structures, he is simply trying to place himself atop a new power structure, as we have repeatedly observed regarding the Joker. Indeed, with his fixed mask and strange black garb, Anarky recalls nothing so much as a cut-rate V, from V for Vendetta, which like The Killing Joke has been repeatedly imitated by people who don’t understand it. It should perhaps come as no surprise that Alan Grant, who created Anarky and wrote this issue of Batman Adventures, had by the late 90s moved on from anarchism to an even more cult-like offshoot of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism known as Neo-Tech.

Nonetheless, Robin admits at the end of “Anarky” that there was some truth in what Anarky had to say, which there was. As if to confirm this, the next issue, “A Soldiers Story,” presents a bizarre little tale of rich men playing an elaborate  game, hiring the bulk of Gotham’s street criminals to act as toy soldiers in a deadly confrontation. It’s an odd but fun story, which struggles to decide whether the men are “sociopaths” (which in this context is presumed to mean inherently incapable of making morally correct choices) or “spoiled” (that is, so sheltered from consequences for their actions that they stop caring about morality). Either way, it is a condemnation of wealth, either because it gave “sociopaths” the power and freedom to indulge themselves, or spoiled two men so thoroughly. It’s an interesting story choice for a comic about a man whose primary superpower is money, but not the first time BTAS has made overtures in that direction: there are elements of both “The Forgotten” and “Appointment in Crime Alley” here.

Those are both appropriate episodes  to invoke heading into the final four issues of Batman Adventures‘ original run, as all four deal with themes of memory, repetition, and the ghosts of the past. The comic ends as it began, with a three-issue arc; however, the issue between “A Soldiers Story” and that arc has close thematic ties with the arc, and should be considered with it. That story, “Just Another Night,” features Bruce Wayne out on a date with a woman named Veronica and her son, attending a film festival showcasing The Grey Ghost. On the way home, they are attacked in an alley by a mugger, in a clear reiteration of the attack that killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. No one is killed, but as soon as he is sure they’re safe, Wayne makes excuses to leave (infuriating Veronica) and sets off as Batman after the mugger. In the end, the boy is glad to have Batman as a protector, but Veronica dumps Bruce.

In other words, he has an experience which reminds him of the event which shattered his identity into boy, bat, and man; he responds with fear and pain followed by rage. He jumps directly into the unhealthy behavior he developed to cope with that initial shattering, knowing that it will sever a rare good relationship that was in the process of forming. In short, he acts out a textbook trauma response. It’s as subtle as an all-ages comic book based on a cartoon can be, but clear nonetheless: this is a story about Batman being triggered. It is a reiteration of his origin story, yes, but also of Mask of the Phantasm, the terrible choice between pursuing love (with a woman who even somewhat resembles Andrea Beaumont!) and avenging his parents, and choosing the more painful path because, ultimately, his survivor’s guilt makes him feel unworthy of love.

Oddly, the issue ends with an apparent error: as with most comic books, the letters page at the back ends with an advertisement for the next issue, but the advertisement at the end of “Just Another Night” is for “Just Another Night,” not the actual next issue, “In Memoriam.” Even more oddly, it’s not a straightforward error of reprinting the previous issue’s ad: although both advertise “Just Another Night” and describe it similarly, the ad at the end of “Just Another Night” is worded distinctly differently from the one at the end of “A Soldiers Story.” It is almost as if, like Batman himself, we are trapped in the cycle of trauma, eternally reiterating slightly variations on his origin story. Experiencing not a linear history, but a memory that fractures and skips, looping back on itself or hopping across gaps.

It may very well not be an error, given that the next issue, the aforementioned “In Memoriam,” is a deliberately disjointed tale built around Hugo Strange’s obsessive work on a new device which has something to do with memory, interspersed with scenes apparently set after the device has been completed, including a diamond heist by Strange, a diamond heist by Catwoman, Batman’s attempts to foil both, and at least one spot where time jumps between pages to indicate a memory lapse on Batman’s part. By, again, the standards of an all-ages comic, it is a deliberately difficult story, disorienting the reader and requiring an unusual amount of effort to piece together what happened when.

For someone like me, who suffers from minor memory issues, it’s a familiar kind of disorientation. My memory contains significant gaps, and I often struggle to place what I do remember in proper sequence. The comic does an excellent job of capturing this sensation, while still getting its story across, a story which is expanded on and explained in the next two, rather more straightforward, issues, “The Book of Memory” and “The Last Batman Adventure” (which is, fittingly, the last issue of Batman Adventures).

These memory issues are related directly to trauma in the form of Strange’s tragic story: some time after the events of “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne,” Rupert Thorne attempted to coerce Strange into recreating his memory-viewing device so it could be used for blackmail. When Strange refused, his son David was murdered on Thorne’s orders. In agony from grief, Strange experimented with memory removal and storage, trying to erase the memory of David’s death. After much experimenting, he managed to remove the memory, but as a result he couldn’t remember that he’d succeeded, and continued fruitlessly trying to remove a memory he didn’t realize was already gone, shredding his memory in the process and giving rise to the disjointed “In Memoriam.” However, in the second and third issues of the arc it becomes clear that on some level he does remember the loss, as he begins reliving David’s death, trying to save him by attacking people who remind him of David’s killer, culminating in the murder of one of Thorne’s men right in front of Thorne.

This is an excellent metaphor for the function of memory in trauma. Defense mechanisms are constructed around the memory, emotions of grief, pain, anger, loss, an effort is made to push it away and forget it–but it inevitably returns, dragging the victim back own into those same emotions. Parallel with Strange’s journey deeper into the prison of his memories, Batman is temporarily freed from his as, at the end of “In Memoriam,” Strange accidentally erased all of his memories from the age of seven on. Following a brief period of exploitation by Catwoman, an oddly sweet subplot in which she takes great joy in having him as a partner in crime, he returns to crimefighting as essentially Robin’s sidekick as they seek the diamond (stolen, of course, by Catwoman) in which Strange stored Batman’s stolen memories.

Yet in the absence of that trauma, those memories, he cannot function as Batman. Without being triggered, without the trauma response, there is no superhero. The endless reiteration of his origin serves a purpose, and it is only after being forced to relive it via the restoration of his memories that he is able to really resume being Batman as we know him. Even Catwoman agrees: the final scene of Batman Adventures is a rooftop meeting between Batman and Catwoman in which she realizes that he has no memory of his amnesiac period, and therefore no memory of either the promise she forced him to make (that he would leave her free to engage in her criminal activities unmolested) or his declaration that he would “hate her forever” (remember, mental age of seven). The final line of this scene, and hence of “The Last Batman Adventure” and The Batman Adventures, is her saying “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The Last Batman Adventure” is in some ways an answer to the first: where the Joker in his three-issue arc would have us question the narratives by which we construct our world in general and Batman in particular, Strange in his reminds us that to lose all our narratives is to be lost ourselves, and Catwoman suggests that maybe some narratives are worth keeping. It is yet another reiteration of Batman’s origin, yet another sympathetic villain (as Strange very much is, unlike his appearance in the show), yet another statement–much like Talia at the beginning of the year–that Batman’s flirtations with his enemies can never become more.

Trauma cycles endlessly. So, too, do superheroes. The same stories repeat endlessly, and only the cancellation of the comic can bring them to an end. Even then, it’s often temporary–immediately after the end of Batman Adventures is The Batman and Robin Adventures, with a new creative team headed by Paul Dini. Batman Adventures vol. 2 is less than a decade away.

No. Trauma is what creates superheroes, the “one bad day” we saw very nearly at the beginning. A real person can heal, but so long as the hero exists and remains a hero, they never can. The only way out for them is the cessation of existence, the cancellation of the book, the end of the world.

Acts, that is, of global violence. Acts which create new traumas, spawning new victims, which is to say new heroes.

The reward for being Batman, as Neil Gaiman would write many years after this, is the same as the punishment for being Batman: you get to be, and have to be, Batman. The reward and punishment for making Batman, on the other hand, is that you get to, and have to, make Superman.


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Imaginary Story 6: Batman Adventures Annual #1

 

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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.


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

 

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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.


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Imaginary Story 4: The Batman Adventures: Mad Love

 

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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.


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