Continuing the epic series that is…Jimmy and Tom discussing the DCAU.
Today’s entry covers the Batman the Animated Series episodes “Shadow of the Bat” parts one and two, “Blind as a Bat,” and “The Demon’s Quest” parts one and two.
“Shadow of the Bat”
Commissioner Gordon has been accused of taking bribes from Rupert Thorne! That can’t be! Can Batman find the answers? Or will the new Batgirl find them first?
jimmy: They should have sub-titled these episodes as “It’s Really Hard To Kill Someone With A Machine Gun”.
tomk: Conversely “A Mask Can Hide Anyone’s Identity, Even If You Know Their Voice And Hair Very Well.”
jimmy: Haha, yeah. I was thinking the same thing as they all stood around smiling on the steps at the end.
tomk: At least Batman changes his voice.
jimmy: True. And I assume Gil never wakes from his coma (or, more likely, is never mentioned again)?
tomk: Six of one, half dozen of the other, with a side option of total amnesia. That worked for years for Harry Osborne.
jimmy: I figured amnesia with the explosion.
tomk: Also, blindness and lose of ability to speak.
I mean, we can’t have people figuring out who the new Batgirl is, what with the long red hair and the clear concern over the police commissioner’s fate.
jimmy: And surely there aren’t enough clues for the Commissioner or his top detectives to figure it out.
tomk: Surely not.
I mean, let’s be real here. Gordon should know who Batman is, let alone Batgirl.
And there is a future episode where Gordon more or less says he is well aware what Barbara does at night.
jimmy: For that matter, Batman and Robin should know who Batgirl is.
tomk: It’s one of those things I always wondered: in the comics, the Teen Titans all knew Dick Grayson was first Robin and then Nightwing. That went especially for Kid Flash Wally West, since he and Dick were best friends. But somehow, the Titans didn’t know who Batman was.
jimmy: Maybe Batman had a “super kiss” like Superman in Superman 2 that would make them all forget.
tomk: Yeah, the gay rumors aren’t helped at all by that theory.
Actually, if we want to play that game, most of the original Titans were sidekicks to older heroes who were not their legal guardians, so there was some room to cast doubt for Dick.
jimmy: This is a universe that can be fooled by a pair of reading glasses. Possibly with no lenses. It seems frivolous to even wonder about it.
That said, let’s look at this from a different angle. Why have Gil tear off her mask and learn her identity at all? They seemed like they were barely friends and his learning who she was had no impact on her capturing him or the story besides having to put in the throwaway line about him being in a coma.
tomk: He seemed to believe Barbara was sweet on him. He even taunted Gordon with that. She did go to him first when she got some evidence, and there was some dialogue to suggest he’d been at least a friend to both Barbara and Jim for quite some time.
jimmy: True, but still, him learning Batgirl was Barbara had no bearing on the outcome. It just seemed unnecessary.
tomk: The shock that the girl he thought was sweet on him was the one taking him down struck me as more necessary. There’s an added layer of drama there.
jimmy: I suppose. These are two good, fun episodes, but they seem to have a lot to pick on. Like, how did Barbara become a crime fighter with no training outside of some gymnastics? I know they try to show her as “green” or sloppy at times, but for the most part she really behaves above her pay grade.
tomk: She does keep screwing up. And it’s a superhero series. How much fight training did Peter Parker have before he put on his webs?
jimmy: I’m no expert on such things so I’m going to assume “a lot”.
tomk: Yes, high school nerds get lots of training before they get into a wrestling ring.
jimmy: Well, in fairness, Peter always relied on instinct and Spider Sense. As far as I know, it’s only been the past few years that Spidey has received any formal fight training courtesy of Shang-Chi.
tomk: Man, you mean nobody thought to offer before? Captain America really sucks. At least Batman believes in training a guy before tossing them onto the streets.
jimmy: I think the Ultimate universe tried to tackle this. Maybe it was with Miles. But SHIELD wanted to train him and not have him going out there alone and just winging it.
tomk: Good for Miles.
Or Ultimate Peter.
One of them.
Probably turned out better than either Ultimate Daredevil.
jimmy: Back to this episode, awfully convenient way for Barbara’s cowl to tear when Robin tries to grab her.
tomk: That cowl was the worst! Gil rips it off too without too much trouble!
jimmy: Well, she did make it herself. Probably not made of kevlar or whatever like Bruce’s.
tomk: That’s OK since bad guys can’t shoot straight anyway.
jimmy: That was just the worst this episode. Had to be the most bullets fired in the series. Point blank range. Not even a flesh wound.
tomk: Those guys went to the Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy.
jimmy: Did they ever.
tomk: They follow a time-honored tradition of being bad guys incapable of hitting a dang thing.
It’s what kept G.I. Joe alive.
Was this the first appearance in the series of Matches Malone?
tomk: I think it was.
Funny thing, I recently read the first time Batman took on the Matches Malone identity in that reprint book I read a couple months ago. There was a real Matches, but he killed himself when Batman came to recruit him for help taking down Ra’s al-Ghul. As a result, Batman had to take the identity himself.
jimmy: Cool. I know nothing about Matches besides it being a go-to disguise for Bruce. Which leads to one of the things I liked about these episodes. It was nice to see Bats and Robin and even Batgirl doing a lot of detective work. For someone that gets billing as the world’s greatest detective, it’s a skill the cartoons, movie and (less so) the comics often gloss over for fight scenes.
tomk: True enough. And all three find the clues they need separately, each with a different set of clues. That may be why Barbara gets to stick around.
jimmy: I assume at some point all secret identities are shared.
tomk: Wait til the revamp, when Dick is on his own and Barbara is hanging around the Batcave all the time.
jimmy: He’s Nightwing and Tim is Robin?
jimmy: Well, we’ve picked on them a bit but they are a couple of good episodes with a nice introduction to the newest member of the Bat Family.
tomk: Oh yes. I quite liked these two. It does suggest Gotham has some major infrastructure issues involving subway tunnels, but there’s a lot of good stuff here. Bruce asking Barbara to turn around while he changed. The basic interaction between Robin and Batgirl. It’s just a fun story.
jimmy: And Bullock eating an entire slice of pizza, backwards, in one mouthful.
tomk: Yeah, he must prefer the crust.
jimmy: I get the feeling it’s time for me to pop the next episode into my media player of choice.
tomk: Then we shall!
“Blind as a Bat”
The Penguin has stolen a valuable prototype of a silent attack helicopter from WayneTech. He’s demanding a huge ransom. Normally, Batman could solve this easily, but he’s been struck blind by an accident!
jimmy: It’s funny that the last two episodes spent so much time setting up Batgirl and Robin was there and now that Bruce actually needs help, not another cape to be seen anywhere.
tomk: Yeah, he could at least have suited Dick out and sent him off. Plus, the Batwing has in the past pretty much flown itself.
jimmy: How’d this rank out your “Penguin is never in a good episode” scale?
tomk: Funny thing is, I vaguely remembered the Batman-goes-blind episode, but had no recollection Penguin was also in it.
So, as a result, I actually thought a bit about the Penguin’s role on the show and more or less figured out why his episodes are so at-best forgettable.
See, with most Batman foes, the series gives them something distinct, be it a certain type of crime they will commit, or a certain pathos connected to them. But the Penguin, aside from that one time when he tried to go straight and had the run-in with the high society types, doesn’t have that advantage. As a result, most Penguin episodes could often feature any other Batman villain. The problem is they use him mostly for generic bad guy roles. The other characters don’t really get that. That may be why Penguin works better when he’s part of a villain ensemble.
Think about it: has any episode featuring the Penguin with that one exception had a case where you couldn’t have swapped him out for any other bad guy?
jimmy: Not that I can think of. I also get the feeling too that The Penguin is the “crossover” character that they’ve most gone “well, you saw Batman Returns, you know his story” as opposed to putting a new unique/better spin on him ala Freeze, Two-Face, etc.
tomk: But they gave Catwoman a history.
jimmy: That’s what I mean. Everyone but Penguin.
tomk: And the Joker.
Arguably, Batman himself.
jimmy: Well, those two never really needed a new spin. And since the Joker died in Batman, they pretty much had to really ignore it anyway.
tomk: You could argue they hint at Joker’s backstory in Mask of the Phantasm, but Penguin’s just an odd criminal from the get-go.
That’s why, of all the characters on the show, Penguin benefits most from the redesign.
jimmy: Plus, that Joker is Burton/Nicholson’s Joker and in many ways far removed from the “true” Joker mythos.
tomk: True in many ways. Joker didn’t really need the redesign. In fact, this new look was arguably the worst.
jimmy: But back to Penguin, he is really a silly character. Not much more than a deformed demented mob boss.
tomk: Penguin may have been one of the toughest characters to deal with when they make more modern Batman stories. Silver Age, sure, a silly guy with an umbrella is fine. The Flash fought a guy who spun around really fast and called himself the Top. But try to make those stories more modern and less silly and you have problems with a guy like the Penguin.
jimmy: Exactly. Can you think of a definitive Penguin story in any medium?
tomk: I can think of better characterizations that they gave him. Making him a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker worked out pretty well. Even the animated version eventually goes that route. This one is still Danny DeVito’s Penguin, a character that’s more gross than classy while pretending to be a high society figure.
jimmy: He definitely works better as a behind the scenes character. He’s great for name dropping since he is such a well known character, without him out doing the dirty work.
That said, the Penguin in Gotham (season one at least) is fantastic.
tomk: Which is more or less the best way to use him. You asked about definitive stories. Batman comics until the O’Neil/Adams era were largely silly and forgettable, so when you ask for definitive stories, most of them are relatively recent compared to the age of the character. And that’s true for any Batman-related character. Even the Joker is best known for stories like “Laughing Fish” or Killing Joke, which came out decades after the character’s creation. And your example of the Penguin on Gotham would suggest he is more a crime boss than a supervillain.
jimmy: For sure, but most Batvillians tend to be.
Usually lacking powers at least.
tomk: Yes, but thanks to more recent interpretations, Batvillains have become either more dangerous or more sympathetic.
Penguin just doesn’t fit well into either of those categories most of the time.
So, he comes across as just some generic bad guy more often than not here.
jimmy: With regards to the episode, I was surprised that WayneTech was involved with the manufacturing of weapons, so I was glad for the throwaway line by Bruce about him not being sure he was comfortable with this. (Kinda late now Brucie.)
tomk: It’s a big company, and he’s often distracted at night. It’s why he leaves Lucius in charge.
jimmy: Fair enough. Plus it was almost like the chopper had better tech than some of the Bat vehicles.
tomk: I suspect Batman acquires a lot of his technology from his own company.
Or at least keeps something better than what most people can get their hands on.
jimmy: I’m sure he does.
tomk: Plus, he has the same sort of technology I use to keep my GPS charged.
jimmy: Is there anything the utility belt doesn’t have? Need a power source for your virtual reality headset in case you go blind? Just plug it in right here!
tomk: Well, he forgot a spare cord or battery.
jimmy: *shakes head disappointedly* Oh Batman…
tomk: Some kind of Penguin repellent would also work.
I will say, Batman stopping the Penguin without his eyesight was rather impressive. It’s like Matt Murdock gave him some lessons.
jimmy: Are we going there again? 🙂
tomk: Well, someone keeps going there. When we get to the Robin loses his hearing episode and Batgirl can’t taste anything anymore, I’ll let you know.
jimmy: Seriously though, where were Robin and Batgirl this episode? Bruce loses his vision and he decides, “Dick is busy studying for exams; I better hook up this experimental device directly to my brain and go get my chopper back.”
tomk: Batgirl’s only a very occasional guest star at this point, and Robin only pops up every so often. Really, if we ask these sorts of questions, we might as well wonder why Batman does anything alone.
jimmy: It is also a problem with most comic book universes. I know we haven’t introduced any extended universe yet like Superman, but when that day comes it will always be as you said. Why go through hell to fight the Joker when Superman could take care of it in two minutes and Bruce could stay home with his supermodels? One of those things we shouldn’t think about.
tomk: Like slavery in Star Wars.
jimmy: Haha, maybe they are more akin to pets. Are pets slaves?
tomk: I wish. I could get my cat to do the dishes.
NOTE: Tom does not endorse slavery in any form and the preceding was a poor attempt at Watson-style humor.
jimmy: Speaking of animals, this can’t be good for Penguin’s ego. Sure, he gets beat every time…but the GD Batman was blind!
tomk: He’s not fit for this sort of life of crime. I mean, literally. He’s probably out of breath by the time he gets to the top of the stairs.
jimmy: Haha. Probably why he uses those umbrellas with the little propellers in them.
tomk: Those propellers must be pretty strong to carry all that weight.
jimmy: Yup, I thought the same thing.
tomk: Have we just devolved into fat Penguin jokes, or is there something worth commenting on that we haven’t touched on yet?
jimmy: I’m trying to think but not having much luck. Did we even bother to mention the absurdity of the tech Bruce uses to see or just chalk it up as because super heroes?
tomk: It makes as much sense as the nearly silent helicopter rotors.
jimmy: Because super heroes.
tomk: Because superheroes.
Maybe we should move on to something more realistic…like an immortal ecoterrorist.
jimmy: Yes. Bring on Ra’s.
“The Demon’s Quest”
When Robin is kidnapped, the mysterious Ra’s al-Ghul arrives in the Batcave to tell Batman that his daughter Talia was also taken, and the two must go on a globe-trotting adventure to rescue the pair. Batman is suspicious of the mysterious man, and thinks there is more to what is happening than he was told. What’s really going on?
jimmy: Was anyone watching supposed to not know that the dude in the demon mask was R’as, or am I just spoiled from knowing the character for years?
tomk: I don’t know…
jimmy: Me neither. But it seemed like it was supposed to be a bit of a mystery and they had the whole “reveal” on how Batman figured it out.
tomk: Well, the original story isn’t much better. Speaking of, Denny O’Neil adapted his own story here, and one of the things this show does very well, and will continue to do well, is to adapt the voice of the writer when a comic writer comes on. Part One sounded just like O’Neil’s Batman in so many ways. The series did that as well when Elliot S! Maggin adapted his “Cape and Cowl Conspiracy” and will do so again when Warren Ellis pens an episode of Justice League.
jimmy: I just read the two issues these episodes are based on, Batman #232 and 244. Very similar for the most part. I don’t know if it is just O’Neil’s style or a product of the 70’s, or both, but I find his writing annoying. The stories are good, but everything is explained to death, usually in thought balloons.
They do a better job of the mystery aspect, though there is not much to that either. I think the biggest problem with the episode is that they show the man in the jackal mask at the very beginning with Robin’s abduction (where he is not seen in the comics) and he has on the exact same clothes Ra’s would wear throughout. Also, the comic had Ubu as the man in the mask instead of Ra’s.
tomk: The comic was also more ambiguous as to what happened to Robin. It looked like he was just shot. Here we see the tranquilizer.
And the over explaining was a product of that time. Everybody did stuff like that.
O’Neil’s more recent work (when he does write stuff) is a lot less wordy on explaining everything.
jimmy: Good episodes, I found Talia came off as pretty weak though. Especially given her prior appearance and what I know she is like in the comics (of the future at least).
tomk74: I’ve never been a fan of Talia for that reason. She’s basically just the female temptation, and Selina Kyle holds that position better. She seems to be defined either by Batman or Ra’s.
jimmy: Yeah. She did nothing this episode besides bat her eyes at Batman and then cry when he rejected her.
tomk: And in part one, plus the original story, the whole point of the quest was for Ra’s to decide if Batman was worthy of her love.
jimmy: I’m glad Ms Impossible’s father never made me wrestle a panther.
tomk: Or go into the poison dart room.
Or take guff from some big guy with only one silly name.
jimmy: Or get into the ultimate cliched shirtless going up the stairs sword fight.
tomk: The humor cartoonist Kyle Baker had a Plastic Man series for a while, and Ra’s popped up for one storyline and challenged Plas to a shirtless sword fight.
jimmy: Lol, really?
tomk: Yeah. There was more to the joke than that. It was–obviously–out of continuity.
jimmy: They sword fight in the original story in Batman #244 as well…and both are shirtless. Now it was in the desert. You wouldn’t want one of them to get heat exhaustion.
tomk: But keep the cowl on, Bats!
And in the original story, Batman lost the fight when a scorpion stung him in the middle of it!
jimmy: I know, that was so lame. I’m glad they changed that.
tomk: Maybe that’s why O’Neil only wrote the first part of the cartoon!
jimmy: I think they do a really good job on these adaptations. Picking and choosing the moments. Melding and morphing them to be appropriate for Saturday morning. Often taking multiple unrelated stories and merging them into one.
tomk: I agree. Even a minor improvement like Batman counting down the number of times Ubu shoves him was a really nice touch.
jimmy: I liked that too. I was surprised when I read the comic after and it wasn’t there.
tomk: They managed to compress O’Neil’s whole initial Ra’s plot into two 22 minute episodes, so they also took a lot of the silly out, like the allies Batman picks for some reason when he finally decides to take Ra’s down: Matches Malone (who kills himself), a random scientist/engineer, a Mongolian martial artist who defects, and the woman Olympic skier that ran into them in Switzerland that knew about Ra’s and insisted on joining..
jimmy: That Olympic skier bit was ridiculous. As was it turning into the opening of The Spy Who Loved Me.
tomk: I think they were trying to channel Bond with Ra’s, though I’ve always been a little less enthused by Ra’s. I like my Batman doing his solo thing in Gotham. Batman-the-globetrotter never worked as well for me.
jimmy: It’s a testament to the fact that he can basically be put seamlessly into any story genre though.
tomk: True. I’m just speaking of my personal preferences. I prefer the stories on the mean streets of Gotham.
jimmy: Agreed, he works best as a shadow. An urban legend.
tomk: Hard to be a shadow in the middle of the desert. Especially when Robin apparently just has to babysit the plane.
jimmy: Haha, I know. What was Robin doing that whole time? Recovering from the trauma of being kidnapped I guess.
tomk: He had to work all those tranqs out of his system.
jimmy: But he could still fly a plane? 🙂
tomk: Flying is easy. Take off and landing is rough. Or maybe there was only one parachute.
Look, there’s no good reason to leave Robin behind in part two.
jimmy: Sounds like a patented Tom Kelly “try not to think too much about it” situation.
tomk: Yeah, except I needed to be reminded of my own rule.
But here’s the thing about the original O’Neil Ra’s stories that are lost here by necessity: the threat of Ra’s is only gradually drawn out. From his first appearance, he’s obviously not one of the good guys, but he pops up many times and only gradually does the reader learn just how bad a guy he is. One issue has Ra’s say he’s cheated death before many times, but only multiple chapters later does the concept of the Lazarus Pit come into play.
jimmy: I was wondering about that. I only read the issues that this was directly based on, and they were published a year apart. There was obviously a lot of story in between.
tomk: There were! The end of the issue that part one was based on has Ra’s say Talia is in love with Batman. That looked like a cliffhanger. Then the next issue was a Two-Face story.
Bruce Wayne would be “dead” one issue and then be making public appearances in the next. And O’Neil would be writing both issues!
jimmy: Sounds like current DC continuity. Batman is a God in one book. Normal old Bats in another, and an amnesiac Bruce Wayne who is no longer Batman in another.
tomk: Except, those weird shifting Batmans (Batmen?) would not all be the work of the same creative team. You have to pull every third or so issue to get the whole Ra’s al-Ghul story. It’s just a little weird.
jimmy: Strange. Will Ra’s show up again pre-redesign?
tomk: Yes. In fact, he has one really great episode ahead that barely features Batman.
jimmy: Cool. Looking forward to it. Anything more to add on these episodes?
tomk: Just this: they really boiled down the original story to its necessary elements. Remove silly stuff like scorpions and Batman’s random helpers, keep the Lazurus Pit, Talia’s love, Ra’s al-Ghul’s crazy plots, and the world travel. Also, make sure Batman can count to three and pop an obnoxious bodyguard really hard.
jimmy: I can agree with that. And how many villains plan to take over the world by destroying most if not all of it?
tomk: Just the ones that realize that world conquest comes with a lot of paperwork, so the less people around, the less you need to do.
jimmy: Haha, now it all makes sense. 🙂
tomk: And since Ra’s does this sort of thing as part of a (very) radical environmental agenda, he wouldn’t want to kill that many more trees for the paper in the first place.
NEXT TIME: Tom and Jimmy will be covering the episodes “His Silicon Soul,” and two introducing more recent Bat-villains (if 1979 can be considered more recent) with “Fire from Olympus” and “Read My Lips”.