Batman TAS #3: “Nothing to Fear”

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The third episode of The Animated Series introduces Scarecrow to proceedings. Jonathan Crane is a professor of phobias who gets kicked out of his position after it’s revealed that he went ‘too far’ with his students – a sequence of events which leads to a growing obsession he has with getting revenge on the University. He’s a very simple character here, although that’s how it tends to go for the Scarecrow. He’s got a single agenda, and he can’t achieve it because of Batman, so next time he ramps things up even further.

As a result, Scarecrow is someone who becomes more potent after we’ve seen him several times, and he comes off as more than a little amateur in this episode. His agenda here is to steal money from the university that fired him so they’ll struggle to continue operating – but by the end of the episode, his attention skips from the university to Batman. As in all classic Scarecrow appearances, that focus on Batman will be what starts to really create Scarecrow as a villain, and boost him to higher heights.

As the makers of Arkham Knight learned too late, Scarecrow’s hard to make into anything more than a ‘featured player’ amongst Batman’s enemies. He’s barely had any definitive stories within the comics, usually showing up as part of a group, to provide a brief challenge Batman has to overcome before turning attention to the real enemy – Riddler, Joker, etc. His two biggest roles were in the aforementioned Arkham Knight, where he failed to make a lasting impact as a villain due to a very weak narrative; and Batman Begins, where he was played gleefully by Cillian Murphy.

In the two stories, he comes across in somewhat similar ways to the Scarecrow we find here. He’s always camp – always. Along with Riddler, he’s Batman’s most over-zealous foes, incredibly talkative and keen to let people know what he’s doing. In this episode he off-handedly passes across his entire backstory to his two minions without even a real second though – of course this is interesting for them to learn, so of course he’s going to spout it all out in one go. And the final ‘reveal’ of the episode is also one which was mirrored by the game and the movie: when it’s time for Scarecrow to get a dose of his own medicine, it’s Batman he sees manifested into a monster.

In the movie, seeing this monstrous version of Batman drives Scarecrow insane, as Batman is his greatest actual, real fear. In the TV show and arguably the game, Batman represents a little more. He is the expression of Scarecrow’s failures – his inability to get revenge on the university, or the man who fired him. When he accidentally takes in some of his own fear gas at the end of this episode, the monstrous version of Batman he sees drives him away from his original goals and onto what’ll likely be his newest obsession: proving himself greater than the Bat.

Which is to say, this episode races through the ‘origin’ for Crane to create Scarecrow; but in doing so provides us with the time needed to create ‘The Scarecrow’. He starts the episode as a crook with a mask and a gimmick, but leaves it with a motive and intent. The more doses he gets of Batman’s justice, the more he needs, and the further he’ll go to get more. Scarecrow’s arc is a grasping one, which he’ll never reach up to. All the posturing, schemes, and chemical upgrades all cover up for a man who has an obsession with providing himself against an untouchable foe. That’s what makes Scarecrow an interesting part of Batman’s rogues gallery, and something which has been co-opted by Riddler and Joker as time has gone on and Batman has become more and more undefeated.

In the attempt to build up Riddler, he’s become a mass-murderer. In the attempt to get the biggest and worst laugh of all, Joker’s become a mass-murderer. But really, the character it makes most sense to raise the stakes with isn’t either of them – it’s Scarecrow. His first ever loss, and the one which sets him on a downwards path, isn’t the one he suffers to Batman in this episode. It’s losing his job because of his experiments with students. Batman’s powerless to ever stop the cycle of increasing grandeur for Scarecrow, because (unlike with Joker and Riddler) he wasn’t the one to start the cycle. He came in and distracted Scarecrow away towards grander schemes.

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A common thread in Batman stories is that he is somewhat responsible for the rise of supervillains in the world. In “Nothing to Fear”, you get to see the first steps of the Scarecrow into becoming someone truly worthy of fear – and it’s because Batman exacerbates the problem. He has to in order to save lives and keep Gotham safe, but it is demonstrably Batman’s appearance which pushes Scarecrow from being a goon with a gimmick to becoming a real player in Gotham.

The appearance of Scarecrow invites the series to start offering Batman’s backstory for the first time, as the fear toxins push Batman to hallucinate his father. This is the first time I think it ever happened, but this is an idea which is now all over the comics, films, and games – that Scarecrow can reopen this wound for Bruce Wayne. It’s humanising, but there’s an interesting contrast at play in the way the episode sets things up. Just as Batman stepped in and was the second body blow for Scarecrow; so Scarecrow is only the second body blow to Bruce in the episode.

Right at the start, Bruce speaks to one of the other professors at the university, who says that Bruce is dishonouring the Wayne family name. Scarecrow steps in and his fear toxin exacerbates that fear for Bruce, but it’s something which was always there. Just as Scarecrow can never overcome that original firing from the university; so Batman will never overcome the night in the alley which changed his life forever. They’ll both dance around one another, picking at the wounds, but their scars will never heal because neither want to rest. They have too much they need to do.

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Batman TAS #2: “Christmas With The Joker”

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One thing which seems to be apparent immediately is that the ordering of the Batman episodes on the DVD collections may not match the order in which they were first released. Hopefully that won’t be an issue! It does mean, though, that the second episode here is also a Christmas episode – featuring everyone’s favourite nowadays mass-murdering psychotic: the Joker!

We’re at a point now where Joker has become a primal force within comics, rather than a person with a defined goal. Comics like “No Man’s Land” point him as a force of nature roaming through Gotham, where he’s the ultimate end point for any story. Let Penguin have a gang war for as long as he wants; give Mr Freeze some adventures; have Poison Ivy walk a line with Batman between villain and ally – none of it ultimately matters, because it’s all going to come down to Batman Vs Joker in the end regardless.

In the Arkham games he starts of as a dominant presence and then becomes a domineering one, whereby his plans start to grow and shift in ways which mean every little glitch or change have already been predicted, and he has a counter for anything Batman will throw at him. Grant Morrison’s Batman run solidified this idea of the Joker as a creation beyond the wit of man, especially when Frazer Irving was drawing. He’s a figure masquerading as a typical villain when he’s actually the definition and epitome of everything Batman opposes. He carries a gun at all times, laughs at the casual nature of his violence, and happily commits murder with no reasoning behind it.

Batman can find honour and logic in most of his other villains – but it’s Joker who reminds him most of the random act of violence which killed his parents. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s most recent run also follows this idea of a Joker who is brutally evil, dead behind the eyes and merrily butchering an increasingly preposterous number of people until inevitably losing everything when he actually comes face to face with Batman. The character has stopped being anything but Batman running against a hurricane. He’ll never stop Joker, and people will die because of it.

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Which is why this was such a refreshing change of pace. The Joker in this episode borrows from Batman ’66 – as in fact, does most of the episode, with a slightly dopey Robin tagging along from out of nowhere and bringing a West/Ward dynamic into proceedings with him. He does have capacity for murder, but he’s more preoccupied with amusing himself. He’s not revelling in repulsion, but presenting himself as a family-friendly presenter. And with it we get a slightly different idea of Batman to the usual, as well. With Joker becoming an unstoppable force in the comics, so Batman has become an unstoppable force against him. They’re so on top of each other than it’s actually now getting pretty boring watching them both waste time on the side-show.

Here, Batman legitimately has no chance at all of keeping up with Joker. And, I mean, you can’t blame him – in the first scene Joker escapes Arkham Asylum on a rocket-powered Christmas tree. How do you predict for that? What I think I most liked about this episode was that Batman spends the whole time barely able to track Joker, let alone stop his tricks and traps. It takes an obvious hint from Joker to help him out – which gets provided because Joker blatantly wants Batman to show up and see what’s going to happen. He wants an audience, but only of very select invitees.

This is Mark Hamill’s first time as Joker, as far as I’m aware, and he has a very enjoyable time of things. He plays himself like a real smarm, chewing on scenery without actually eating it all (as he will go on to do in the video games). He’s actually quite restrained in his own way, which matches the back and forth between Batman and Robin. Considering Dick was absent in the first episode, he makes a real impression here – softening up Batman, who doesn’t go for the typical “I’ll do this alone’ nonsense which is present in all my least-favourite interpretations of the character. They’re a team, and they crack jokes together in a bit of a Sean Connery/007 fashion. It’s sardonic, rather than anything else, and that gives the characters a softer edge whilst also giving them a bit of class.

The best moment in the episode is surely the capper. After an episode of trying to get Bruce to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, Robin finally wins out and the episode closes with the duo watching a copy of the movie passed to them by Gordon. “It’s a wonderful life” says Dick. “It has its moments”, is Bruce’s response. That seems to define this version of Batman. He’s not some nihilistic self-torturer out to stop justice even as it erodes him as a person. He’s willing to let other people shape who he is, and how he reacts to things. He would never have seen the movie without Robin pestering him.

But you can see he’s changed for the better because of it. That’s growth, that is – something that always works with Batman. I hope there’s a continued focus on this part of the character as the series goes forward, because so far it’s been great.

Batman TAS #1: “On Leather Wings”

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The first episode of Batman: The Animated Series makes a lot of unexpected choices: chief amongst them is the decision to kick things off with Man-Bat. The character is sort-of well known amongst general Batman fans, but he’s not exactly the household name that Joker, Riddler, or Poison Ivy offer. He’s also usually not an outright villain in my experience – his origin usually pans out over three very familiar beats.

  1. Scientist Kirk Langstrom and his wife Francine are working on a revolutionary experimental project to help cure deafness.
  2. Kirk, unable to secure funding/get things off the ground, decides to inject himself as the first test subject as a show of good faith.
  3. The serum turns him into Man-Bat, and he takes to the skies, his human mind lost until Batman can take him down.

Batman: TAS skips the second step though, and it changes things entirely. At the climax of the episode, which is a slightly half-hearted mystery with one red herring, Kirk gleefully reveals himself as the Man-Bat to Batman. He walks through his lab, his face distorted as he steps in front of the various bottles and glasses set up on the table. We see literally that his science has changed his physical nature, deforming him – and then he takes the completed serum in front of Batman and manifests.

It changes the character from a sympathetic one into a wonderfully-eyebrowed villain, switching him from being a beleaguered scientist who wants to help people into a man who does everything he does because he’s addicted to the serum. He doesn’t have a reason to want to become a bat, but instead takes the serum simply because he craves it. I don’t know enough about the Bruce Wayne in the series yet to know if that’s a deliberate point of comparison the creative team are attempting to make between the two, but you could certainly look at it that way. Why does Bruce choose to be Batman? Well, why does Kirk choose to be Man-Bat?

The episode sets things up as a mystery, where a giant bat is loose in the skies of Gotham and stealing pharmaceuticals. The Gotham police force think this is Batman, but obviously learn in the end that Batman’s actually the one trying to stop the creature. As a result of all this, we actually get to learn a lot about the way things run in Gotham, despite this not being a particularly ‘pilot-y’ episode. We don’t see Batman’s origins, or see him as a rookie. We don’t have a Bat-signal, or any Robins. What we have here is a Batman who is already slightly established in Gotham city, and nobody knows what to make of him yet.

It’s a really smart episode one placement for the character, because it gives him an enigmatic quality which makes us have to view things from a ground-level, blank slate perspective. We’re already all aware that Batman is the hero here, but we don’t get that breathing space with the character that you’d expect in a pilot episode. There are snippets of him with Alfred; speaking to employees as Bruce Wayne; and on patrol as Batman. But really, he’s an unknown quality. He smiles, and he uses a grappling hook. His Batmobile looks a bit like the one from the Tim Burton films. But considering the wide range of interpretations of Batman we’ve seen over the years, the cartoon doesn’t yet hint at what kind of a person their take will be.

Coming into things a little while after they’ve kicked off is an approach which we saw in the Tim Burton film, which seems like a main influence on the series so far. There’s far more of a pulp sensibility here than in other Batman stories, reflected best in the dashing police capes worn by Gordon and Bullock. Their dynamic gets fleshed out completely here, their differing approaches to Batman signalling to us who we should root for. Their directly antagonistic relationship was another surprise for me here, because I’m used to them being shown as the only two uncorrupted cops on the force.

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The Man-Bat stuff really is the most interesting stuff in the episode. Kirk Langstrom’s got no reason to want to be Man-Bat, and Batman calls him a “monster”. It feels like this is an allegory for drug addiction, the “demon in a bottle” conceit whereby normal people change because of their addiction, to the point where it feels like they’re haunted by some kind of monster which comes out whenever they get high. Francine’s reaction to him is interesting – she usually becomes a She-Bat herself in comics, so I watched with one eye to that. She seems shocked by him, and alarmed when she hears Batman play a recording of Man-Bat earlier in the episode. I’d have to assume that means we’re meant to see her as being unaware of Kirk’s experiments.

The third scientist in the lab is her father, played by Rene Auberjonois. He’s a really weird character, especially as he’s played as the red herring for the central mystery. We’re meant to think he’s the alter-ago of Man-Bat, but as he isn’t, it means his character says some really bizarre stuff without any reasoning or explanation. Maybe he’ll come up again in a future episode instead, and we’ll find out more. I’m fairly certain Dr Marsh isn’t a character from the comics, though.

Together, the three scientists ask more questions than the show answers, and it was surprising that Batman takes Kirk – who willingly took the formula, seemed to retain his mind when Man-Bat, and committed GBH to a security guard – back to the lab, without arrest. Again, a curious choice, but this version of Batman seems more charitable than any I’ve come across before. Kirk seems to be unrepentant through the episode, so why did Batman let him go?

As a pilot episode, this was unusually self-aware and fast-paced. It didn’t try to explain what the characters were, but instead showed them on a typical day, dealing with incidents that have already become a daily occurrence. I enjoyed it for that – and for the choice to start things off with an unexpected choice of opponent for Batman. If the show continues to take the path least expected, this could well prove to be a really entertaining and fresh-feeling take on the Batman.

Batman TAS #0: An Intro

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Cartoons have always been cited as one of the best ways for new fans to get into comics. Whether it be people trying their hand at some Claremont because of X-Men: The Animated Series through to Justice League Unlimited defining John Stewart as the Green Lantern, cartoons have helped steer people into the world of comics for decades now. It’s because they’re the two mediums which fit closest to one another – although the current Marvel movies have raised attention in comics like nothing else, they come out two or three times a year. Cartoons, on the other hand, are out every week. If anything, they’re even more prolific in serialisation than comics are.

Which, to be honest, makes it feel crazy that I haven’t seen any of them. I remember when I was young, on BBC we had the Marvel Action Universe – an hour or so of programmes which always started with Iron Man and ended with Fantastic Four. There was a Hulk cartoon in the middle, I think, but it was the Fantastic Four I loved most. That aside, though, I didn’t touch any cartoons. Not the X-Men – strangely enough, given they’re my favourite comics franchise and the characters I always return to – nor Batman: The Animated Series.

For me, Batman is defined by the comics first, and the video games second. I have all the Arkham games, which work from Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s ‘Arkham: A Serious House on Serious Earth’ graphic novel and slowly move into darker and darker territory as things move on, taking elements of other comics whilst building up a definition of Batman as an unmoving, unyielding violent force against crime. The comics are more forgiving of the character, clearly, with the character generally shown as a silent, but more compassionate figure who thinks first before resorting to punches.

Yet what everybody says is that the Animated Series is a different take still. This is a Batman who smiles, who doesn’t know everything, and works in concert with his allies rather than begrudgingly letting them stand behind him. He’s the best Batman, as everybody says – including my ol’ pal Zainab, who knows more about Batman than anybody else I know. So in the back of my head, as I learn more about him, his city, the rogues that hurl fear through the night; I’ve always wanted to move into Bruce Timm’s and Eric Radomski’s version of the Batman mythos and get to know more.

One late night purchase online later, and now I’m sat on my sofa next to the boxsets for the first two seasons. And hey, as I have this blog about anything but comics, I figured it’d be a fun creative exercise to write about each episode as I watch them, and build up an understanding of this alternative take on who Batman is, and what his life is like.

As a comics reader firstly (you can see me every week on ComicsAlliance and fairly often on Comic Book Resources), I’m interested in how this will differ from the stories I’ve read, and the presentation of Batman in comics, movies, games and licensing. It’s a little different, going from comics to cartoon like this, and obviously these are all aimed at a younger audience than me. But still! The chance for another serialised version of Gotham City is too fun to pass up, and it’s about time I watched these anyway. So, for as long as I can keep going, I’m going to be doing little recaps and write-ups on the series, episode by episode!