Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Animated Discussions- Batman Isn't Always About Batman

So, yes, my move has prevented me from reading most of this week's comics, but I don't want you all forgetting me, do I? This is the first in a semi-regular feature that will be talking about superhero and comic book based animation, and what better place to start then the greatest superhero cartoon of all time (and not shockingly at all, my favorite), Batman: The Animated Series?

There are very few people who would argue that, without Batman: The Animated Series, the modern animation landscape would be very different. Batman: The Animated Series brought a level of sophistication to daytime animation that had never been seen there before. The show was moody, intense, and its detailed art deco inspired designs weren't like anything audiences were used to. The series has become so engrained in the minds of the people who saw it that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, who voiced Batman and the Joker respectively, have been credited with those rolls more than anyone else has, having performed in no less than four different series, plus movies and video games.

In rewatching the series is syndication on the kids nextwork The Hub recently, I noticed one of the most fascinating things about Batman: The Animated Series: the lack of its title character in a number of episodes. The great Will Eisner would often write Spirit strips that barely featured the Spirit, but would instead be about people who crossed paths with him at one point or another in the story, and I feel like the writers and producers of Batman: The Animated Series took a cue from that. This is fairly unique, even in the generation of cartoons inspired by it. Sure some episodes Justice League/Justice League Unlimited focused on villains, and a couple of Batman Beyond episodes did use this formula, it was really something Batman: The Animated Series did often and best. So, here are some of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (abbreviated B:TAS from here on out) with the least Batman.



Joker's Favor

Joker's Favor is probably best known as being the first appearance of Harley Quinn, but it's also the first appearance of Charlie Collins, a put-upon businessman who, after a long day at work, curses out a driver who cuts him off. Unfortunately for Charlie, the driver is the Joker, who spares him with the promise that one day, Charlie will do him a favor. So, one day, even after changing his name and leaving Gotham, Charlie gets a call to come to Gotham and pay his debt. This is my favorite purely Joker episode of B:TAS. It's funny to see poor Charlie thrust into the Joker's sphere, and how he tries to get out if it. Batman appears at the end of the episode to sweep in and get involved in the action, but the star of the episode is Charlie, voiced by Ed Begley Jr., who in the end gets to play a joke of his own on the Joker.



The Man Who Killed Batman

On the other end of the everyman spectrum from Charlie Collins is Sidney Debris. Charlie just wanted to live a quiet life, but Sidney wanted to be a big man, and he got the chance when an accident makes the Gotham underworld think that Sidney killed Batman. This begins a series of misadventures for Sidney, as he crosses paths with the Gotham Police, the Joker, and crime boss Rupert Thorne. Batman's presence if minimal, since he is "dead" for much of the episode, and Sidney narrates his story. I pair this with Joker's Favor because they both show an aspect that is left out of many Batman appearances in media: they're funny. Batman might be a dark character, and he might be the driving factor behind these stories, but it doesn't mean there's no room for comic relief anywhere.



It's Never Too Late

It's Never Too Late aired towards the end of B:TAS first week on the air, and it was the episode that made my eleven year old brain explode. The first week or so of episodes had been very cool; Batman has fought Catwoman, Man-Bat, Mister Freeze, and Clayface. But this episode didn't have a supervillain. This was, for all intents and purposes, a noir. There was a mob war, and the episode centers around mob boss Arnold Stromwell, who is in a mob war with Rupert Thorne, It is Stromwell's story, with Batman acting as the angel on his shoulder, or his guide through the Underworld if you'd prefer, to give Stromwell one last chance to mend his ways. It's a very effective piece of television, and its use of Batman as an agent of redemption as opposed to violence and vengeance is different than many interpretations of the character and was another sign that viewers of B:TAS were in for something special.



P.O.V.

P.O.V. was the first episode of the series that really focused on the Gotham Police, and gave a full introduction to a character who would become important in both the show and the comics: Renee Montoya. The episode is told in the style of the legendary Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon: Montoya, Harvey Bullock, and Wilkes, a rookie, each tell their version of the events around a failed bust where Batman became involved. It's a great device to get different views of Batman, and had been used in the legendary story from Batman #250, "The Batman Nobody Knows!" (which was later adapted as the episode Legends of the Dark Knight).  The different police all see Batman in a different way: as a hero, a menace, or as something more than a normal man. And who's to say they all aren't a bit right?




A Bullet for Bullock

A Bullet for Bullock is a pitch perfect adaptation of Detective Comics #651 by Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan, one of the most under-rated Batman creative teams of all time. Someone is trying to kill Harvey Bullock, Gotham's slovenly detective, and he has to go to Batman for help. It's another episode where there are no supervillains, just mobsters, and is told almost exclusively from Bullock's perspective. There's not much more to it than that, other than it's a great mystery that fleshes out one of the major supporting characters of Batman's world for the animated series.



Harley and Ivy

Harley and Ivy is actually one of three episodes that fit as kind of a trilogy in my head, the other two being Harlequinade and Harley's Holiday that really made Harley Quinn the breakout character from B:TAS. Arleen Sorkin's amazing voice performance is definitely a factor, making Harley such a distinct character, but these three episodes, each of which gave Ms. Sorkin a chance to shine, were instrumental. Harley, being a character created for the show, gave the writers a chance to play in a way they couldn't with more established characters, and they used that latitude to create some hilarious, as well a poignant moments. Batman really spends much of his screen time in these episodes playing straight man to Harley's antics, and in Harley and Ivy winds up not even being the person who captures the titular duo; that honor falls to Renee Montoya.




Showdown

Showdown is different from the other episodes I'm talking about here because Batman isn't even a part of the main narrative. Batman runs afoul of some of Ra's al Ghul's men, and finds an audio cassette (yes, the Batmobile had a tape deck back then), which recounts a confrontation Ra's had with Jonah Hex back in 1883. The story is really a Jonah Hex one, written by Joe R. Lansdale, one of the great Hex writers, and is a gorgeous period piece. I include it mostly because it was my first real exposure to Hex as a character, a character I've come to love over the years, and because the ending, after the Hex story is done and batman confronts Ra's, is a strangely touching one.




Almost Got 'Im

There was no way I could talk about episodes of B:TAS that only sort of deal with Batman and not mention this one. Almost Got 'Im makes pretty much every best of list for B:TAS, and is often found in the top slot. Basically, Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, and Killer Croc are sitting around a table playing cards and talking about times they almost killed Batman. It gives great insight into the minds of the villains, as well as providing some of the show's best animation and dialogue. If you only watch one episode I've discussed, or one episode period, this is the one to choose.

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