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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