He’s not your father, not really. He’s… a ghost. (Nothing to Fear)

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It’s September 15, 1992, nine days after “On Leather Wings” aired, so check that article for the news and top song. In theaters, hackers-as-heroic-rebels film Sneakers tops the box office.

In Gotham, we have “Nothing to Fear,” written by Henry T. Gilroy and Sean Catherine Derek, and the first encounter (both in production and airing order) with the Scarecrow. Scarecrow is immediately very distinct from prior villains; although he shares with the Joker an essential sadism, he adds onto it a revenge motive that is actually fairly rare in Batman villains. Also unlike the Joker, he is given a civilian identity right from the start, as research psychiatrist Dr. Jonathon Crane. As a scientist turned to villainy, he therefore somewhat resembles Man-Bat, but lacks the victim aspect of that character; Crane is depicted as simply always having been a sadist who takes pleasure in frightening others, and the rejection by academia for which he seeks revenge is implied to be fully justified by his unethical experiments.

No, the character he most resembles is actually Batman himself, as noted in the episode by Alfred: a masked, vengeful warrior who uses his considerable intellect to wield the power of fear against his enemies. This kinship makes Crane’s self-description early in the episode quite interesting: “I am fear incarnate. I am the terror of Gotham. I am Scarecrow!”

This line is mirrored by a line of Batman’s own, one of the series’ most quoted, later in the episode, but perhaps more interesting is another character it recalls. Both the phrase “I am the terror” and the three-sentence structure closely resemble the catchphrase of Disney’s Darkwing Duck: “I am the terror that flaps in the night. I am the [strained, ridiculous, or bizarre metaphor]. I am Darkwing Duck!” Now, given the typically long lead time for television animation and the fact that Darkwing Duck (which we will discuss at greater length later on in this project) only started airing in September 1991, it’s possible but not hugely likely that the line is a deliberate reference. Regardless, however, the common structure makes it a point of contact between the two works in ideaspace, so let us briefly consider what light this connection might shed on Scarecrow and, therefore, his mirror-image Batman.

Darkwing Duck is often described as a Batman parody, and certainly there is some truth to that. However, his costume actually more closely resembles the Shadow, and his gas-gun recalls the (now almost entirely overshadowed by the largely unrelated Neil Gaiman character) Sandman. He can therefore be regarded as a parody of the entire “cape, mask, fedora” genre of crime-fighting vigilantes, of which Batman is probably the most successful and well-known instance. (Yes, he has a cowl not a fedora, but then again the Question has a coat instead of a cape, and he is if anything an even more traditional example than Batman is.) Generally speaking, this genre involves a vigilante who, gifted with some kind of unusual power, skill, or device, takes up a shadowy and extralegal war against criminals or subversives who disrupt the well-being and orderly operation of society but for whatever reason are out of reach of the normal authorities.

Scarecrow actually fits fairly well into the genre himself. He has the mask, and while his hat isn’t quite a fedora, it is quite distinctive and broad-brimmed. More importantly, at least in this episode his primary target is academia, which at its best (which it rarely is) serves as a subversive element that disrupts the orderly operation of society, and in a free society at least is generally out of the reach of the authorities. Even taking a more positive view of the vigilante, that they fight injustices which the authorities can’t or won’t, he still fits: according to him, his expulsion is an injustice.

However, he is most certainly not treated as a hero by the narrative, and understandably so, as he is essentially a sadist throwing a tantrum because his favorite toy was taken from him. This then forces us to look at the differences between him and Batman, and this episode does an excellent job of conveying one of the most important: guilt and self-doubt.

This episode is largely remembered for Batman’s version of Scarecrow’s/Darkwing Duck’s line: “I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!” But the line is frequently misunderstood as an accurate depiction of Batman, probably because of the utter conviction and power with which Batman’s voice actor, Kevin Conroy, delivers it. And it is most likely what Batman believes. However, neither the Darkwing Duck line nor Scarecrow’s version of it are to be taken at face value. Darkwing Duck is actually a self-important, bumbling egotist whose victories are mostly attributable to a combination of the kind of indestructible tenacity only a recurring victim of cartoon slapstick can possess and the sheer narrative force of being the title character, while Scarecrow is actually a weaselly little man who can only scare people by dosing them with hallucinogens.

Batman’s line is not quite as straightforwardly false as theirs. The first sentence is: he’s not very good at vengeance, seeing as literally none of his villains have any connection to the event he is ostensibly seeking vengeance for, the death of his parents. Instead, what this episode shows is that he is driven not by vengeful rage, but by fear and guilt, specifically the fear that he is not living up to the example set by his successful, well-loved father. Part of this guilt doubtless comes from his Bruce Wayne persona, which this episode shows is viewed as vapid, wasteful, and disgraceful. But Batman’s fear toxin-induced visions of rejection by the judgmental specter of Thomas Wayne imply another source of guilt, namely survivor guilt. It is an understandable feeling: why is he alive? He witnessed his parents’ murder; why didn’t the killer eliminate him? Most likely, given the circumstances, it was either a panicked oversight or an unwillingness to kill a child, but a young Bruce Wayne surely must have wondered if it was perhaps because he wasn’t worth killing. One can imagine him striving to prove his worth, trying to earn his life, because only by making sense of his survival can he ever hope to make sense of his parents’ death. (The DCAU movie Mask of the Phantasm would eventually move this from subtext to, more or less, text, but more on that when we get to it.)

Batman, you see, is not the night, not in the sense of being the darkness between dusk and dawn, a time of fear and the unknown. He is The Night, that one specific night when an eleven-year-old boy went to see the Gray Ghost movie with his parents. He is driven by the pain of that night, the fear and the guilt of it, which casts new light on his choice to wear a disguise (and keep in mind that Superman the Animated Series would eventually imply that Batman is the first costumed superhero in his world). Because of course only an eleven-year-old would think that dressing up like a bat and punching psychopaths is the best way for a billionaire to address social ills and promote justice; it is the logic of a child–and like a child, he thinks that by putting on a mask and pretending to be someone else he can hide from his guilt and fear and pain.

Batman is still that boy, frozen in that moment of trauma, desperate for parental validation that he will never receive. Which is in turn interesting, because as the first, he is the prototype for all future superheroes in the DCAU. And, as we will see as we continue to explore this ideaspace, the superheroes of the DCAU–and, arguably, in general–are as much or more perpetual trauma victims as they are power fantasies.

The real reason you kept coming back (Christmas with the Joker)

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It’s November 13, 1992. That’s a pretty big jump–two months–from the air date of our last episode, and the three episodes after this all aired in September, so let’s leave the pop-cultural history items until we get a run of episodes in November.

It’s an interesting choice to make this the first episode produced after the pilot, since it seems pretty clearly to have been intended to air later in the season from the start. The Christmas theme makes much more sense in mid-November than in September, while the much later-produced “Joker’s Favor” serves as a much better introduction to the character as a character, as opposed to a narrative force. Admittedly, it’s a little odd that it aired in the middle of the month instead of the end—the last BTAS episode of 2012 aired on November 24—but then again airing it earlier both results in the Joker escaping from Arkham twice in a single week and is a subtle jab against the whole idea of the “holiday special” that this episode appears to be.

It’s fairly obvious from the start that this is not the pilot; the animation is less fluid and more repetitive, and the general tone is a shade more cartoon-y. Gotham is apparently a peaceful place on Christmas Eve, elderly ladies kiss strange men for returning dropped packages, and Robin both exists and is square enough to actually want to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

His desire to watch that film, and his explicit positioning of it as a parallel to Batman as a story about how “one man can make a difference to an entire city” is fascinating as a framing for this episode, because that’s not really what It’s a Wonderful Life is about; more accurate would be to say that it’s the story of a city which would descend into chaos and darkness if not for the efforts of one man, who is never thanked or validated in any way, until he is on the verge of self-destruction himself. Given where Bruce Wayne ends up in the DCAU, that’s a more accurate description of Batman, too.

But then, that we shouldn’t take Robin’s framing at face value is perhaps suggested by the fact that he doesn’t manage to completely frame the episode; the actual frame is the Joker, who begins and ends the episode by mocking Christmas and Batman both. Mark Hamill, in his second-most famous role after some space movie, absolutely devours the scenery as the Joker, and his performance drives the episode as he renders grotesque and absurd the very idea of the Christmas special, imbuing every syllable with both mockery and malice as he plays at a fake version of the “celebrity Christmas special”—a sort of one-off variety show hosted by and featuring an assortment of minor film, music, or television stars that was once ubiquitous on American television—of which Hamill’s own Star Wars Christmas Special is one of the most notorious examples.

In the hands of the Joker, this staple of the Christmas season is upended. The Joker here is engaging in the spirit of carnival—another Christmas tradition, far older than celebrity television specials–in which the sacred is profaned, the social order upturned, and the grotesque and bizarre celebrated. His special guest stars are not fellow-celebrity “friends” brought on for a performance, but hostages he intends to kill and a puppet he painted on his hand. He is a force of chaos, constantly changing mood, switching rapidly from playful to murderous, and able to transgress powerfully against the narrative, most notably when Batman traces his single in classic World’s Greatest Detective fashion, and Joker simply isn’t there—another reason this could never have worked as the second aired episode, since there needs to be time to establish a typical narrative before the Joker can transgress it.

Perhaps most interesting is his habit throughout the special of peering out from inside television sets. He is aware that he is on television, most notably when he announces “a word from our sponsor” just before BTAS itself goes on a commercial break, and this knowledge both explains much about him and grants him tremendous power. The explanation is simple: everything is absurd to him because nothing is real; he knows that he, his surroundings, and his endless war with Batman are all just a cartoon. The power is his aforementioned ability to transgress the narrative: he recognizes that there is one, and therefore isn’t bound by it. He can even force Batman into a television set—twice, when Batman is in danger, once on the runaway train and once at the observatory, the Joker is able to watch it on television. His special is not simply a show-within-a-show of BTAS; he has made BTAS a show-within-a-show of his special.

It is worth noting that the Joker is largely without origin at this point in the show. Much later, when BTAS’ success is well-established to the point of making movies, a version of his origin will be told, but neither here nor in any of his first several appearances in airing order is he given an origin, in sharp contrast to other prominent Batman villains like Two-Face, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy, all of whom are given either full origin stories or at least first run-ins with Batman in their first appearance. The Joker is, instead, a known quantity from the start—rather than the “multiple-choice past” of The Killing Joke, he has no past at all. The reason is displayed here: BTAS is emboited as a television show within the Joker’s show, which is emboited as a television show within BTAS, ad infinitum. There is no “outermost” show, no “real” fiction—no space within which the Joker can be real enough to have a past. He is just colored lights flickering across a screen, scripted lines read with enormous and deliberate performativity—as opposed to the more naturalistic readings by the other actors in the episode–by an actor, emphasizing Hamill and thereby denying even the possibility of a real Joker.

And all of it is just so that he can hit Batman in the face with a pie. That’s all—he unravels any notion that he exists within a real space, the entire concept of “continuity” upon which superhero comics in general and the DCAU in particular rely so heavily, just for one cheap gag that only he finds funny. He shrieks, right at the start, in the very first regularly produced episode of the show, that none of this actually matters—which, of course, the very idea of a Christmas special does as well, since “real life” doesn’t have any such thing.

Once again, we have the time-honored notion of the villain as mirror of the hero, but in a curious way. It isn’t just that the Joker is mercurial and aggressively silly while Batman is dour and defensively stoic, or that the Joker is a murderous criminal while Batman is a determinedly nonlethal vigilante. Batman is the core “reality” upon which BTAS revolves, the unchanging figure that gives life to the rest; the Joker is unreality and fictionality, the reminder that this is all just a show, and as such he is a force of destruction and death—not in the sense of causing characters to die, although he can do that, but in the sense of being a threat to the very show itself, by undermining its obvious ambition to be serious, dark, and gothic with his own aesthetic of absurd, grotesque carnival.

Spoiler alert: He wins. BTAS dies, and it’s the Joker that kills it, in a sense. But—well, we’ll talk about the “but” when we get to it.

Retroactive Continuity 1: The Killing Joke

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Retroactive Continuity is a recurring feature in which I address works or events from outside the time period we’re currently discussing, but which are nonetheless relevant.

It is March 1988. In the music charts, the month opens with George Michael at number one, followed by two weeks of Rick Astley’s infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up,” before Michael Jackson takes over at the end of the month with “Man in the Mirror.” In theaters, Robin Williams dramedy Good Morning Vietnam has its eighth and ninth weeks at number one before being unseated for a single week by Police Academy 5, then something called Biloxi Blues takes the spot for the final week of the month.

In the news this month, the British Liberal and Social Democrat parties merge to form the center-left Social and Liberal Democrats, which will later change their names to the Liberal Democrats. In the ongoing Iran-Contra scandal, Oliver North and John Poindexter are indicted for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. And there is a chain reaction of violence in Ireland: three unarmed IRA members planning to bomb a British military band are shot dead in Operation Flavius; their funeral is then attacked by UDA member Michael Stone; a pair of British corporals then accidentally drive into the funeral of an IRA member killed in that attack; believing the corporals to be another loyalist attack, attendees of the funeral pull the corporals from their car and kill them.

And one of the most influential stories about the Joker–cited as an influence by, among others, Tim Burton, whose Batman movies are in turn a significant influence on Batman: The Animated Series–is published: The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore, art by Brian Bolland, color by John Higgins (later redone for reprints by Brian Bolland).

The first thing to acknowledge in regards to The Killing Joke is that “most influential” is not the same thing as “greatest.” As Bolland rather diplomatically puts it in the introduction he wrote for the comic’s reprint in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, “The end result wasn’t quite what I’d hoped. I don’t think it rates with some of the groundbreaking highlights of Alan’s career. There are things in the story I wouldn’t have done.”

The most likely candidate for these “things” is the Joker’s brutal attack on Barbara Gordon. Its function in the story is to illustrate the Joker’s power to transgress the normal narrative rules of a superhero comic, in which fights take place between costumed heroes and villains. The Joker attacking Batgirl in the street or even her hideout is one thing; for him to attack Barbara Gordon, however, is against the unspoken rules of the conflict. Unfortunately, what it works out to be in practice is a pure fridging: a female comic book character is violently sexually assaulted, resulting in a permanent loss of her prior heroic status, purely for the sake of exploring the response of a male character, in this case her father. (That the comic is mildly ambiguous about what, if anything, the Joker did to her beyond shooting, stripping, and photographing her is beside the point; that is still sexual assault. That later writers came up with a new, and frankly far more interesting, heroic identity for her as Oracle is similarly beside the point; within the confines of this story, her ability to be Batgirl is destroyed by the Joker.)

One can, of course, make the argument that depiction is not endorsement; the Joker is, after all, a villain, so the fact that he performs vile acts is a natural part of his character. The problem is that the comic is no more interested in Barbara Gordon’s pain than he is; both use it solely as a mechanism to provoke a response in Commissioner Gordon. The comic is serving as the Joker’s accomplice, and thereby is complicit in his guilt.

A second, lesser flaw is rather an unusual one for Moore’s work: the equation of “goodness” to adherence to social norms. It is possible–even likely, given Moore’s frequent celebration of transgressive figures in his other work–that this equation is unintentional, but it nonetheless emerges. The comic depicts Batman and the Joker as broken, ultimately tragic figures, who inevitably bring destruction to themselves and others (most especially each other) as an extended consequence of “one bad day.” Both are ultimately therefore shown to be weaker than Commissioner Gordon, who experiences a similarly bad day and nonetheless insists that Batman take the Joker down “by the book.” His adherence to “the book,” in other words, and refusal to become a transgressive or monstrous figure, are how he endures the “bad day” and resists joining Batman and Joker in their tragic dance. (Off-panel, given her relative calm in the hospital scenes, Barbara Gordon does much the same, but the comic fails to notice that she has had at least as bad a day as her father and therefore does not explore what got her through it.)

This notion of “one bad day,” a test in which terrible things come down upon a person, is visualized in the comic by ubiquitous rain. The rain in turn often forms puddles, and each of our three main figures (Joker, Batman, Commissioner Gordon) gets at least one panel dominated by their reflection in a puddle, literally illustrating this notion that a person can be defined by their own particular bad day. The Joker is mistaken, however, and not just in the obvious sense that Gordon resists being transformed by his experiences. The man that became the Joker is likewise shown, albeit fairly subtly, to be the same person before and after his own bad day. The proto-Joker is petty, frustrated, and nihilistic from the start; he is fixated on the people he can’t make laugh and the material wealth he can’t acquire, while ignoring that he does make his lover laugh and she doesn’t mind that he’s not a financial success. His anger is apparent, but so is his fear; his response is to turn his anger inward, despair and seek comfort. Only once he has nothing left to lose, and therefore nothing to fear, does that anger turn outward, but nonetheless it was there all along.

Batman, as the Joker observes, also had one bad day. This is the one place where the comic really works, and its strongest legacy in terms of influencing future depictions of the Joker: the Joker and Batman have a special relationship, not just nemeses or foils or even reflections of one another, but as two beings that cannot exist without one another. Tim Burton will make this literal, in having Batman and the Joker be directly responsible for one another’s transformative moments, but in the comic it is more metaphorical. Batman helped create the Joker through his involvement in the chemical plant, but the Joker had no involvement in birthing the Bat. Instead, by laughing at the Joker’s joke at the end of the comic, Batman is paralleled to his dead lover, confirming Batman’s twice-stated belief that he or the Joker will inevitably kill the other. But Batman is in part defined by his refusal to kill; thus, whether he dies or kills the Joker, the Joker will be the end of Batman, which is at least as important as being his beginning.

Yet we have already seen that neither the Joker nor either of the Gordons is truly transformed by their single bad day; only Batman is, forged by his parents’ death. Yet isn’t that always the case with the most iconic superheroes? Batman is Batman because his parents are dead, just as Superman is Superman because his world is dead, just as Spider-Man is Spider-Man because Uncle Ben is dead. The Joker’s fundamental error, in other words, is in his misunderstanding of what one bad day creates: not villains, but superheroes.

You may be used to dealing with freaks and monsters, but I’m a little new at this (On Leather Wings)

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It’s September 6, 1992. Boyz II Men are in the middle of a record-breaking thirteen weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, though of course nobody knows that yet, it still being the middle. The top movie this week is Honeymoon in Vegas. Major news stories this month include the arrest of Shen Tong by Chinese officials for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests three years prior, and the first African-American woman in space, Mae Jamison aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor.

And, of course, the airing of the pilot, but not premiere, episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “On Leather Wings.” Some brief explanation may be in order regarding the difference between the two. In simplest terms, a premiere is the first episode of a show broadcast to general audiences with the understanding that this is a new show. The function of a premiere, therefore, is to introduce audiences to a show.

That is not “On Leather Wings.” Even though, as the first episode in the DVD set and on streaming sites, it is usually the first episode a new viewers is likely to encounter now, it was the second episode in the original broadcast–probably a good choice, as it is almost aggressively non-introductory for audiences. There is no origin story here, no exploration of why Bruce Wayne dresses up like a bat, investigates crime scenes, or punches Jekyll-and-Hyde gargoyles. The city officials, particularly police detective Harvey Bullock, know he exists and are hostile toward him, and their conversations with one another are straightforward discussions of task assignments and tactics, with no reference to past encounters.

The former is, perhaps, explicable by Batman’s status as a cultural icon. Between the campy, perennially syndicated Batman television show and the two rather darker Tim Burton movies–the latter of which was still hanging on in theaters when this episode aired, three months after its debut–it seems unlikely that very many members of the audience didn’t know who Batman was or where he came from. The hostility of the police is a more interesting choice, however. Both the Adam West TV series and the Tim Burton films had the police, or at least Commissioner Gordon, as allies to Batman, in order to use the iconic image of the Bat-Signal silhouetted against the sky. Batman is thus depicted as an ally of the established authority, existing outside it but ultimately doing its work. Here, however, Batman is depicted as a rebel, which implicitly allies the police with the criminals he hunts.

That Harvey Dent–who will transform into the villainous Two-Face by season’s end–appears in the discussion of strategy with the police and mayor, with shots lingering on his coin-flipping and his face half-lit by lightning, further emphasizes this alliance. It is less pronounced in BTAS than later, but from the start, for both better and worse, the DCAU is suspicious of established authority. Further, the deliberate foreshadowing of Two-Face is interesting because, unless they were familiar with the source comics, most viewers would have no idea who he was–he never appeared in the live-action TV series, and would not appear in the films until Batman Forever, still three years off.

No, this episode is not an introduction to the series for audiences. It’s a pilot, not a premiere; its function is as an introduction and sales pitch for network buyers. That’s why the animation (done by the short-lived Japanese studio Spectrum Animation Co., who would go on to animate critical- and fan-favorite episodes such as “Heart of Ice,” “P.O.V.,” “Beware the Gray Ghost,” and “Robin’s Reckoning Part I,”) is noticeably smoother and more complex than in most episodes, especially where minor and background characters are concerned, almost filmic in quality (and indeed, Spectrum would be one of the two companies brought in to do the actual BTAS theatrical film). Part of the point of a pilot is to put the show’s best face forward.

It is interesting, then, that the episode does not use one of Batman’s more iconic villains, such as the Joker or (as the actual premiere does) Catwoman. Instead we get the Man-Bat, a Jekyll-and-Hyde mad scientist who had never before appeared in television or film, but who nonetheless functions near-perfectly as a demonstration of what this series is going to be doing with his villains.

First of all, there is a very standard writing trick in which the villain is a twisted reflection of the hero. One common reading of Batman’s rogues gallery is that they represent aspects of himself taken to even more unhealthy extremes, or that they represent various forms of psychosis. As we shall see in later stories, these schema don’t actually work very well for most of the BTAS villains, who reflect Batman in a very different way, but they are fairly applicable for the Man-Bat.

In this case, the name’s the giveaway; Man-Bat is an inversion of Batman. As Batman Beyond will eventually reveal, Batman is, at least in his own opinion, the “real” person, while Bruce Wayne is a mask he wears as needed in order to accomplish his work. We see that earlier in the episode, where he blows off what’s implied to be a romantic rendezvous as Bruce Wayne in order to investigate Man-Bat’s crimes. As Bruce Wayne, he lies and manipulates to try to get the information he needs; his only genuine interactions with something like a friend or family in this episode are with Alfred, when he’s in full Batman costume. That is his real, genuine self, the one that can exchange mild snark with his butler/best friend/surrogate father.

Man-Bat, however, is the opposite. His real life, real relationships, are as Langstrom, with his wife and mentor. He himself describes Man-Bat as an alien presence, one that is gradually taking him over. He transforms into a hideous gargoyle, a hulking, brutish figure that contrasts strongly with the more slender and graceful Batman. Batman, in other words, is not the monster Bullock is determined to see; he is a man who has absorbed something of the bat, while Man-Bat is a bat which has absorbed something of the man.

What Man-Bat serves to do, in other words, is to illuminate the “bat” half of the Batman equation. It is bestial, violent, angry, a force of destruction–more akin to the shadowy figure that curves and strikes in the opening credits than to the upright lightning-crowned image of Batman at the end of those credits. But much as the series’ unusual art design–white and colored ink on black paper, instead of the more typical black on white–uses light to carve spaces out of darkness, so does this illumination of the bat serve to show us the man. He is that which is taken over in Man-Bat, but which dominates in Batman, a restraining force which channels that rage against monsters and villains.

This, then, is the initial thesis statement the series gives us on Batman: that he is not Bruce Wayne, not a person with a family and a tragic past. That is the mask; what lies underneath is a monster turned inside-out, a bottled violence that can be tapped as needed in service of… what? What is it, exactly, that he fights for? We do not yet know. We know only what he fights against: a monstrous bat, lurking within a man.