I was fortunate enough to get the second disc of Batman: The Animated Series that the library owns. I find it really annoying that the DVD packaging purports to contain the first five episodes of the first season when in reality they are random episodes picked from the first forty or so episodes! Who cares, though—I really enjoyed them. (According to Bruce Timm on the commentary they are the first five episodes, but then why does the listing at IMDB.com say otherwise?)
“On Leather Wings” was the actual first episode of the series and uses the character of Man-Bat, which I personally find so strange (the comic I bought from Forbidden Planet in Cardiff also used this character). Bruce Timm explains it that they wanted to do this one because it helped create “mood, mystery, and drama” as opposed to just action. I do like the stylish Art Deco look of Gotham but it’s a very odd combination, having TVs, ‘30s-styled radios, blimps, Jazz Age microphones, walkie talkies, typewriters and supercomputers all alongside each other. (I had forgotten that since this was written in the early ‘90s, the age of the PC had not yet dawned.) The plot concerns the origins of Man-Bat, highly Jekyll and Hyde with a dose of, of course, Beauty and the Beast. I must say, in BTAS, Alfred’s sense of dry humor is so hilarious. While the Man-Bat is pulling off heists and Batman is being blamed, Alfred quips, “By heavens, you mean it wasn’t you?” There’s a certain section where Man-Bat lands in a parking garage . . . and the police just sort of let him and Batman get away! WTF?
Poison Ivy makes her debut in "Pretty Poison," where, interestingly, she’s the fiancée of Harvey Dent. Harvey—who made a short appearance in the previously-cited story—is obviously pre-Two-Face. I really like the character design for him and, like all the men in these stories, he dresses classy. Pamela Isley—Ivy—is similarly a sight for sore eyes and gives off all kinds of Jessica Rabbit vibes (Timm calls her the “femme fatale” with “somewhat noble motivations”). I never know how to take Ivy’s character. In later stories I think she almost becomes sympathetic because of her green fanaticism, but as originally written I feel she’s an object of contempt, a loony as crazy as any in Arkham by asserting that plant life is equal to that of human life. Using her famous pheromones on Harvey, she nearly kills him by planting upon him one long, raunchy kiss (by kiddie TV standards anyway). It’s sad to reflect that Harvey says of Bruce, “There’s nothing we don’t know about each other.”
“Nothing to Fear” introduces the Scarecrow, whose raison d’être, by his own admission, is to “frighten things, people”—he hasn’t yet gained the sympathetic back story that shows him a tormented, bullied young man. His costume is slowly moving in the minimalist direction of Batman Begins, though he still looks the awkward misfit from “Mistress of Fear.” So I’ll pretend it’s Cillian Murphy under the mask, okay? The vocal talents give him stentorian majesty with a hint of poshness. The Scarecrow is out for revenge against Gotham University for firing him from their psychology department. “Burn it—this isn’t about money, it’s about revenge!” As in Batman Begins, the terrified Gothamites, under the influence of Crane’s fear toxin, start attacking Batman.
When Batman fights back against the Scarecrow’s toxin, I really like what he says: “I am vengeance, I am the night . . . I am Batman!” It’s the first time I can remember seeing Bruce with stubble. I even get a wobbly lip when Alfred tells him, “I know your father would be proud . . . because I’m so proud of you.” The Scarecrow with a tommy-gun? His henchmen with “are you my mummy?” gas masks? I loved this!
“The Last Laugh” seems to have acquired a soundtrack from Philadelphia, which I don’t really get. The plot resembles many in the Joker’s bag of tricks, namely to poison everyone in Gotham with his Joker juice (here it doesn’t result in death-by-rictus-grin, it makes you “permanently insane” by prolonged exposure). The first victim is an ice cream man, driving his truck over the Gotham River, as the Joker’s barge of floating garbage laced with poison (driven by a robot dressed as a clown; surely he must be Sharaz Jek in disguise?), whose truck falls into the river and the man barely escapes with his life. I was thinking, would your insurance be able to cover that? Clearly I forgot THIS IS A CARTOON! (Timm muses that here, as in Adam West, the Joker “seems to be causing trouble for no reason.”)
It’s April Fool’s, and Alfred’s getting in the spirit by announcing he’ll “draw you [Bruce] a bath.” When Bruce goes to the bathtub, there’s nothing, so Alfred shows him a drawing of a bath. God—it’s so bad it’s good. Bruce announces he’ll take a shower, and I confess this episode shows a most gratuitous amount of Bruce in the near-buff. When Batman is able to track the barge, the city has already gone into hysterics. The Joker, protected from the gas by a space-suit like bubble, merrily announces as he robs a jewellers’, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping!!” (He really must need the money to fund all the crazy mechanical things he appears to manufacture himself.) His thugs wear cheap clown masks like in TDK, and when Batman attacks his base at Ace Chemicals Plant (curious, considering that’s apparently where he got dipped in acid in the first place), I thought of not one but two Doctor Who stories! Firstly, the Joker tries to pick up Batman with a giant claw (“Planet of the Ood”) and the robot gets mechanically crushed (“Seeds of Doom”).
I can’t tell if this Joker really wants to kill Batman or not. Though he doesn’t show his on screen counterpart’s predilection for bazookas, Glocs, and knives (though he does use a knife in this one) he does have some vicious turns, such as when he traps Batman in a metal bin and then stabs “air holes” in it before tossing it into the river. Batman has to produce a real Houdini act if he wants to get out alive. The Joker is really impressed when Batman tells his “first joke,” though the joke’s obviously on him when he almost falls (again?) into a vat of chemicals. Batman greets him with an April Fool as he allows him to think for a second that he’ll drop him. Perhaps the best part of the whole story, however, is when Alfred has a whiff of the laughing gas and tells Bruce to do his own damn cleaning (not in those exact words). He then goes crazy with a broom and smashes Bruce’s Ming vases. LOL.
We have “Christmas with the Joker,” which resembles “Slayride” ever-so-slightly. I confess that while I found it totally silly, I also quite enjoyed it (Timm says their Joker is all about “unfair jokes”). In Arkham, the Joker sings “Jingle bells / Batman smells / Robin laid an egg” before the Christmas tree turns into a rocket which he rides to freedom (RTD, eat your heart out). I mean, WTF?? He also brings out a Santa tank. He has somehow had time to manufacture all of this, rig a cannon at the Gotham Observatory plus machine gun dummies, plus kidnapped three people, plus set up a broadcasting signal that block out everything else on TV on Christmas Eve. Clearly he’s one sad, psychotic, narcissistic SOB with way too much time on his hands.
Christmas Eve it is, indeed, when Batman and Robin—written with great humor and drawn decently—sit down to Christmas dinner followed by It’s a Wonderful Life (which Bruce has managed never to watch). He’s sceptical of the saccharine ending, and Robin reflects “You could give lessons to Scrooge.” When Robin suggests that even the Joker might want to spend Christmas with his family, Bruce notes “he has no family.” Broadcasting with three hostages who he’ll incinerate at midnight, the Joker sends Batman and Robin on a wild goose chase to prevent a train from derailing at a bridge he, the Joker, has just blown up. The hostages are gagged with candy canes, and the Joker’s Christmas present to Batman is . . . a cream pie in the face!
I’m still really struck with the quality of the animation. In particular, the light and shadow play, as well as the explosions (of which there were many!), are accomplished. The voice talents are, in general, very good. Kevin Conroy is excellent as Batman and Bruce. It’s a wonder the constant laughter didn’t drive Mark Hamill insane. I did, for fun, watch one of the episodes dubbed in French, which was actually quite entertaining, for the novelty of listening to the voice talents as well as the fact a lot of the slang and colloquialisms had to be changed for a French-speaking audience. I might watch them all in French.
I was a bit sad to realize that one should be glad that an entire city was laughing in “The Last Laugh”—it’s disturbing that something as innocent as laughter should be perverted into a disease, a weapon. My beta-reader for “Queen of Hearts” said that in any incarnation, the Joker craves attention. There is always a fine line where laughter becomes inappropriate, as all stand up comics know and which was quite relevant to the play I saw today. Oh, and there was supposed to be a featurette to show you how to draw Batman—PUH-lease. It was ten seconds of watching over the artist’s shoulder. I’m really looking forward to the third DVD the library has.