Batman TAS #4: “The Last Laugh”

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The Joker managed to do something in the fourth episode of Batman: The Animated Series which he’s not done in years. He made me laugh.

You start to wonder, reading the angry and malevolent Joker we see in so much media now, who his jokes are meant to actually be aimed at, and what their response should be. Grant Morrison’s run starts off Joker thinking he’s shot Batman in the head, after kidnapping a group of children. He stands over Batman and shrieks something to the effect of: “I finally killed Batman! And I did it in front of a bunch of vulnerable disabled kids!”

Aside from the momentary gasp at the audacity of his phrase, you notice there’s no actual joke there. No wordplay or pun, twist or punchline. The only thing that would make someone laugh is the fact that Joker dared say something like that – and that DC Comics would publish it. Joker himself doesn’t seem to have much of a laugh about it, and indeed shortly after he gets shot in the head for a bit.

Who is Joker aimed at? In the video games and cartoons, “Joker” has become an ironic term. He’s actually the least amusing character DC has, archly choosing to resist jokes and entertainment in order to shoot, maim and attack in random order, testing boundaries with everything he does. The currently-airing Suicide Squad proves an example of this, with their version of Joker pushing at the limits of what Warner Bros will happily put into a movie release. Each time you see this version of the Joker, injecting dark jokes into a thinning vein, you find that nothing he says actually raises anything other than an eyebrow.

Certainly, the Joker who was able to make Batman laugh has long-since vanished, having murdered a Robin, shot Batgirl, cut off Alfred’s hand and gone on a number of torments over the years. He’s a writers’ trick now, a way for each new incoming Batman script-writer to show off their talent for the macabre. But back in the days of The Animated Series, what’s becoming clear is that he’s able to be much more impressive. The earlier version of Joker here seems to have actually been to a circus at least once in his life, and picked up tricks about set-ups and punchlines.

The episode sees Joker pour his laughing gas onto a garbage float in Gotham, sailing it down the river and infecting everybody he passes with an uncontrollable laughter – which is harmless for many, but can cause people to lose control of their cars, their prams… everything takes second place to laughing, once you breathe in the toxin. And over time, apparently it’ll drive you made. Why does he do it? Because he wants to stroll down the shopping district and steal some stuff.

Simple as that. The episode also impressed on me the loss of Batman’s villains having petty agendas. Everybody from Maxie Zeus to Killer Quilt has some sort of greater agenda nowadays, having shifted from the goal of “rob a jewellery store” to “reveal Batman’s identity on the grandest scale imaginable”. The low stakes seen in this episode are disposed with now in favour of Gotham’s very future being at risk whenever Batman stumbles in the field. I think there are only a handful of characters who turn to villainy in order to make money and survive, rather than because they have some operatic grudge against the caped crusader himself.

Not here: here, Joker and two mooks, plus a robot he’s dressed as a clown, are going after some jewels. That’s all it takes, primarily because these are all pretty short episodes and anything grander would be hard to pull off – but also because that’s simply who this version of Joker is. He wears his gimmick in order to throw people off, and to indulge himself. He says things that he finds funny, and he laughs at them. Other people, surrounding the scene, also enjoy his humour. It’s a far cry from other versions of Joker who are almost grumpy in their dislike of Batman, and need to one-up him.

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Joker being funny also has a secondary impact: it allows Batman to laugh. At the start of the episode, which is set on April Fools Day, Alfred catches Batman out with a trick. Being Batman, he archly raises an appreciate eyebrow and continues on with his morning routine. But that joke, and Batman’s appreciation of it, plays off in two ways later on. Primarily, in that Alfred is caught up by Joker’s toxin a few minutes later, and Bruce Wayne’s concern immediately shows. Now, Alfred gets into distress fairly often, but this episode very clearly sets up why this is something that matters to Batman.

Alfred’s got banter in the series, and he loosens up Bruce Wayne every time they talk to one another. A little like in Gotham, I suppose, we’re given some semblance of a relationship between the two that isn’t based in chiding and stern huffs. They like being around one another, and it benefits them both to have that friendship in place. When Alfred, who can joke around with Bruce easily, is caught in the line of fire, Bruce’s concern is apparent, real, and something for the audience to latch onto.

At the same time, it also allows Batman to keep up with Joker. In a sense, the Joker’s continuing need to make Batman laugh is what leads him to go darker and darker, seeking the sick joke that’ll finally force Batman to laugh, despite himself. With Batman largely having no sense of humour in the comics, Joker has to force more and more to try and get some kind of rise out of him. But here, Batman’s lighter and friendlier, and you get the feeling he’s far more likely to laugh at Joker’s silliness than in any other depiction of the pair.

At the end of this episode, with Joker caught and the mischief ended, Batman tells two jokes. One to Joker, which Joker acknowledges with a glare and Batman with a smile. The second to Alfred, which actually brings Bruce into a proper laugh. And getting that laugh is so satisfying. It shows there’s actually something on the line when Batman and Joker fight one another: if Batman has a sense of humour, then he has a sense of humour to lose. Joker’s got so much more to work with in this scenario.

Earlier I asked who the audience is meant to be for Joker’s one-liners, and this episode has a clear idea: The Joker. He casually makes jokes here for his own benefit, and for the audience. He coins the robot working for him “Captain Clown”, and forms a really funny attachment to it. He tells puns to Batman, and he pauses for comedic effect when leading Batman into a trap. He’s having a great time, just enjoying himself, and it’s the best thing for the character.

It’s another tremendously fun episode of the show, but it also offers us a look into a time when Joker was far more independent than he is today. He wants to do what he wants; rather than to do whatever he thinks will shock Batman. That’s the freedom which makes ‘Joker’ a literal description of the character, rather than the sardonic “Joker” who lives for shock value rather than actual jokes.

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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 #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!